Gerhard Richter’s portraits are confusing. He paints from photographs – some taken from family albums, others found in newspapers and magazines – and strips away the context that provides meaning. He wants to confound interpretation. Yet time and again the viewer is drawn back to the original context – the story behind the picture. For me, it is this tension between the banal surface and the complex reality beneath that makes his work interesting. An exhibition of 35 of his works at the National Portrait Gallery tells us something about the importance of stories in how we make sense of the world.
Richter’s subjects at first glance are beguilingly mundane: a woman with an umbrella; a young girl with a baby boy. The detail is blurred away and the images seem like familiar, suburban scenes – reassuring representations of a world we think we know.
On closer inspection one realises that the woman with umbrella is Jackie Kennedy and the picture portrays her in mourning for her husband. The girl and baby boy turn out to be Richter’s Aunt Marianne and Richter himself as an infant. While the painting was made in 1965 it is from a family image taken before the war. Aunt Marianne had had a psychiatric disorder and had been murdered by the Nazis.