Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gerhard Richter's Portraits, National Portrait Gallery

The final piece of the National Portrait Gallery’s Gerhard Richter Portraits, is a mirror. Great fan that I am of Richter’s paintings, I am not so enamored by the portraits, primarily because I believe he says all he has to say in other works. To my mind, Richter is an abstract painter and it is when he lets loose with the brush, the squeegee or the palette knife that his relationship to painting is at its most virtuosic. We could argue that his conception of the portrait is unique and disturbing to convention due to the insistence on the apparent impossibility of accessing an individual through painted (or photographed) representation. Accordingly, these are portraits that have very little to do with the sitter, and everything to do with the private and inaccessible, contemplative world of Gerhard Richter, and in turn, his relationship to painting. We know this already though, from his other extraordinary works, the Overpainted Photographs being the ones that come to mind.

And so, even though it was good to see so many portraits in one space, I wasn’t so excited by the small exhibition. That is, until I got to the end. The exhibition is organized in five rooms, each with its own theme, each opening out from a shotgun corridor. At the end of the corridor is a mirror. As we walk down the corridor, the mirror appears as a fixture of the National Portrait Gallery. I thought they had placed it there to extend the space, and to give the impression of a much larger exhibition. But once we get to the final room, we realize it is actually the final piece in the exhibition. The first theme, in room 1, entitled "The Most Perfect Picture" announces Richter's constant refrain of the non existence of any such thing. And yet, when we reach room 5 "Personal Portraits," in typical Richter contradictory fashion, we find "the most perfect picture." In the same proportions, but not dimensions, as a polaroid photograph, the mirror mimics the size and shape of the other portraits in the room. If the exhibition is about the deception of painting in its claim to represent the world, and the impossibility of representation even to estimate the object before it, then the mirror both challenges that claim, and simultaneously reinforces it. As I stand before the mirror I see my own image, but for Richter, what I see is not what the man standing next to me will see. And so “the perfect picture” is one in which my distorted view of myself is objectively replicated, but not. It is only ever a representation.

Richter’s work always creates a conversation with and in its viewer. Typical of twentieth-century modernist painting, and of Richter’s most profound works, the portraits on display here simultaneously seduce and disturb me. The signature Richter blur ensures a sense of nostalgia, discomfort, and intrigue all at once. And the mirror does the same. Face to face with my own mirror image, my portrait, in close up and at a distance, I cannot look away. I am drawn to the image – does my hair look okay? I admire the outfit I am wearing, I feel empowered by my command over my own image … until, sensing I might be being watched, my vanity exposed, I laugh nervously, look away, step back, and watch the next visitor proceed to engage in a similar performance before the mirror. Just like the painted portraits, there are many obstructions and veils to the truth of who I am when I look at my portrait in that mirror. But unlike the painted versions, there’s no space for contemplation in my mirror image, and neither, can I as its viewer fall into the unfathomable beauty that lies behind the veil of paint on a canvas such as Selbstportrait (1996).

Looking at myself in the mirror has never been so fascinating!

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