ARTYFACTS: Gerard Richter – National Portrait Gallery

Friday, May 01, 2009

Gerard Richter – National Portrait Gallery

I enjoyed the Richter retrospective in the National Gallery of Scotland, so was looking forward to this set of portraits. British artists shy away from actual theories of aesthetics but not Richter. The Germans almost defined the European aesthetic theory and practice with its Kantian distinction between high and low art. The rest of us have ignored the subject.

Richter’s aesthetic theories are laid bare on the canvas. Theories of representation (and what is not represented) are clear to see, or not. Projected photographs, traced on to canvases strip away the artists interpretive tools, such as composition, colour and consideration of the psychology of the subject.

Some of these images come from old newspapers and magazines where he wants to turn the famous into anonymous images of people, devoid of context. He withdraws from traditional portraiture even further with his beach snaps. I would have liked to have seen his most famous beach scene, but as it was on display in Edinburgh, I wasn’t so bothered. These images, I think, are his best portraits. Stripping away the subject to leave moments on sunny days on common beaches, denies the viewer any pretentious social commentary. You’re left with the pure beauty of the image.

Family snapshots are used in the same way, leaving the subjects isolated and unknown. This is teh aesthetics of solipsism, loneliness and isolation. There’s no Freudian reading or characterisation by  the artist, only an honest, raw representation. This goes back to the German instinct for the search for the Kantian ding-an-sich behind the world of representation, which eventually ended with Nietzsche’s world of appearances (Richter's actual aesthetic).

The presence of a mirror is further proof of his serious attitude towards representation. You can’t see a Richter show without literally facing up to your own view of art. Richter is way beyond the infantile Britart movement and most of what passes for art in Europe, as he has a serious and sophisticated aesthetic. This matters in art.

The series of portraits in the hall are less interesting and the exaggerated blurb by the curator about the ‘present, triangular layout by the artist in response to the unique setting’ is worthy of Private Eye.


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