National Portrait Gallery

Razor sharp focus. It’s a prerequisite of the photography industry. The images that surround us offer the eye the illusion of every detail. For this reason viewing Gerhard Richter’s Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery challenges the eye.

The hallmark of Richter’s portraits are paintings that subordinate the photographic image for very different ends. The canvases offer the shapes of figures which on closer inspection break up into flat layers of paint. Richter’s most striking technique, which is in evidence throughout this retrospective, is to rake a brush across the damp canvas smudging the tones together. The result gives an appearance of automatism to his images; As if they had been produced by a period photocopier or printer. These surfaces are Richter’s tool to inhibit the viewer’s attempt at interpretation. From a photograph we expect a copy of reality. However, here the viewer is required to consider a number of visual contradictions: paintings that appear to be photos, figures that remain illusive, canvases that have the appearance of mass produced objects.

The exhibition contains further illuminating contrasts in Richter’s work. The atrium of the gallery is filled with Richter’s monumental 48 Portraits a work which dryly offers us a canon of great white males looking down on the viewer. Take the elevator to the upper galleries and you rise up through the ranks. However, the prevalent subject matter here is not the iconic image but the family portrait. This is an object that he describes as a modern ‘devotional picture.’ With these images Richter offers the viewer a chance to glimpse into personal relationships while emphasizing their conceal realities. Richter portrays his daughters in a way that both captures personality and side steps it by hiding the subject’s face of using an unusual angle. In a small self-portrait Richter appears to be emerging from deep inside the picture. Coming into focus, but looking away from the camera as if to resist its gaze.

The final surprise is Richter’s installation of a mirror in the gallery as the exhibition’s final work. Richter compares the mirror to one of his paintings, suggesting that it offers a semblance of the thing without showing us the object itself. Seeing oneself staring into the mirror with the traffic of the gallery behind offers exactly this experience. It reminds me of Velasquez’s Las Meninas; suddenly we’re all involved. What had seemed so common a moment before now appears strange.