London is teeming with culture, and last week I had the pleasure of accompanying a special friend to peruse the galleries .. share a cappuccino in a lovely street cafe ..stroll along the Embankment and down Tooley Street past the old dungeon .. spend a bit of time carousing around the slowly revolving Millennium Wheel and past the reproduction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre ..
Yes, I played the visiting tourist in the capital city I lived in for 6 years through the 90s .. It was a time of personal growth and discovery – attending university, writing and honing my performance poetry skills on the Soho to Deptford circuit, regularly attending gigs at the 100 Club and dancing to Latin beats in Camden Lock .. I loved my life in London during those heady days of Britpop, YBAs and endless tube delays ..
The brief layover this past week included sipping wine on top of Tate Modern after admiring Rodin’s ‘Kiss’ and visiting the National Portrait Gallery to view the Gerhard Richter exhibition .. It was a joy to return for this extraordinary, yet ultimately bland collection of paintings .. including this excellent small portrait of the artist’s daughter ‘Ella’ ..
According to the NPG website introduction, Richter has said, “I don't think the painter need either see or know the sitter. A portrait must not express anything of the sitter's 'soul', essence or character. Nor must a painter 'see' a sitter in any specific, personal way” Intentionally blurring the image, Richter asserts no new idea and does not distract the viewer by imposing meaning on his subject. He avoids explanation and reason – leaving us with a subject and object based on formless feature, forcing the viewer into an investigation of elements of style and an examination of the relationship between photograph as evidence and painting as composition and content ..
In the painting “Helga Matura with her Fiancé” (below) we see a stark contrast between the woman and the man in the painting .. she appears composed, adult and confident, he presents as a young and reticent child, almost cowering beneath the feminine stature of his bride-to-be .. but, what does this tell us about the people in the painting – or of the photograph which was the source object? Is it all a misleading experiment in vague imagery designed to create tension and unease? We don’t know these people – and we know no more about them after seeing the painting ..
This ‘imprecise representation’ denies the spectator an involvement with the image. This distance between subject and observer creates a space where any interpretation of meaning is possible, yet ideas and narratives are impossible to validate. It is that very expression of intent Richter wants to escape .. As he was quoted as saying in The Independent, 2nd March 2009, "The intention: to invent nothing – no idea, no composition, no object, no form – and to receive everything: composition, object, form, idea... By painting from photographs I was relieved of the need to choose or construct a subject."
A particular subject chosen especially for their public persona is revealed in this painting of Gilbert and George from 1975. Interestingly, one of the most precise figures of his early work in this show. This work is more definable and attempts to juxtapose the identities of the individuals with their collaborative work as one creative entity. It works because we know the subjects, and we can understand the point, or meaning of the representation ..
That said, I would rather have been seeing a Gilbert and George exhibit .. Richter left me disinterested and uninvolved. His work is vague and nondescript with its fashionable apathetic mannerism. The portraits intentionally say little about their subjects, and that lack of communication of ideas and purpose creates nothing new for the audience. Technically, there are many better painters, and his disengagement with meaning flies in the face of human instinct and depth of thought ..
I hope to return to this fabulous city soon – for poetry and dinner with old friends .. but for now, it’s back to Scotland and another capital that awaits ..
photos of Richter paintings: NPG, London