Gerhard Richter’s 48 Portraits is a series of forty-eight black and white photographs. The photographs are facsimiles of Richter’s 1972 series of oil paintings of the same name. The photographs and original paintings feature portraits of forty-eight men. There is a slight variation in the scale of the figures depicted, but in every image only the head and neck of the subject is portrayed. All of the subjects are dressed formally and in many cases the collars of their shirts and jackets are evident. In just over half of the portraits the top of a necktie is also visible, and thirteen of the subjects are depicted wearing glasses. The original oil paintings were intended to resemble soft-focus, black and white photographs. As a result, the complexions of the forty-eight individuals portrayed appear uniform. Subjects of the portraits include, amongst others, Albert Einstein, Ilich Tchaikovsky, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Mann, and Franz Kafka. The subjects, all born between 1824 and 1904, are white central European and North American males prominent in the fields of literature, science, philosophy, and music. The portraits were originally presented in a row and ordered according to the orientation of the figures’ heads. The gazes were arranged facing from the centre to the left and from the centre to the right, with the only portrait portraying a figure facing directly forward – that of Franz Kafka – situated in the centre.
The original paintings were completed for the German Pavilion at the 1972 Venice Biennale following the artist’s nomination as Germany’s representative. Though originally reluctant to participate in the Biennale, Richter decided that the architecture of the German Pavilion – which was reconstructed in 1938 and reflects the architecture of National Socialist Germany – was ideal for his project. He has stated that were it not for the neoclassical architecture of the pavilion, 48 Portraits would not exist: ‘The plan to paint 48 Portraits [was] very old … When I received the invitation to go to Venice, it was immediately clear … that the spatial conditions were ideal for this work. Without this opportunity, I probably never would have painted them’ (quoted in Elger 2002, p.194). Beginning with 288 photographs cut out and collected from encyclopaedias and dictionaries, Richter narrowed down his selection to forty-eight individuals.
The final selection omits politicians, artists, religious figures, representatives of business and commerce, and women. The decision to exclude visual artists derived from Richter’s desire to avoid the suggestion that he was commenting on his own artistic pedigree (see Elger 2002, p.194). Likewise politicians were omitted to discourage the attachment of ideological content to the work by critics. However, other images originally included in Richter’s selection, particularly those of the women, were discarded on the grounds of aesthetic and conceptual uniformity. Regarding the images chosen, Richter has stated: ‘I was attached to the idea of making them as natural as possible, while at the same time making the series as homogeneous as possible – the same size, tone, colour, etc.’ (Quoted in Elger and Obrist 2009, p.79.) All 288 photographs were collected in Richter’s scrapbook, published for the first time in 1972 under the title Atlas (sheets 30–7).
For the original portraits Richter used an episcope or visualizer, which projected the smaller original photographs onto larger canvases, before tracing the contours of the figures onto the canvas directly from the projection (Elger and Obrist 2009, p.62). Richter used a dry brush on a canvas with a wet surface, thereby reducing the visibility of brushstrokes and creating the impression of an out-of-focus photograph. Richter has called this soft-focus style ‘Vermalung’, which might be loosely translated ‘inpainting’ (Elger 2002, p.195). Richter’s term describes, as he puts it, the ‘feathering that disrupts the clarity and distinction of forms and figures’ (quoted in Elger 2002, p.195). The result of this stylistic decision is the diminishment of the individuality of the sitter in each portrait. In 1998 Richter photographed the original portraits and made four copies, three of which can now be found in the collections of ARTIST ROOMS, the Museu D’Art Contemporani de Barcelona and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The original paintings are part of the permanent collection of the Museum Ludvig in Cologne, Germany.
Though there has been a tendency to interpret 48 Portraits biographically, Richter’s deliberate homogenisation of the subject matter suggests the artist wanted to limit the significance of the particular individuals portrayed. Richter has said of this series: ‘I am interested in the speechless language of these pictures. Heads, even if they are full of literature and philosophy, become quite unliterary. Literature is invalidated; the personalities become anonymous. That's what is important to me here’ (quoted in Elger and Obrist 2009, p.63). Though adamant that the 48 Portraits hold no personal meaning, Richter does admit to working with the concept of national identity in 48 Portraits. In a 2002 interview with the curator Robert Storr, the artist identified the ‘father problem’ – or rather the absence of the father figure – as typically German, saying: ‘That is the reason for such agitation; that is why this work has such a disquieting effect’ (quoted in Storr, ‘MoMA interview with Robert Storr, 2002’, in Elger and Obrist 2009, p.422).
Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, trans. by Elizabeth M. Solaro, London 2002, pp.193–201.
Dietmar Elger and Hans Ulrich Obrist (eds.), Gerhard Richter: Text: Writings, Interviews and Letters, 1961–2007, London 2009, pp.62, 79, and 420–2.
Paul Moorhouse, Gerhard Richter Portraits: Painting Appearances, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London 2009, pp.88–90.
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