Saturday, 13 March 2010

The Case of Gerhard Richter's "Betty"


I've been visiting my friend Matt Thorpe recently, and the above image adorns his living room quite prominently. I liked it immediately. Though I've been visiting Matt intermittently over the last few months, I finally decided to find out more about the picture by looking online. It would seem that there is something about this painting that just won't quit!

First of all, formal comments: the dark background becomes blacker than black when contrasted with the colour in the foreground. Also, the sharpness of detail on her jacket contrasts well with the blurred quality of her hair. As one online commentator points out, the painting is like "a photograph in its precision, yet with the touch of the personal, that care, which a painting can convey." How true.

Another online aesthetician commented on the artist: "Richter's opinions about his profession are famous: it is useless, ridiculous, impossible, to be reviled. Still, he believes that to paint is an act of enormous hope, maybe the last such act available, and he's devoted his life to it. The resulting canvases are by turns gorgeous and empty, or ashen and empty."

Both commentators also suggested that the painting arouses curiosity, particularly in light of what it is that the woman (Richter's daughter) is looking at. Personally, this question never entered my mind. I did wonder initially what her face looked like, but soon I was struck by another thought, which is that besides being etherial and evocative, it's also quite funny...

It's amazing to me that my friend could keep such an image in his living room - I'd go bananas fairly soon. Seeing a person's face is so fundamental to human visual experience. We're continually on the lookout for other faces, including crude abstractions:


It's a landscape that we never tire of - images of the human face are redundantly plastered all over our media landscape, including for example, crossword magazine covers. Why?

It's quite simple. When you see someone's face, you can detect what their intentions are. It's our first point of identification, an essential part of our interaction with our surroundings. Such a facility was essential to the human race when we were surviving in the wild. Thanks to thousands, if not millions of years, we're incessant, chronic face-radars!

With that in mind, Richter's painting becomes ascetic on first glance, and quite painful after extended contemplation. Not only are we looking at a person (rather than an abstraction or an inanimate object) but we can't see what frame of mind she is in, what her intentions are or whether she is pleasing to look at. Worst of all, SHE WON'T TURN AROUND! The stasis of the picture turns into a gesture of stubbornness. So I'm acutely aware of my heart progressively sinking in a manner that is both painful and invigorating.

So, rather than getting wound up by the painting, I finally concede that it is as comical as it is sublime.