Friday, 17 April 2009

Pity a human face

Gerhard Richter paints from photographs. The paintings currently showing at the National Portrait Gallery all look a lot like photographs. The black and white pictures are generally painted through a horizontal buzz, like figures on an old TV, caught on camera. The brush strokes of the colour paintings are not evident, and the images – mainly of members of Richter’s family– are rich and perfect, like HD. Richter says that “a portrait must not express anything of the sitter’s ‘soul’, essence or character’.

A walk through Buckingham Palace away, the Royal Geographical Society is showing a collection of photographs from the 1914-17 expedition to walk across the Antarctic, led by Ernest Shackleton. The black and white photographs of expedition photographer Frank Hurley are carefully, sometimes painfully, shot and the crisp lines of The Endurance’s mast and rigging against a white sky and whiter ice are beautiful. But these images, too, are almost too perfect to be affecting: elegant and static.

In a few of the Richter pictures something is not quite right. One of the children in the Schmidt Family has a head that’s a little too small. In Mother and Daughter, the glamorous daughter’s eyes are too high or too dark, or something. It’s in these rare skewiff and sometimes unpleasant bits that something alive comes flying out.

One of Hurley’s photographs also has a blemish on it. It’s a finger-tip-sized black mark next to a small boat which is rowing towards men on a snowy shore, seen waving from behind. Cheering the Relief Boat was taken when Shackleton and a five-man crew set off on an 800 mile row across the roughest seas in the world for help; Hurley later altered it to try and make it show the boat's return months later to rescue the men left behind. Perhaps the image of departure was just too perfect for Hurley.


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