Portraiture has been a consistent theme throughout Richter's career and painting has forever been his primary medium of expression. In a career devoted to exploring the potential of this medium, Richter has suspended the conventional opposition between figurative and abstract modes to express the endless possibilities of painting as the conveyor of truths about how the viewer acknowledges the world. Matrosen (Sailors), from 1966 acutely demonstrates the artist's interest in the dichotomy between how the world is and how it is perceived – challenging the representational nature of painting. Richter's gray-tone canvases of the 1960s are sourced from, and intimately connected to photographs. Using images from advertisements, magazines, newspapers and his own amateur photography, Richter explored a vast range of subject matter including people, objects, cityscapes and landscapes. These gray representational and manipulated paintings are an iconic series for the artist and within the dialectic discourse on painting in the 20th century. The precision of the photographic source challenged Richter as a painter and fulfilled his requirements for a visual foundation free from art historical associations and subjective desires.
Richter aquired traditional art training in Dresden which provided a solid and conventional grounding for his painting. In 1959 he went to Kassel where he attended Documenta and was exposed to the international art of the time – Jackson Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists were represented in depth. Richter respected gestural abstraction but felt as though it had reached its height and, not wanting to conform, he chose instead to embellish and expand on chance as the pivotal element in painting. In 1961, Richter relocated to Düsseldorf to continue his art education, and this move from East to West Germany was a catalyst for his rapid artistic development. In the present work, as well as in other paintings from this important time in Richter's oeuvre, the infinite subtlety of tone emphasizes the illusion inherent to painting as the mesmerizing figures emerge from an ethereal mist of feathery brushwork. Richter brushes across the wet paint surface in a symbolic act of self-effacement – relinquishing the decisions traditionally held by the artist. The variety and texture of the brushmarks display a profound technical ability as well as serving to focus the viewer's attention upon the versatility of the medium and on the process of completion.
For Richter the photograph was "the most perfect picture". He states "I selected black and white photographs because I noticed they depicted [actuality] more forcefully than color photos, more directly with less artistry...That's also the reason I preferred those...banal objects and snapshots" (Gerhard Richter in Roald Nasgaard, Gerhard Richter, London, 1988, p. 20) The source photograph of the group of sailors can be seen in Richter's compendium of source material titled Atlas as just that, a banal snapshot, not intended to become high art – intended to be sent home to the sailors' families and loved ones. The viewer craves to see the sailors' faces more clearly and to have a human connection with them – recognizing the people who knew these men would have relished the moment when they received this image in a similar way to the moment when they would reunite with these men. Richter clouds the people depicted in his paintings and drains their individuality and relationships, rendering them virtually insignificant and simultaneously poignantly comments on their role – in this case, with the military – the ultimate in anonymity. In the present work, Richter chooses to depict a group of men while similarly in the same year he painted Dancers – a group of cancan dancers that are a female counterpoint to the present work.
The portrait at most can only be a likeness and a record of external appearance – why would Richter choose to make a group portrait and then render it useless and indistinguishable by blurring it to such an extreme extent? Richter states, "I don't think the painter need either see or know his 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; because a portrait can never come closer to the sitter than when it is a very good likeness. For this reason, among others, it is far better to paint a portrait from a photograph, because no one can ever paint a specific person – only a painting that has nothing whatsoever in common with the sitter. In a portrait painted by me, the likeness to the model is apparent, unintentional and also entirely useless." (Gerhard Richter in an interview with Dieter Hulsmanns and Fridolin Reske in 1966, Exh. Cat, London, National Portrait Gallery, Gerhard Richter Portraits – Painting Appearances, 2009, p. 19). Richter challenges the traditional conceptions of portraiture – even a photograph, something that is alleged to be accurate and lacking a painter's subjective hand, can be abstracted. Richter removes the accuracy from portraiture in an attempt to accentuate the uniqueness of his subjects and the inability of an artist to capture and render such individuality.
The gray-tone canvases have an underlying consciousness of death, whether implicit or explicit, that is a defining characteristic of the works, further accentuated by Richter's choice to work in grisaille. Connections can be drawn between Richter's 1960s canvases and Andy Warhol's celebrity portraits and Death and Disaster series from the same decade. Both artists challenged the gap between personal experience and public reality, choosing loaded imagery from source photographs and transforming them into grand scale canvases. Warhol's Eight Elvis from 1963 is a heroic depiction of the iconic figure and an eerie premonition of his death. Working in two tones, Warhol, like Richter, eliminates detailed artistry in favor of forceful and sophisticated aesthetic concerns. Richter's decision to work in a limited palette was a measured one; he notes of the color the gray, "it makes no statement whatever; it evokes neither feelings nor associations: it is really neither visible or invisible...It has the capacity that no other color has, to make 'nothing' visible. To me, gray is the welcome and only possible equivalent for indifference, noncommitment, absence of opinion, absence of shape." (Gerhard Richter in a 1977 letter to Edy de Wilde in Robert Storr, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, New York, 2003, p. 62)
Matrosen (Sailors) is an evocative and sublime image displaying Richter's virtuosity with paint - his deft handling of oil to create and obscure a fleeting moment. The gray tone paintings from the 1960s are perhaps the artist's most sophisticated surfaces, vibrating with life on the canvas. Up close, the concrete image is difficult to maintain hold of – all one can see are the individualized striations of black, gray and white. From a distance, these individual passages pull together and the image emerges out of the paint and into our consciousness. The surface is incredibly liquid, and this, coupled with the muted tonality of the medium Richter used, lends the work this deliciously rippling and uncertain air.
Oil on canvas
Wiesbaden, Städtisches Museum, Extra, 1966
Venice, Galleria del Leone, Richter, 1966
Bamberg, Studio b, Pop Art? Die Wirklichkeit in neuer Sicht, April - May 1967, n.p., illustrated
Munich, Galerie Heiner Friedrich, Gerhard Richter. New Paintings, May - June 1967
Stuttgart, Württembergischer Kunstverein, Figurationen, July - September 1967, cat. no. 125
Antwerp, Wide White Space Gallery, Gerhard Richter, October - November 1967
Antwerp, Wide White Space Gallery, Group Show, 1968
Zurich, Kunsthaus Zurich, Malerei und Photographie im Dialog, 1977
Brussels, Paleis voor Schone Kunsten Brussel and the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles; Bonn, Kunstmuseum; Marseille, MAC, Galeries Contemporaines des Musées de Marseille, Wide White Space 1966-1976, Behind the Museum, October 1994 - May 1996, p. 157, illustrated in color (Brussels only)
Bremen, Neues Museum Weserburg, Originale echt falsch - Nachahmung, Kopie, Zitat, Aneignung, Fälschung in der Gegenwartskunst, July - October 1999, p. 117, illustrated in color
Bremen, Weserburg Museum für Moderne Kunst, Die Stiftung Ludwig-Roselius-Museum, February - March 2005
Bremen, Weserburg Museum für Moderne Kunst, Gerhard Richter, 2006 - 2007
Berlin, Martin-Gropius Bau, 60 Jahre 60 Werke : Kunst aus der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1949-2009, May - June 2009, p. 352, illustrated in color
59 x 78 3/4 in. 150 x 200 cm.
René Block, Graphik des Kapitalistischen Realismus, Berlin, 1971, p. 29, illustrated
Exh. Cat., Paris, Centre National d'art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, Musée d'Art Moderne - Centre Georges Pompidou, Gerhard Richter, 1977, fig. 5, p. 31, illustrated
Jürgen Harten, ed., Gerhard Richter Bilder Paintings 1962 – 1985, Cologne, 1986, cat. no. 126, p. 53, illustrated in color
Angelika Thill, et. al., Gerhard Richter Catalogue Raisonné, 1962 – 1993, vol. III, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1993, cat. no. 126, illustrated in color
Galerie Heiner Friedrich, Munich
Galerie Veith Turske, Cologne
Stiftung Ludwig-Roselius-Museum, Bremen (acquired from the above in 1977)
Acquired by the present owner from the above by donation in 2004