This work will be included in the forthcoming Gerhard Richter catalogue raisonné, edited by the Gerhard Richter Archiv Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.
With its kaleidoscope of rich grey tones, Gerhard Richter's Porträt Schniewind is the earliest painting of one of his most important early collectors and patrons, Willy Schniewind. Consisting of three canvases stacked vertically, it mimics the passport-style photographs dispensed by instant photo booths located in most shopping centres and train stations. In stark contrast to the utilitarian nature of the source image, the surface of the canvas is covered with an incredibly detailed and luxurious application of paint. Richter's use of short, delicate, almost feather-like horizontal brushstrokes helps achieve the artist's characteristic style as the blurred images transits in and out of focus.
The only triptych in a series of three portraits Richter painted of Willy Schniewind, Porträt Schniewind is an early example of a group of works that Richter began in 1964 of dealers, collectors and people he knew from the art world in Dsseldorf. His subject, Willy Schniewind, was a prominent industrialist and big-game hunter. He was also a major art collector, owning a diverse range of works by artists including Georges Braque and Roy Lichtenstein. Schniewind and Richter were introduced by the leading Düsseldorf gallerist Alfred Schmela and Richter jumped at the chance to paint Schniewind's portrait because it fitted in with his emerging practice of painting from private family pictures.
Whilst Porträt Schniewind is based on a strip of photobooth pictures, the two smaller pictures in the series consist of single canvas portraits based on photographs that Richter found in his patron's family photo albums. These two paintings show a relaxed man in the informal setting of his home, at ease with himself and his surroundings. In contrast, the officious formality of the photobooth and its inherent desire for uniformity leads to Schniewind adopting a slightly awkward demeanour, unsure where to look or how to pose. This ambiguity lies at the very heart of the dichotomy in Richter's art - the inherent differences in the consumption of photography and painting. By merging the two genres, Richter forces us to look again and confront our own cultural assumptions.
Richter's use of photographs as his source material began in 1962 when, no longer satisfied with his earlier abstract work he turned to painting works based on found photographs. Richter was deeply interested in claiming, for painting, the authenticity and objectivity associated with photography. He wanted to strike a balance between the two mediums but not to merge them; his stated aim was to preserve painting as painting.
When he first began painting from photographs Richter used to divide up the image using a pencil grid to help him transfer the likeness but in 1964 he bought an episcope to project the image of his chosen photograph directly onto the canvas. This ensured a much more faithful reproduction of the original image, as is clearly demonstrated in Porträt Schniewind. In an ironic comment on the perceived superiority of photography's ability to capture an image, Richter replicates blurring, a phenomenon that would be seen as a failure in photography, as the defining characteristic of his work. To create his blurring effect, Richter manipulates the surface of the paint by dragging a dry brush across the surface of the canvas while the paint is still wet. This ultra fine horizontal brushwork can clearly be seen on the surface of Porträt Schniewind. Its hypnotic effect becomes more apparent as you approach the canvas with each individual brushstroke becoming visible as an individual element of a coherent whole. Stepping back from the work allows these elements to melt away revealing the softened edges of Schniewind's portrait. Richter's unique painting method strengthens the tension and ambivalence between painting and photography.
Richter's decision to use the photobooth format as the source material for Porträt Schniewind has strong parallels with a similar technique Andy Warhol developed for his portraits of the early 1960s. In June 1963 Warhol was commissioned by Harper's Bazaar to illustrate the layout for a feature called 'New Faces, New Forces, New Names in the Arts'. He was supplied with a list of people to be featured and he took them all off to a Photomat booth. The resulting series of cropped, out of focus and badly framed images began the basis for a series of hugely influential works. Warhol's first self portraits, also produced in 1964, were based on photobooth pictures and this format served as the source material for his many of portraits of New York's high society including the prominent collectors Ethel Scull and Holly Solomon. Although it is unlikely Richter saw Warhol's initial photobooth series, the two artists shared an interest in the use of modern technology in their art. Richter later paid tribute to Warhol for laying the groundwork for the positive critical reception of his own unique interpretation of the relationship between painting and photography.