The British artists Gilbert and George first asked Richter to paint them in 1971. They had met him through the dealer Konrad Fischer, and were much impressed by his work. Richter himself had been exposed to their paintings when the Dsseldorf Kunstverein in 1971 exhibited six triptychs subtitled With us in Nature. A joint trip to the Alps for a photographic session prior to painting was planned but never materialized. Finally in 1975 Richter executed a series of eight portraits from photographs.
The sequence of paintings all share the same uncertain, blurred quality, some are front views, some show the Englishmen from the side. The pictures are overblended or turned on a 90 angle, enlarged or reduced. The whole group of four sets of double pictures was exhibited at the Fischer Galerie in 1975.
In the portraits, Richter seems to be revelling in the duality of his subject matter. Two artists who create in unison are represented on two canvases which, although individual, form a single dyptich. Two representations of each head are superimposed one on the other, upside down, creating what Jurgen Harten calls the "distortion of the object which makes it appear monstruous, as in a dream." Here the conservatism of the format of the formally dressed and posed subjects is undercut by the swathe of brown hair or beard which obliterates half the face in both cases, and by the repetition of the shirt collar protruding from the top of the sitters' heads. Whereas the visual puns are crisp and witty, in others of the series the neat duality is sacrificed to chaos. In nos. 383 and 384 of Jurgen Harten's catalogue, Gilbert and George no longer dominate one canvas each, but are together overlaid with a sun-dappled sky and large picture windows. In contrast, no. 382-1 is a single murky image of Gilbert alone which conveys none of the complex meaning contained within nos. 381-1 and 381-2 illustrated here.
This pair of portraits is vital to an understanding of Richter's work. Within them, we can trace a part of the development of the artist's technique of painting from photographs. Richter inverted the hierarchy of importance of painting to photograph by stating that he did not use photographs as aids while painting, but rather employed painting as an aid to photography. "The photo had no style, no composition, no judgement. There was nothing but a pure picture."
In 1971, the German pavilion of the Venice Biennale was dominated by the portraits of 48 prominent men of the 19th and 20th Centuries. As were the portraits of Gilbert and George, these were painted from photographs in order "to correct my seeing, to avoid getting caught in stylization... to paint against my will."
Four years later, the act of artistic negation is forgotten. Deliberate banality, the pairing down an image of an establishment figure to a black and white photograph, is surplanted by a witty and fantastical parody of a portrait of two fellow artists. The subject matter also resonates beyond Richter's mere acquaintance with Gilbert and George. Richter himself had artistically fruitful partnerships with other artists - Polke and Palermo, and with the dealer Fischer, exploring the status of the artist in society and his inability to conceal, according to Hilden, the "misery of his never-ending powerlessness." Thus the distorting power Richter exercises over the portraits of the British artists is the only, and highly ironic control that the artist can exercise over his colleagues.