The monumental hunter, captured in his moment of glory, his catch dangling from his hand: Portrait Wunderlich is a fantastic, large-scale depiction of Richter's friend Paul Wunderlich, filled with both grandeur and humour. This painting appears to show a German man at one with nature, a hunter, one of his nation's perennial themes, and yet is characterised by a touching intimacy. Portrait Wunderlich is a showcase not only for Richter's virtuosity, but also for his humour and humanity.
As a genre, the portrait is one of the most interesting subject matters in Richter's photographic works, not least because the idea of the 'holiday snap' becoming the source image for an epic and vast portrait is, on the surface of it, absurd. Richter has painted Portrait Wunderlich in such a way that there is no ambiguity as to the source's being a photograph. This one in particular is a photo from a day that Richter and his wife spent with Wunderlich and Karin Székessy, who would later become Wunderlich's wife. Although she was a well-known professional photographer, this image is nonetheless the casual by-product of a fleeting moment:
'Life communicates itself to us through convention and through the parlour games and laws of social life. Photographs are ephemeral images of this communication - as are the pictures that I paint from photographs. Being painted, they no longer tell of a specific situation, and the representation becomes absurd. As a painting, it changes both its meaning and its information content.
'The photograph is the most perfect picture. It does not change; it is absolute, and therefore autonomous, unconditional, devoid of style. Both in its way of informing, and in what it informs of, it is my source' (Richter, Notes, 1964-1965, quoted in Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, ed. H.-U. Obrist, trans. D. Britt, London, 1995, pp.30-31).
As such, the subject matter of this painting is almost less important than the nature of the work itself. Indeed, Richter's words imply that to an extent the content is a distraction, often something so ephemeral that it reinforces, as here, the viewer's awareness that the original image was a photograph, a snap. Richter has taken this and, following his own precepts, turned it into something other, something that no longer transmits the simple information of a photograph but instead becomes a paradox. In Portrait Wunderlich, which was one of Richter's largest paintings to date, the idea of a simple photograph from a casual day in the country being blown up in oils two meters tall and two meters wide is, as he so rightly pointed out, absurd. Richter, in mimicking a mechanical process in order to reproduce this image on such a scale, has toyed with the very deepest concepts of art and artist. In recreating this photograph on a canvas this size, with basically no changes, no improvisation, no personal input - no subjectivity - he has suppressed all that is meant to be artistic about the artist:
'A work of art is itself an object, first of all, and so manipulation is unavoidable; it's a prerequisite. But I needed the greater objectivity of the photograph in order to correct my own way of seeing: for instance, if I draw an object from nature, I start to stylize and to change it in accordance with my personal vision and my training. But if I paint from a photograph, I can forget all the criteria that I get from these sources. I can paint against my will, as it were' (Richter, 1972, quoted in loc.cit., ed. Obrist, 1995, p. 66).
This is an attack on the cult of the painter that had especially marked the art world during the 1950s. Here, Richter has tried to remove any sense of gesture and therefore of autobiography, reducing himself to the level of a copyist. In so doing, he executes a frontal assault on the hierarchical art world, on the various battling schools and ideas, and on individuality itself. It is an extra irony that this painting, which challenges the cult of the artist, is itself a portrait of one distinguished artist painted in the distinctive style of another.
Further paradoxes come in to play in Portrait Wunderlich in that Richter has raised the status of the photograph. By reproducing it in oils and on such a scale, he has not only made an absurd object, but he has granted the everyman's experience an apotheosis. The holiday snap has been subjected to a process whereby an everyday object has raised its status, it has become Art. This shows the picture to fulfil Richter's central concept of Pop Art:
'Pop Art recognizes the modern mass media as a genuine cultural phenomenon and turns their attributes, formulations and content, through artifice, into art. It thus fundamentally changes the face of modern painting and inaugurates an aesthetic revolution. Pop Art has rendered conventional painting - with all its sterility, its isolation, its artificiality, its taboos and its rules - entirely obsolete' (Richter, Letter to a newsreel company, 29 April 1963, quoted in loc.cit., ed. Obrist, 1995, p.16).
Despite Richter's interest in the strange transmutation that he exerted on his subject matter in his photorealist paintings, it would be wrong to dismiss the content of this painting as subservient to the artist's needs. Although the photograph taken by Székessy simply shows Wunderlich with an air rifle and a dead rabbit, this chance image appears packed with imagery and symbolism, an effect heightened by being in an oil painting. Portrait Wunderlich appears to continue many art historical traditions: renaissance portraits often showed emperors, kings and nobles as hunters, making this image appear almost grandiose. At the same time, German Romanticism, which often featured in some distorted incarnation in Richter's art, is echoed in this image of the man in nature. As in his landscape paintings, this sense of German Romanticism has been disrupted by the less than epic nature of the image itself.
As a strange, modern continuation, one way or another, of the German Romantic tradition, the rabbit could be taken as a reference to another German artist interested in nature who was prevalent during this period: Joseph Beuys. It was only two years earlier that Beuys had famously enacted his work, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, in which he coated himself in honey and gold leaf and muttered incoherently to a dead hare. Beuys' art was greatly concerned with a shaman-like relationship to nature, and so this image of Wunderlich could be seen as a small personal tribute on behalf of both artists.
Diego Velasquez, Philip IV as a Hunter
Photograph of Wunderlich by Karin Székessy