Gerhard Richter’s 48 Portraits is currently on display in the John Hansard Gallery. It is of course comprised entirely of men (being a ‘father-figure’ study), and all are white. Given that they are born in the 19th to very early 20th centuries, this is perhaps unsurprising. Richter has spoken about his intention to homogenise the images – this and other background can be found here. They still arouse controversy – the individuals depicted formed the elite in 1930s Germany (with all the connotations that has), Richter himself was conscripted into the Deutsches Jungvolk in 1942 at the age of ten, and 48 Portraits was originally exhibited in the German Pavilion which reflects the architecture of National Socialist architecture. There is history here, much of it dark, and Richter explores it. More often though, the controversy is about diversity, and the lack of it, which can and does cause anger, whatever the artist’s intentions. I won’t explore this aspect directly because I don’t want to mansplain or whitesplain; after all I am represented in the sense of being a white male, though I feel little if any connection to all but a few of Richter’s choices. However they do form the backdrop and venue for 12/48 Portraits, a series of 12 talks by female academics relating and responding to the piece in various ways. I’ve been to a couple so far – one by Jennifer Anyan (Solent University) on motherhood, and one by Sarah Hayden (University of Southampton) which took an experimental approach via a poem-lecture. They are ongoing and recordings will appear in due course.
Being a Gallery Assistant at JHG, I have spent numerous hours and half-hours in the presence of 48 Portraits and I must admit they’ve grown on me. I like finding out a little about them – sometimes I sketch them, sometimes visitors chat about them. Most were not immediately familiar, or only vaguely so (I’ve never read any Gide or Dos Passos), some much more so – Einstein, H G Wells, Oscar Wilde, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Max Planck, Paul Dirac, Enrico Fermi (my science background showing through maybe), Kafka, Rilke, Maugham and Graham Greene. What kept bubbling up was an urge to select my own 48 using similar criteria – lives that spanned the 19th & 20th centuries (though Richter bent this rule for a few of them), no politicians and no artists. Would a selection I felt more personally inspired by be more diverse? Well, here they are – there is no ‘affirmative action’ or ‘box-ticking’ – they were all already important to me in one way or another, and yes, I share a few with Richter. Unlike him, I didn’t start with a larger selection to whittle down – I stopped when I reached 48, having checked birth-dates which excluded quite a few e.g. Jesse Owens and Amy Johnson. They are presented in alphabetical order by surname, no further explanation or biographical details beyond name and dates.