"I don't think the painter need either see or know the sitter. A portrait must not express anything of the sitter's 'soul', essence or character," says Gerhard Richter, a German painter whose work is displayed in the National Portrait Gallery nowadays. The curators explain:
"Whether drawn from the media or based on family photographs, Richter's source images were intentionally 'banal'. The resulting paintings assert nothing definite, draw attention to no particular facet or feature, and avoid making a specific point. This avoidance tactic deflects the universal human instinct to seek meaning in the appearance of people and things. By depicting people in a range of ordinary situations, the paintings are open to a range of interpretations. In this way, the portraits convey a universal human predicament: the desire to understand the world and a corresponding inability to know anything with any certainty.
From the mid-1960's, Richter's portraits increasingly sustain this tension between inviting yet resisting interpretation. Richter commented: 'You realise that you can't represent reality at all -that what you make represents nothing but itself, and therefore is itself reality.'"
Commenting on his self-portrait, where he is shown looking down, features of his face blurred by soft light, Richter says, "I don't know what I want. I am inconsistent, non-committal, passive; I like the indefinite, the boundless; I like continual uncertainty." OK, so this one displayed the essence of the sitter. Must have been attractive to the three wives we grew acquainted with in those paintings. They were intentionally blurry, of course.
I am also trying to read an essay about art by Iris Murdoch, and she talks of "whole-making," creating a story out of the bits and pieces we do know. And I'm wondering, do we have an essence, after all? Is there a story there? For example, is an artist's work their essence? The portraits may not display their subjects' essence, but do they display their painter's essence? I would say what I write here displays my essence, because I never wrote anything I didn't believe in (...at the time - conveniently.)
It should be, right, if the artist is being honest? If art displays anything at all, it should be its creator's essence, no? But how much of the artist can we really get to know by looking at their creation? They might in fact be completely different. Are they lying (in their creation or in real life), or did we get their work wrong in the first place? Maybe they changed their mind since then?
Anyways... What is an essence if it's just an idea, an emotion captured in words or on canvas?