Crises of Identity

Two European artists, Annette Messager and Gerhard Richter, explore the sense of self

Michael Prodger

Until the appearance of her giant spider at the opening of Tate Modern and the retrospective staged there two years ago, Louise Bourgeois was an artist with an international reputation whose work – much of it involving fabric and dealing with ideas about being a woman – was rarely seen on these shores. Now, at the Hayward Gallery, comes Annette Messager, another female French artist with an international reputation whose work etc, etc.

Messager once claimed, “I am the peddler of chimeras,” and the Hayward’s rooms are full of curious and grotesque half-creatures. There are rows of dead birds wrapped in tiny capes, fabric body parts that inflate and deflate, puppets, pelts and soft toys pierced with crayons. There’s a lot of pain here but, curiously, a sense of fun too. This is playing as a child might play – instinctively and often cruelly, but on a grand scale. Like a child, Messager’s fantasies and compilations of toys have the aim, overt in her case, of discovering her own personality.

As in much of her work, the idea is not particularly subtle. Titles such as Collection to Find My Best Signature and How My Friends Would Do My Portrait show that this is all about identity of the most atavistic kind. Indeed, she sees herself as a series of personalities, from handywoman to trickster, artist to collector, and her pieces are produced by these separate selves.

In theory, this is a leaden way of articulating a commonplace but the works themselves do not hector the viewer. A sampler embroidered with proverbs, a collection of marriage announcements from newspapers with Messager’s name superimposed over the bride’s, assorted sewn and knitted hangings may all refer to women’s traditional roles, but seen together it is the breadth of techniques rather than the message that is most intriguing.

Perhaps, though, the dominant personality here is one that does not appear in Messager’s own listing – over the past 40 years – of her assorted selves. After experiencing Casino, which has a doorway framing a wave of rich red silk that suddenly swells and billows towards the viewer, and Inflated-Deflated, a floor covered with pulsing and swelling fabric body parts and sea creatures, the abiding impression is of Messager as, above all, a fairground impresario.

The German artist Gerhard Richter also works in a variety of modes and is regularly hailed as the world’s most important living artist. Last year, he was at the Serpentine Gallery in his most anodyne guise with a display of colourful, pixelated grid paintings; now he is at the National Portrait Gallery with a fine retrospective of his mesmeric portraits.

The basis for all Richter’s art is his unease with perceived reality: the senses, he believes, project the world imperfectly and are therefore not to be trusted. As a result, he claims to have developed a very unpainterly thing – a loathing of subjectivity. His solution is to bypass the senses and base his work on photographs instead.

This exhibition contains some 35 portraits from the 1960s onwards and, unlike the celebrities favoured by Andy Warhol, they are mostly of anonymous sitters whose images he found in magazines or of family and friends taken from snapshots. He expanded and transcribed these photographs on to canvas before gently blurring the entire surface with soft horizontal strokes of the brush. By doing so, Richter notes, “Something new creeps in, whether I want it to or not.”

What creeps in is something transformative. The blurring is an exact visual technique for what happens in the mind as memories of faces, even familiar and cherished ones, fade and distort over time. It gives his portraits a sense of universality too: as the features dissolve slightly the sitters lose their individuality and become everyman and everywoman, people we feel we might just know. They become people too on whom one can project stories and emotions: it is not the sitter’s personality that is on display but the viewer’s. Those people on the beach, that family group, the mother and daughter walking along the street, they are part of our own circle. So much, ironically, for Richter’s fear of subjectivity.

It is a technique that he is still using, although it works better with some subjects than others. There is, for example, a composite portrait of Gilbert and George here that is too arch and referential because it tips the balance between who he paints and how he paints. When, though, he paints his daughter Betty or his wife reading a magazine there is, beneath that subtly distorting picture surface, a disturbing flicker of Richter’s complex feelings towards them, feelings that, despite himself, edge upwards through the painterly mist.

An altogether different but equally resonant exhibition is coming to a close at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Veronese: The Petrobelli Altarpiece reunites, for the first time since the 1780s, the four surviving fragments from Paolo Veronese’s huge painting of 1563 in the Franciscan church at Lendinara, near Ferrara. The picture was cut up when the order was suppressed: Dulwich owns one of the pieces, the others have been brought in from Edinburgh and Ottawa together with a newly discovered fragment from Austin, Texas.

The painting shows the dead Christ supported by angels floating above the figure of St Michael – alas, most of his body still missing – flanked by the donors, the Petrobelli cousins, with their attendant saints. Although it remains heavily mutilated, this reconstruction shows what an awe-inspiring picture it once was. In the late 18th century, the Scottish artist Gavin Hamilton wrote how the dismembered altarpiece was “sold just like meat in a butcher’s shop, poor Paolo, poor Painting”. But if it is meat, it is nevertheless the choicest cuts.

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