Modern society has 48 Gods

by HRM on February 2, 2012

Gerhard Richter’s portrait series at the Museum Ludwig

Gerhard Richter at the Museum Ludwig

When they turn 48, men apparently get over their mid-life crisis. Researchers recently found out that water freezes at 48 degrees and Hollywood actor Kiefer Sutherland had to spend 48 days in prison for being drunk while driving. There are 48 first Latin names in the Italian language and the head of a ram is generally 48 cm large.

48 is the magic number; 48 is a number like every other number. It is also the title of a series of Gerhard Richter’s portraits currently exhibited in the Museum Ludwig in his hometown of Cologne.

48 men, 48 personalities, 48 faces. It is a work Richter already made in 1972, all in black and white, based on the tiny pictures of an encyclopedia. All of the paintings are slightly blurry, like a photograph with too much light – it’s the typical style we associate with Richter’s earlier work.

When standing in front of all those eyes, those mouths and ears; when looking at the serious glances of those great men, you get the feeling of facing a frieze of 48 heroes. There is Franz Kafka and Oscar Wilde, there is Igor Strawinski, Albert Einstein, Giacomo Puccini. When you turn to your left you will look at Gustav Mahler, then you turn again and face Rainer Maria Rilke.

Franz Kafka by Gerhard Richter at the Museum Ludwig

Looking down at you, those men who shaped modernism in all its variations, they are overwhelming, they are breathtaking, they are intimidating. Those 48 Gods of Western civilization seem a little bit frozen in all their greyness, a little bit static in their uniform posture.

Are we meant to respect, to hesitate, to acknowledge, to awe or to fear? What is it telling us, this display of giants, of leviathans, of geniuses?

It is not a soothing or comforting impression they give. There are no women, there is no variation, no warmth. The faces remain distant and impersonal; they are great, they are grey, they are dead.

After all, it really is a frieze of heroes, of modern Gods.

Previous post:

Next post:

ISSN: 2116 34X