Over the centuries, paintings were the principal form of representational art. In the 20th century, it was just one of many: next to photographic, film, television and digital images. In terms of volume, it remains on the margins of the contemporary production of images. A painted picture attracts attention when it fetches a mind-blowing price at an auction. Without feeling ashamed one can admit ignorance of painting as it is becoming increasingly alien to the people of western culture. Do we know why that is?

There are different reasons why it is much more difficult for painting to penetrate the sensitivity of contemporary man. According to one theory, we can understand content only if it is conveyed in a language we know. The same holds true for pictorial language. Today, photography and film are the most familiar types of pictures. Creators of computer games also seek to achieve an illusion of photographic and film images which seem a natural environment for the human eye. Many artists have learnt the lesson.

In the history of art, a certain tendency can be established: painters, regardless of what they presented – a battle scene or a landscape – drew inspiration from the painting tradition. In the 20th century, however, it ceases to be the principal source helping them paint a picture. In 1962, the German artist Gerhard Richter began to amass his Atlas, a collection of photographs, drawings, newspaper and book cut-outs as well as drawing and painting sketches. He has commented on his work that ‘I tried to accommodate everything there that was somewhere between art and garbage and that somehow seemed important to me and a pity to throw away.’ By 2003 he had collected 802 panels onto which the artist would stick several or several dozen pictures. Photographs of landscapes sit next to images of families, photographs of casual objects next to dreadful documents relating to German crimes perpetrated in concentration camps (panel 11, 1963). Many of those pictures inspired Richter’s paintings. The artist has been proclaimed the ‘Picasso of the 21st century,’ and in October 2012 a work of his sold for 21 million pounds, the highest price ever paid for a piece by a living artist.

In the 19th century, painters used photographs of individual elements. They would, for instance, draw on photographs of human nudes to ensure that the characters in the painting were believable. Richter, however, recreated an entire photograph on canvas. His pictures look like enlarged black-and-white photographs. At the same time, motifs are often fuzzy and lack detail. The viewer is perplexed not knowing whether it is an out-of-focus photograph enlarged by means of paint or a painting after all. Richter’s works have also painting qualities resembling the slightly blurred pictures of Leonardo da Vinci or those by Édouard Manet which are full of wide blotches.
Most original are Richter’s works showing clouds. Both in an in-focus photograph and his paintings, the motif is somewhat fuzzy, particularly towards the edges. It is difficult to perceive qualities differentiating the painting from a photo. Still, the painted version does feature a certain indescribable unnaturalness. Richter has painted hundreds of pictures of unclear status, between photography and painting. In this context, it is notable that the artist has never used photographs showing victims of German crimes perpetrated during the Second World War.

In 1978, Richter reversed his strategy – he painted an abstract picture and then photographed its fragments, sometimes many times, at different angles. Then he arranged 128 photographs into a single picture. In that way, he inspired the question whether what we see are photos of an oil painting or an entirely new photographic abstract?
Another famous painter playing with photographic images is the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans (born in 1958). Just like Richter, he has tried to face the painful history of his own nation through art. Genocide casts a shadow on the history of not just Germany but also Belgium. From 1877, King Leopold II pursued an exploitative and cruel policy in Congo. In the period of colonisation, the indigenous people were treated like slaves. There was a complete ban on their education. It is estimated that the Belgians murdered or caused the deaths of between 5 and 15 million inhabitants of the African colony.

The painter does not make a direct reference to the tragic events in Congo that took place at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries but their later consequences. Congo became independent in 1960 – as the Democratic Republic Congo. Patrice Lumumba became the country’s Prime Minister, yet a coup d’état followed soon, inspired by Belgium. Lumumba was captured and murdered.

In 2000, Tuymans created a series of paintings Mwana Kitoko: Beautiful White Man. It includes a portrait of Lumumba, painted on the basis of a known photograph showing the politician. The portrait is not very faithful (for instance, the face looks slimmer than in the photograph), as if painted from memory. One could even suspect that it shows a similar yet different man. In the photograph, the character is looking straight at the viewer with joyful eyes. In the painting, he is looking down and the viewer does not have eye contact with him. The photograph records a single moment, testifies to the person’s presence. It also helps recall his/her history and achievements. It is a kind of monument. The painting, in turn is a recording of an image from our memory which will never be as accurate as the photo. Paintings are then records of inner experiences.

The art of painting needs constantly to look for new paths to follow. The function it has played over the centuries – showing appearances, transmitting philosophical religious or political content – is better served by new media. Painting, however, has always been also something else: an expression of man’s experience in his/her relation with the world. And it may continue to be this.