The elaborate detail and careful attention German painter Thomas Ganter uses to depict his subjects has historically been reserved for portraits commissioned by royalty. However, much to an art historian’s surprise, Ganter’s muses stray far from the noble and instead center around the neglected or unseen members of society, with notable works such as “Man With Plaid Blanket,” “Unknown Health Worker,” and a series entitled, “Unknowns.”
Winner of London’s prestigious BP Award, with exhibitions all around Europe, Ganter’s work has an attraction beyond aesthetic value and mastery of skill. The grandiose nature and regality of his portraits forces us as onlookers to regard the subjects of Ganter’s work from a different and more enlightened perspective, outside of the roles and hierarchies handed to us by thoughtless convention. Upon seeing Ganter’s portraits, we are left with a reminder of the time, space, and compassion we must give one another as individuals in order to understand the authentic story behind with empathy and care.
We interviewed Ganter to learn more about his background, process, and motivation behind his work.
A lot of your work focuses on the idea of anonymity or the unseen. There’s your painting of the homeless man in Frankfurt that won the BP award, and your portrait entitled, “Unknown Health Worker” and your series, “Unknowns.” What inspires you to portray individuals that are often unseen, overlooked, or unknown to society? Is there a part of you that feels unseen?
There are many different reasons why I am inspired by unknown and unseen people or objects. They all let me feel a lot of empathy and respect for their stories. For me, all are equal and valuable. Additionally, they all have fascinating visual appearances that I like to capture. With the same respect, empathy, and interest I try to draw and paint the sitters and models.
You’re involved in the project, "The Art of Saving a Life" that features pieces by artists depicting the intersection of art and science. What attracted you to the project in the first place? What responsibility do you think art has in “saving the world” or “saving a life”?
I was happy to have the opportunity to support this great project with my art. I think art has the ability to show things in a way you’ve never seen before. It can open your eyes to new views and cause us to act.
What impact has art had on you personally in “saving” your life? Any artists or pieces in particular? Which ones and why?
I’ve been fascinated by art since I was a young boy; the old master paintings especially attracted me. To me, they were like miracles, and I wanted to find out the secret behind them. To see art is like looking through a window into another world. I can discover new aspects of reality, and I can think about myself and life in a new way. When I draw or paint, it feels like meditation and gives me the feeling of a safe base.
Let’s talk about your portrait of the health worker. Why do you think it is important for people to know the story of the unknown health worker, as depicted in your painting?
I love that the unknown and unseen person was very important in making the whole project successful. All scientific work, all financial and political efforts would be worthless without volunteers who distribute the medicine to poor people, and they do this despite often times hard and very dangerous conditions.
I read that you painted the portrait based off a picture, so I’m curious how your relationship to an anonymous person in a photograph has changed after recreating such an intimate portrayal of her. Do you know more about her now or is she still completely anonymous to you? How did painting her change your perspective on health workers, particularly in Nepal and other third world countries?
I don´t know anything about the woman I painted. I only read something about her effort, engagement, and the conditions she endured in distributing the vaccine to outlying places. I feel a lot of respect and admiration for her and all health workers around the world. I ask myself: what would I do to help other people? Would I go into dangerous situations? Would I do this work knowing there is a lot of physical stress? These thoughts make me humble.
What intention was behind making the portrait of the health worker life-sized and detailed? Your past work is less ornate, and I’m wondering if there was a specific reason behind this decision.
My respect and admiration for her was the motivation to paint her life-sized and detailed. Anything else seemed misplaced. In this way, I tried to paint a monument to unknown health workers.
In what ways do you relate to the subjects of your paintings? From a cultural or social perspective, you could argue some of your subjects (i.e. the homeless man and the health worker) exist in a different world than you do, yet your paintings, you’ve said, are meant to showcase the humanity in each one of us. In what ways are people the same?
I try to see all people in the same way no matter where are they from. We are all living in the same world. At first, I like to learn about and know other people. I try to be curious and open to others. For example, with the homeless man, I had to ignore my shyness to ask him for a sitting. Now we are friends and stay in touch every week. I am very thankful to him that he agreed to be painted. My point of view about him has changed many times. I guess his view of me has too. So, it is good to be curious and open to everyone.
You also did a series where you paint portraits of strangers you meet on the street. What was your motivation behind your series, “Unknowns”?
I wanted to work with my own prejudices to find out if they were true. So, I asked people on the street who provoked prejudice in me. For example: beggars, occasional workers, and other strangers. I invited them to be my sitter for a portrait. Some agreed, some did not. I wanted to depict them without any background, emotion, or any other information about their origin. I was inspired by icon painting because of the simplicity.
How did you decide which strangers you would ask to sit for you?
When I am walking around and see beggars, I look on the other side of the street. Usually, I don't want to have any contact. But at the same time, I feel attracted and want to know more about them. I think that a lot of people feel like me. So, I decided to paint portraits of these people to tempt the audience to look at them face to face and very intensively. I tried to achieve this by using a very elaborate and complex technique.
Did you talk to your subjects while you were painting them? You must have heard a lot of interesting stories—did any of them stand out to you in particular?
Of course, we talked, and I served a coffee at first. I was very curious, nervous, and excited. All of them were very friendly and nice people. Some of them didn’t speak German or English, so the conversation was more with hands. The most particular subject was a young man who came from Bulgaria. He’s a Gypsy and begs in front of stores. He has to spend all his nights in a car with four other men. It is very uncomfortable and exhausting. They do this because they can't find work at home.
You mentioned that you are shy. How did you overcome this when asking strangers to sit for you? Did you find yourself revealing much about yourself as you painted them? Did you form any friendships with your subjects?
I was very nervous and excited to ask strangers to sit for me and to work with them. But on the other hand, I was a stranger to them, too. So I think they were curious and nervous, too. But, it is like a lot of other things in life. If you become more familiar with it, then you change your mind.
What did you learn about people from working on the project?
I learned that life can be very different and people can be very different. But, even with all these differences, we are still very similar. We all have similar thoughts, fears, and dreams.
What is your relationship with pain and suffering? Many of your subjects are contextualized in ways that indicate suffering but also display honor in the suffering. Do you see pain as purposeful?
I just have empathy and admiration. That is what I like to show in my paintings.
How did you begin painting? What motivated you when you first started, and how has that motivation changed over the years?
I am always inspired by visual appearances, and I like to capture it. If the appearance is influenced by the story behind it, then I feel more motivated to draw or paint. In former times, my focus was more on visual effects and exact depiction.
What role does creating art and consuming art play in your personal well-being and happiness? What would your life look like without it?
As I mentioned before, art is like meditation to me. I forget time and the world around me. When I draw or paint, I am happy. Additionally, it gives me the ability to think about life in a new way. Only when I am disappointed about the result, do I feel bad-tempered. The only way to be happy is to start again. I can't imagine a life without art. But more importantly than art is health, family, and friends.