Rory MacLean meets Thomas Ganter
Karel, a homeless Czech, had lived on the streets for about ten years.
'He had such interesting eyes, such remarkable skin texture,' continued Ganter. 'I wanted to paint him but it isn't easy to carry paints, canvas and easel onto the street. So I asked first if I could sketch him.'
Karel agreed to meet Ganter in a station bar and then in his studio. As he worked Ganter began to reflect on human dignity, on how chance can make a man rich or poor, and how only unimportant things separate the beggar from the noble. He worked his humanist principles into the painting. Both his intellect and his emotions were engaged, as always in his paintings.
'I wanted Karel to be the "hero" of the work. I wanted his character to shine through. That is so important to me in all my paintings. To me, every individual deserves respect and care.'
Karel never asked Ganter for payment.
Ganter grew up in a central German village near Limburg an der Lahn. 'I found drawing exciting from the earliest age,' he said. 'Even as a child I fell into another world when bent over a drawing board. It was like meditation.' As Ganter grew older he came to admire the work of the Old Masters. 'They touched me with a kind of wonder, especially the portraits which seemed so modern. I wanted to understand their techniques, their methods of realisation.' At the age of 15 he started to visit art galleries and museums to study Michelangelo, Holbein, Van Eyck and Velázquez. He taught himself from books. He learnt by trial and error. He used no colour. 'I worked only in pen and ink until 1999 or 2000.'
At the same time Ganter had to start to make a living. After school he apprenticed as a lithographer and then studied graphic design at Wiesbaden's University of Applied Science. On graduation he and four friends founded Kawom, a design company. He tried to balance his work as an illustrator with his exploration of drawing and painting.
'As an illustrator one always works from a concept, to a deadline. I didn't want to have to do that with my painting. I wanted to follow my passion, to give all of myself to the work. I wanted to judge for myself if a painting succeeded or failed. It wasn't a job, it was me.'
In time Ganter came to lead a responsible, conscientious, 'alternative' life: eating only organic food, refusing to own a car, riding a bicycle both in summer and winter and appreciating the changes of the seasons.
'It was those cold winter rides which made me aware of the "unknown" homeless people in our cities,' he said. 'I love cycling in the winter, feeling the cold. But at the end of a ride I can go indoors to a warm apartment. I can have a hot shower. The homeless don't have that luxury. They have to stay outside, in the cold, wrapped in blankets. I felt for them.'
Ganter's empathy sparked his desire to paint Karel, 'Man with a Plaid Blanket', and then 'Unknowns', a series of portraits of women and men who have been overlooked by society. He portrayed his subjects as the Old Masters had once painted rich nobles and merchants. By using classical techniques, Ganter bestowed a great sense of dignity on the down-and-outs. 'Here the ornate fabric usually reserved for the powerful becomes the plaid blanket of the powerless, thereby transforming the portrait of a ruler into a work of profound humanity,' observed Stefano Weinberger of the German Embassy in the UK, supporters of the recent London exhibition of Ganter's work.
A few months before the exhibition, 'Man with a Plaid Blanket' had been selected from more than 2,000 entries from 71 countries to win the BP Portrait Award, one of the most prestigious prizes for contemporary art worldwide. At the time the judges said that they had been 'struck by the intensity of the sitter's gaze and how every texture and surface was rendered in intricate detail'. The work urges a viewer to contemplate the coexistence of wealth and poverty in our society, as Ganter has himself stated.
'When the painting won first prize, Karel felt so proud,' he recalled with a laugh. 'He printed a link to the prize on small slips of paper and handed them out to drivers whose windscreen he cleaned.'
The prize also led to a commission from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Ganter's arresting full-length portrait 'The Unknown Health Worker' was inspired by a photograph of a health worker in eastern Nepal who – like thousands of others – tramps the steep hills and valleys of the Himalayas to deliver polio, rubella and measles vaccines. 'For me, it is a kind of monument to the unknown, on whom almost every international health care initiative depends,' said Ganter.
He is now at work on a number of private commissions.
'Through my work I try to show my view of the world,' said the humble and gifted Ganter, running his fingers over a neatly trimmed beard. 'But much more important than my vision if you like, is the individual in the portrait. I want to let his or her humanity to shine through the work. That is what is important to me.'
Ganter's next one-man-show will open the new Klein Gallery in Königstein in September.