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Fall 2012

Richter's Masterpiece

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Wendy Lesser

Gerhard Richter: Panorama,
Neue and Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin,
February 12, 2012–May 13, 2012.

Something special happened to the series October 18, 1977 when the vast and impressive Gerhard Richter show moved from London to Berlin. At the Tate Modern, this sequence of fifteen grey-toned paintings based on photographs of the Baader-Meinhof prisoners had hung in its own separate room. In Berlin, it had its own separate museum. Solemnly enclosed within the Alte National-galerie, on Museum Island in the former East Berlin, these strange, compelling, and horrifying works were given exactly the space and silence they needed to exert their mysterious spell. Meanwhile, several miles to the west, the avid crowds lined up and paraded excitedly through the rest of the profuse Richter “Panorama,” which had been staged to fill the entire glass-walled expanse of Mies van der Rohe’s elegantly modernist Neue Nationalgalerie.

I went to see the October 18 paintings twice—once before going to the Neue part of the show, and once after—and each time I was struck by the overwhelming presence of the artworks and, by comparison, the startling absence of viewers. On each of my visits, only four or five other people occupied the grand, high-ceilinged, third-floor Schinkelsaal with me. We were all silent, or nearly so, as we moved, each at our own pace, down one long wall, past an open double-columned doorway, up the other side, and then back again, repeatedly, across the sixteen canvases (for the fifteen paintings of the October 18 series, owned and loaned to the exhibit by New York’s MOMA, had been joined on this occasion by a closely related work from a private collection, a whited-out painting called Decke, or Blanket). At one point during my second visit, at about 1:15 on a Friday afternoon, a boisterous group of European schoolchildren passed like swallows through the gallery, looking neither to the right or the left, using it simply as a passageway from one open end to another—and then they were gone, and the silence and quiet murmurs returned.

I am glad that when I first saw these paintings in this room, I had only the vaguest sense of what they purported to depict. I had heard in my youth of the Baader-Meinhof gang, so named by the media after two of its leaders, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. Its own name for itself was the Red Army Faction. I knew that this group of “terrorists” or “radicals” or “revolutionaries” (the label will depend on one’s own political perspective) had committed violent acts during the 1970s as a way of protesting against and disrupting the West German state; that they had then gone on the run, and eventually been arrested; and that several of them had been found dead in their prison cells on October 18, 1977. This much was conveyed to me not only by the faint glimmerings of my own memory, but also by the tactful and highly intelligent wall caption that hung at one end of the gallery, bracketing the doorway in English and German. I am not normally a fan of museum wall captions—I do my best to ignore them whenever possible—but in this case I was being offered something useful, so I accepted it, and even wrote it down.

What struck me most forcefully was not the summary of historical events (this was done quickly and discreetly, without any direct reference to the specific content of Richter’s paintings), but the remarks about context which followed. The anonymous captioner pointed out that October 18, 1977—a work which I knew, and which the captioner knew I knew, had caused great controversy in Germany when it was painted in 1988, over a decade after the events it portrayed—was now being displayed

in the very building that opened in 1876 as a monument to the foundation of the German Empire. Planned at the time as a museum of contemporary art, the Alte Nationalgalerie was a symbol of the nationalistic architecture of the Wilhelmin-ian era. In keeping with this ethos, the Schinkelsaal normally houses works from the era of German Romanticism, works infused with patriotism after the victory over Napoleon in 1815. The pictures that usually hang here represent ideals that hovered between expectation and disappointment, which were fulfilled by ideal landscape, ideal visions of antiquity and the Middle Ages, in short by the yearning for golden ages with an ideal society and an ideal state. Here in the context of the Alte Nationalgalerie, Ger-hard Richter’s paintings on the “German Autumn” not only pose questions on the documentability of history and the role of history painting in today’s art. They also tackle the difficult relationship between social utopias and societal reality.

It is this kind of thing that always makes me fall in love with Berlin all over again. I know of no other place where history gets faced up to and scrutinized in quite this way: where the shamefulnesses and complexities of the past are allowed to sit side-by-side with the analytic zeal of the present. Try to imagine an American museum that talks about the relationship between its grandiose architecture, its lofty cultural ideals, and the embarrassing truths forced on its attention by a work of art. Well, you can’t—it’s just unimaginable. And how many revisions, how many suggestions by helpful outside readers, did it take to arrive at that delicately neutral phrase about “the difficult relationship between social utopias and societal reality”? Are the R.A.F. members being called social utopians, or are they the societal reality that intrudes on Germany’s own utopian vision of itself? The caption withholds its own opinion, or perhaps even refuses to arrive at one, keeping faith in this way with the uncomfortable state of suspension in which these paintings were conceived and executed, and have and will have their enduring existence.

Now let’s go around the room together. In the Schinkelsaal, you can go in either direction from either doorway, and in fact the sequencing in the exhibition catalogue does not correspond to the order on the walls of the exhibit, except insofar as similarly titled works are arranged so as to be viewed next to each other. I take this partial randomness to mean that we are free to look at the paintings in any sequence we choose—or no, not free, that’s the wrong word: more like unfree, given the sense of constriction and compulsion that is very much a part of the feeling in this room. But we are at any rate not driven by some humanly or institutionally imposed rule that guides the order of our steps. So for simplicity’s sake, let’s follow the path I first took, which begins at the English-language wall caption and moves counterclockwise around the room.

The first two pictures we see have the same name, Man Shot Down (Erschossener in German), though one is labeled Man Shot Down 1 and the next Man Shot Down 2. Like all the pictures in the room, they are painted in black and white, with the tones mostly hovering around a mid-range grey. They are clearly based on photographs, and they are just as clearly not photographs: brushstrokes are visible from up close, and even from a distance the strange blurring appears to be the kind imposed by an artist’s eye rather than by a photographic lens. Man Shot Down 2 is darker and blurrier than 1 and zeroes in more closely on the central image of the supine body, though the two canvases are exactly the same size. In 1, we can see the full length of the left arm and even a hand which might have something cupped within it; in 2, that arm has been cropped above the wristwatch, just as the black-trousered legs have been cut off above the knee. I am not sure that, without the caption, we would know this figure was a man, but I am sure we would know he was dead: a dark pool of blood spreads out from under his head, and the unnatural position of the body does not resemble sleep. If you were aware that the series alluded to the Baader-Meinhof gang but were not familiar with the specific events that ocurred on the title’s date, you might imagine this man to be one of their victims.

The next picture is of, and is called, Record Player. It is smaller than the picture of the dead man and slightly squarer. We can see the record on the turntable, but the image is just blurry enough to make it difficult to read the label. There is something odd about it as a painting—a patent sense of senselessness, a forcing of the mundane into the picturesque.

The fourth picture, which hangs in the middle of this long wall and is larger than anything we’ve seen yet (it’s about the height of a very tall man), is also the most formally beautiful painting in the room. This may seem a strange thing to say in the circumstances; nonetheless, the picture insists on its formal qualities even as it disowns them as irrelevant, or insufficient. Called Cell, the canvas is vertical in both shape and design. Its blurriness clearly results from some process whereby the brushed-on paint has been dragged or pushed in a straight line from the top of the canvas to the bottom, producing numerous upright threads of black, white, and grey in a tapestry-like weave. A bookcase is visible on the righthand side of the painting and a standing figure on the left, with a shadowy doorway between them; but even these recognizable things are vertically blurred, so much so as to bleed reflectively into the darker foreground beneath them. You could, perhaps, admire the image purely as a precisely balanced abstract painting, if you did not know its title or its context.

Next to Cell is Hanged—equally large, also vertical in shape, and possibly the most disturbing picture in the room. The title points your eye to a human figure held up against the crossbars of a cell. The hair and upper body are done in black, the smudge of a face and the descending legs are a greyish-white; dangling arms in a darker grey are visible against the body. You cannot tell if the figure is a man or a woman, and without the canvas’s title you might possibly have imagined that this was some living, standing person, insufficiently seen. The blurriness here is an all-over softness of indiscernible brushstrokes, almost the opposite of the fierce verticality in Cell.

Now come three smaller canvases, all with the title Dead, and with no numbers attached to differentiate them. All three are versions of exactly the same image: the head and shoulders of a woman who is lying on her back, eyes closed, chin thrust upward, pale and delicate-looking, with a darker strand of rope or cloth or perhaps simply a bruise circling her white neck. The first canvas is a horizontal rectangle, the second is a smaller and blurrier rectangle, and the third is a square, blurrier than the larger rectangle but less blurry than the smaller. Despite the fact that these differences seem merely formal, the repetition somehow emphasizes rather than mitigates the horror.

We cross the open doorway at the end of the room and come upon the first picture on the opposite side, Youth Portrait, which hangs directly next to the doorway’s stately side-column, on a wall by itself. In this painting, a young woman with a serious expression, full lips, penetrating eyes, and rather tumbled dark hair looks out at us over her right shoulder. Her hand is held flat on a level below her face, as if on a ledge or a chair back. The image, for once, is only slightly blurred: what prevents us from seeing extra details is the solid darkness surrounding the pale face and hand. The picture seems posed (her glance directly at us, the Parmigianino hand) and at the same time resistant to posing (the messy bangs, the unsmiling mouth).

Next to her come three pictures of a different woman, or what seems a different woman, all titled Confrontation. In this gallery they are hung out of numerical order: Confrontation 2, then Confrontation 3, then Confron-tation 1. (Note that even if you had progressed around the room the other way, clockwise from the German wall caption, they would still be out of order.) In 2, the woman seems to be looking up, almost hopefully. Her thin-lipped mouth is half open in a sort of smile, and her wide-set eyes look outward, above our heads. She is wearing some kind of shortsleeved grey tunic over a black shirt, and her dark shadow stands out strongly against the grey wall behind her. In 1 she is a bit blurrier and darker, with her body slightly on the diagonal, but she is still essentially the same figure as in 2. The person in 3, however, has fallen into a completely different mood: turned in profile, she has her neck bent forward, her face looking downward, and her mouth closed in what no longer seems a smile. Her outlines are clearer in 3 than in either of the other two pictures, but she seems less accessible to us because we can no longer see her eyes: her dark hair hides them from our view.

Funeral, which comes next, is the largest canvas in the room—as tall as Cell or Hanged, but more than twice as wide. Just as Cell emphasized the vertical, this painting stresses its own horizontality: the pulled-through smear this time runs from side to side rather than up and down. Yet the paint feels more clumped than in Cell, bunched and circular rather than linear, and the whole visual field is more chaotic. With the help of the title, one imagines one can see a crowd of people and, in a slight diagonal at the center, three pale blurry patches that could be covered coffins; but without the title, I would never have discerned any of this. This picture, more than any other in the series, resembles a grainy news photograph which has been enlarged until its contents are no longer readable. Stepping back from it does not help clarify the image, though this removal does make the canvas look a bit more photographic and a bit less painted—but perhaps that is just because, in stepping away, you lose the more immediate sense of the brushstrokes.

After Funeral come two smaller paintings called Arrest 2 and Arrest 1. Arrest 1 is slightly darker and slightly clearer in outline: I almost imagine I can see a truck or a van coming down a city street, with a pale building on the lefthand side. In Arrest 2 the van appears closer, the building is much whiter, and the blurs to the right seem to have resolved themselves into parked cars. But this could all be guesswork. These two, to my eye, are the most abstract pictures in the series, especially since I can’t see who, if anyone, is being arrested.

That is the end of October 18, 1977. But in this exhibit in the Schinkelsaal, there is a final sixteenth painting, a vertical canvas the size and shape of Cell or Hanged. It is called Blanket, and it consists largely of white paint covering a darker (but still monochrome) undersurface. The white has been thickly pulled over the entire canvas—presumably from right to left, since the upper and lower corners on the lefthand side have escaped full coverage and still remain black. There are black patches and streaks amid the rest of the white too, but we have no way of knowing what is underneath; or rather, we would have no way of knowing, except that the wall caption tells us this was once a painting of Gudrun Ensslin hanging in her cell, a near twin of Hanged. What has merely been blurred in the other paintings has here been obliterated, as if even the oblique and indefinite sight of things proved too much.

It is important, in looking at these paintings, to hold onto the idea of questions that cannot be answered. Who are these dead people, and who killed them? Why are there multiple versions of some pictures and not others, and what is being accomplished by the repetition? How closely are these paintings related to actual photographs, and who took the photographs? What does the blurring signify, and why does it vary in intensity? What books are on the shelves in the picture called Cell, who is the figure standing opposite them, and what, if anything, does he have to do with the rest of this story? What is that record player doing here?

Some of these questions will turn out to have answers, but even when they do, the answers do not resolve the sense of impenetrable mystery that hangs over the cycle as a whole. It is this mystery—compounded of horror, shame, curiosity, suspicion, compassion, anger, and a whole host of other emotions—that draws us repeatedly back to these paintings and assures their continued life. People who look at them a hundred years from now will not know or feel the same things we do, and yet the series, I am convinced, will continue to exert its power. Even now, a German audience will see, know, and remember different things—more things—than an English or American audience will. This does not mean that the paintings must be researched before they can be taken in and responded to. As with all good referential art, the allusion need not be perceived for the art to succeed. Nor will any amount of knowledge guarantee understanding, for these pictures exist to confound and confuse. Not to understand them is to apprehend them as fully as possible.

Still, there remain some bare facts. The paintings in the October 18, 1977 series were all based on widely disseminated photographs taken by the prison authorities, the news media, or the police. Some, such as the studio photo of Ulrike Meinhof reproduced in Youth Portrait, were used as the basis for “Wanted” posters that were plastered all over West Germany in the early 1970s. Others, such as the corpse of Andreas Baader depicted in Man Shot Down or the Hanged figure of Gudrun Ensslin in her cell, were taken by officials to prove that the R.A.F. prisoners had died by their own hands in October of 1977. Dead, in all three of its versions, portrays the face and neck of Ulrike Meinhof, who had hung herself while in police custody a year earlier, in May 1976. (Benjamin Buchloh, in a groundbreaking essay on the series that was published in the magazine October in 1989, interestingly calls this picture Dead Woman, a rather specific interpretation of the German title, Tote. He also leaves the Down off of Man Shot, yielding a title which more truthfully preserves the ambiguity between murder and self-murder.) The three pictures titled Confrontation (which Buchloh translates as Line-Up) derive from photos taken of Gudrun Ensslin in an identity parade, after her arrest and before her eventual incarceration in Stannheim prison. The two versions of the painting Arrest are based on news photos of the 1972 capture of Andreas Baader, Jan-Carle Raspé, and Holger Meins. All three were imprisoned in Stannheim, and Meins died there in 1974 after a prolonged hunger strike. Raspé, whose badly wounded body was discovered on the morning of October 18 along with the already dead bodies of Baader and Ensslin, died in the hospital later that same day. Funeral depicts their three coffins carried through a crowd, as captured by a distant news photographer. The bookshelf in Cell belonged to Andreas Baader. So did the record player in Record Player; it was reported to be the place in which he hid the gun he used to kill himself.

When the West German public learned of these three deaths in Stannheim, the immediate result was the “German Autumn”—a period of accusation, self-questioning, and public anxiety that was arguably wider and stronger in its impact than anything the Baader-Meinhof gang had achieved by its previous actions. At the time, many people wondered if the prisoners had been killed by their guards, and though this theory has essentially been disproven, the memory and the feelings it provoked linger.

Gerhard Richter did nothing at the time of these deaths except to clip and save the photos. (It was typical of him to save photographs of all kinds; in fact, it was a life-long habit. A sequence from the recent film Gerhard Richter Painting shows the artist sorting through a box of old photos, mainly of his family and of himself when young, which he has carried with him since boyhood. Another clip shows him looking at a photograph preserved on the wall of his studio, one that appears to be a group of men casually hanging about but is actually the detail assigned to get rid of the corpses at a camp. When did he first see such atrocity photos, the filmmaker asks him? After the war, he answers her, when both East and West Germans were able to see American documentary photos. He saw this one in Dresden as a very young man, “and it hasn’t let me go since,” he tells her.)

In 1988, nearly eleven years after the events commemorated in the title, he began to paint the series October 18, 1977. It took him only a summer to complete the whole thing. “I try to work my way through it,” he says in the film, grammatically bringing this long-past episode into the present tense. “It’s better than doing nothing, when I’m powerless.”

And yet, compelled as he obviously felt to do the pictures, he soon turned viscerally against them, as the painting-over of Blanket makes clear. Part of his reaction may have been due to the response of the German public to the series—their anger at being reminded of these now-distant terrible events, combined with their feeling that law-abiding people were being asked by these paintings to sympathize with dead revolutionaries—but part of it was clearly due to his own suspicion of his motives. Apparently Richter himself had no firm idea about what these paintings meant, and though earlier in his life he had blithely told a documentary crew that he liked uncertainty in his pictures (“I don’t like the ones I understand”), these ones proved a bit too confusing even for him. After MOMA bought the series in 1995—a purchase that brought a new wave of negative publicity, as the museum and the artist were both accused of glorifying terrorists—Richter didn’t see October 18, 1977 again until 2004, when two hundred of MOMA’s paintings came to Berlin in a special loan show at the Neue Nationalgalerie. “It was horrific,” Richter said of finding himself in the room with the complete series. “It was too spectacular. The whole room was like cheap theater.”

The charge needs to be taken seriously, not only because it comes from the artist himself, but also because it reflects certain anxieties that we too feel as we stand in front of the pictures. Still, Richter’s resistance is even greater than a typical viewer’s would be. I think this has to do, in part, with the role and placement of these particular paintings in his artistic career.

When, after visiting the small show at the Alte, I ultimately ventured into the huge “Panorama” exhibit at the Neue Nationalgalerie, one of my overwhelming impressions (one of many, for this show is designed to overwhelm) was that October 18, 1977 was somehow fated to come into being. Everything about Richter’s previous career as an artist seemed to be preparing him, step by step and unbeknownst to him, to paint exactly this series of works. It was as if he developed the techniques first—the monochrome imitation of photography, the blurring, the smearing, the general impenetrability—and only later found the subject matter for which these techniques would prove most appropriate. In making good use of these artistic strategies, the Baader-Meinhof paintings also ended up justifying them: they were no longer idiosyncratic mannerisms on the part of an individual artist, but a necessary tool with which a whole culture might begin to examine the unexaminable. Perhaps part of Richter’s latter-day resistance to the project lies in this very fact—that unlike his other subjects, this one somehow transcended him, mastered him, forced him to use his carefully honed strategies to meet its pressing needs, and turned him into a pawn in the hands of German history.

You might say that Gerhard Richter’s entire life has been one intersection with history after another. He was born in 1932, the last full year of the Weimar Republic. His childhood was spent under Hitler, and then he grew to young adulthood in Soviet-controlled East Germany. A talented artist from an early age, he had studied art in Dresden and was well on his way to making a career for himself when, in 1959, he saw an exhibition of Jackson Pollock’s and Lucio Fontana’s abstract paintings. He later said that these pictures were perhaps “the real reason why I left the G.D.R. I realized that something was wrong with the way I thought.” In 1961, just before the Berlin Wall was built, he crossed over to the West and ended up settling in Düsseldorf, where his career as we know it proceeded to develop.

And yet this career—which has included so many different phases as to provoke comparisons with Picasso—did not follow exactly the path one might have predicted from that early infatuation with Pollock. Richter waited decades to embark on purely abstract paintings, and even after he began doing them, he would still revert occasionally to portraits and still-lifes of an almost photo-realistic intensity. Color, too, has played an odd and contradictory role in his career. The big, intense abstracts that emerged from his brush in the 1980s and continued into the twenty-first century can sometimes be filled with swatches of marvelous color, yet they are just as likely to be covered over, their initial colors pulled, stretched, and erased with a giant squeegee-like tool that turns everything into gleaming mud. And in the background of all his work, dominating it in the early decades and inflecting it even after that, was his obsession with monochrome: a kind of painting that clearly grew out of photography.

As far back as the 1960s, Richter was producing grey-toned paintings that were obviously based on black-and-white photographs. The ones represented in the “Panorama” show include Aunt Marianne, Uncle Rudi, Woman with Child, and Man with Dog, all from 1965. In these earlier paintings, just about everything that would be brought into play for the October 18 series is already there in embryo. They all have that same blurred visual quality, as if the camera were slightly out of focus, or the grainy photo had been blown up far beyond its original size, or the image had been taken from an old photograph that was creased and scarred and damaged with age. Yet countering this snapshot element is the evident painterliness of the visible brushstrokes, the careful balancing of light and dark shapes, the relationship of figures to their background. Even the sense of underlying creepiness that was to burst forth in October 18 was there early on—most noticeably in the case of Uncle Rudi (who is proudly posing in his S.S. uniform), but more secretly and poignantly in the childhood portrait of Aunt Marianne, who was to end her days in a mental asylum, euthanized by the Nazis. We cannot know this just by looking at her, of course, but there is something about that shy-looking little girl, half-hiding behind the gigantic baby in her lap, that calls to us across the decades.

Quite soon Richter began using his grey paintings to create purposely confusing or nearly indecipherable content. Take, for instance, Townscape Paris from 1968, which uses blotches of black, white, and grey in such an abstract manner that one would be hard-pressed to discern streets and buildings if the title did not suggest them. This seems a clear precursor to the messy near-abstraction of Funeral; it even includes a strong diagonal across the middle, just as the 1988 painting does. But whereas the diagonal in Townscape Paris seems to serve a purely aesthetic or narrative purpose (it marks where the city street cuts through the buildings, neatly dividing the scene in two), the vaguer diagonal in Funeral represents the three coffins which are the moral heart of the painting, the very essence of its meaning. So while the artistic strategy may be similar, the feel of the two paintings is utterly different.

Tourist with One Lion and Tourist with Two Lions are two other grey paintings that seem to foreshadow the October 18 pictures, though without that series’ pensiveness and weight. In these two paintings from 1975, vagueness has been carried to an almost hilarious extreme. I defy anyone to find an actual lion or an actual tourist in either of them, amidst the swirls and puffs of cloudy white ectoplasm and rich, black depths. But what does it matter if we can see the purported figures or not? We can take the titles, perhaps, as the artist’s whim, a joke in which we are willing to collaborate, and we can just enjoy the paintings for their careful, intelligent balance of shapes and tones. We do not really need to know what is hidden in there—not the way we feel we need to know what is happening in the equally blurry Arrest 1 and Arrest 2.

There is one painting in the Neue exhibit that, in its focus on the mundane, gestures toward the strangeness of Record Player. This is the 1965 Toilet Roll, a black-and-white, slightly blurred, nearly photographic image of exactly that: a roll of toilet paper hanging by itself, its dangling white strip creating a lovely black shadow against the background grey wall. Again, this is something of a joke, and not just because of the slightly lewd “bathroom humor” aspect—though that too is vaguely present, and would be even more noticeable if the painting were not so beautifully executed. But the careful execution itself brings into play the other element of the joke, the mock-philistine question “Why would anyone want to paint a picture of that?” This is the same question that might be raised in the mind of someone looking at Record Player, though in that case there is a punishing, horrifying answer, a punchline that makes the joke not at all a joke.

Yet even as I write that, I reject the very idea of a punchline in connection with the October 18 paintings. For just as we do not have to know their specific content (the gun hidden in the record player, the record player’s owner shot dead on the floor) to appreciate the paintings in all their sorrow and richness and pained evasiveness, so we do not have to let what we know dictate our response to these pictures.

The paintings in Gerhard Richter’s Baader-Meinhof series do not have the answers to what happened in Stannheim prison on October 18, 1977. They do not have the answers to any questions about who is at fault in this or any other public crisis. They do not ask us to condemn or to forgive. They do not defend any particular political perspective, either that of the prisoners or that of the society that imprisoned them. They do not invite us to take action, and they do not offer us emotional catharsis: in this respect, they are neither Brechtian nor Aristotelian. They are not cheap theater. They are not, I would argue, any kind of theater at all, and their relationship to spectacle has been invoked only to be quelled. They are not about voyeurism, and they do not really care what is happening to the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. They do not even represent the artist’s viewpoint, because viewpoint itself is one of the things they are questioning. They ask us to stand in front of them and contemplate what we think, what we feel, even as they quietly cut the ground out from under us. It is not a comfortable situation to be put in—it may even be “horrific,” as Richter said—but it is necessary, and truthful, and in that sense redeeming.

Wendy Lesser edits The Threepenny Review. Her latest book, Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets, is now out in paperback.

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