PRINT April 1990


All philosophy has now fallen forfeit to history.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, 1878

IN THE MODERN WORLD, as Nietzsche suggests, history is the only legitimate scene for speculation about life—the place where the truth about life will sooner or later be told. But the study of history can never lead to the development of a metaphysics of humanness. Not only would such a theory never be adequate to its subject, but it would betray the harsh empiricism implicit in looking at history in a modern way, that is, with no preconceptions about what one will find. The study of history leads not to a successful theory of what’s necessary to being human but at best to a “successful” attitude to life—a “philosophical” reconciliation with it by way of skeptical, ironic contemplation of its vicissitudes. Yet this seemingly detached, superior attitude masks an inner sense of hopelessness and helplessness in the face of history: the hidden feeling that nothing one can do will change its course, which seems fated, and furthermore that much of it will remain mysterious, unknown, forever. Such consciousness is suppressed because it could devastate one’s sense of self, for it implies that the self cannot ground itself in the world, which exists as a quicksand of uncertainty and historical unreliability.

Fifteen paintings by Gerhard Richter—works dealing with the deaths, in West Germany’s Stammheim prison on October 18, 1977, of Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe, the last surviving members of the German Red Army Faction (the so-called Baader-Meinhof gang)—show modern history painting at its most trenchantly philosophical. The relative unclarity of Richter’s images, their descriptive uncertainty, conveys the full weight of philosophical ambivalence toward history: apparent transcendence of it, until it seems unreal; but also a sense of impotence that implicitly acknowledges its forbidding reality. In 1982, Richter said that “everything unknown frightens us and fills us with hope at the same time . . . . Thus paintings are all the better . . . the less decipherable metaphors they are for this incomprehensible reality.”1 Richter’s “18. Oktober 1977” paintings are indecipherable metaphors for the incomprehensible reality of history.

That reality is epitomized by the mystery and doubt reflected in these paintings from 1988—sometimes precise, sometimes blurred images, in black, white, and the grays between, derived from photographs relating to the Red Army Faction in both life and death. Did the prisoners commit suicide, as was officially held, or were they killed by the German state, which may remain in part a police state, at least toward those who threaten its existence? The answer will probably never be known, but Richter’s “subversive” handling suggests suspicion of the official version and uncertainty about the social and political situation exemplified by the deaths. Richter has said that he regards his “abstractions as parables, as images of a possible form of social relations.”2 His “18. Oktober 1977” images can be said to articulate the problematic character of social relations in Germany, especially between society and the agencies of the state, and, more intimately, between the disaffected youth of the country—including, at one extreme, the Red Army Faction—and the older generation, still affiliated, at least in the emotions of postwar generations, with the Nazi terror.

In a sense, all of Richter’s works are history paintings: abstract art, still life, landscape, and portraiture were already history when he took them up. (The “18. Oktober 1977” works are all of these, and Richter has alternated more or less consistently among the same modes over the years.) His elegantly “indifferent,” anesthetizing surface handling suggests the existence of these genres at an unbridgeable temporal distance. It is an authentic historical patina, for it makes whatever it touches apparitional, indecisively given, as hallucinatorily elusive as memory. This technical strategy has its moral, philosophical use: it brings out what is hidden and implicit behind the official scene to which it is applied. That is, it turns a scene into an ob-scene; a pictorial closed case, such as a photograph, into an emotionally open one. It gives access to the pathos implicit in the scene, buried under its “realistic” establishment rendering.

Through his surface treatment of photographs of and about the Red Army Faction—a street arrest, a police mug shot, a prison cell and its furnishings, the three corpses, their funeral—Richter defeats these official versions of the reality of the prison victims. They are metamorphosed into simultaneously abstract and representational paintings conveying a subtle, excruciating pathos. (Richter’s indefinite handling of the photograph’s hard outlines makes one struggle for the figurative content of these images; the works cut new inroads into both abstraction and representation, showing that even after long exploration each is a terra incognita, and that the border between them remains indeterminate.) “Art is always to a large extent about need, despair and hopelessness. . . and we often neglect this content by placing too much importance on the formal, aesthetic side alone,” Richter wrote in a 1983 diary entry.3 Despite the distancing of emotionality in, for example, his reworkings of Abstract Expressionist brushwork, he insists that he “works emotionally,” that his art “occasions moods,” that his paintings are “fictitious models . . . visualiz[ing] a reality which we can neither see nor describe but which we may nevertheless conclude exists.” It is a reality to which “we attach negative names—the unknown, the ungraspable, the infinite”— but it has a “transcendental aspect” that Richter wants to articulate as a “positive” presence.4

Among Richter’s many works, the “18. Oktober 1977” paintings realize to perfection this basic goal of his art. Moreover, they make clear that the goal—in effect, the making visible of invisible affect—is that of modern history painting as such; indeed, its only viable purpose, especially when photography has taken over the purpose of documenting the look of the times. What counts in modern history painting is the reality of the feeling aroused by history, not the naively given reality of the presumably historical scene. Jacques-Louis David’s incomplete Oath in the Tennis Court, 1790–91, is perhaps the first true modern history painting, for not only is it realistic but it attempts to render the emotion of the parliamentarians in the tennis court;5 its realism, that is, is an openly subjective one. Ever since, the problem of history painting has been to render the collective, transient emotion in seemingly world-historical events. This emotion goes incognito in the events themselves, but the painting attempts to make it as explicit as possible, without completely objectifying it. Indeed, Richter’s simultaneously abstract and realistic images maintain an insecure middle ground between the extremes of absolute subjectivity and absolute objectivity.

By keeping this imbalance, Richter precludes a complete transfiguration of the deaths. For him, no death has “sublime” significance. Yes, he gives a kind of perverse emphaticness to the head of one of the corpses in the three versions of Tote (Dead one), each of a different size, so that they can be read as either an ascending or a descending series. Yes, the three versions of Gegenüberstellung (Confrontation)—all the same size—have an almost lyrical chiaroscuro in comparison with the harsher contrast of black background and luminous head in Tote; a chiaroscuro that levitates the smiling woman to another plane of existence, as though she were a benign angel. (The youthfulness of all the victims is a key issue of these pictures, as Jugendbildnis [Portrait of a young woman] makes transparently clear. In a sense, history painting is always about the recovery of a lost youth, or, rather, its conversion into a screen memory, so that it remains eternal in the collective unconscious.) And yes, many of the other works—Erhängte (Hanged), Zelle (Cell), the two versions of Festnahme (Arrest), and especially Beerdigung (Funeral), which will take its place with Courbet’s Burial at Ornans of 1850 as a modern masterpiece dealing with the collective significance of individual death—have what might be regarded as a transcendentalizing blur, as though lifting the event out of historical context into esthetic exquisiteness. But all of the images share in the dialectic of factuality and imprecision, clarity and obscurity. And some—the two versions of Erschossener (Shot one) and Plattenspieler (Record player)—tend more to the side of precise representation than of imprecise, “sublime” abstraction.

This dialectic of concreteness and hazy suggestiveness emphatically articulates the major fact about the deaths: their incomprehensibility, the suspicion that surrounds them, for all the publicity they were given, photographically and in print. This is what makes them catalytic of “infinite,” morbid speculation, including pessimistic observation of how seemingly “open” images of events can in effect be used to rewrite history by closing it down. This incomprehensibility issues in the slippery, hidden mood of the paintings. Their emotion lacks specificity; they are not so much a form of mourning for the traumatic past (with which the Germans seem never to have finished, if also never to have really started) as an effort to articulate the transient pathos of the past before it has dissipated, before events move on, forcing forgetfulness of our intense feelings about them. In a sense, Richter’s painting these pictures, over a decade after 1977, keeps the deaths of the prisoners current, topical. But if the pictures’ ambivalent surfaces place the historical event in a kind of representational limbo that can be regarded as the space of memory, they are also touched with more than a hint of amnesia, loss, insecurity. Moreover, they attempt to fix a collective emotion in public communicative form, which is always an uncertain matter. Indeed, uncertainty pervades the “18. Oktober 1977” pictures, as if emotion were somehow held incommunicado in them—as if it were defended against, even as the discreet whisper of the symptomatic surface confessed it.

In Richter’s works, the pervasive affect is depression: he has in effect given us mental representations of figures he has internalized, or, rather, his pictures show them in the process of being internalized—made part of his, and the German, conscience, But there is more to them than that: behind the comatose gray of these pictures, which implies the incomprehensibility and therefore the literal meaninglessness of the event (though the meaning is profound, it is uncertain, hidden, unknowable), lurks a furious rage. It is all the more furious because it has no target, because it does not know whom to blame for the deaths. It is an impotent rage, shamelessly expressing vulnerability to history. The colorlessness of Richter’s palette in these works conveys the sense of not being master of one’s fate, symbolizes one’s exposure to some indeterminate (yet clearly social) force beyond one’s control. Certainly the ignorance about the deaths nourishes that feeling of helplessness. Furthermore, Richter’s series implies or encourages his and the viewer’s identification with the victims—makes their victimization clear, whatever their terrorist acts. Perhaps they were victims of themselves as much as of the state: victims of their own ideological beliefs, which they embraced with a rigor mirroring the state’s defense of its own. Whether they committed suicide, realizing the futility of their situation and cause, or were murdered, they conjure the very primitive feeling of being at the mercy of history. As James Joyce wrote, that is a nightmare from which it is impossible to awaken, however much one might try.

In these paintings Richter submits to history without reconciling himself to it. He turns history painting into the depiction of fate, much as Goya did. How much an advance “18. Oktober 1977” is in the modern tradition of history painting can be seen by comparing the series to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, 1937, with which it shares certain elements: both Richter and Picasso attempt to show us how profound a hold history has on our inner as well as our outer lives, both use the same strategy of colorlessness to convey the grimness of history, and both work with “the experience. . .of defeat” and “a vision of evil,” as John Berger writes of the Picasso painting.6 But in Richter’s pictures the evil is indeterminate, the personal relevance of the defeat unclear. The images are as “profoundly subjective” as Guernica, but they are more insidious—despite their closer relation to reality, through the photograph, than Picasso’s painting. The devastating emotional effect of Guernica derives largely from its violation of the body’s integrity, its strident rendering of “sensation in the flesh”7 —a prerogative of the painter’s imagination. “18. Oktober 1977” involves no representational distortion—the violence pictured is not imagined, as in the Picasso, but actual, photographically current.

This might make the works merely “pornographic” but for their surface. The relationship of Richter’s paintings to photography has been much debated; I believe that for Richter, it is the painting’s surface that gives it greater power than the photograph to render emotion, to make emotion immediate. His surfaces are a way of getting inside what the photograph renders from the outside, and to articulate its obscene emotional meaning. I think Richter has gone farther inside than Picasso. Picasso’s violent articulation of the bombing of Guernica is defiant of the event, of history, in the very act of showing its catastrophic effect. In contrast, Richter shows us that behind such defiance is a depressive submission to history as fate, an internalization of history’s catastrophe, and a blind rage at oneself for not being able to do anything about it, for not knowing whom to turn to, whom to turn against, which thus makes one, in some strange emotional way, a collaborator with history.

Contradicting Theodor Adorno, Richter has declared that “lyrical poetry does exist, even after Auschwitz.” His series on Stammheim seems to suggest that the events there have the same kind of importance for Germany that Auschwitz does, the same kind of weight of profane meaning; yet these works are a lyrical apotheosis of the history painting, just by reason of their incomprehensible sobriety in the face of incomprehensible history. In his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” W. H. Auden wrote, “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters.” With his “18. Oktober 1977” paintings Richter has become an old master—indeed, in more ways than one. Clement Greenberg remarks that “the Old Masters always took into account the tension between surface and illusion, between the physical facts of the medium and its figurative content—but in their need to conceal art with art, the last thing they had wanted was to make an explicit point of this tension.”8 The point of the relationship between painterly surface and photographic illusion in Richter is simultaneously to assert the tension of surface and illusion and to conceal it with art—a true sign of old masterism. In that concealment Richter has hidden the emotion of history, making it just as unknowable, as incomprehensible, as actual history itself.:

Donald Kuspit is a professor of philosophy and art history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

1. Gerhard Richter, “Statement,” in Documenta 7, 2 vols., exhibition catalogue, Kassel: D+V Paul Dierichs GmbH & Co KG, 1982, 1: 84–85, 443.

2. Richter. quoted in Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Interview with Gerhard Richter,” Gerhard Richter: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988, p. 22.

3. Richter, diary entry for 27 January 1983, quoted in Gerhard Storck, “Untitled (Mixed Feelings),” in Gerhard Richter: 18. Oktober 1977, exhibition catalogue, London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1989, p. 12.

4. Richter, quoted in Buchloh, p. 22.

5. As Frederick Antal has written, David’s Oath in the Tennis Court was a break with history-painting conventions in that it took “a contemporary occurrence and present [ed] it without allegorical trappings as an historical picture,” in effect instantly historicizing a still hot, topical merit. (See Antal, “Reflections on Classicism and Romanticism,” Classicism and Romanticism with Other Studies in Art History, New York: Harper & Row, Icon Books, 1973, p. 10.) This is exactly what Richter does, if with an event whose topicality has cooled off. But the truly novel aspect of David’s picture—rendering the meeting, on June 20, 1789. of representatives of the “third estate” who swore to stay together until they accomplished their purpose, an event regarded as the “opening act of the Revolution,” as Friedlaender writes—was that it depicted the moment when the representatives stopped quarreling and emotionally embraced one another in fraternity. The intense emotionality of the work is indicated by the passionate embrace of two male figures at the extreme left and, at the extreme right, the strange seated figure turned in upon—hugging—himself, as though overcome by the drama of the event in which he finds himself a participant. These two especially charged human moments arc like live parentheses marking the limits of the exciting stage on which history is being made.

6. John Berger, Success and Failure of Picasso, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965, p. 149.

7. Tbid., p. 169.

8. Clement Greenberg, “Cézanne,” Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Boston: Beacon Press, paperback. 1961, p. 53.

Gerhard Richter’s “18. Oktober 1977” series can be seen at the Grey Art Gallery, New York, until April 21.