Gerhard Richter

Kunstmuseen Krefeld | Haus Lange

Gerhard Richter’s series of paintings, “18. Oktober 1977,” 1988, recalls a tidal wave of recent events and is bound to stir the collective memory of those who see it. On that date, in the high security ward of the Stammheim Prison in Stuttgart, three corpses were found—the bodies of the terrorists Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader, and Jan-Carl Raspe. Ensslin died by hanging, the other two from bullets. A fourth inmate in the same ward, Irmgard Möller, survived with four knife wounds in her chest. No other German event of the ’70s did more to shake the confidence in the constitutional state. The question as to how this could have happened in the best-guarded penitentiary in West Germany remained unanswered even after the entire ward was torn down almost to the foundations. Eighteen months earlier, Ulrike Meinhof had hanged herself in her cell. So the 18th of October, 1977, sealed the fate of the “Baader-Meinhof Gang,” whose terrorist attacks during the preceding years had triggered a backlash in the political climate of the Federal Republic of Germany: the liberal attitude was compromised by spying and emergency laws.

In his cycle of 15 paintings, Richter reminds us of something that he says he hasn’t come to terms with. These gray-on-gray paintings based on photographs do not supply a straight forward chronicle of the events. Richter includes pictures of Meinhof as both alive and dead, thus connecting vastly separated times as the history of a single failure. Yet that is the strength of these pictures: they allow us to read history backward. Jungenbildnis (Portrait of an adolescent) shows a young person’s dreamy gaze, which contains infinite hope as well as infinite skepticism toward the world. The cycle as a whole establishes the possibility of exorcising and distancing history. Richter often omits specific names altogether, so that works go by such titles as Tote (Corpses), Erschossener (The shot one), Erhängte (The hanged one), etc.

In one set of three paintings entitled Gegenüberstelling (Confrontation), a woman faces us, then instantly turns away. Her absent-minded smile is like that of a good acquaintance, whom we thought we had forgotten and whom we can now see only as a dead woman. In front of the individual picture, the historical context pales to the same degree that it is preserved in the overall cycle. In Plattenspieler (Record player), the subject matter is like a bright element that seems to loom into the space of ineluctable silence. Yet when we recall that Gudrun Ensslin’s corpse was hanging from the cable of a record player, and that Baader’s record player had a hollow space containing a gun mount, then this run-of-the-mill motif suddenly reveals its ambiguity. Richter’s work admits its own limitations, thereby diametrically opposing the promise of authenticity and the seeming unambiguousness that are inherent in public photography.

This cycle of paintings links up with Richter’s photopaintings of the ’70s. Yet a surprise occurs here. The gray unison of these works does not result from the closeness to the black-and-white photos they are based on; rather, the harmonious grayness of the paintings is their decorum, the sole approach that appears suitable to the horrifying theme.

Martin Hentschel

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel