Gerhard Richter – October 18, 1977

Gerhard Richter is a German artist, best known as a painter, particularly oil on canvas. He’s been one of my favourites for years, and I’m not alone: at auction his work achieves higher prices than any other living artist, approximately 200 million USD last year alone. I’m not writing about Richter to go on about what a big deal he is, though, I’m writing about his Baader-Meinhof Gang paintings. In 1988 he created a series of 15 paintings entitled “October 18, 1977”, about the German terrorist group, the Baader-Meinhof Gang (officially the RAF or Rote Armee Fraktion, “Red Army Faction”).

The Red Army Faction existed from 1970 to 1998, committing numerous operations, especially in late 1977, which led to a national crisis that became known as “German Autumn“. It was held responsible for thirty-four deaths, including many secondary targets, such as chauffeurs and bodyguards, and many injuries in its almost thirty years of activity.
– Wikipedia

In many ways it was this series of paintings that made Richter internationally famous. It also generated a pile of controversy from both the political left and the right in Germany – the RAF were seen as antiheroes by many on the left, in many ways a radicalized attack upon the right-wing politics of Germany that were still associated with the legacy of Naziism, not just ideologically but in fact as many important political figures in Germany tried to whitewash or hide their Nazi pasts. The right viewed them simply as terrorists.

The leading members of the first generation of the (RAF) were arrested in 1972. Their terrorist activities, their unparalleled pursuit by the police force and their joint suicides provoked heated discussion in Germany for a long time.

The title of the series, October 18, 1977, refers to the date on which Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe were found dead in their cells in Stuttgart-Stammheim prison. . …The unveiling of the paintings in 1989 caused a stir that shows that the matter was not resolved in the eyes of the German general public either.
– From Gerhard Richter’s official website

Richter’s own political positioning was attacked even though he was painting entirely from documentary photographs, as he did not openly identify himself as either left or right wing. This made the left suspect him of being a right-winger appropriating “their” figures, and the right wing suspect the paintings of being too sympathetic to the RAF.

(Richter) once wrote: ”Because Marxist intellectuals refuse to own up to their own disillusionment, it transforms itself into a craving for revenge. And so they turn their own ideological bankruptcy into the utter bankruptcy of the whole world — mainly the capitalist world, of course, which they vilify and poison in their hatred and despair.”
In 1988, he painted a series of 15 works titled ”October 18, 1977.” It shocked Germans. The series was based on photographs of the Baader-Meinhof group, which called itself the Red Army Faction. Andreas Baader was a street hustler; Ulrike Meinhof was a radical journalist and former pacifist. With others — Gudrun Ensslin, Holger Meins, Jan-Carl Raspe and Irmgard Moller, among them — they staged a string of robberies, shootings and bombings of American Army bases that ended with the arrest of those six in 1972. A five-year struggle ensued during which other group members, allied with various European and Middle East terrorists, kidnapped hostages and occupied the West German Embassy in Stockholm to extort their release. The jailed members staged hunger strikes. Meins died. Meinhof was found hanged in her cell. The police called it suicide.
…”I was afraid more of the reaction on the left than the right,” he says. ”It was still very dangerous to deal with this subject in Germany. There was fear that the museum where I showed them might be bombed. All my friends were on the left, but I was not. They said: ‘Someone with the right mentality could do this, but not Richter — he is too bourgeois. He steals Baader-Meinhof away from us.’ To me, they were part of the problem. I was standing outside watching how people, on both sides, ignored the truth because of their beliefs, beliefs that made them crazy. That was the point of the pictures.”

– Michael Kimmelmann, NYT 2002 

Full notes on each painting in the series can be seen on Gerhard Richter’s official site.

 The paintings were created in different formats, but the consistent reduction to tones of grey underlines their conception as a series. The grisaille palette refers also to newspapers of that time, which were mostly printed in black and white. All paintings except Youth Portrait  are based on documentary photographs, including press photographs and pictures taken by the police. … In addition to the actual source photographs, he collected more than 100 pictures related to the RAF in these two albums.
Due to the extensive and continued presence of the RAF in the media it can be assumed that the audience who saw the works around the time they were created would easily have made a connection between Richter’s paintings and the activities of the RAF – despite the blurred imagery and neutral titles. As with this series of work, the artist often refers to images that have entered the collective memory, ensuring a renewed remembrance of past events and inviting new perspectives on them.
– from the official Gerhard Richter website

Richter has been criticised by some in the art world for making his series too time-and-place specific unlike a truly “timeless” work of art like, say, the Mona Lisa, rendering them essentially unknowable to anyone except Germans who had lived through “German Autumn” of 1977. Certainly this is true of just looking at the paintings and not reading the extensive explanatory material available when the paintings are exhibited. Most people won’t recognize the significance of a bookshelf, not knowing that this was based on a famous-at-the-time photo of Baader’s bookshelf which was significant to how the public viewed him. Most people won’t know that “Hanged” is from a photo of Ulrike Meinhof, one of the RAF founders who was reported as having committed suicide – but every German in 1988 would recognize it. That said, I’m pretty sure most people walking through any art museum don’t get the historical context of 90% of what they’re seeing, and unless they have studied art history, they probably miss out one the vast majority of even the artistic conventions and relevance of the work they are viewing.

I suppose that in many ways this comes down to a question of whether the meaning of work resides in the artist’s intent or in the viewer’s experience of the art. Certainly in a series so obviously laden with intended meaning it could be frustrating to be confronted by the lack of context the paintings themselves bring to the table – but to a very large extent, I think that’s the point of this series – there is something essentially unknowable about even famous events in current history. I don’t think it’s accidental that Richter blurs his work like out-of-focus photographs – the reference to the unreliability of evidence forces the viewer to consider the inaccuracies of reportage and what it is to “know” and how much is ever really “known”. On a more physical level, to bring the work into focus you are forced to step further away from it. That’s a pretty intense metaphor by itself.

“October 18, 1977” is part of the permanent collection of MoMA in NYC.