Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) is considered by many to be the world’s greatest living painter. His realistic greyscale paintings make a crucial and urgent point today: to see the world in black and white is to live within the contours of extremism.
‘The world is not black and white,’ Graham Greene once wrote. ‘More like black and grey.’ Those words acquire special meaning when considering Gerhard Richter’s painting cycle October 18, 1977, one of the most moving works of political art of the last half of the twentieth century.
Made up of 15 paintings based on press photographs of four members of the Baader-Meinhof Group, or Red Army Faction (RAF) – a militant group whose bombings, kidnappings, bank robberies and assassinations kept Europe on red alert during the 1970s – Richter’s cycle commemorates the passing of an era. It dramatises the death of four leftwing terrorists, as well as the demise of the idea of Marxist revolution in the West.
Like other cultural products named after a particular day or year – think George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and On Kawara’s date paintings (1966–2014) – Richter’s canvases are titled after a unique calendar event. On that baleful day, October 18, 1977, the bodies of three principal RAF members, Andreas Baader, Jan-Carl Raspe and Gudrun Ensslin, were found dead inside their cells in Stammheim Prison, in Stuttgart. Though the deaths were officially deemed suicides, there was widespread suspicion that the radicals had been murdered by the German state. A fourth member of the group, Ulrike Meinhof, had also been found a year earlier hanged in her prison cell.
Richter based his subjects’ portrayals on newspaper and police photographs. He rendered the evidence of these photographs unstable: their documentary value was darkened, their reportorial accuracy muddied and their sharp edges blurred via a process of painterly smudging that resembles seeing through a foggy car-window. The results affirm a wavering realism. As Richter himself put it, ‘by way of reporting’, his 15 canvases ‘contribute to an appreciation of [our time], to see it as it is’.
Doubling down on his doubt about the truthfulness of images, Richter painted his subjects in greyscale (he is on the record as saying that grey is ‘the epitome of a non-statement’ and ‘only notionally real’). The series begins with a portrait painting of Ulrike Meinhof: it’s followed by two paintings of three members of the group being arrested; three pictures of Ensslin on her way to an ID parade; Ensslin’s body hanged from prison bars; an image of Baader’s cell; a painting of the record player that hid Baader’s gun; two images of Baader shot and bleeding out; and three head-and-shoulders images of Meinhof laid out terminally on her cell floor. A final image, originally cribbed from TV footage, confirms the radicals’ mass appeal – it shows three coffins being carried through a crowd during their multitudinous funeral.
According to critic Gertrud Koch, ‘what characterizes these paintings is their reference to the temporality of our imaginations, the haziness of our memory, its vagueness, the sinking into amnesia, the disappearance and blurring’. But there is also a sense of momentous grief: anguish over the loss of life taken early, but also over the epochal failure of ideology.
As Richter put it in one of the many interviews he gave to counter the false impression that he was glorifying terrorism in October 18, 1977: ‘[My paintings have] to do with the everlasting human dilemma in general: to work for a revolution and fail.’
From the May 2018 issue of ArtReview