Receding from View: History and Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977
Curator Paulina Pobocha takes us deeper into the dark stories behind the artist’s painting series.
Dec 15, 2020
On October 18, 1977, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe were found dead in their cells in a Stuttgart prison. The three were members of the Red Army Faction (RAF), a radical left-wing organization that had waged a campaign of violence against the West German government since the late 1960s. Along with Baader, RAF was led by Ulrike Meinhof, who had reportedly hanged herself while incarcerated a year earlier. Although the deaths were officially deemed suicides, there was widespread suspicion that the prisoners had been murdered by the federal police.
October 18, 1977 depicts the arrests, imprisonments, and eventual deaths of Meinhof, Baader, and Ensslin. Gerhard Richter painted the 15-work cycle more than 10 years after the events pictured, relying on photographic documentation he found in government archives or that had appeared in the press. He exhibited the paintings for the first time in 1989 in the small city of Krefeld, not far from Cologne; the work ignited controversy almost immediately. The events surrounding October 18, 1977 were still fresh in the public’s imagination, and despite the passage of time, the images prompted heated debate. Richter had intended the work to be understood in an art-historical context, but in Germany the topicality of the work was difficult to ignore. “Here [in Germany] one was so affected by the subject matter that the paintings were almost exclusively viewed in political terms,” Richter reflected.
In New York in 2020, the pendulum has swung in the other direction; today the work exists almost entirely outside of its historical context. Although October 18, 1977 can be appreciated aesthetically, the stories of the individuals depicted in these paintings are crucial to a deeper appreciation of Richter’s haunting work.
Gerhard Richter. October 18, 1977. 1988
Gerhard Richter. October 18, 1977. 1988
Andreas Baader, Holger Meins, and Jan-Carl Raspe, three of six principal RAF members, were arrested on June 1, 1972. Arrest 1 and Arrest 2 focus on the capture of Meins, who was apprehended in a Frankfurt courtyard following a shootout with the police. The paintings are based on film stills of the event that had been published in the widely read German newsweekly Stern. Arrest 1 pictures Meins as a blurry, dark figure stepping out of the garage where he had been seeking cover. Arrest 2 shows him removing his pants to prove he is unarmed. While these actions are difficult to make out in Richter’s paintings, they would have been familiar to contemporary German audiences. Meins protested his imprisonment with a hunger strike, dying of starvation on November 9, 1974.
Confrontation 1, Confrontation 2, and Confrontation 3 show Gudrun Ensslin soon after her arrest on June 7, 1972. For these paintings, Richter relied on photographs showing Ensslin on her way to or from a police lineup. In the original images Ensslin’s whole body is visible, as are contextual details—her prison uniform and a sign, printed with the number one, that Ensslin holds in her hands—which help orient the viewer to what they are seeing. By cropping the image and presenting its subject against a gray background, there is little to indicate who she is and where she finds herself. This effect is intentional: Richter said that he wanted the depictions to appear “neutral (almost like pop stars),” contrasting with the sensitive nature of the source material.
This painting depicts Gudrun Ensslin’s body hanging in her prison cell, where it was discovered by German authorities on the morning of October 18, 1977. The image is extraordinarily hazy and muddled, making a positive identification of the subject possible only by comparing the image to the forensic photograph on which it is based. Together with Man Shot Down 1 and Man Shot Down 2, Hanged marks a climactic moment in the 15-work series.
Each of the Dead paintings shows Meinhof after her hanged body had been laid on the floor. The paintings are cropped so that only her head, neck, and upper torso are visible. A single photograph of Meinhof published in Stern served as the source material for all three works. Richter varies the resolution from one painting to the next so that the image of Meinhof recedes from view and grows increasingly illegible.
Man Shot Down 1
Man Shot Down 2
Man Shot Down 1 and Man Shot Down 2 show Andreas Baader lying face-up on the floor, killed by a gunshot. Like the Dead paintings, these two works differ from one another noticeably: the partial visibility of the detail in 1 yields to a greater degree of abstraction in 2. The cold, clinical style of the forensic photographs on which these works were based disappears in Richter’s handling. Although the series is marked by the artist’s seeming impartiality to the events of October 18, 1977, in the case of the Man Shot Down paintings he revealed that while the “photograph provokes horror . . . the painting—with the same motif—something more like grief. That comes very close to what I intended.”
Richter painted Youth Portrait after a photograph of Ulrike Meinhof taken in 1966, prior to her RAF affiliation, when she worked as an editor and journalist. Although she was 32 years old at the time the photo was taken, Richter departs from the source material and depicts her as being far younger. Small and intimate, the painting exists outside the narrative sequence that unfolds across the others, and underscores the transformation an individual can undergo in a short time under extreme circumstances.
Record Player is unusual within the October 18, 1977 series because of its focus on an object rather than a person or environment. Although at first the image seems out of place, it depicts a record player that was found in Andreas Baader’s cell. Baader purportedly hid the gun he used to kill himself inside it. The original crime scene photograph reveals that the record on the turntable was Eric Clapton’s There’s One in Every Crowd, released in 1974, though Richter’s painting style all but obscures its identity, and by extension part of Baader’s.
The bookcases, coatrack, and triangular flag depicted in this painting seem to suggest a domestic space. But as the title indicates, the painting is actually of a cell—that of Andreas Baader just after his dead body had been found on the floor and removed. The space and the objects within bear intimate traces of Baader and speak to all he left behind, literally and symbolically.
Funeral commemorates the procession of coffins holding the bodies of Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe through crowds of sympathizers and onlookers gathered in Stuttgart on October 27, 1977. The most monumental of the series, because of its size and the pageantry inherent to the subject matter, Funeral provides a denouement to the narrative, which Richter summarized as “a leave-taking, in several respects.” Expanding on this idea, he explained: “Factually: these specific persons are dead; as a general statement, death is leave-taking. And then ideologically: a leave-taking from a specific doctrine of salvation and, beyond that, from the illusion that unacceptable circumstances of life can be changed by this conventional expedient of violent struggle.”
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