On 18 October 1977, Andreas Baader, Jan-Carl Rasp, and Gudrun Ensslin were found dead in their cells in a Stuttgart, Germany, prison. The three were members of the Red Army Faction (RAF), a left-wing German radical-turned-turned terrorist group led by Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, who had earlier hanged herself while in police custody. Many people, including Nobel prize-winning novelist Heinrich Böll, sympathized with the group’s anti-authoritarian beliefs despite criticizing its use of violence. The deaths were officially declared suicides but were widely believed to have been murders at the government’s hand; regardless, they marked the end of a 10-year struggle between the German government and one of the most feared terrorist groups in Germany.
Eleven years after that “German Autumn” crisis that precluded the terrorists’ deaths, Gerhard Richter painted a series of fifteen canvases representing pieces of the narrative. Though Richter sympathized with the RAF’s bravery and their desire to change society, he grew up under the Nazi regime and East German Communism and consequenly held a deep distrust of ideologies of all kinds. This distrust is the foundation on which he realized the pieces that make up “October 18, 1977.” Using oil paints and referencing newspaper and television images, Richter first painted portraits and scenes of the drama in chilling shades of grey, then “unpainted” them with brush- and squeegee strokes to blur and distort them almost beyond recognition. The resulting murky and chaotic motifs include portraits of Ensslin, Meinhof, and Baader, representations of the arrest of RAF member Holger Meins, Baader’s prison cell, the record player in which he supposedly hid the gun that killed him, and the funeral of Ensslin, Meinhof, and Baader. Collectively, the paintings reflect the prevailing socio political turmoil of 1970s Germany, but more importantly, they ask audiences to reflect on the strength of memories as well as the importance of remembering tragedies and controversies alike. Similarly, the works call into question the ability of modern media––namely photo and film––to tell and preserve the objective truth of a scene, if such a thing even exists.
Notably, Richter painted the fifteen canvases during a prosperous, politically conservative period; not only do the events portrayed in them contrast sharply with the climate in which they were created, but their implication of a deep-rooted skepticism at first seems out of place in a flourishing society. These contrasts in Richter’s work urge his audience to remember that still waters run deep. Audiences should wonder, what of the details of a scene which a photograph cannot capture? What of the cut film, what of the countless perspectives abandoned in favor of the perspective of one journalist? What of the filmmaker or photographer’s own bias? Richter seems to want his audience to ask, “Why is this the narrative we’re being sold? Who is profiting from it? When will they drop the facade and do this again?”
Consider that history––or rather, collective memory––is written by the powerful, and wonder what history might look like if it were told as a story without heros.
“Baader-Meinhof ” Photo Paintings “.” “Photo Paintings ” Gerhard Richter, www.gerhard-richter.com/en/art/paintings/photo-paintings/baader-meinhof-56.
“Gerhard Richter. October 18, 1977. 1988: MoMA.” The Museum of Modern Art, www.moma.org/collection/works/79037.
Robert Storr. “October 18, 1977.” MoMA, vol. 4, no. 1, 2001, p. 31.