Reflecting on Richter’s “October 18, 1977” Unit 8

Gerhard Richter photographed by Benjamin Katz in Köln, 1984

For artists occupying themselves with visual art, whether that is painting, sculpture, photography or another form, the question of the connection between reality and its representation is of great importance. Gerhard Richter’s approach to the question of mimesis can be witnessed in his October 18, 1977 cycle, a series of 15 paintings representing blurred photographs related to the Baader-Meinhof RAF group. In his 1993 discussion with Stefan Weirich about these paintings, he characterized photography a rather “useable or acceptable” mimesis of a reality that “moves on,” yet is “much more dreadful.” For the artist, the value of painted photographs is that they cause otherwise violent photographs that are repelling to the viewer, to become “a little more bearable”, causing the viewer to be “a little more curious.”

Blurred painting of photograph showing Ulrike Meinhof's deceased body
Tote (Dead) – Gerhard Richter 1988

In these paintings, we can see that Richter’s work complies to his perceptions and ideas. He focuses on the 1st generation of RAF, whose members committed a series of violent acts protesting against what they viewed as the Nazi-led police state of West Germany in the 1970s.

Blurred painting of photograph showing Gudrun Ensslin's deceased body
Erhängte (Hanged) 1988

Their death was not peaceful either, as after years of imprisonment and isolation they ultimately committed suicide, feeling there was nothing that could be done to help them. The artist has created a series of paintings of photographs, representing mostly scenes and objects from their time in prison.

These works feature paintings of Meinhof’s, Baader’s and Enslin’s bodies after their suicide, Baader’s cell, his funeral and the record player he had in prison, as well as scenes from their arrest and confrontation.

Blurred painting of photograph showing Andreas Baader's deceased body
Erschossener 1 (Man Shot Down 1) 1988
Painting of blurred photograph showing Ulrike Meinhof being confronted by the police
Gegenüberstellung 1 (Confrontation 1) 1988

Richter seems particularly interested in Ulrike Meinhof, evident by the three paintings he made of both her confrontation and her deceased body, and one portraying her in a young age. Maybe it could be argued that she further appeals to Richter because she is viewed as not only a member of the RAF that “acts,” but also as the one that constructs the ideological backbone of the group through her writing. With these paintings of blurred photographs, Richter seems to achieve the creation of a consistent (stimmig in his native language) connection between reality and its representation. His paintings are accurate and consistent with the historical narrative. At the same time, they are not particularly gruesome and unpleasant to watch, which would entail the consequence of turning one’s eyes -and mind- away from what they represent. As a result, they present the viewer with a source of remembering and thinking about the essence of the events which they address, without distorting or influencing the historical truth. 

In many ways, Richter’s work has a lot of similes to the concept of translation. A photograph of a person, an object or an event as the most accurate representation of a moment in time could be considered the word-to-word translation of a text.

Blurred painting of hands
Hände, 1963

On the other hand, Richter alters these photographs through his painting, the same way a translator uses tools as the word choice and figures of speech, in order to create a text in the language in which they are translating, more closely related meaning-wise to the original. The goal of the latter is to provide a text that will enable a fuller understanding and evoke the same feelings to the reader with these evoked to a native speaker reading the original text. In the case of Richter, the goal is to create a piece of art that “imitates” what happened, yet at the same time is free of its violent or repelling element, providing room for thought and reflection on these events of reality.

Photo of Baader and Enslin during their trial
Baader and Enslin during their trial

This way Richter creates a piece of art that is thought provoking and has aesthetic, as well as didactic value. By simply painting blurred photographs from the police file and keeping a relatively neutral stance himself, he has opened up the discussion concerning the ideas of oppression and terrorism, that are very relevant to the RAF.

RAF logo

The critical discussion he is igniting aims to determine the point at which the disregard of individual freedom in the name of collective security becomes oppression, and simultaneously, the point at which actively or even violently revolting against the established order diminishes into mere barbarity and savagery. An interesting question is, will these points prove to coincide with each other?