Generally they spoke little about their past. They were not given to telling stories, and it seemed that they tried not to think about earlier times at all.–Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead
Gerhard Richter’s painting, Confrontation 2, is one in a series of fifteen that compose “October 18, 1977.” The painting, at the Museum of Modern Art, is a portrait of a young androgynous-looking woman. Painted entirely in grays and blacks, it is one piece of a triptych that, like the entire series, represents the Baader-Meinhof Group, or RAF (the Red Army Faction), a German left-wing terrorist group comprised of Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Horst Mahler, and Ulrike Meinhof. October 18, 1977 is the date on which three members of the group were found dead in their cells in the Stammheim prison. The three paintings are based on a series of three photographs taken of Gudrun Ensslin when she first arrived at the prison. Standing before the portrait, one is witness to a prison inmate smiling at a cameraman. This painting, as well as the other two pieces of this triptych, is based on three photographs of Gudrun Ensslin in the prison. In fact, Richter’s original title for the triptych was “Gegenüberstellung,” German for “identity parade,” another word for “police line up.”
The other two elements of the triptych to which Confrontation 2 belongs are are titled Confrontation 1 and Confrontation 3. The three move from haziness to sharpness and from lighter to darker. When seen together, there is a sense, as the eyes sweep across them, that one is moving toward a kind of truth. In the first, Ensslin is blurred, her features indistinguishable. She looks forward, but off to the right. In the third, a profile, her hair and garments have taken on a darker hue, her face, paler and deathlike.
In the middle painting there is still a haziness, a dream-like quality, as if the painting were a memory or a thought. This uncanny aspect speaks to the work at hand. The painting is based on a full-length photograph of Gudrun Ensslin in which she wears a dress-like cloak, knee high socks, and sandals. The socks and sandals, which appear in the first painting, are playful and young—they convey the Ensslin’s energy and mischievousness. By cropping the image down, cutting out Ensslin’s body, what we have is what appears to be a portrait. But, in this portrait, unlike most, Ensslin is not looking at the camera. Her eyes are instead fixed on something above the camera. This gives a sense of the subject being disoriented; she appears a bit mad, startled. The power here is with the cameraman and, as the result of making a painting based on this photograph, with Richter. Ensslin is trapped inside the square of the portrait/painting like a pinned butterfly.
Similarly, the cropping changes the context. Before, in the full length photograph, Ensslin is a nondescript young woman. We see her body: she is tall and slender. The inclusion of her body in the image makes her more human. In contrast, cutting her body off and framing the painting around only her face makes her a martyr. I am thinking here of the paintings of Saint Catherine, and specifically, Lorenzo Lotto’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Also of paintings of Mary Magdalene, Saint Lucy, even the Virgin Mary. In these paintings, though, the women, saints, stare into the “camera”; we see into the windows of their soul. But here, as the result of Richter’s blurring, we cannot see Ensslin’s eyes: the face is blurred, the eyes are blurred. Whether she is a saint or a criminal, we do not know.
Richter has vacillated with regard to his reasons for making the series, moving from claims of ambivalence to disgust. In an interview with Gregario Magnani, in 1989, Richter stated:
There was no special event that made me decide. I had collected some photos and the idea was in the back of my mind for a long time.
It was growing and growing, so finally I said, ‘I must paint this.’ I come from East Germany and am not a Marxist, so of course at the time I had no sympathy for the ideas, or for the ideology that these people represented. I couldn’t understand, but I was still impressed. Like everyone, I was touched. It was an exceptional moment for Germany.
This ambivalence is manifested in the haziness of the work. Like much of Richter’s work, this painting is anchored in a “not-knowing,” a refusal to take a stand. Richter has spoken at length about this, claiming, for instance, that he works with photographs because he was unable to choose what to paint. By simply painting a random photograph, he is in assuming a blindness, a kind of child-like innocence. Regarding the greyness in his paintings, he said:
Grey. It makes no statement whatever; it evokes neither feelings nor associations: it is really neither visible nor invisible. Its inconspicuousness gives it the capacity to mediate, to make visible, in a positively illusionistic way, like a photograph. It has the capacity that no other colour has, to make ‘nothing’ visible.
Here, again, he is playing; playing with the ideas of apathy and the refusal to make a choice and, at the same time, the desire to make manifest the invisible. So what is it precisely that Richter is trying to convey? What is this muddle? This ambivalence? Is this a purely German ambivalence or an overall postwar response? Could it be that his work carries the trace of what has happened on the land? This stain, this inchoate bleed, seeping into everything—but via the unconscious. Like W.G. Sebald’s writing, enclosed as it is within the vitrine like pages of haze and fog. Is Richter’s work addressing this known blind spot? Being within the field, how can he possibly see it? He can’t, and as a result his work is a study of this.
Richter was born in Dresden in 1931, grew up in the countryside and then returned to Dresden for his studies. Dresden, of course, was virtually decimated. In a four-day four-raid attack by Allied Forces, somewhere between 22,700 and 25,000 people were killed. The carpet-bombing or obliteration bombing essentially erased the city. One can only begin to imagine the gray skies, the smell of ash, the brutal rubble. This part of history is itself a blind spot, in particular in German history. Sebald wrote about this very topic in his book, On the Natural History of Destruction, and questioned the silence surrounding it. In photographs of Dresden after the bombings, what the eye sees is the abstract quality of the photographs: the milky grayness, the clutter of rubble, unrecognizable as anything but shapes. The haze is a haze that carries forward like a wind into the work of German artists and writers. One sees the same gray haze in Richter’s paintings of photographs. In fact, one can almost see the ashen rubble.
Returning now to the “October 18, 1977” series, we can see that Richter is doing two things. Like a prayer or phrase one must memorize and repeat or else entirely forget, Richter repeats these same two themes over and over in interviews: he is both illuminating the invisible or unsayable while, simultaneously, creating a haze over the subject at hand (the history of Germany and in this case, the RAF movement; what the movement, and the members’ deaths, meant for Germany). Like a mad man uncovering a relic from the rubble then, in terror of what he has found, covering it back up,
Richter is enacting a memory. In fact, the very act of compulsively collecting photographs, something he has now done for many years, is in itself an enactment of trauma. Since the 1960s Richter has been collecting photographs from various sources, including newspapers. In the 1970s, he began to assemble this collection on sheets. This ongoing encyclopedic collection, composed of over 4,000 photographs, is called “The Atlas Project.” Of this project, Buchloch has said:
What photographs by their sheer accumulation attempt to banish is the collection of death; which is part and parcel of every memory image. In the illustrated magazines the world has become a photographable present and the photographed present has been entirely eternalized. Seemingly ripped from the clutch of death, in reality it has succumbed to it.
Regarding trauma, the philosopher Avital Ronell writes, “ (trauma) can be experienced in at least two ways…as a memory that one cannot integrate into one’s own experience, and as a catastrophic knowledge that one cannot communicate to others.” For Richter, then, his is a trauma that cannot be spoken, one that must be driven away but also, simultaneously, ushered back to him. Because it cannot be fully integrated, it exists as a trace in his work, an inexplicable truth that he cannot say and so, instead, chooses to compulsively enact—or finds himself doing so.