With a unique, unmistakable, yet dynamic and unpredictable style, the German artist Gerhard Richter imposed himself, throughout the second half of the XX century, as one of the most influential and thought-provoking living art-makers. Trained at the Dresden Art Academy and at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, skilled in photography, as well as abstract and photorealistic painting, Richter deconstructs the artist’s commitment to an unambiguous, unitary style, by situating himself in an exclusive niche, posited somewhere among conceptualism, minimalism and abstract expressionism.
On October, 18th, 1977, Andreas Baader, Jan-Carl Raspe and Gudrun Ensslin, leading members of the first generation of the Rote Armee Fraktion, were found dead in their cells at the Stuttgart-Stammheim prison, one year after Ulrike Meinhof, co-founding member, had committed suicide, too.
Eleven years later, Gerhard Richter unveiled his Oktober series: this is composed of fifteen paintings of different formats, based on authentic documentary photographs taken by the police and by the press.
The work, consisting of 15 canvases and currently on display at the MoMa museum in New York, is characterized by a consistent adoption of grim tones of grey, both to crystalize and the photographic nature of the work  and to mystify and confuse the viewer.
Specifically, the paintings portray, to use Richter’s own words “Three times Baader, shot. Three times Ensslin, hanged. Three times the head of the dead Meinhof, after they cut her down. […] Then a big, unspecific burial. […] Their presence is the horror and the hard-to-bear refusal to answer, to explain, to give an opinion” (Richter, 2000, p. 141). This statement is of crucial importance for a compelling understanding of the author’s work, as it clearly establishes a link between the terror evoked by the Red Army Faction, and its perception in society, by postulating a refusal to answer, closely connected to Germany’s memory of its own past.
The subjects portrayed are dead, blurred and fading. Their silhouettes merge with the undefined background and the traits are confused, uncertain. The viewer can, therefore, immediately visually engage with the subjects, but the haziness of the composition bestows the canvases with grief and sorrow, thereby granting a solemn and uncanny nature to the connection between the viewer and the subjects. While a superficial understanding of this connection would identify the work as a memento mori, relative to the failure of the ideology the RAF members upheld during the ‘70s, Richter’s intention is sensibly different and is concerned with the issue of historical memory, rather than with a political judgment of any sort.
Oktober is a series without a beginning or an end. Access to the world of the paintings can come at any point of the cycle and the same can be said for the exit. Neither the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, where the paintings were originally exposed, nor the MoMa in New York offered any guidance whatsoever with regards to any coherent narrative linearity linking the canvases. By consequence, the apparent randomness of the series can be said to be symptomatic of the difficulty in unveiling the actual truth of the real-life narrative of the Baader-Meinhof group: what really happened at the Stammheim prison remains disputable and mysterious, as cryptic as the linearity of 18. Oktober, 1977. In this sense, the artist already seems to adopt a precise approach to his work, by turning the representational nature of the medium into an abstract reflection on its subjects and, in particular, with their role within the picture of Germany’s memory.
The historical memory of the Rote Armee Fraktion has always been – and continues to be – a delicate issue: in her 2007 analysis of the media’s depiction of the RAF, Attacking the Body Politic, Claire Bielby highlights, how the German society tends to marginalize perpetrators and distance itself from them, by portraying them as ‘others’. It is often pointed out that, today, public opinion and political rhetoric in Germany seem to forgive and forget, rather than remember, the experience of the Baader-Meinhof group. Such a tendency is, in any case, accompanied by a large, yet unsatisfied, need, for German society as a whole, to acknowledge and come to terms with its terrorist past . This reluctance is often described as a form of “collective amnesia”, a concept denoting, rather than the absence of documentation, a “cultural re-coding”, prompting a dominant narrative or interpretation of a given historical event. Specifically, the operations of the Rote Armee Fraktion undoubtedly came to be object of mnemonic repression and were progressively disconnected from the historical texture, coincidently with a transformation of the historical experience into an experience of collective catastrophe.
To sum up, being their nature universally demonized, the RAF came to be gradually confined to remote boundaries of historical memory and the horizon of their understanding limited by the construction, at a societal level, of a precise narrative characterizing them as ‘others’, or external to society itself.
In his reflection on historical memory, Jürgen Habermas claims that two tendencies are identifiable: the one, employing “revisionist history in order to revamp its concept of traditional identity for the sake of reconstructing a national history” and the other, opening up space, through comprehension and communication, for “commemoration and the autonomous confrontation with ambivalent historical legacies”. The latter seems to be the philosophy underlying Richter’s work: from this perspective, it is easy to understand the extent to which 18. Oktober 1977 is an extremely provocative and, at the same time, reflective work: Richter challenges the dominant narrative and the commonsensical understanding of the experience of the RAF and, through commemoration codified in the aesthetic form, he attempts at resisting the “constantly renewed collective prosecution […] in the form of eradication from current memory”, by crystalizing in the artistic form the “blind spot where ‘being unable to forget’ and ‘not wanting to remember’ cross paths”.
He manages to do so by means of his unique style and composition of the work: first of all, the ghastly and intimidating color palette of the series is adopted by the artist to suggest that the current narrative accounting for the actions of the Baader-Meinhof group is widely uncritical and uninformed.
To quote his very own words “Gray is the welcome and only possible equivalent for indifference, noncommitment, absence of opinion, absence of shape”; “It has the capacity no other color has, to make ‘nothing’ visible”. Secondly, in crafting Oktober, Richter skillfully reproduced original photographs on canvas. By doing so, the author postulates a conflict in the medium (photography/painting), reflecting the conundrum of the representability of the subject. Third, the extensive use of blurring techniques frustrates the viewer’s reliance upon his or her perception, and highlights the uncertainty related to the memory of the subjects being portrayed. Fourth, the title itself of the composition does not explicitly mentions the RAF, thereby enhancing the feeling of anonymity of its components. Lastly, the serial nature of the work, as well as the systematic use of repetition, echo, in an uncanny way, Andy Warhol’s pop, serial Elvises or Marilyns. However, while American artist adopted repetition to screen the real, in order to disperse meanings, Richter, by painting the same subjects more than once, with tones growing darker and an increasingly marked blur, emphasizes how they are progressively disconnected from the historical memory of Germany, drawing the viewer’s attention on the fading subject.
It seems evident that the analysis of Richter’s 18. Oktober 1977 ought to be supplemented by two factors: (1) German society’s reluctance to come to terms with its terrorist past and (2) the presence of a generally accepted historical narrative gradually excluding the Baader-Meinhof group from memory, by labeling them as ‘others’. Plotted against this background, the work manages, thanks to its unique composition and peculiar stylistic traits, to highlight the paradox inherent to the contemporary understanding of the RAF phenomenon and, at the same time, to urge not to forget and to re-incorporate their historical experience into the wider narrative of Germany’s past.
A book by Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, the 2006 volume Philosophy in a Time of Terror, can substantiate a compelling interpretation of Richter’s canvases: in the text, the authors provide a philosophical inquiry on the origin of terrorism, arguing that, through non-communicative rationality, “structures of communication are constantly distorted from misunderstanding and incomprehension, from insincerity and deception”. By consequence, no Habermasian communicative action, determining a form of public rationale for communication, based on mutual understanding and agreement (Einverständnis), can be said to mediate between competing Lebenswelten, thus establishing a discursive conflict. A distortion of this kind paves the way for the emergence of violence: as the discursive gap widens to trigger mutual mistrust and enmity, breakdowns might take place within society, thus opening up the field for a spiral of violence ultimately culminating in terrorism.
The logics of Instrumental and Strategic rationality, identified as means to indiscriminately achieve one’s ends, can be seen at work for what concerns the dynamics of historical memory, too; in particular, looking at the phenomena of “collective amnesia” and “cultural recoding” of the Baader-Meinhof events, it can be said that, while they constitute attempts to amalgamate a particular segment of Germany’s historical memory within the systemic sphere of society, they inevitably subtract it from public consensus. In other words, the eradication of the Rote Armee Fraktion from collective memory is a form of systemic integration, since its aim is to foster national solidarity through crystalline, guilt-free remembrance.
This process can be better understood as the enactment of different types of rationality: if, in fact, a nation’s past needs to be normalized, addressing historical recollection in such a way that solidarity is consequently enhanced, the understanding of a specific historical event becomes, essentially, a matter of establishing a meaning to the event under consideration. Doing so does not aim at fostering communication within the lifeworld, but merely at maintaining stability within the system itself. Following these considerations, the imposition of a predominant narrative, marginalizing the experience of the RAF, seems to be a form of politicization of collective memory, as well as a conscious, revisionist dissociation of the Baader-Meinhof group from the context of German history, dictated by the sole application of systemic (i.e. instrumental and strategic) rationalities.
The cultural, rhetorical and symbolic representation of the RAF is adopted to foster solidarity within the system, without being subject to close, critical, scrutiny within the Lebenswelt, via the mediation of Communicative rationality. Systemic rationalities, in turn, acquire a double significance: on the one hand, as suggested by Habermas, they can be said to be the prime cause of the emergence of terrorism, while, on the other, as observable through Richter’s Oktober, they attempt at cementing and strengthening Germany’s national identity by creating the image of a guilt-free past. Instrumental rationality is, therefore, pretending to be the cure to the disease it generated in the first place. The problem with this, however, is that neither Habermas nor Richter hold this process as desirable by any means: the use of non-communicative rationality to amend the incongruences of systemic incorporation does not, in fact, allow for a realization and the genuine development of society.
Already in his 1971 Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie, in fact, believing that the full potential for societal development lies within the Lebenswelt, Habermas strongly condemned the progressive rationalization of the lifeworld and called for a critical evaluation of Germany’s past, preventing the de-contextualization of its atrocities. In a similar fashion, by depicting the effects of terror, rather than terror itself, Richter removes any specificity from the canvas and adopts its as a starting point for a much deeper reflection, located within the realm of abstraction, rather than representation. The Oktober series does not spring out of memory, but it is, instead, a catalyst for it; it constitutes an attempt to resist the predominant cultural tendencies existing in German society: the artist’s work, rather than a mere and clearly deplorable political glorification of the RAF, is an acute commitment to a plan of Verklärung, a “counter-clarification” process aiming at challenging the mainstream understanding of terrorism by highlighting its ambiguities and mysteries. Rather than offering an interpretation of the RAF experience , Richter simply aims at creating a discourse around it, aiming at finally achieving Einverständnis by re-incorporating the Baader-Meinhof group into Germany’s historical texture and memory.
 Most of the photographs under consideration were, in fact, published on newspapers in black and white
 An operation which, in Habermasian terms, would undoubtedly constitute the enactment of systemic rationality
© Alessandro De Arcangelis
All images are © Gerhard Richter, 2015 and accessed at www.moma.org on May, 18, 2015 and reproduced in accordance to MoMa’s fair use conditions.
Habermas, J. (1971) Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie
Habermas, J. (1981) The Theory of Communicative Action
Habermas, J. (1981) The Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 2: Lifeworld and System
Habermas, J. (1987) The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity
Habermas, J. & Derrida, J. (2006) Philosophy in a Time of Terror
On Terrorism and Historical Memory:
- Bielby, C. (2007) “Attacking the Body Politic: the Terrorist in 1970s German Media”. Reconstruction, 7 (1)
- Dunnage, J. (2010) “Perpetrator Memory and Memories about Perpetrators”. Memory Studies, 3(2), pp. 91-94
- Langenbacher, E. & Eigler, F. (2005) “Introduction: Memory Boom or Memory Fatigue in XXI Century Germany?”. German Politics and Society, 23(3), pp. 1-15
- Luhmann, N. (1982) The Differentiation of Society. New York: Columbia University Press
- Passmore, L. (2009) “The Art of Hunger: Self-Starvation in the Red Army Faction”. German History, 27(1), pp. 32-59
- Preece, J. (2010) “Lives of the RAF Revisited: the Biographical Turn”. Memory Studies, 3(2), pp.151-63
- Tzanelli, R. (2007) “Solitary Amnesia as National Memory”. The International Journal of Humanities, 5(4). Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 253-260
On Oktober. 18, 1977:
- Buchloh, B. (1989) “A Note on Gerhard Richter’s Oktober”. In October, 48(1), pp. 88-109
- Danchev, A. (2010) “The Artist and the Terrorist, or the Paintable and the Unpaintable: Gerhard Richter and the Baader-Meinhof Group”. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 35, pp. 93-112
- Elger, D. (2010) Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting. Köln: Dumont Literatur & Kunst Verlag
- Green, D. (2000) “From History Painting to the History of Painting and Back Again: Reflections on the Work of Gerhard Richter”. In History Painting Reassessed, pp. 31-49
- Richter, G. (2000) Textes. London: Thames & Hudson
- Shiff, T. (2003) Obfuscation in Richter’s “18 Oktober 1977”
- Storck, G. (1990) “Untitled (Mixed Feelings)”. Gerhard Richter: 18 Oktober, 1977. Montreal: Museum of Fine Arts
- Usselmann, R. (2002) “ Oktober 1977: Gerhard Richter’s Work of Mourning and Its New Audience”. In Art Journal, 61(1), pp. 4-25
- Wollen, P. (2000) “Gerhard Richter’s Oktober 1977. New York: Museum of Modern Art