How does the use of Gerhard Richter’s blur technique in his cycle “October 18, 1977” change the effect of the paintings in comparison to the original source images?
Gerhard Richter is one of the most successful contemporary artists. His work is known for being very diverse and having no specific style seems to be his style. His apparent lack of a clear commitment to a style, an opinion, or a political standpoint can also be found in his blur technique which he uses for his paintings from photographic originals: blurring the originally sharp images abstracts them. Richter’s point of view seems to be hidden behind a thin but insurmountable curtain. The blur also keeps the viewer from seeing clear himself, from judging the situation, from taking on a standpoint. The painter has to confront this criticism of having no opinion especially with his political historical subjects, like the paintings “Onkel Rudi /Uncle Rudi” (1965) or “Tante Marianne/ Aunt Marianne” (1965), which show relatives of Richter in the context of Nazi Germany. Apart from these, especially the cycle “October 18, 1977” made onlookers search for the artist’s opinion and intention, as these 15 paintings do not show a political subject represented on the basis of family photographs, like his earlier works. The cycle’s source images are press and police photographs and it deals with the events around the Baader- Meinhof gang, a group of terrorists active in Germany in the 1970s. At the time Richter chose to paint this subject, the events had already passed for more than a decade, which seems like he wanted to say something about it that he felt was missing but essential to close this chapter of history. Viewers and critics are therefore looking for his statement in the painting but cannot find what they expect. The painter is criticized for picking a controversial subject, attracting attention to the issue, raising questions but refusing to offer an opinion and refuse an answer. The artist himself, though, says, that “the political topicality of my October paintings means almost nothing to me” (Richter, 1968, n.p.).
In the following essay I want to concentrate on the blur effect in Richter’s cycle “October, 18 1977”. I want to show how the blur changed the effect of the source photographs and that the artist’s statement lies exactly there. When generally “blur” stands for obscuring the clear sight on a subject, this is arguable for the cycle: Through the blur, the viewer here much more gets the chance of a real encounter with these images. This essay will focus on the comparison of the effect of the original photographs and Richter’s version, basing on the six paintings “Erhängte/ Hanged” (1988), “Erschossener 1/ Man Shot Down 1” (1988), “Erschossener 2/ Man Shot Down 2” (1988), and the three images “Tote/ Dead” (1988). I will not go into detail about the biographical context that shaped Richter’s political and painterly approach.
The German RAF (Red Army Faction) terrorists Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and others were arrested in 1972 and spent the last years of their lives in the German prison Stammheim near Stuttgart. In 1976 Meinhof committed suicide in her cell by hanging herself. On 18 October 1977 Baader, Ensslin and other RAF members decided to jointly follow their friend by committing suicide in their respective cells. Press and police photographers took images of their belongings, rooms and their bodies and the shocking pictures were published in German newspapers and magazines.
These press photographs do not commiserate what they depict, they are there for the simple fact of informing and documenting, of showing what the situation looked like. Looking at these images, we have the feeling of intruding in the prisoners’ privacy, of taking part in the photographer’s voyeuristic act. Susan Sontag explains on this topic: “But there is shame as well as shock in looking at the close-up of a real horror. Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it (…). The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be” (2003, p.37-38).
The press photographs ruthlessly show Meinhof’s head and neck in very close up after she hanged herself (Fig. 6), Baader on the floor of his cell with open eyes and the gun next to his head in a puddle of blood (Fig. 1), and Ensslin hanging in front of an open window on an electric cable (Fig. 4). If another well known personality dies, we are usually not shown photographs displaying their bloody bodies, or deformed body parts. Such pictures would not be published because this seems to cross a border of respect for the dead. The display of a dead person in his disfigured state is still considered unethical, even in our times of often low borders of respect.
The photographer showing the dead in this undignified moment is exposing them. This exposition is officially tolerated because the terrorists have lost their right of respectable treatment; the exposition is justified by the terrorists’ acts of cruelty, it becomes a form of publicly punishing them for what they have done. By looking at the images of the dead RAF members in newspapers or on TV, the viewer collaborates with the photographer in the voyeuristic act, takes part in this punishment and exposure by being the audience to whom the disfigured corpse is displayed. “People can’t wait to see corpses. They crave sensations” (Richter, 1989, p. 185) and feel less guilty about this act knowing the body they are looking at is of a terrorist than of somebody else.