Reflection on Richter’s “October 18, 1977”, Nikolaos Paramythiotis

For artists occupying themselves with visual art, whether that is painting, sculpture, photography or something else, 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 lies on the fact that violent photographs that are repelling to the viewer, become “a little more bearable”, causing the viewer to be “a little more curious.”

In these paintings, we can see that Richter’s work is in compliance to his perceptions and ideas. He focuses on the 1st generation of RAF, which’s members committed a series of violent acts as part of their protest against what they viewed as the Nazi-led, police state of West Germany in the 1970s. Their death was not peaceful either, as after years of imprisonment and isolation, they ultimately committed suicide, feeling that 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 record player, cell and funeral, as well as scenes from their arrest and confrontation. Richter seems particularly interested in Ulrike Meinhof, as there are three paintings of her body after she committed suicide and her confrontation, respectively, and one painting of her in a younger age. Maybe it could be argued that she enjoys particular interest by Richter, as she is viewed as not only a member of the RAF that “acts,” but also as the one that provides the ideological backbone of the group through her writings. With these paintings of blurred photographs, Richter seems to achieve the creation of a consistent (or stimmig) connection between reality and its representation. His paintings are accurate and consistent with the historical narrative, while at the same time, not 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.  

A thought that emerged from looking at these paintings, is that in a way, Richter’s work has a lot of similes to the concept of translation. A photograph of a person, an object or an event as a perfect representation of a moment in time could be considered the accurate, word-to-word translation of a text. Similarly, 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 provide a fuller understanding and evoke the same feelings to the reader, as these evoked by a native speaker reading the original text, while, in the case of Richter, 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.               

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