In the hospitality of war we left them their dead
as a gift to remember us by. (Archilochus).
In the artist Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977 series, there is a sense that something, often we are unable to name, that is absent, while at the same time its malign presence is present, nearby and disturbingly sensed. Richter’s series of 15 monotone paintings is based on photographs he collected of the Baader-Meinhof group, known also as the Red Army Faction (RAF), a politically Left ‘terrorist’  organisation that operated, primarily in Germany, in the 1970s-1990s. The RAF activities came at a period when many Germans were reassessing their individual and group identity post WWII, and attempting to come to terms with both Nazism, and the alleged complicity of the German people. Richter lived in the post WWII East Germany (GDR) and moved to the West as a young man. This dual German/East-West identity brought an extra dimension that haunted him, that of one form of state repression, the GDR, replacing another, Western geopolitical state control, and, the societal compliance and silence that supported both ideologies. Even after moving to what he believed would be a more open Western society, Richter’s earlier life haunted him and he remained apolitical in his public views. When Richter gave interviews he was evasive and cautious about describing his work and thoughts. Even though some of his artwork was directly political, he seemed to prefer, either to deflect questions on politics or engage with them obliquely through his art. Some of Richter’s paintings confronted Nazism, German complicity, violence and war, for example: Hitler (1962); Bombers (1963); Uncle Rudi (1965); War Cut (2004); September(2005), many of which were carried out in his trademark monotone grey smudge method. On being asked about the grey that he used he said: ‘I think grey is an important colour – the ideal colour for indifference, fence-sitting, keeping quiet, despair. In other words, for states of being and situations that affect one, and for which one would like to find a visual expression’ (Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004 in Richter, 2009).
I begin this case study of Richter’s October 18, 1977 series with a brief contextual introduction to the background of the RAF, and then follow with an analysis of Richter’s subject – geopolitical machinations, death, mourning and the politics of repression.
Stefan Aust (1987) argues that the German society (East and West)  was going through difficulties adjusting to post-war acclimatisation and that the media played a critical part in instilling fear of terrorism in the minds of German people. Also, the perceived return of systemic societal violence returning, in the form of the RAF, so shortly after the defeat of the Nazi project was felt by many Germans to be alien to the post-war German society that now existed. The impact of the RAF’s materialisation and its terrorist activities shook and divided German society. Some people viewed the group as merely delinquent youths; they were ‘admired’ for their anti-establishment rhetoric, contempt for authority and rebellious nature. Others saw the RAF, its activities and ideology as a threat to Western democracy. Its exploits were thought to be the flames of violent urban guerrilla tactics of terrorism that needed to be extinguished. In certain quarters, the RAF was also seen purely as a criminal gang, made up of thugs and murderers to be caught and imprisoned. In 1998 after a string of criminal charges and convictions for arson, bank robbery, shootings, bombings, kidnapping, hijacking, and murders the group finally dissolved - leaving the unfinished business of ‘truth’, ‘myth’ and a plethora of unfathomable questions about the deaths of certain of its members.
For Richter the critical date in the RAF story is October 18, 1977, when two RAF members, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, who were being held in Stammheim prison Stuttgart, were discovered dead in their cells. Two of their comrades, Irmgard Möller and Jan-Carl Raspe, were also found severely wounded in adjacent cells, and were taken to hospital. Raspe died a few hours later, Möller survived and later gave an account in court of what she believed had happened. However, exactly what transpired that day ‘remains a matter for conjecture, speculation and myths’ (Aust, 1987). The West German government declared the deaths as suicides, but critics maintained that state assassins, probably from outside the prison, murdered the prisoners . The media closely covered the RAF activities and images of the group were widely published in newspapers and magazines. Richter used some of these images as reference for his paintings, and it is conceivable that the grey, smudgy monotone quality and style of newsprint of the time may have played some part in Richter’s representations.
When the work is exhibited or written about, the image used most often to introduce the October 18, 1977 series is Jugendbildnis(Youth Portrait), 1988. It shows Ulrike Meinhof, one of the leaders of the RAF, as a young woman, just before she became actively involved with the group. She sits calmly looking back over her shoulder with her left arm resting on the back of the chair on which she sits. She died in prison on 9 May 1976, seventeen months before Baader, Ensslin and Raspe, but even so she is implicated by deed, circumstance and cultural memory. The critical fact that links the three deaths is that Meinhof was the first RAF member to be found hanged unaccountably in a prison cell. Like those to follow, the authorities claimed the death was suicide. Although many critics agree with this explanation, she still gets wrapped-up in the supposition and murky evidence that surrounds the other deaths. The composition and style of Richter’s Youth Portrait is faithful to the original but blurs the focus and this appears to make Meinhof younger, perhaps suggesting that all is not what it seems. Richter chooses to follow the technique of chiaroscuro of the original, a ‘soft’ focus romantic style. This representation has drawn critical accusations that Richter aestheticises a terrorist accused of extreme violence and murder, and that the aestheticisation attempts to mediate the crimes. However, I believe, Richter’s technique creates the impression of a spectral image, a ghostly and otherworldliness that is more akin to a memorial image or a ‘memory image’ . In Youth Portrait Richter chooses to paint Meinhof as a young woman who looks directly into the eyes of the viewers, drawing them in and challenging their gaze. Is she warning the viewers to be prepared for what is to follow and entreating us to look closely and question what is beyond the image – death? The next time Meinhof is painted by Richter it is as a memento mori.
In the sequence of three portraits called, Tote (Dead) 1, 2 and 3, (1988), we see only Meinhof’s head and shoulders in side view. These were taken from photographs made after Meinhof’s death, and are reminiscent of images taken of an autopsy table . There is nothing romantic here; even the soft focus is ominous and unsettling. This really is a vision of death. In Richter’s paintings Meinhof’s face appears faintly bloated, her eyes are closed and her mouth is slightly open, and there is a gouge or mark around her neck where some form of garrotte would have cut into her flesh. The iconography resembles the images of medieval tomb sculptures that were intended to maintain symbolically the presence of the dead, suggesting that a state of mourning is, or should be, taking place. The images appear at first identical, but not only is each image shrinking in size, it is becoming tonally darker. It is almost as if the processes of death and decay were taking place before our eyes. In the final painting, Tote, 3 (Dead) Richter lets the image dissolve into the darkness of the background. As Robert Storr writes, ‘everything floats in a ghostly void’ and ‘[w]ith each iteration Meinhof withdraws from us’ (Storr, 2000, p. 108). In Richter’s paintings the metaphor, intended or accidental, evokes the memory of death and mourning that act as a warning that some unexplained violence has taken place. The three images signify the process of mourning where the memory of a trauma, or human loss, slowly fades and the pain experienced by the living gradually diminishes.
Gegenüberstellung (Confrontation) 1, 2 and 3, (1988) is another sequence of three monotone paintings in the October 18, 1977 series. This sequence is based on police photographs of Gudrun Ensslin taken while she was in Stammheim prison. She enters the sequence like a ‘visitation’ or a revenant and turns slightly towards the viewer, as if just detecting the other’s presence. The painting is blurred like motion or movement in a photograph. In the second painting Ensslin stops, she is turned toward the viewer looking as if she wants to talk. She appears to be waiting for someone, perhaps us, to approach and for a conversation to begin. In painting three, she walks away with her head bowed. This third painting is darker in tone and meaning. We see Ensslin, like Meinhof’s Tote, from a side view. Ensslin seems to have dejectedly given up, society has lost her, what she had to say must wait. In the first two paintings there is the illusion of the returning gaze, a Lévinasian ‘confrontational’ face-to-face that appears through the haze to appeal for an ethical response. What does she want from the viewer? The image, I believe, tries to tell us that something must be addressed, and we need to act. Ensslin is perhaps saying, “If you, the viewer, do not understand, then follow me into the essence of these images and I will show you the evidence”.
Another painting of Ensslin is Erhangte (Hanged), (1988), this time as she was found after allegedly committing suicide by hanging. The West German prison authorities stated that she made a noose from an electric cable, stood on a chair, tied the cable around a grill in her cell, placed the noose around her neck and kicked away the chair. In the image an indistinct ghostly presence returns. Is this is where Ensslin was leading us, to the image of her death cell and the strange circumstances surrounding it? The image is painted in the Richter signature monotone grey style, if we did not know what it was it would be difficult to make out, it is blurred to the point of being virtually unrecognisable. There appears to be a figure floating, perhaps six inches above the floor. Is this ghostly apparition returning to shock us into action? And, what is the blackish dark grey shape to the left of the figure? We are told it is a blanket, but not why it is there and why it is so prominent. The dark grey shape could be imagined to be the shadowy figure of an assassin, a spectre of violence escaping the scene of the crime. Irmgard Möller, who was said to be part of the ‘suicide pact’, was the only RAF member in prison to survive, supposedly after stabbing herself repeatedly in the chest with a knife. She told the public prosecutor: I was dozing and then: ‘I remember a loud rushing noise in my head. I didn’t see anyone… I neither tried nor meant to commit suicide, and there was no suicide pact’ between the RAF members in the prison.
Richter’s October 18, 1977 paintings require us to confront an uncomfortable, unfathomable premonition that something is wrong. We are left, along with meaning, ‘hanging’ in the threshold between worlds, where we attempt to decipher or decrypt what we see and what it might mean. As history paintings, or paintings of historical events, Richter’s work is unyielding whilst ambiguous and indefinable. He has remained vague about what precisely drove him to the subject of the so-called German Autumn. The paintings pull us into the murky, darkness of memory, into a traumatised sublime, where the tension between searching for details and finding none becomes more and more unclear and confusing. The process of paradox allows the germ of disquiet to settle in our consciousness like a latent Freudian malevolence that must be addressed. Richter’s ghosts seem to appear before us as a reappearance, re-apparition, a revenant, a silent witness to some great tragedy, a witness to gross violations, injustices or acts of unbearable violence that have been perpetrated before our eyes – and yet – were invisible and carried out silently. The ‘thing’ that Richter invokes hovers and hangs itself, is a non-belonging thing that is neither living nor dead, it draws our attention violently to the tension between knowing and not-knowing and forces us to ask why?
Richter was clearly troubled and confused about how to react both as a German citizen and artist who had lived in two Germanys. He managed to escape the GDR with his wife Ema in 1961 and fled to the West, shortly before the border was sealed and the Berlin Wall built. Although, Richter thought the move would allow him more freedom in his work, this was only partially true; he had not taken into account the ghosts that haunted him and those that he would carry with him to the West. These ghosts, hauntings really, were to affect and influence his future art practice. Richter was aware of the violence and horrors of the Nazi regime as both his father, who committed suicide shortly after returning from the war, and his uncle Rudi, who died in the war, were Nazi soldiers. As a child, Richter also saw, the decimation and destruction of Dresden by the Allied bombing close to where he lived. The ghosts he carried from WWII increased in the post-war period, where in the newly formed GDR, a police state existed and where people were, with good reason, cautious about their views and their interests in case they attracted the attention of the State Security Service (Stasi). It is not surprising therefore that Richter who lived until adulthood under the GDR regime might be cautious when speaking out and preferred to speak through art, metaphor and abstraction rather than direct confrontation.
Clearly, whatever Richter was feeling about his identity as a German citizen of the East and West, he is an artist haunted by his past. Whilst he has written extensively and published diaries and texts, they are often esoteric and politically self-protective. It may be that Richter’s writing ultimately, and simply, shows the impossibility of sharing the artist’s mind. The issue of German complicity with its relatively recent history of extreme violence and that of one repressive state replacing another appears to be wrapped-up in many of Richter’s images. Looking across his oeuvre we see evidence of a troubled self, and a paranoid troubled society, warplanes, cityscapes that recall aerial photographs of bombed cities, Nazi soldiers, forests that are dark and threatening and images of people that appear distracted, or dreamily unaware they are being watched, looked at and imaged. The symbolism and myth of the ‘German experience’ portrayed as a damaged and divided society in Richter’s art practice is also present in the next German artist I discuss and analyse, Anselm Kiefer.
 The use of the word Terrorist and Terrorism is contested, and as far as I am aware, there is currently no single agreed definition.
 This text primarily is focused on West Germany where the RAF maintained their attacks. However, there are clearly links to German society pre-WWII. After WWII, Germany was divided politically, topologically, geographically and societally.
 Robert Storr asserts that the alleged deadly attacks made on the RAF prisoners were by ‘state assassins probably from outside the prison’. Whilst not precisely saying so, this suggests that West German or US Security Forces were involved and carried out state killing or assassination of the RAF members. Many of the attacks made by the RAF were against US military bases and resulted in the death and injury of US military personnel; so, CIA or US Special Forces involvement is not inconceivable.
 Memorial portraiture or a mourning portrait, popular in the Victorian era, is the practice of photographing the recently deceased usually propped up in a chair as if alive. As memory image it is vague and indistinct.
 See also Andres Serrano’s The Morgue series of photographs (circa 1993) that, although in colour, shows a similar aesthetic.
AUST, S. (1987). The Baader-Meinhof Group, London UK, The Bodley Head.
BARTHES, R. (2000). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, London UK, Vintage.
KIMMELMAN, M. (2002). Gerhard Richter: An Artist Beyond Isms, New York US, The New York Times, 10 February.
POWER, N. (2009). Why Do Some Images Begin to Tremble? Cinema Revisits Militant Politics, Oakland US, University of California Press, Film Quarterly, Volume 63, Number 2, (Winter).
RICHTER, G. et al. (2011). Gerhard Richter: Panorama, London UK, Tate Publishing.
RICHTER, G. (1995). The Daily Practice of Painting, Writings 1962-1993, London UK, Thames & Hudson.
STORR, R. (2000). Gerhard Richter: October 18, 1977, London UK, Thames and Hudson.