Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

The Artist and the Terrorist, or the Paintable and the Unpaintable: Gerhard Richter and the Baader-Meinhof Group

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

The Artist and the Terrorist, or the Paintable and the Unpaintable: Gerhard Richter and the Baader-Meinhof Group

Article excerpt

This article is offered as a small demonstration of what art has to say about terror and violence. It focuses on the German artist Gerhard Richter and his cycle of paintings on the life and death of the homegrown terrorists of the Baader-Meinhof group, October 18, 1977 (1988). Following Richter, it explores whether atrocity is "paintable." It investigates the encounter between the artist and the terrorist and proposes that Richter's is a profound exploration of terror and counterterror in the contemporary world. Keywords: art, terror, Richter, Baader-Meinhof


Crime fills the world, so absolutely that we could go insane out of sheer despair. (Not only in systems based on torture, and in concentration camps: in civilized countries, too, it is a constant reality; the difference is merely quantitative. Every day, people are maltreated, raped, beaten, humiliated, tormented and murdered--cruel, inhuman, inconceivable.) Our horror, which we feel every time we succumb or are forced to succumb to the perception of atrocity (for the sake of our own survival, we protect ourselves with ignorance and by looking away), our horror feeds not only on the fear that it might affect ourselves but on the certainty that the same murderous cruelty operates and lies ready to act within every one of us. I just wanted to put it on record that I perceive our only hope--or our one great hope--as residing in art.

--Gerhard Richter

  I remember a conversation with Kafka which began with present-day
  Europe and the decline of the human race. "We are nihilistic
  thoughts, suicidal thoughts, that come into God's head," Kafka said.
  This reminded me at first of the Gnostic view of life: God as the
  evil demiurge, the world as his Fall. "Oh no," said Kafka, "Our world
  is only a bad mood of God, a bad day of his." "Then there is hope
  outside this manifestation of the world that we know." He smiled.
  "Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope--but not for us."
  --Max Brod

Perhaps the only great art yet made of terror and counterterror in the contemporary world is a cycle of fifteen paintings by the leading German artist Gerhard Richter, (1) completed in 1988 and collectively entitled October 18, 1977. (2) The date has a malign significance. That morning, in the high-security wing of Stammheim Prison, Stuttgart, guards discovered the leaders of the Red Army Faction (RAF), otherwise known as the Baader-Meinhof group, dead or dying in their cells. Andreas Baader had been shot in the head, Gudrun Ensslin hanged. They were already dead. Jan-Carl Raspe, also shot in the head, was still alive; he was rushed to hospital but died soon afterward. Irmgard Moller alone survived her wounds. Ulrike Meinhof had been found hanging from a window grating in her cell the year before. Holger Meins died from starvation in a hunger strike to protest prison conditions in 1974. The existential struggle for control over his body, the syndicated photograph of him on his deathbed, and his last recorded words lent him the air of a martyr cloaked in the mantle of a soixante-huilard, an impression reinforced by the authentic argot:

  Either pig or man, either survival at any price or fight to the
  death, either problem or solution. There's nothing in between. Of
  course, I don't know what it's like when you die or when they kill
  you. Ah well, so that was it. I was on the right side anyway--
  everybody has to die anyway. Only one question is how one lived, and
  that's clear enough: fighting pigs as a man for the liberation of
  mankind: a revolutionary battle with all one's love for life,
  despising death. (3)

Meins and the others had revolutionary aspirations. Their methods were more prosaic. The Baader-Meinhof group were terrorists (homegrown). They caused convulsions in the body politic, and tremors to this day. In 2006 Meinhof's daughter, Bettina Rohl, failed in her attempt to sue the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung for describing her as a "terrorist's daughter. …

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