Gerhard Richter, Confrontation 2, 1988, oil on canvas, 112 x 102cm, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, USA
‘They see in the political apathy of the proletariat only the apathy, not the protest against a system that has nothing to offer them.’
― Red Army Faction
The Red Army Faction, who we mostly know as the Baader-Meinhof Group after their charismatic founders, carried out a series of spectacular kidnappings, murders, bombing and bank robberies in West Germany for over two decades. A group of young and media-savvy revolutionaries, they were a product of the student uprisings of 1968 and had formed in opposition to the ‘government of national unity’ ruling Germany. This right-of-centre government contained many former or alleged Nazi’s, and pursued a free market ideology which, the Red Army Faction believed, was equivalent to a continuation of Nazi-era fascism. The Baader-Meinhof group’s heists and assassinations captivated the world, both terrifying and inspiring Europe, and splitting-open divides between an older generation and a younger, more radical one. The series of spectacular assassinations carried out in the 1970s – one, in 1977, involving a movie-style baby-carriage distraction and the machine-gunning of a car – were killings carried out in the name of abstract ideology, they force us to face questions of moral equivalence.
Still, the Baader-Meinhof group’s willingness to act, their sense of theatre and their boldness appealed to a German youth looking for ways to usher in modernity, and who believed the way to do this was to confront Germany’s terrible recent past – to be open about the rejection of fascism. This openness about history was part of the groups ideology, and is now a part of modern Germany’s identity. The way 20th-century history is taught in Germany, for example, is a long way from the way the British have remembered Empire, which we’ve largely been encouraged to forget – a few quaint reminders on marmalade jars aside. Attitudes towards inglorious pasts is important: dealing with memory and history is one of the fundamental processes of forming a society, as it is for forming a person.
Gerhard Richter’s painting of a prominent Baader-Meinhof member plays with the processes of memory we have to confront (the series is titled Confrontation). Characteristically blurred, cropped out of recognition (the photo the painting is based on includes the trappings of a police identity parade) and with a glaze of paint which almost increases a conscious sense of documentary photography, the painting is both realism and non-realism – it is a photo and not a photo. Her smile, which is remarkably disarming and natural, is humanising, and in a sense the painting asks us to forget about ideas. As Richter said of this work: ‘…at the time I had no sympathy for the ideas, or for the ideology that these people represented. I couldn’t understand, but I was still impressed. Like everyone, I was touched.’
On 18th October 1977, this woman – Gudrun Ensslin – and two other important members of the Baader-Meinhof group committed suicide whilst in prison. The other paintings in this series depict photographs of these deaths – again with a conscious documentary quality. The series is shocking when seen as a whole; death, actual real death, is difficult to come to terms with as a viewer. Again, though, this is a necessary part of confonting the past. There’s a further complication, the three imprisoned members of the gang killed themselves but did not leave a note – they wanted to give the impression they were murdered in captivity. In one sense, their suicides were a conscious effort to alter the historical narrative. Meanwhile, one of the radical young lawyers who had defended Ulrike Meinhof, the groups founder, against terrorism charges, would go on to lead a re-united Germany to the ‘economic miracle’ – his name was Gerhard Schröder. TH