'For me it couldn't be about painting a beautiful picture'. Gerhard Richter's Painting about 11 September
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‘For me it couldn’t be about painting a beautiful picture’
Gerhard Richter’s Painting about 11 September
Many visitors did not notice it at all and casually walked past it, for it was small and predominantly grey and blue; at first glance, it looks rather unassuming. But once one realises what the painting depicts, one is more than surprised. In spring 2008 Gerhard Richter exhibited his latest works at Marian Goodman’s Paris gallery, including an oil painting from 2005 simply titled September. It is a highly distorted rendering of a photograph of the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001. The photographer captured the moment of the terrorist attack when the second aeroplane flew into the South Tower and exploded in an enormous fireball. No other event in recent years has shocked and traumatised the world like the suicide attack by the Islamist terrorist network al-Qaeda, in which civilian aircraft were employed as weapons of mass destruction for the first time, costing around three thousand lives. This attack is regarded as a historical turning point, not least because of its far-reaching political consequences.
Never before had a historical event been captured in so many still and moving images as the one that happened in New York on 11 September 2001. The images of the catastrophe were immediately disseminated simultaneously and ubiquitously on television, via the Internet and in print media, so that the motifs of the burning and collapsing skyscrapers are ineradicably engraved in our collective memory. The attack on the Twin Towers was not just about the act itself but about ‘iconising the act’ in a way that was effective for the media, as the historian Gerhard Paul has put it.1 The sociologist Jean Baudrillard also emphasised the iconic significance of the event: ‘the fascination with the attack is primarily a fascination with the image’.2 The overwhelming, almost apocalyptic, symbolic power of the attack altered our visual idea of terrorism fundamentally, because it was deliberated staged by the terrorists as a global media event. On 11 September 2001 the unity of history, politics and visuality was probably revealed more clearly than ever before.3
Both the event of the attack itself and the images of it are without a doubt a challenge for artists who claim political validity for their work. It may seem desirable that the visual arts take stands on important historical phenomena, but in this case it appears to be more than difficult. Jenny Holzer, the American artist from whom one might soonest have expected a convincing reaction, stated in retrospect in a conversation in 2008 that there was ‘nothing I had to offer immediately, for like many others I was literally stunned by what had happened. It had left me, like so many others, speechless.’4 As early as 2001 Jacques Derrida remarked from the perspective of a philosopher that the significance of the act of terrorism in New York was ‘ineffable, like an intuition without concept’.5
Even Gerhard Richter, who was himself sitting in an aeroplane to New York as the World Trade Centre burned, initially found no opportunity to address the theme artistically. As he put it, he was interested in the misanthropic ‘insanity’ that had driven the terrorists.6 After long hesitation, he took a photograph from an issue of the magazine Der Spiegel from 2001 and transferred to canvas with a pencil the outlines and details of the Twin Towers looming into the image, the explosion, and the cloud of smoke. But then he began to have doubts. Can something like this even be depicted, can something like this be painted? Would not a painting executed delicately and cleanly in oil necessarily lead to a decorative aestheticising that was simply forbidden when faced with this subject? Just how well aware Richter was of these issues is evident from a statement he made to the present author in 2008: ‘For me it couldn’t be about painting a beautiful picture.’7 He hesitated for more than two years, considering destroying the painting, and then in 2005 he completed it after all. After he had applied the motif from the photograph in oil, he took a long knife and scraped the still wet paint from the surface to the sides several times, until the white primer was showing through in places. The traces of the mechanical working are clearly evident; remnants of impastoed grey paint have remained, especially in front of the motifs of the tower on the right and the blue sky.
Such combinations of representational and abstract styles in one work at the same time have been a recurring feature in Richter’s oeuvre since 1962 not only in paintings but also in prints and photographs. These distinct, indeed even opposite modalities of visual production interlock in tense ways to form a unity in the painting he titled September. For our epistemological possibilities, this ambiguity between realism and non-objectivity means that the narrative information of the pictorial motif has been removed from our direct visual access as placed under a veil, while at the same time it still remains visible beneath the surface like a palimpsest. Thus it does not conform to Richter’s intention to offer us a perfectly mimetic image of the terrorist attack. For faced with the many millions of illustrations on the Internet and television, in magazines, newspapers, and books, a realistic painting could only be another reproduction of an all too familiar, omnipresent motif. In the face of the unprecedented flood of media images, he would presumably not have gained anything from adding another documentary image. At worst, such a painting would have been a trite, anachronistic illustration. Precisely the aesthetic distance the artist introduced by scraping off the paint causes the historical to become an object of reflection. For the viewer must remember and reconstruct the underlying motif in his or her mind. This is a particular challenge to reflect on the attack and the destructive dimension of fanaticism.
Despite the abstracting form of representation, it is very essential that Richter used a photograph as his model when he tried to come to terms artistically with the subject. That is not only because the artist chose not to make use of the tired myth of creative immediacy in the sense of a direct, unconditional creation. That is why his paintings with representational motifs are based on principle on photographs. This is all the more true of images depicting historical events. Richter’s American colleague Richard Serra stated in 2007: ‘The experience of 11 September was so superimposed by the media that whatever one said about it would always be related to the image that exists of it.’8 Hence a motif of the event freely invented at the easel would not be believable and as a fictive representation would be almost absurd.
Already in the nineteenth century, painting had lost its function as the most important medium for the production of images for society. Especially with the emergence of photography, the representation and communication of history was established in a way that made painting increasingly look like a medium of belatedness with respect to historical events and their photographic documentation: too late, too slow, too expensive and too difficult. Since that time, history has more than ever been constituted visual via photography, film, television and the Internet. So it is no coincidence that the effort to come to terms with terrorism through the visual arts in recent years primarily has been manifested overwhelmingly in installations, objects, videos and photographs. But when Richter takes up the genre of history painting in his painting September, he can only do so successfully by recourse to the photograph. Moreover, the modest format of the painting (52 × 72 centimetres) is, as the art historian Robert Storr has observed, ‘in the range of many of the media images people saw on television at the time of the attack and since, while also countering the tendency in history painting of representing major events in rhetorically big formats with melodramatic effect.’9
In his medial appropriation and reworking in his painting of 11 September, the artist dispensed with any form of sentimentality, grand gesture or even explicit political statement. That reflects not only his temperament but also another loss of function that history painting had to accept as an artistic genre and force for defining symbols. Prior to the invention of photography, painting did not just illustrate complex historical themes. Above all, it was able to overcome visually the finality of death and hence the implicit danger of forgetting by making the sitters immortal by elevating and idealising them. Even so, in his Torero mort (L’homme mort) (Dead Torero [Dead Man]) of 1864, Édouard Manet was already presenting his protagonist, a dead torero, as irrevocably dead, slipping into death in an unseemly and unworthy fashion. Today painting is most definitely no longer able to heroise or offer consoling meaning. Richter recognises and respects the inadequacies of contemporary history painting and makes no stubborn attempt to revive the long since lost capabilities of this traditional genre. The reinterpretation of the victims of 11 September as heroes in the United States was, by contrast, widely practiced in various pieces of music, feature films and plays, in comics, novels and non-fiction books, on stamps and with bronze statues and wax figures, usually with misguided pathos.10
Gerhard Richter has repeatedly explored the conditions and possibilities for engaging with history on the basis of photographs. In 1965, in his painting Onkel Rudi (Uncle Rudi), based on an old photograph from a family album, he depicted one of his own relatives, a committed National Socialist, in his Wehrmacht uniform.11 This work visually breaks through the repression of the German past at that time by confronting the viewer with a motif exemplifying the National Socialist era. There is probably no other German painting from the 1960s that embodies so effectively the phenomenon that the philosopher Hannah Arendt called the ‘banality of evil’.12 In his 18 October 1977 cycle of fifteen paintings of 1988, Richter addressed the fatal end of the first generation of Red Army Faction terrorists in prison in Stuttgart-Stammheim and, in the process, produced a fundamental critique of ideology and an important work in remembrance of a collectively repressed trauma in Germany.13 And with his artist’s book War Cut of 2004, the artist focussed on the beginning of the Iraq War by combining press reports from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung with photographs of details of an abstract painting as a record of a distant war.14 That publication is not a political commentary on war but rather a reflection on the artistic problem of how to respond to the historical event with an appropriate visual language.
In connection with the terrorist attack in New York, it is worth noting how the American reception of the aforementioned cycle 18 October 1977 changed after 11 September 2001. A connection between different forms of terrorism was seen. That was ultimately unsurprising, since the traumatic shock of the manifestation of America’s vulnerability led to a climate of enduring fear and to a radical nationalism. ‘That new context was the United States . . . , a place where the main criteria for public discourse about that assault were being reduced to a loyalty oath’, as Robert Storr put it.15 Just two days after the attacks, for example, Ann Coulter, one of the most famous and most notorious political commentators in the United States, who appears several times a week on television, announced: ‘We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.’16 The President of the United States at the time, George W. Bush, started a war in Afghanistan in early October 2001 as a reaction to the attacks and also partly used the events of 11 September to justify the war against Iraq begun in March 2003. When Gerhard Richter’s cycle of paintings was shown in a retrospective of the artist’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York a year after the destruction of the World Trade Centre, Robert Storr, the curator of the exhibition, was subjected to outbursts of intense hostility. For example, the art critic Eric Gibson wrote in the Wall Street Journal that ‘it is almost impossible to see “October 18, 1977” as anything but a series of martyr paintings’17 and that the paintings had to be viewed in connection with 11 September. Gibson equated the terrorism of the Red Army Faction with that of al-Qaeda, even though the two groups have no historical or ideological commonalities. In his article Eric Gibson directly attacked Robert Storr with a loaded question: ‘What kind of mind is it that, at this stage of the game, refuses to distinguish between good and evil, between civilization and barbarism . . . ?’18 Richter’s September has not yet provoked such vehement reactions, since it shows neither the victims nor the perpetrators but rather, for all the closeness of the motif, maintains a distance, which makes it all the more challenging for contemporary witnesses.
Gerhard Richter’s painting recalling 11 September 2001 is, not least because of its cool aesthetic distance and self-imposed artistic restraint, a powerful memorial, to which any superficial pathos and any spectacular gesture would be alien. It is understandable that the artist wanted to avoid any sensationalist, economic speculations about this work. When it was exhibited at Marian Goodman’s Paris gallery, the painting was not for sale. Since the most appropriate and at the same time most emotional place for the painting was doubtless a museum in the city of its motif, in autumn 2008 Gerhard Richter donated the painting to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
1 Gerhard Paul, ‘Reality 9/11: Das Bild als Tat, der Aufmerksamkeitsterror und die modernen Bilderkriege’, in idem, Bildermacht: Studien zur Visual History des 20. und 21. Jahrhunderts (Göttingen, 2013), p. 585.
2 Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, trans. Chris Turner (New York, 2003), pp. 28–29. See also the conversation between Wilfried Dickhoff, Heinz Peter Schwerfel, and Jean Baudrillard, ‘Kunst und Singularität’, in Heinz Peter Schwerfel, ed., Kunst nach Ground Zero (Cologne, 2002), pp. 201–14.
3 On the transformed significance of the media in terrorism, see the short but concise essay Sven Beckstette, ‘Terror’, in Uwe Fleckner, Martin Warnke and Hendrik Ziegler, eds., Handbuch der politischen Ikonographie, vol. 2 (Munich, 2011), pp. 416–23. See also Sven Beckstette, ‘Das Historienbild im 20. Jahrhundert: Künstlerische Strategien zur Darstellung von Geschichte in der Malerei nach dem Ende der klassischen Bildgattungen’, PhD diss., Freie Universität Berlin, 2008.
4 Jenny Holzer, ‘Wir wollten an so etwas wie die Wahrheit, im vagsten Sinne, herankommen. Ein Gespräch im New Yorker Bryant Park von Magdalena Kröner’, Kunstforum International 189 (January–February 2008), pp. 163–64 (retranslated here from the German).
5 Jacques Derrida, ‘Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides. A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida’, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, in Giovanna Borradori, ed., Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (Chicago, 2003), p. 86. On this set of problems, see also Matthias N. Lorenz, Narrative des Entsetzens. Künstlerische, mediale und intellektuelle Deutungen des 11. September 2001 (Würzburg, 2004); Sandra Poppe, Thorsten Schüller, and Sascha Seiler, eds., 9/11 als kulturelle Zäsur: Repräsentationen des 11. September in kulturellen Diskursen, Literatur und visuellen Medien (Bielefeld, 2009); Ingo Irsigler and Christoph Jürgensen, eds., Nine Eleven: Ästhetische Verarbeitungen des 11. September 2001, 2nd ed. (Heidelberg, 2011); Unheimlich vertraut/The Uncanny Familiar: Bilder vom Terror/Images of Terror, exh. cat. C/O Berlin (Cologne, 2011).
6 Gerhard Richter in conversation with the present author in the artist’s studio, Cologne, 2008.
8 Richard Serra, quoted in Magdalena Kröner, ‘Political Landscapes: Eine Ortsbeschreibung’, Kunstforum International 189 (January–February 2008): p. 70 (retranslated here from the German).
9 Robert Storr, September: A History Painting by Gerhard Richter (London, 2010), pp. 47.
10 Sara E. Quay and Amy M. Damico, eds., September 11 in Popular Culture: A Guide (Santa Barbara, 2010).
11 Mark Godfrey et al., eds., Gerhard Richter: Panorama, exh. cat. Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin, (Munich, 2012), p. 60.
12 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York, 1963).
13 Gerhard Richter. 18. Oktober 1977, exh. cat. Museum Haus Esters, Krefeld, Portikus, Frankfurt am Main (Cologne, 1989); Hubertus Butin, ‘Gerhard Richters RAF-Zyklus in der Kunstkritik’, Kunstforum International 215 (April–June 2012), pp. 90–105.
14 Dieter Schwarz, ‘Gerhard Richter: War Cut; Ein abstraktes Bild als Buch’, in Dietmar Elger and Jürgen Müller, eds., Sechs Vorträge über Gerhard Richter, Februar 2007, Residenzschloss Dresden (Cologne, 2007), pp. 96–111.
15 Storr, September (see note 9), pp. 42–43.
16 Ann Coulter, ‘This Is War’, National Review, 13 September 2001.
17 Eric Gibson, ‘A Fuzzy View of Terror’, Wall Street Journal, 1 March 2002.
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