October Cycle- History Painting after photography?

Is History painting dead? Perhaps, there are ways in which it can be allowed effectively after the birth of the camera. Gerhard Richter makes a fascinating, and controversial cycle of 15 history paintings. The title of the series, October 18, 1977, refers to the date on which Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe were found dead in their cells in Stuttgart-Stammheim prison. Richter paints photographic images that were taken of the members of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group; both press photographs and pictures taken by the police. Of these pictures, the members are both alive and dead. Choosing to paint these past events invokes a conversation about the existence of history painting after it is supposedly dead. Benjamin Buchloh would say that he violated “the prohibition against representing historical subjects in modern painting” I believe that The October Cycle creates a legitimate form of history painting through the renewed connection to history with the appropriation of photographic images.

With the invention of photography in 1839, painting was removed from its purpose to document the world around it, i.e. History painting. The camera was faster, and better at capturing the world around it.  History paintings not only could take years to paint but were even painted years after the event. In history paintings, the events were skewed, biased, and not accurate documentations.

With this in mind, painting receives a new task; not having to represent the world around it, and it becomes an autonomous creation. “But the history of history painting is itself a history of the withdrawal of a subject from painting’s ability to represent, a withdrawal that ultimately generated the modernist notion of aesthetic autonomy” (Buchloh). Therefore painting has no social, political, or historical relevance anymore. Without a relationship to the outside world its only relationship is with itself; it must be intrinsically meaningful. It is compelling only to how it is internally arranged. Due to the fact that it is internally normative, there is pressure on its own materiality: therefore heightened colors, heightened brushwork, etc. Richter keeps that relationship to the outside world with his use of the photographs from the crime scene.

Richter’s paintings are about depicting historical fact in the sense that he does not make assertions to the unknown (whether or not suicides), and in the sense that he is using real factual photographs as a base. Futhermore, “Richters paintings do not affirm collective amnesia of the experience of death; rather they attempt to construct a pictorial representation of the act of recalling and understanding personal experience in its relation to history” (Buchloh on Richter The October Cycle, page 50)  Richter’s paintings address their historical meaning in the manner in which he copies and distorts the source photos.  In the same sense that we cannot supply the missing details of the true photograph, we cannot supply the missing details of the Baader-Meinhof group. We are unsure of whether their deaths were suicides or murders. There is a “blurring” of the truth that we want to see right in front of us. Using a photographic base allows for that documentary nature of cameras to history. The use of grey is interesting, too. This allows for an unbiased painting – similar to the effects of photographs. Quote from Richter:

“Gray. It makes no statement whatever; it evokes neither feelings nor associations: it is really neither visible nor invisible. Its inconspicuousness gives it the capacity to mediate, to make visible, in a positively illusionistic way, like a photograph. It has the capacity that no other color has, to make ‘nothing’ visible. To me, gray is the welcome and only possible equivalent for indifference, non-commitment, absence of opinion, absence of shape.”

I believe that Richter creates a new form of history painting that is legitimate and valid, due to his use of blurring, gray, and photographic base. All three of these are representative to the situation of the suicides, therefore he is painting the situation as it was, a very confusing one with no real answers. And, he depicts the paintings in an unbiased way in the same way a photograph does.

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