Reflections on Painting

Gerhard Richter’s Birkenau Series at the Alte Nationalgalerie

Old National Gallery

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© SPK / photothek.net / Xander Heinl

This exhibition of one of Gerhard Richter’s major works is dedicated to the overarching theme of the possibilities and limitations of painting. The Birkenau series, a group of four large-format abstract paintings created in 2014, arose out of the artist’s prolonged, in-depth engagement with the Holocaust. Richter was particularly concerned with the question of whether and how it is actually possible to portray this unparalleled genocide.

Immediately after the end of the Second World War, the question of whether and how the Holocaust could be represented artistically became the subject of open discussion in Germany. In the face of the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis on some 6 million Jews, many artists categorically rejected the possibility of representing the Holocaust in art, branding any such attempt inappropriate.

Ways of Representing the Holocaust in Art

Richter has repeatedly addressed this subject, beginning with illustrations for The Diary of Anne Frank in 1957, followed in the 1960s by the paintings Erschießung (Firing Squad) and Hitler, which have since been destroyed, and then the paintings Tante Marianne (Aunt Marianne), Onkel Rudi (Uncle Rudi) and Herr Heyde (Mr. Heyde). During the same period, Richter included numerous photographs related to the Holocaust in his Atlas. Thirty years later he created a number of sketches addressing this theme for the entrance hall of the Bundestag, but then rejected these designs, instead proposing the glass artwork Schwarz-Rot-Gold (Black-Red-Gold), which has been on display there since 1997. Contact with Georges Didi-Huberman and his book Images in Spite of All (2008), which focuses on four photographs taken in Auschwitz-Birkenau, has long occupied Richter, and in 2014 gave rise to the four Birkenau paintings.

The Birkenau Series

The photographs, taken secretly by a prisoner, show the corpses of inmates who had just been murdered in gas chambers, and naked women undressing among trees before entering the chambers. Richter first transferred these photographs onto four canvases, creating four figurative images which he then gradually painted over. In the process, he used the painting technique he has employed for years: he first applied paint with brushes and then spread it, scoured it, or scraped it off again with squeegees. This process was then repeated multiple times.

Painting between Showing and Not-Showing

With each successive layer of paint, the painted photographic original disappeared a little more until it was ultimately no longer visible. In the face of the horror of the Holocaust and the inconceivable crime against humanity that it represents, Richter thus engaged in a process of abstraction ultimately resulting in a refusal to directly depict the event. With this process, Richter found a way to draw on documentary material without actually displaying it. His abstract paintings present nuances of form and colour, creating a melancholic, pensive mood, especially with the numerous areas of black and grey. The figurative and the abstract, however, are not mutually exclusive in these works. On the contrary, Richter opens up an emerging space between showing and not-showing, a liminal zone that allows for a wide range of artistic, aesthetic and intellectual reflections.

Presentation, Context and Reflections

The presentation at the Alte Nationalgalerie includes not only the four paintings along with prints of the four photographic originals, but also a large, four-part mirror. Glass and mirrors have accompanied Richter’s painting from early on in his production, because his pictures cannot be understood as mere views or glimpses through a window, but also reference a reality in front of the picture. In this sense, Richter pursues another level of engagement with the grey mirror placed opposite the four Birkenau paintings. It not only reflects the four paintings and the contexts they invoke, but also reflects us, as we view the paintings and the mirror.

The complexity of depiction and representation evoked by this series addresses fundamental questions about painting that have preoccupied us throughout the ages. It was precisely for this reason that Richter requested that his Birkenau series be displayed in the Alte Nationalgalerie.

Beginning of a Long-Term Collaboration

The presentation of the Birkenau series marks the beginning of a long-term collaboration between the Nationalgalerie of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and the GERHARD RICHTER KUNSTSTIFTUNG. Beginning in 2023, the Birkenau series and other works by the artist (about 100 works from several periods) will form a permanent exhibition in a dedicated Gerhard Richter room in one of the buildings of the Nationalgalerie. The collection will ultimately be housed in a large, dedicated space in the new Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts at the Kulturforum.

A special exhibition by the Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Presented with the support of the Kuratorium Preussischer Kulturbesitz.

 

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