Gerhard Richter: ‘Post-remembering’ the Holocaust in German Contemporary Art
Dresden-born artist Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) was aged between nine and thirteen years old during the Holocaust. Nonetheless, it had a formative and conflicting influence on Richter. His black-and-white ‘photopaintings’ from 1965 raise questions about the role of photography as a means of remembering, forgetting, recontextualizing and expressing the traumatic acts committed to – and by – his own family members, even, on each other. This paper studies exemplary ‘photopaintings’ as a manifestation of Richter’s expression of a German ‘postmemory’ condition. In sum, this is a story about remembering, forgetting and denial – and photography as an agent exploring those phenomena.
Comparative literature professor Marianne Hirsch coined the term ‘postmemory’ to describe the relationship that the generation that came ‘after’ the perpetrators of the Holocaust and the Second World War experienced following those traumatic events. She argues that this group’s memories are comprised of the stories and images they remember, combined with the behaviours they witnessed in others during their youth. That is to say, their memories are second-hand inheritances of stories about an event that largely occurred before their adult consciousness.
One such member of the ‘postmemory’ generation, Dresden-born painter Gerhard Richter was aged between nine and thirteen years old during the Holocaust and the Second World War. Both had a profound and conflicting influence on his family. Less than one week after Richter’s thirteenth birthday, British and American planes dropped more than 500,000 bombs on Dresden, killing more than 25,000 people and putting Richter’s immediate family in danger. 1 Richter was a junior member of the Hitler Youth. Two of his uncles served in the German army and were killed during the war. Richter’s father was an official Nazi Party supporter, served in the war and survived. He was forever scarred by the experience – which included being captured and kept as a prisoner-of-war by American soldiers. The Nazis, in their campaign to eliminate all citizens with mental illnesses, exterminated Richter’s schizophrenic Aunt Marianne. Moreover, recent research has implicated Richter’s father-in-law (through his first wife) in the death of Aunt Marianne.
In black-and-white ‘photopaintings’ from 1965 – such as Uncle Rudi, Aunt Marianne and Mr Heyde – Richter addresses his personal ‘postmemory’ of the impact of the Second World War on his family and himself. While photographs are often regarded as surrogate witnesses to events, family snapshots are springboards for second-hand narratives that change over time, from context to context, and from viewer to viewer. Vernacular photographs are ‘social’ objects. They prompt the sharing of family folklore while inherently challenging the status of the photograph as an objective document. Thus, one finds only conditional truth in a family photograph. (Roland Barthes famously ceded this in the influential book Camera Lucida, but only after an unfruitful search for something vital and essential about his recently deceased mother in a photograph of her as a child.)
Richter’s use of family photography as the basis for this body of paintings also raises questions about the purpose of remembering events and associations that one would rather see fade from memory. In July 2015, Richter announced that he had ‘disowned’ this period of his painting career. He purposefully excluded all of these artworks from the comprehensive catalogue raisonné of his life’s work, claiming that he did not like the style in which he rendered his subjects (Neuendorf 2015). This essay argues that Richter had other reasons for wishing to forget these paintings. His family’s role in perpetrating and falling victim to the Holocaust are evoked by the subjects of his paintings during this phase.
In addition, Richter’s photopaintings prompt viewers to think about photography’s adequacy to represent the Holocaust or war, or facilitate any real understanding of it. This paper will take a closer look at those issues, through a study of exemplary photopaintings as a manifestation of Richter’s expression of a German postmemory condition.
Post-remembering Uncle Rudi/strong>
Rudolf Shönfelder was more than an uncle to Richter. He was a role model. Art historian Robert Storr noted that ‘[Uncle Rudi] is not a monster but the average, ordinarily enthusiastic soldier. On the other hand, he was the apple of Richter’s mother’s eye.’ Storr quotes the artist: ‘[Uncle Rudi] was handsome, charming, tough, elegant, a playboy, [and] he was so proud of his uniform.’ As a boy, Richter was impressed by Shönfelder, who was a paragon of masculine virtues (Storr 2003, 57–58).
To make this photopainting of his Uncle Rudi, Richter selected a family snapshot of Shönfelder smiling and wearing a full National Socialist uniform. The figure was centered in the canvas, echoing the conventions of vernacular family snapshots. As the photograph was enlarged from about 10 cm in height to fill nearly a metre-tall canvas, Richter added details where they had previously not existed in the photograph. These images once conveyed what Barthes has called a ‘that-which-was’ (or, a photographic naturalism), enhanced by Richter’s additions. While the paint was still wet, Richter smeared those carefully painted details with a horizontal drag of a homemade squeegee, challenging the previously realistic painting’s ability to make indexical reference to his Uncle Rudi. He pulls paint, and the details it conveys, from the canvas. He marks, and obliterates. He ‘cleans’ – or tries to ‘clean’ – the image from the canvas, using a process he calls ‘mechanical sweeping’.
What remains on the canvas is what we see here: a blurred image of Richter’s uncle that still ‘reads’ with the familiarity of a snapshot. But this image is no longer intimate in size, nor in its function as a publically shared artwork. Horizontal smudges of streaked oil paint attempt to wipe away the proud, young Uncle Rudi, along with his innocence and folklore-ish glorification by Richter’s family members. This is entirely appropriate. Rudi’s memory would forever be ruined by his Nazi affiliation. Uncle Rudi thus is, to Germans, an immediately recognizable, but after the war, a seldom-discussed typology: ‘The Nazi among us.’ Moreover, he revealed, in Richter’s hindsight view, the enduring presence of the Second World War and the Holocaust in everyday life.
As Richter acts against social norms to ‘out’ ‘the Nazi in his family’ to the masses, the artist also refers affectionately to Shönfelder as ‘Uncle Rudi’. While ‘Rudi’ is a term of familiarity and endearment, it is also a diminutive, belittling form of Rudolf. Schönfelder’s image lacks clarity, perhaps as a metaphor to the struggle of reconciling Rudi, the heroic pre-war family myth, with Rudi ‘the Nazi’. Uncle Rudi is given no family name. Thus, he is simultaneously disavowed as a relative, yet shared with all of us – as ‘The Nazi in All of Our Families’. Thus, Uncle Rudi is a specific historical person from Richter’s family whom the artist embraces and rejects, simultaneously. 2 When asked about the fate of his uncle by Storr, Richter said, ‘He was young and very stupid, and then he went to war and was killed during the first days’ (Storr 2003, 57–58). Thus, the proud, charming young man who represented a role model for Richter is quickly deflated and defeated at the Normandy landings in 1944, as a member of ‘a generation that willingly participated in its own destruction, and the destruction of millions it tried to dominate’ (Storr 2003, 57–58).
But Rudolf Shönfelder was hardly alone. Schönfelder’s brother Alfred – and Richter’s father, Horst – all served in the German army during the Second World War. Horst Richter was a teacher, and was a member of the National Socialist Party. Although, ‘as Gerhard remembers it, his father never bought into its ideology. In fact Richter does not recollect that anyone in either of his parents’ families was an avid supporter of Nazism. Like so many other German families at the time, the Richters and Schönfelders were apolitical,’ according to the curator Dietmar Elger (Elger 2009, 5). 3 (This characterization of Horst Richter’s political passion, it should be mentioned, contradicts Richter’s earlier statements.) Richter’s father returned from war and was never able to find his footing again. As a former Nazi soldier, Horst Richter was not allowed to return to his school-teaching post, nor did he ever fully reintegrate back into his family (Storr 2003, 32). 4 According to the artist, his father ‘shared most fathers’ fate at the time [...] nobody wanted them’ (Storr 2003, 32).
Richter, who became accustomed to his father’s absence, recalls being an active member of the Hitler Youth, and found a means for expressing his restless preadolescent aggression through it: ‘I was very impressed by the idea of soldiers, of militarism, maybe [by] Hitler, that was impressive’ (Storr 2002, 19). Richter’s statements in other interviews convey a different story, or memory, of being a member of the group, which, he recalled, ‘was too tough for me. I don’t like fighting games, I wasn’t very sporty.’ Richter also explains: ‘When you are twelve you’re too little to understand all that ideological hocus-pocus, but even though this might sound funny now, I always knew I was something better than they were’ (Storr 2003, 25). According to Elger, Richter claimed he ‘managed to avoid most of the odious paramilitary field exercises and tent camps thanks to his mother, who willingly filled out and signed his absence forms, claiming illness’ (Elger 2009, 5).
But when the war came to his back yard (during the Russian occupation), he curiously welcomed the soldiers. While military trenches were being dug behind his house, squadrons of American planes dropped propaganda leaflets from above, and Russian MiGs flew low overhead hunting for German army trucks. Richter recalled, ‘There were weapons and cannons and guns and cigarettes; it was fantastic’ (Storr 2003, 10). When the campaign ended, he and his friends found discarded weapons and held target practice in the woods (Elger 2009, 6). Richter recalled: ‘That was the most exciting time of my life, and I think of it fondly’ (Elger 2009, 5).
Richter thus grapples with his own memories and shifting viewpoints. As art historian Benjamin Buchloh has suggested, Richter’s work offers an ‘analogue to postwar Germany’s own conflicted relation to its past (which it must both disavow and work through)’ (Buchloh 1996, 62). With this body of work, Richter addresses the collision of photographic facticity, family folklore and his boyhood memories, which were augmented by hand-medown stories and shaped by history. The photopaintings address conflicts within that family, too.
In one of Richter’s family photographs, a teenaged version of Richter’s Aunt Marianne hovers above the artist, who was less than a year old at the time the picture was taken. Marianne was, in family lore, the antithesis of Rudi and her sister, Richter’s mother. She was committed to a mental institution from the age of eighteen, and was diagnosed as schizophrenic. Richter recalls that: ‘Whenever I behaved badly I was told “You will become like crazy Marianne”’ (Harding 2006).
In 1939, at the start of the Second World War, Hitler backdated the T4 euthanasia programme authorizations to call for the systematic mass murder of the mentally ill. They were declared ‘unworthy of life’ and of contributing to German culture and the gene pool. Mental-institution patients were forcibly sterilized and starved, and then given an intentionally fatal drug overdose at the state institute Großschweidnitz. By the end of the war in 1945, at least 3,272 patients, including Richter’s Aunt Marianne, had been murdered here. At the time when Richter painted this picture of Aunt Marianne, he knew her fate had been terrible, but claimed that he did not know all the details.
In 1959 police apprehended Werner Heyde, the man who created the ‘strategic euthanasia programme’ and killed about 100,000 people – including those at Großschweidnitz (Schreiber 2005, 245). In the ochre-tinted photopainting Mr Heyde, Richter provides a portrait of Marianne’s executioner, who was working under Hitler’s mandate. Heyde pioneered the gassing techniques employed in the ‘Final Solution’. After the war, he continued to practise medicine under a false name until he was exposed. Heyde committed suicide five days before his trial (Storr 2003, 58).
When interviewed in 2002 about the painting Mr Heyde, Richter claimed that it was intended to speak to the paranoia inspired by discovering that one’s neighbours – seemingly ordinary people – helped perpetrate the Holocaust. He stated: ‘Who would ever have guessed? Who can we trust among us?’ (Leight 2002). In a different interview, Richter mentioned that he saw no conscious connection between Heyde’s programme and his aunt’s death: ‘It did not exist. There are no conscious connections within me at all. [He chuckles] But I am certain that I knew of it because I read it somewhere’ (Leight 2002).
In 2006 journalist Jürgen Schreiber revealed a startling revelation: that Richter’s first father-in-law, Heinrich Eufinger, a prominent physician of the Third Reich, had been assigned to the clinic where Marianne was institutionalized and killed. Eufinger was responsible for the sterilization and euthanasia of the mentally ill. Richter and former wife Ema claimed to have known nothing of his involvement until it was made public in 2006 (Elger 2009, 131). Although Marianne’s death occurred before Richter met and married Ema, it seems quite unlikely that they never swapped family stories and discovered that her father worked at Großschweidnitz – the same hospital to which his aunt was committed and executed.
Richter’s photopaintings Uncle Rudi, Aunt Marianne and Mr Heyde thus close the gaps between personal experience and public reality, between a traumatic family past and a present predicated on selective memory. These paintings testify to German society’s repression, reticence and denial. Richter attempts to reconstruct its remembrance and family histories from within the social and geopolitical world in which the atrocity was committed (Buchloh 1999, 127). However, as Richter denies these paintings’ existence and excludes them from documentation projects related to his life’s work, he attempts to erase these figures – and his family’s first-hand involvement in the First World War and the Holocaust – once more. As time passes, the sources connecting him to his family’s conflicting stories of war, mass murder and atrocity have passed, too.
Robert Braun has suggested that memory transforms into history, losing its connection to the personal stories of its perpetrators and victims – which eventually are forgotten. Histories thus become less ‘real’ and more ‘abstract’. Memories of the atrocities of the Second World War thus may become part of a general cultural history, rather than an individualized actual Richterfamily- specific story (Braun 1994, 176). Richter’s denial of this phase of work is a conscious effort to let these intensely personal family stories become less ‘real’ (as they are not attached to actual family figures), and more ‘abstract’. Ultimately, perhaps, they can fade completely – along with the guilt experienced by the Richter family.
Kris Belden-Adams is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Mississippi (USA) and specializes in modern/contemporary art, and the history of photography. She received her PhD from the City University of New York – Graduate Center in 2010. In addition to researching Gerhard Richter’s ‘photopaintings’, she studies social-media photography. Dr Belden-Adams’s recent scholarship also examines the intersections of sewage and photography in the decades following the medium’s birth. Her work has been published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and inPhotographies; Afterimage; Southern Studies; The International Journal of Technology, Knowledge and Society and Cabinet.
1 The attack on Dresden, was about 60 miles away from Waltersdorf, where Richter then lived. However, Richter’s aunt and grandmother were then living in Dresden and survived the bombing. Robert Storr, Gerhard Richter: Doubt and Belief in Painting (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2003), 3.
2 Philipp Alexander Ostrowicz 2005–6, n.p.
3 Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 5. This differs from other accounts, such as Storr’s. See n.1.
4 Storr also cites Stefan Aust, The Bader-Meinhof Group: The Inside Story of a Phenomenon (London: The Bodley Head, 1985), 58.
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This article has been published in the fifth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of Holocaust/Shoah.