Of all Gerhard Richter's work series, the fifteen-part painting cycle October 18, 1977 is his best known. It was created a good ten years after the events of what is referred to as the 'German Autumn'. October 1977 marked the culmination of the crisis in West Germany instigated by the terrorist activities of the Red Army Faction (RAF, sometimes known as the 'Baader-Meinhof Group'). The hijacking and subsequent liberation of the Lufthansa plane, the Landshut, the hostage-taking and murder of Hanns-Martin Schleyer, president of the Confederation of German Employers' Associations, the deaths of the terrorists Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe in the high-security prison Stuttgart-Stammheim - all these events happened within a few days and weeks of each other and shook the nation to its core.
In his paintings, Gerhard Richter concentrates on the members of the RAF, most of all on Ensslin, Baader and Raspe who were found dead in their cells. But his depiction of the protagonists and their respective scenes of death evokes more than just the events surrounding the date of the title. By reproducing in sombre shades of grey the images culled from the press and blurring them, sometimes beyond recognition, he also portrays the young democracy's paralysis in the face of a threat from within.
The painting series is complemented by the work Blanket. Like others in the series, this painting also initially depicted Gudrun Ensslin's cell, with her wraith-like body hanging from the window bars. The artist finally decided to paint over this scene in white paint, drawing a white blanket over it - a blanket of forgetting, of speechlessness and possibly of the unfathomability of what actually happened that night.
Now hung in the Schinkel Saal of the Old National Gallery, the painting cycle October 18, 1977 can clearly be seen in the art-historical context of history painting. More than that however, it is on display in the very building that opened in 1876 as a monument to the foundation of the German Empire. Planned at the time as a museum of contemporary art, the Old National Gallery was a symbol of the nationalistic architecture of the Wilhelminian era. In keeping with this ethos, the Schinkel Saal normally houses works from the era of German Romanticism, works infused with patriotism after the victory over Napoleon in 1815. The pictures that usually hang here represent ideals that hovered between expectation and disappointment, which were fulfilled by ideal landscape, ideal visions of antiquity and the Middle Ages, in short by the yearning for a golden age with an ideal society and an ideal state. Here in the context of the Old National Gallery, Gerhard Richter's paintings on the 'German Autumn' not only pose questions on the documentability of history and the role of history painting in today's art. They also tackle the difficult relationship between social utopias and social reality.
The New National Gallery is currently holding a comprehensive retrospective of the artist's works: Gerhard Richter: Panorama.
Exhibition at the New National Gallery
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