History and Theory, Bezalel //
Issue No. 5 - The Protocols of Bezalel’s Young 1, Summer 2007
Face, Façade and Fire: a Re-reading of Gerhard Richter’s Oeuvre
Examination of the semantic domain of Metaphor, Image, and myth and text fragments in Gerhardt Richter’s body of work constitutes this text’s analytic purpose, where the analytic point of origin is the artist’s performative act of demolition of 1962, when he destroyed all of his early Art Informale work in a public fire. Viewing Richter’s paintings through the prism of this violent act, clearly reminiscent of public burnings of books (such as conducted by the Nazis in 1933), one may interpret them as Splinter centered works. The Splinter mediates between the ‘old’ and embarrassing, and the ‘new’ and promising. Thus they are inseparable from our conception of History, collectively as well as personally speaking. The Splinter motif is here linked with the image of the ghostly fire lit face whose outline no longer reflects the boundary between subject and object, individual and community. The face is also a surface, a façade – the painter’s ultimate theme.
The paintings of Gerhard Richter project are an enigma. They evade any attempt to be grasped, subsumed in standard theoretical models. They seem too heterogenous, ranging from pure abstraction and semi-abstract monochromatic photo-based paintings to fully ﬁgurative, almost photorealistic works. Richter seems to oscilate between these poles with unbearable lightness.
At the same time, there is also a sense of almost unnatural perfection – his oeuvre rarely betrays a feeling of searching, going astray, getting stuck in a cul de sac. For more than forty years now, Richter has been painting intesively, concentrated, with unshakable certainty. One is tempted to succumb to an illusion that he was a mature painter in the moment he ﬁrst took a brush in hand. As an artist, he seems to produce works with constant, almost absolute control over the outcome. Together with the recognition he has attained early in his career and retained for most of the following years, being sometimes labeled as the greatest living painter, and, consequently, having substantial ﬁnancial success, Richter resembles more a myth rather than a real-life artist.
Such myths arouse one’s curiosity, invite attempts to touch them, to grasp, penetrate, unfold. This essay is one of such attempts. Rather than to “understand,” to provide “interpretation,” its purpose is to create a discourse which would touch some of the elements and themes contained in Richter’s painting; to make visible certain semantic space of terms, images and metaphors. In other words, the essay is an attempt to read the text of Richter’s painting oeuvre.
I. Starting Point
Anyone who tries to follow Richter’s artistic oeuvre of early years, namely his ﬁrst years at the Düsseldorf Academy after his immigration from the East Germany, ﬁnds that as far as the works painted before the end of 1962 are concerned, one has to rely on indirect and fragmentary evidence. The works did not survive, what remains are recollections and some photographs. In the monographies, their reproductions are usually accompanied by the note “Whereabouts unknown.”
These works were direct result of his encounter with the postwar modern art, ﬁrst experienced on the Documenta 2 exhibition in 1959. Richter, at that time still deeply immersed in the academism of the East German art scene, saw for the ﬁrst time works of Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel and was apparently impressed. In 1961 he ﬂed to the West, and began to build his carreer at the Düsseldorf Academy under the inﬂuence of the works of Fontana, Dubuffet, Fautrier and Burri. In his ﬁrst exhibition in the West Germany, at the Galerie Junge Kunst in Fulda, opened the next year, his heavily built Art Informel paintings were showed. Nonetheless, towards the end of 1962 Richter abandons this direction; he paints his ﬁrst photography-based paintings, one of the hallmarks of his whole mature artistic carreer.
What happened to these early works? After all, however ‘immature’ they could have been, they certainly can’t be considered unimportant. “I had some success with all that, or gained some respect,” Richter himself conceded in a interview. And then he added:
“Then I felt that it wasn’t it, and so I burned the crap in some sort of action in the courtyard. And then I began. It was wonderful to make something and then destroy it. I was doing something and I felt very free.” 
Thus the works were not only “destroyed,” as it is usually written in Richter’s biographies, in case it is mentioned at all. These works were cermonially burned, turned into ashes in one great, dramatic gesture. The “immature” period was dismissed with bold and decisive action. Instead of simple and silent division between the two parts of the mature-immature dichotomy, the spectacle of burning took place.
It seems to me that this moment, so often overlooked, may actually serve as a starting point for re-reading the whole Richter’s oeuvre. But it seems so marginal, so detached from the bulk of Richter’s work, almost random. Is it valid to relate to it at all? By what right can one start the whole discourse from this marginal point?
“Many photographs are, alas, inert under my gaze. But even among those which have some existence in my eyes, most provoke only a general and, so to speak, polite interest: they have no punctum in them: they please or displease me without pricking me: they are invested with no more than studium,” wrote Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida.
The two concepts, studium and punctum, both being a part of Barthes’ original terminology, denote two elements which may coexist on one photograph and which make it worth one’s attention. Studium means the photograph’s theme, an obvious issue, “the extension of a ﬁeld, which I perceive quite familiarly as a consequence of my knowledge, my culture.” Barthes borrowes the word from Latin, where it means an “application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment,..., but without special acuity.” Many photographs contain only this element, but occasionally the studium is broken by punctum. The latter term, a “point, mark made by pointed instrument,” is compared to a wound or bruise: it disturbs the studium, it “shoots out like an arrow, and pierces me.” This wound inside the photographs’ ﬁeld is seemingly unimportant, a detail – child’s bad teeth, a necklace, strapped pumps, dirty road in the background – but it is something which makes, according to Barthes, the picture speak. The punctum, this detail, appears as something that is superﬂuous to the “essence” of the picture, as something that is mere addition to the studium, but – for Barthes at least – it is absolutely indispensable for the photograph.
The burning of early works by Richter, which I introduced in at the beginning of this chapter, can be compared to this punctum. If we can liken his whole oeuvre to a picture, this event would certainly “pierce” through the whole studium of the painter’s catalogue. It bears no clear signiﬁcance to the whole, but it nevertheless has clear presence. Like Barthes’ punctum, it is latent, revealing itself only later, in the memory, when one is no longer looking at the photograph (the paintings, the texts). Actually, it took me quite a while to ﬁnd again the precise passage for quotation. But I clearly remembered it from the very beginning – this strange bruise on Richter’s artistic biography that is never complete without it.
The destruction of early works is, indeed, a kind of wound. It corrupts the smooth series of paintings. Without it, Richter’s oeuvre would be a continuum of mature works – the ﬁrst ones from the 60’s consistent with the most recent. The feeling is that of full control: the artist seems to have his own development within a ﬁrm grasp. Virtually no cul-de-sacs, no dead-ends. The studio, so to speak, of these works is quite clear: blurring the dichotomy of abstract/ﬁgurative; proclaimed banality of subject and its subversion; the ubiquity of death.
While reading about the destructive performance, I felt I had caught Richter red-handed, lacking control, embarassed. It seems so naïve – to make a clean cut between the “immature” period and the “serious” one; to annihilate the uncomfortable, disgracing, so that only the “relevant” would remain. The action seems superﬂuous – but at the same time done with violent urgency, with the feeling it is absolutely necessary to perform it in order to move farther. Richter’s action bears the mark of the “necessary superﬂuous,” the trait which Barthes assigns to his punctum, and which, of course, reminds us of Derrida’s supplement. This term, which has an enormous importance for this stage of our discourse, deserves more detailed discussion. I shall concentrate on its use in “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Derrida’s deconstructive reading of the intriguing dialogue Phaedrus.
“Plato’s Pharmacy” presents re-reading of Plato’s text which deals with the central issue of Western metaphysics – its conceptuality; the dialectic as a way towards the logos, the father, the good, which cannot be seen directly, as it bedazzles in the same way as the direct sight into the sun injures eyes. However, Derrida does not follow the discourse imposed by Plato. Instead, he starts by identifying “that little spot, a little stich or mesh (macula) woven into the back of the canvas,” – the name of a maid called Pharmaceia. She is mentioned in a story (or, rather, a myth) which appears at the beginning of the dialogue. This myth is related to a place at the sea shore, where Boreas, the god of the north wind, is said to have carried off Oreithyia, the daughter of the king Erechtheus, while she was playing with Pharmaceia. The character of Pharmaceia is mentioned only once, Plato never returns to it, and it does not seem to have any role in the following discourse. It seems completely superﬂuous – and yet it has an appeal to Derrida, it hypnotizes him, it leads him astray to reread the whole text anew. The discourse, which is produced by such rereading, is built around “pharmaceutical” Greek terms – besides Pharmakeia, Derrida concentrates on pharmakon (remedy, poison, drug, spell, color pigment, parfume), pharmakeus (the one who uses pharmakon, a healer, but also a magician, enchanter), pharmakos (human sacriﬁce in ancient polis purifying the community) and the Pharmacy.
Of these terms, the pharmakon receives the most important place in Derrida’s discourse. It is because of its ambiguity – it can be translated as “remedy, medicine,” but it can also be an agent with opposite effect, that of the “poison.” It is connected to the sinister forces of magic, banking on the fear of death, and it can be a drug leading astray, as it took Socrates out of the city streets. It may denote color pigments as well – the fact that enables Derrida (and, of course, Plato before him) to link the mimetic art of painting (representation) with the pharmakon of writing. It can be a parfume – “to harbor death,” to make “the corpse presentable, mask it, make it up, parfume it with its essence.” This ambiguity makes the pharmakon a strange word, which stands on invisible pivot and which can, therefore, slide between its meanings and connotations. (And any of its translations is inevitably an act of violence and distortion, stripping the pharmakon of its variety of inseparable meanings.)
Signiﬁcant part of “Plato’s Pharmacy” is devoted to the analysis of writing as pharmakon. In one of the myths told in the dialogue, the Egyptian god Theuth presents Thamus, the King of all Egypt (and, in fact, the highest deity), with his invention – writing. This invention is said to be a cure (pharmakon) for forgetfulness, but it is refused by the King on the grounds that it leads to the opposite – it weakens the “memory” (mneme) by its inferior surrogate, “reminding” (hypomnesis). This is severe accusation, as the mneme is the only way to the living logos, while hypomnesis is only its dead imitation. However, Derrida shows – while looking into Phaedrus as well as other Platonic dialogues – that the dichotomy of mneme/hypomnesis folds, so to speak, curls on the separating edge, producing the writing, the pharmakon, the supplement.
“The supplement is not, is not a being (on). It is nevertheless not a simple nonbeing (me on), either. Its slidings slip it out of the simple alternative presence/absence.” The pharmakon has no substance – it resists any philosopheme, it is a nonidentity, nonessence, nonsubstance, because it exists outside the hierarchy of metaphysical dualities such as good/evil, life/death, remedy/poison, science/magic, logos/mythos. It has no place in Plato’s ﬁne metaphysical hierarchy, as – in the case of writing – “what Plato dreams of is a memory with no sign.” Instead, it mediates between the two poles of a duality.
It is not my intention to recount Derrida’s text in its whole. What interests me at this point is the structure of his analysis, and, especially, his use of the supplement. In “Plato’s Pharmacy” there are several places where the term is actually employed: apart from its relation to pharmakon (or, rather, identiﬁcation of pharmakon as a supplement to the dualities such as mneme/hypomnesis, life/death, etc.), it characterizes the way Derrida observes text’s structure: rather than following blindly the hierarchy which the text itself seems to impose on him (or, what Barthes calls studium in the photographs he sees), he searches for the elements which seem superﬂuous, yet they are present in the text, the text obviously can’t do without them – therefore, they are at the same time indispensable. Thus, for example, the myth of Thamus and Theuth, the founding myth of writing and one of the central passages of “Plato’s Pharmacy,” seems to be, in the narrative of Phaedrus, “an appendix, a superadded element. ... It is true that Plato offers it somewhat as an amusement, an hors d’oeuvre or rather a dessert. All the subjects of the dialogue, both themes and speakers, seem exhausted at the moment the supplement, writing, or the pharmakon, are introduced.” Derrida’s text not only describes the supplement, the pharmakon – it is also permeated with it, it is led astray by the pharmakon, built by its enormous, sinister power.
Let us return to Richter’s act of destruction, with whom I’d like to open the discourse of this essay, my rereading of his oeuvre. Is this starting point justiﬁed? May I safely compare this singular act, this punctum that caught my attention, with one of Derrida’s central notions? May I borrow, in the context of academic writing, his authority?
First of all, I should ask what, in fact, is this “act of destruction?” It seems that it is evading possible deﬁnitions. An item in Richter’s biography? An event? It is difficult to apprehend it as such, as we cannot re-experience it. There are no testimonies, other than Richter’s brief remark in the unpublished interview with Storr. There is no documentation. It is even not certain that it really took place, that it is not just a product of painter’s mystiﬁcation (which would not be entirely surprising). So, is it perhaps one of his works? An act of perormance art? That would be, as far as I know, the only one in Richter’s oeuvre and this should make us suspicious. This, again, brings to mind Barthes’ punctum: unlike the studium, it is not coded, and, therefore, it cannot be named. “What I can name cannot really prick me. The incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance.”
If this singular event, this open wound, a patch, a punctum on Richter’s oeuvre cannot be named – cannot be called a being – it is because it does not ﬁt the dichotomies with which we are dealing here: the mature/immature or present/absent. If we decide to perceive it as one of Richter’s work, dividing them into the “immature” and the “mature” ones, we cannot really say whether it belongs to the former or the latter. It is too distant from other works, it does not ﬁt. The act of destruction also mediates between the absent (destroyed, missing, irrelevant) and the present (surviving, respected) works. It renders the former absent by its violent nature, but at the same time itself is neither present nor absent. It might have happened in different way, it even might not have happened at all. Richter might have decided not to talk about it with Storr and Storr might have not published the story.
All these traits are, indeed, the traits of Derrida’s supplement. As I intend to show, this event (if I may call it so) permeates Richter’s paintings, and I shall try to read them from this perspective, in a way Derrida rereads Phaedrus as a narrative of the pharmakon, the pharmakeus and the Pharmacy. Or, as Barthes put it: “However lightning-like it may be, the punctum has, more or less potentially, a power o expansion. ... While remaining a ‘detail,’ it ﬁlls the whole picture.”
II. The Book Burning
Death of early works, works deemed irrelevant, uncomfortable, immature, even disgracing, seems to belong naturally to an artistic development. At certain point, the earlier works can’t coexist with the new ones and have to be removed. They are put to death in various ways: removed from the frames, buried alive in storerooms, thrown into garbage, given to friends. Sometimes, the execution takes place in the moment the trigger of the camera has been pressed, in the moment painting or sculpture has been documented, and its physical existence is no longer crucial.
Yet rarely are paintings put to death with such a ceremony as Richter performed.
His recollection quoted above (probably the only account on the event we have) contains several points that make it so bold: the works were destroyed by ﬁre (“I burned the crap”); they were burned ceremonially (“in some sort of action”); they were burned in public (“in the courtyard”); their destruction marked and made possible beginning of something new (“And than I began.”). There is something powerful and sinister about this performance of public, ceremonial destruction and violence against works. Especially in Germany – just seventeen years after the fall of Nazi regime, whose beginning in 1933 was marked by public book burning.
The mass destruction of the books of “un-German” authors in May 10, 1933, is perhaps the most widely known case of public book burning, a symbolic act which has great resonance in Western culture (though it is not limited to it). Therefore, our analysis of Richter’s act of destruction should start at the Opernplatz in Berlin, where the main part of Die Bücherverbrennung (The Book-Burning) was carried out.
May 10, 1933
The burning of works written by some 2,500 authors who appeared on Nazi blacklists was executed shortly – several months – after Hitler’s rise to power. Needless to say, its purpose was mainly symbolic, as the books were removed from the shelves earlier, and not all of them were destroyed during the events. The burning – like many other public actions organized by Nazis – had clearly character of a ritual, with torchlight processions, speeches, and music. Although the main part was staged at the Opernplatz in Berlin, where some 20,000 – 25,000 books were ashed, similar events took place in many other German cities as well, including Dresden, Richter’s hometown.
But let us put aside the well known facts. I would like to analyze closely several aspects of the Bücherverbrennung which seem to have considerable importance to our subject. There are several points in the old photographs, in the speeches, in newspaper articles, which catch one’s eye, so to speak.
First of all, there is a clear element of collective refusal and exclusion. The ceremony marks a group of authors and works as representatives of “non-German spirit” or “outlandish crap.” To quote from Goebbels’ speech to the Nazi youth and students during the Berlin rally,
The overexalted Jewish intellectualism in Germany has met its end now. Through the revolution in November 1918, the materialism broke in and since then, for 14 years, inconceivable material and spiritual disgrace has reigned in Germany, affecting the students as well... When you, students, take up your right to throw this spiritual ﬁlth into the ﬂames, you must also assume your duty to clear the way for the genuine German spirit to replace this crap.
The books in Germany have been divided now into two groups, which create a duality: the “inner,” spiritual, genuinely German works, which reﬂect the true self of the German nation and which, until now, were oppressed by the “outer,” foreign, materialistic, un-German works by Jewish and left-wing authors. The two poles are mutually exclusive and cannot coexist. For the genuine German spirit to thrive, the un-German spirit has to be annihilated. The book burning ceremony is a visual demonstration of this duality. It attempts to exclude, in a single action, the un-German spirit, to present it as “the other,” and to destroy it.
This moment of exclusion is directly related to the element of time. The destruction marks progress from the old, undesirable past, to the new, promising future. All the speeches contain this important element. The burning mediates between two eras – the old “undeutsche Geist” of the November Republic is being replaced by the new, genuinely German spirit, which is necessary for the rise of the new State. In Goebbels’ words,
To us, spirtual men, it is clear: the revolutions towards the political power must be spiritually founded. At their beginning stands the idea, and only when the idea is wedded with the power, the historical miracle of upheaval will happen.
The book burning is indispensable for the political change, for “the miracle of upheaval” to happen. Without it, the time would stand still. The Bücherverbrennung is a tick on the Clock of History. Through it one era passes to the next one; the past meets the future through the bonﬁre. But as Goebbels’ speech continues, to the two elements, the exclusion and the time, the third one, the resurrection, is added:
This is one bold, great and symbolic act, an act which should be documented before the whole world – here sinks to the bottom the spiritual foundation of the November Republic; but from these ruins, the Phoenix of the New Spirit will victoriously rise – of the Spirit that we carry, that we foster and to which we give conclusive face and to which we imprint conclusive traits.
This passage is perhaps the most important part of Goebbels’ speech, although he himself might have perceived it as mere rhetoric ornament at the very end of the address. The speaker employed the powerful symbol of renewal through ﬁre, Phoenix the Firebird. – For example, the Aberdeen Bestiary, a medieval manuscript on various mythological creatures, explains:
It (i.e. the Phoenix) lives for upwards of ﬁve hundred years, and when it observes that it has grown old, it erects a funeral pyre for itself from small branches of aromatic plants, and having turned to face the rays of the sun, beating its wings, it deliberately fans the ﬂames for itself and is consumed in the ﬁre. But on the ninth day after that, the bird rises from its own ashes.
The bird undergoes renewal through its own death, which it brings upon itself by igniting a pyre on which it is sitting; then it rises from its own ashes. The bird lets the ﬂames consume his body, decompose its ﬂesh, in order to be resurrected. It inﬂicts destruction upon itself, the destruction which is also a time-mark, a tick between two incarnations, two eras. When Goebbels employs this symbolism, he disrupts the clear-cut distinction between the “inner” and “outer” spirit, he retracts somewhat the earlier exclusion of the “non-German.” Instead, the German nation itself enters the bonﬁre in order to be ashed, annihilated, burned, and ﬁnally reborn. The Phoenix metaphor seems to break down the barrier between the onlookers, observing the ﬂames, and the books being consumed by the ﬁre.
But this metaphor can be followed further. “Having turned to face the rays of the sun, beating its wings, it deliberately fans the ﬂames for itself,” says the Aberdeen Bestiary. Indeed, the light and the face – observing the photographs (Fig. 1), one cannot escape them. The ceremony began in the evening, so the light of the bonﬁres shone into the darkness. “A mighty ﬂame blazed up brightly and deluged the onlookers’ faces with phantastic light. The ﬂames were mirrored in the windows of the State Opera and the Aula Building,” reported enthusiastically Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung. The light radiated from the bonﬁres, ﬂooding its environment and, above all, the witnesses, the community that took part in the book burning. These ﬁre-lit faces seem to be an element that cannot be omitted, as is shown on depictions of similar events (Figs. 2, 3).
At the ﬁrst glance, book burning – both speciﬁcally the Bücherverbren-nung of May 10, 1933, and also generally as a powerful symbol in the Western culture – seems to be a simple, violent act against the bearers of the “old.” Its purpose is to erase the uncomfortable, the embarassing, the dangerous, in order to make a way for the new, better order. The book burners believe in the mercy of oblivion, in total death. Of course, this death is meaningless in seclusion; the book burning is essentially a public execution. It has to be performed on the bonﬁre in the middle of the community. (The ﬁrehouse in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a place of meaningless murder, not the Bücherverbrennung.) But after closer look, the book burning seems to provide rich and complex network of relations. This network includes elements such as “refusal,” “exclusion,” “the other,” “death,” “time,” “history,” “time tick,” “resurrection,” “puriﬁcation through annihilation,” “consumation by ﬂames,” “ashes,” “light of ﬂames,” “ﬁre-lit faces.” It seems that the clear cut between the “old” and the “new,” between the “rejected” and the “worthy” cannot be made easily. Goebbels’ address seems to be, for the most part, just dreaming. Only when he mentiones the Phoenix myth, the complex structure begins to unfold.
October 18, 1977
Between February 12 and April 4, 1989, in a local museum in Krefeld near Cologne, Richter exhibited ﬁfteen monochromatic oil paintings. The show was titled October 18, 1977, referring to the day when three members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang – Raspe, Ensslin and Baader – were found dead in their cells in the Stammheim jail.
The date marks an end to events that represent one of the greatest trauma in postwar German collective consciousness. The terrorist attacks perpetrated by the extreme left-wing group between April 1968 and June 1972 shook idealized self-image Germans fostered: a peaceful, bourgeois society, that has left behind terrors of war and disconnected itself completely from its Nazi past, focused on its economic development and well-being. The bombings, politically motivated bank robberies and kidnappings evoked again questions of Germany’s memory, aggressive past and problems of force employed by the state authorities. Postwar status quo that had been kept seemingly undisturbed, showed cracks.
Thus, when Richter displayed his paintings almost twelve years later, the exhibition sent shock wave through the public. The left-wing critics often deplored Richter’s apparent refusal to take sides, to express clear political stance, which was understood as timidity by some. He was accused of consent with the official version of the Stammheim deaths – as there were many who believed these were political murder rather than suicide. But at the same time, Richter’s critics admitted that the paintings brought the issue back to the public consciousness, to “reverse the national tendency to repress knowledge of damning historical episodes, and stand in accusatory contradiction to... polit-kitsch.”
The works are, indeed, directed towards the public space in every aspect. They are completely impersonal. All the paintings are based on media images related to the Baader-Meinhof story. Like the title, most of them relate to the affair’s end: the arrest, trial, personal items connected to imprisonment, prisoners’ corpses, their funeral. (The only exception is the portrait of Ulrike Meinhof, based on a photograph from the time just before she joined Baader.) Like in many other paintings, Richter transferred the photographs into monochromatic, blurred oil paintings on canvas.
Death permeates the images on every level. Not only because of the topics – an end to a story, accompanied by actual deaths, by real corpses. The death is present already in the sources of images: the photographs. “Ultimately, what I am seeking in the photograph taken of me (the “intention” according to which I look at it) is Death: Death is the eidos of photography,” states Barthes. The photography freezes what is alive, and turns it into a death mask. More than that: the feathered edges of oil paintings, the blur of shapes – these are traces of movement on the surface of the canvas, traces of life reminding that the painting was once alive – it was being painted, it was changing, breathing – but no longer is.
See, for example, CR 671-2, CR 671-1, CR 671-3. The paintings are based on photographs of Gudrun Ensslin during her trial. Richter’s choice of composition creates tension between two elements: The ﬁgure – Ensslin’s torso – seems to be moving to the right, to leave and disappear in a moment behind the right edge of the canvas. At the same time, her face is struck by strong light from the front, originating obviously from the ﬂash bulbs of media photographers present at the process. She seems to be dazzled by the light. In the original photographs, and even more in Richter’s blurred paintings, her face seems to be ﬂattened, her features disappearing. Her shade on the wall behind her reveals the spatial shallowness of the scene – Ensslin seems to be pushed with a brutal force against the background.
These three paintings from the October exhibition demonstrate most clearly what I called “ﬁre-lit face” in the previous section. The strong, aggressive light has several different meanings and functions. It enabled photographers to take the pictures in the ﬁrst place, elevating Ensslin to the immortal status of a pop star, but at the same time creating her death mask, killing her even before she killed herself. Indeed, a pop star: these are terms Richter himself used in his notes. Someone who belongs to everyone, a communal property, in the middle of the public’s gaze. Blinded by the stage lights, unable to see those who stare at her. Burned by other people’s gaze.
Richter’s Ensslin is a book thrown into ﬂames. She represents something one would like to forget, dissolve in a mist, make disappear, something that better should have not existed at all. And it almost has disappeared – gray, with blurred shape, like the ashes of burned books. Moving towards the edge of the canvas, towards oblivion. But precisely because it is on the verge, it is present more than ever.
Every person who comes to see the pictures, every viewer, experiences this communal burning. The stream of light that burns Ensslin like a heretical book emanates, in fact, from the beholder. She stands in the middle, struck by light from all around, from the visitors who came to see the exhibition, from the whole community. Her face recalls the faces of people who watched the Bücherverbrennung – reﬂecting the strong light of the blaze, which distorts their individual features, washing down the division between “me” and “them,” between the subject and object, between the community and the books. Facing Ensslin’s bedazzled, illuminated face, the viewer – the society – stands the trial together with her.
Or, take another painting: Cell (CR 670). Extremely blurred, the image is based on a photograph of Baader’s cell in the Stammheim prison, with the right side dominated by large bookshelves containing his personal library. The blur turns the painting into an almost abstract one, and the objects are difficult to identify without the original newspaper photograph or at least an explanation.
Books, literary. Books that embody intellectual universe of the heretic, texts that led to transgression, destruction and death. They are the ﬁrst thing that should be burned, because in their immutability, they transcend the death of the perpetrator.
And the painting is, indeed, trying to do this. Or, more precisely, shows that this is impossible, that the very idea of burning books is inﬁnitely naïve. The vertical blur dissolves the shapes to the point of incomprehensibility. The titles of the books – Marxist classics? German history? politics? – cannot be read anymore. It is even difficult to see the books themselves, at least at the ﬁrst glance. The books turned into ashes, lost their color, shape, letters, meaning.
But this gray mass of burned books, the dominant wall of dissolved texts refuses to die. Or perhaps it dies in order to be reborn from its own ashes, like the Phoenix on his pyre. The individual titles can no longer be read, but the ghost of the library is here to show that the nightmare of the Baader-Meinhof Gang was not a ﬂash of madness, without history, not related to anything. The library is a bond between Baader, who is being erased by the society, and the society itself.
Man Shot Down (CR 669-1) – an image of Baader’s corpse, after having been found in his cell. This is the moment when the whole story was meant to end. A moment when thick line behind the nightmare was to be drawn. The painting is hovering in this thin space between climax and disappearance. The heretic is dead, but his body has not been buried yet. It is still here. When compared to the original picture, Richter’s Man Shot Down looks like a ghost rather than a corpse.
Unlike the original photographs, Richter’s oil paintings give the images something of being caught between two moments of time. Leaving, but not having left yet. Ensslin moving towards the edge of canvas, but still – and inﬁnitely – present in front of viewer’s gaze. Baader already dead, but not yet buried. Ulrike Meinhof (Youth Portrait, CR 672-1), depicted from the photograph that was taken during the period that separated her previous moderate activism and the participation in Baader’s escape from jail, which marked her radicalization and start of the group’s terrorist acts.
In the same way, the exibition itself hovers “in between.” Twelve years after the tragedy ended, it is still here, with the same power. Nothing has been erased: the black-and-white blurred images, like the pyre of Phoenix, like the ashes of burned books, perpetuate the cycle of attempted annihilation and resurrection.
III. The Ashes
The books thrown into ﬂames of a bonﬁre refuse to die. The book burners sincerely believe that they are annihilated in the blaze, and together with them the spirit they are thought to represent. But even Goebbels himself apparently understood that rather than destruction, one should speak about transformation and rebirth. His metaphor of Phoenix betrays it – the bird puts himself to death, only so that he rises again, born from his own ashes.
I chose the Nazi book burning because of its temporal and spatial proximity to Richter, and also because it is – together with Savonarola’s “Bonﬁres of Vanities” – the most notable event of its kind. But there is yet another story, quite marginal compared to the Bücherverbrennung. It is related to an obscure picture I found, which shows a kind of domestic ritual of book burning (Fig. 3). The picture was published in May 23, 1845 in Mormon magazine Christian Freeman and Family Visiter together with a short article about the book by Abraham Norwood, Acts of the Elders, also known as The Book of Abraham. The article tells an anecdotic story about an Elder (Mormon church officer) who obtained a copy of this obviously subversive book from rather liberal believer (“a Universalist”) and took it home. After having read the Acts of the Elders, he reached the conclusion that the book is “ingenious” and “dangerous” and decided, in the circle of friends and houshold members, to burn it:
The group surrounded a spacious cooking stove; the open mouth thereof glowed with the ﬁre that ﬁlled the stomach of the iron monster; and the book was held up, as a criminal, over the ﬂames. “It must be burnt,” says one; “Yes,” says the other; and all said, “So be it.” “If we don’t burn it, it may get out among the young converts, and do them a great deal of harm,” was the ﬁnal blow, and down dropped the poor martyr into the ﬁre of the stove.
Whether the Elders sang a hymn of triumph over the heroic and daring deed of that hour, we cannot tell; neither are we informed what they did with the ashes of the heretical thing. They ought to have gathered them, for that would be the only way in which they could make the book lye.
The ghost of that burnt heretic pursues the burners; for on a certain occasion one of them entered where a neighbor was reading “Dod’s Sermons;” that neighbor asked the visitor to read some in that book. “No, no!” was the speedy response. “I’ve seen it before, – I’ve had enough of it, – I don’t want to touch it,” said the poor culprit, alarmed at the sight of what was deemed the “Acts of the Elders.”
In many respects, this is a fascinating text, whether it describes true story or not. The narrative conforms with everything we have said about the ritual of public book burning, even though the “community” is, in this case, extremely small and the scene unusually domestic. Nevertheless, there are several highly interesting elements which deserve closer attention.
The text speaks about the book’s refusal to die. The book does not disappear from the world in the moment it has been thrown into the ﬂames. It underwent metamorphosis – turned into ashes; and the author of the article cannot move his eyes away from these remnants of the book’s body. He thinks about touching it, collecting it; he plays with the similarity of the word “lye,” (a substance produced from ash and used for preparing soap) which connects ashes and puriﬁcation, with the word “lie,” which introduces noetic context. Apparently, the writer was aware of the importance of this “something” that remained after the book had been consumed by the ﬁre.
The book did not disappear, it continues its existence, and this continuity is marked by the little heap of white ash. However, as the book’s body underwent metamorphosis, so did its mode of being. The book turned into ghost. It stays with the community as a specter. The ghost is caught in between – it is and at the same time it is not. Even though the neighbor from the ﬁnal part of the article reads “Dod’s Sermon’s,” Norwood’s banned book hovers in the air. Its presence–non-presence is discomforting, frightening as a phantom can be. “I don’t want to touch it,” says one of the burners, seeing the specter. But more than that – he cannot touch a ghost.
The space which begins to open in front of us – the space marked by the discourse which unfolds in this essay – seems to be populated by phantoms.
At certain point in “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Derrida compares the pharmakon to a specter. While Plato tries to comprehend writing under the oppositions it is supposed to generate, such as good/evil, inside/outside, true/false, and essence/appearance, it refuses to be governed by these oppositions.
If, consequently, one got to thinking that writing as a pharmakon cannot simply be assigned a site within what it situates, cannot be subsumed under concepts whose contours it draws, leaves only its ghosts to a logic that can only seek to govern it insofar as logic arises from it – one would then have to bend into strange contortions what could no longer even simply be called logic or discourse. All the more so if what we have just imprudently called a ghost can no longer be distinguished, with the same assurance, from truth, reality, living ﬂesh, etc. One must accept the fact that here, for once, to leave a ghost beyond will in a sense be to salvage nothing.
The pharmakon is a ghost in the sense that it reappears throughout the text, but it cannot be dominated – which is another word for being comprehended, subdued by the hierarchy of dichotomies. A ghost, like the writing, stays beyond these oppositions – he is at the same time present and absent, visible and invisible. He belongs (and does not belong) to the world of the living as well as the dead. The ghost (and the pharmakon) cannot himself rule our world, but he nevertheless has the power of hypnosis, he makes its surrounding warp and bend.
Barthes uses the word “specter” to describe similar situation in the context of photography: the situation when something simply appears, but cannot be dominated.
The portrait-photograph is a closed ﬁeld of forces. Four image-repertoires intersect here, oppose and distort each other. In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art... In terms of image-repertoire, the Photograph (the one I intend) represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a specter.
The conﬂict of four different forces that try to comprehend me, to dominate me by answering the question “who am I?” results in the impossibility of such comprehension. The photographer can never completely subdue the model, and the model has never full control over “who I am” and “what others think I am.” Caught in this network of forces that sway him from his place, but never really control him, the model moves to the threshold between life and death (“experiences a micro-version of death”), which characterizes the photography – and ghosts.
And then there are Richter’s paintings, of course. Especially the mono-chrome, photo-based, blurred portraits – the October 18, 1977 series, the Hanged with the “spectral ﬁgure of Ensslin dangling from the bars of her cell,” and Man shot down, where “the painter... has lent his [Baader’s] torso a brittle, insubstantial aspect accentuated in the second painting in which everything ﬂoats in a ghostly void.” The same can be said about many other paintings – Mrs. Marlow (CR 28), Eight Student Nurses (CR 130), Helga Matura (CR 124). Even some of the colorful one seem phantomatic – Ema (Nude on a Staircase) (CR 134), or Tourist (with 1 Lion) (CR 370-1).
Nonetheless, there are some paintings whose ghost-like presence is especially complex and intriguing. For instance, two family portraits, painted in the same year (1965) – Uncle Rudi (CR 85) and Aunt Marianne (CR 87). The former depicts young, smiling man in the Nazi uniform; it is Richter’s uncle, who fell during his military service in the World War II. The latter features artist’s aunt who also died during the Nazi period – after being diagnosed with schizofrenia, she was sterilized and later died in a euthanasia camp.
Unlike the Baader-Meinhof paintigs, Uncle Rudi and Aunt Marianne are both intimate and public. In these two simple images, taken from family archive, the personal and the collective sphere intersect. They are from Richter’s closest family circle – the child that Marianne holds in her arms is little Gerhard himself – but they also represent two major traumas of the postwar German society: that of the the perpetrator and the victim.
Uncle Rudi is the stigmatizing “Nazi in the family,” extremely sensitive topic in the new Germany which is striving to forget. He is handsome, self-conﬁdent, unaware. His photograph is also his grave: his smile has frozen, his posture has been caught in timelessness. He was buried twice: deep in the ground, deep in the family archive. To paint the picture means to revive and to expose. The dead relative comes back to life, but he is less than welcome.
The blurred contours of the painting: the way to revive the past and to burn it again, in an endless cycle of renewal and destruction.
Aunt Marianne is the counterpart to the Uncle Rudi painting. Although a victim, she – like the Nazi officer – is also something the family/community would like to forget, send into oblivion.
Two years that preceded Aunt Marianne and Uncle Rudi, Richter painted several works based on photographs of combat aircrafts: Bombers (CR 13), Mustang Squadron (CR 19), Phantom (CR 50; nomen est omen...). Although the World War II referrence is not completely direct – F4 Phantom II ﬁghters were used by U.S. Air Force only during the 1960s – the paintings must be understood in the context of discussions that began in Germany at that time. These discussions involved highly sensitive topic of the war history: destruction of German cities by the Allies during the massive “strategic bombing” campaigns. As a result of these raids, hundreds of thousands of civilian lives were lost. Therefore, after the war many accused the Allies of perpetrating war crimes.
But at the same time, the strikes had also symbolic value for the “new” Germany. The “old,” evil and embarassing was annihilated, burned with ﬁre, wiped out. The destruction sown by the bombing raids can be perceived as the Phoenix’s nest-pyre, giving birth to the new incarnation. The ﬂames are, again, a gate that enables a passage from the old-wicked to the new-clean.
Aunt Marianne, Uncle Rudi, the combat aircrafts: they are ghosts of the past that refuse to disappear, to fall into oblivion. They hover here, caught between past and present, death and life, good and evil, escaping understanding, at the same time apparent and hidden behind their blurred contours. Ungraspable.
“Knowledge as perception, concept, comprehension, refers back to an act of grasping. The metaphor should be taken literally,” wrote Emmanuel Levinas in his essay Ethics as First Philosophy. “The immanence of the known to the act of knowing is already the embodiment of seizure. This is not something applied like a form of magic to the ‘impotent spirituality’ of thinking, nor is it the guarantee of certain psycho-physiological conditions, but rather belongs to that unit of knowledge in which Auffassen (understanding) is also, and always has been, a Fassen (gripping). The mode of thought known as knowledge involves man’s concrete existence in the world he inhabits, in which he moves and works and posses.”
Comprehension, according to Levinas and in accordance with one of the major themes of the Continental thinking, is something very physical, it does not take place solely in the mind. The space of knowledge is also the space of activity, of work, labor. It is an act of appropriation: the object is taken from its otherness, freed of it, and brought into the possession of the Same. Therefore, the act of knowing is also a violent act of subduing, subjugating. However, while the touch of hand has this instrumental role of seizure, possession and manipulation, it also introduces palpability – the touch as sensation.
In Totality and Inﬁnity, Levinas shows how this sensation of touch goes hand in hand with visual perception, in the sense that it invites it. It is deeply connected to enjoyment (jouissance), one of the key terms of Levinas’ philosophy: it immediately precedes the crystallization, so to speak, of the pair I and non-I into subject and object. “This crystallization occurs not as the ultimate ﬁnality of enjoyment but as a moment of its becoming, to be interpreted in terms of enjoyment.” Vision leads the touch, triggers the desire to palpate: “Vision opens upon a perspective, upon a horizon, and describes a traversable distance, invites the hand to movement and to contact, and ensures them.”Hence the connection between representation and understanding: “The forms of objects call for the hand and the grasp. By the hand the object is in the end comprehended, touched, taken, borne and referred to other objects, clothed with a signiﬁcation, by reference to other objects.”
That is why the ashes of burned books are so disquieting, why they had fascinated the author of the article about the Book of Abraham so much – he dreamed of collecting them, touching them, grasping them. The book which has turned into ashes retains its shape – until touched. From a solid, colorful object, it has undergone metamorphosis into white, shiny, inﬁnitely fragile ghost of a book. The burner, the witness of the metamorphosis, clearly sees the book’s corpse, but cannot touch it. The link between book’s ash and its ghostly presence in the end of the narrative is now obvious.
Here I can offer one of the deﬁnitions of what “ghost” means: something that can be seen, sensed, but cannot be touched, grasped. The proximity between the touch and vision, described by Levinas, is disrupted. Specter is something that simply appears, but cannot be comprehended. It escapes any control, but frighteningly hovers between presence and non-presence.
When Derrida calls pharmakon a ghost, it is precisely because of these traits: it appears, it re-emerges throughout Plato’s dialogues, warps the space of the discourse, but it refuses to be subdued by the dichotomies it is supposed to create. His contours are not clear, though they are visible. It cannot be comprehended through the art of dialectic, it cannot be seized. A ghost, indeed.
IV. Painting and Dying
Let us return to the very beginning, to Richter’s description of what (probably) happened during his destructive ceremony. “Then I felt that it wasn’t it, and so I burned the crap in some sort of action in the courtyard. And then I began.” – The word “crap” here means the same as the “un-German” in the speeches that accompanied the book burning in Nazi Germany: exclusion from itself. Something that until now has been a part of the Same (be it Richter’s individual personality of an artist, or German People, Culture, Spirit, etc. in the latter case), something that has been “inside,” and that is now designed as “outer,” as belonging to “the other.” This creation of dualities is necessary for self-deﬁnition: to label certain books as “un-German” is necessary for the Community to become “genuinely German.” Similarly, exclusion of my early paintings as a “crap” is necessary for my deﬁning myself as “mature artist.”
Strangely, the sole designation is not enough. A book burning ceremony seems necessary for the transformation to take place. In this ceremony, “the other,” “the outer” is intended for destruction, for annihilation, but it refuses to disappear easily. It remains hovering in the air as a ghost, both present and not present, both alive and dead, clinging to the burner, disquieting, frightening, incomprehensible.
Face to Face
When I analyzed, in previous chapter, the Bücherverbrennung in Berlin, I emphasized a phenomena which seems to accompany the book burning inevitably: “ﬁre-lit face.” The visual impact of the burning blaze which consumes the book is part of almost every representation of the book burning ceremony; and its most prominent element are the faces of the community around the pyre. The faces are struck by the ﬂood of the light, ﬂattening their facial traits, drawing deep shades, deforming individual appearance. The faces are like mirrors; it is not by chance that the German newspaper I quoted had mentioned in one breath reﬂections of the ﬂame in the faces of the onlookers and the windows of the State Opera. The mirrored ﬂames make the faces look as though they themselves are on ﬁre; the community seems like a sea of candlelights.
The “ﬁre-lit faces” wash down the distinction between the burners and the burned.
In the moment when one’s face is a source of confusion, when it is stripped of individuality, when the onlookers are melted down to the Community, and when even the boundary between the ﬁre in the center and the faces around is not clear – then one is close to the experience of his own death. As already noted, this situation when “subject feels he is becoming an object” is what Barthes called death’s “micro-version.” In this moment, the community binds its fate with that of the burned books: it dreams of being consumed by the ﬂames, of dying together with the banned volumes, of being turned into ashes, and having renewed itself, rising from its remnants like Phoenix the Firebird.
That is what happened: The community excluded the “banned” from within itself, made it “the other,” but by putting them in the ﬂames of ceremonial burning, the burners turned the books into the incomprehensible, untouchable but, nevertheless, apparent specter. This “other,” like a ghost, clings to the community. It cannot part from it, because the “ﬁre-lit faces” bind them together: the onlookers and the ghost they had evoked are perhaps not identical, but they cannot be separated. The line of distinction has been erased by the light of the blaze. The community is doomed to confront the hypnotizing specter of its exiled “other.”
The “ﬁre-lit face” reappears many times and in many disguises in Richter’s paintings. The most explicit example, as I have already shown before, is Ensslin’s face in Confrontation 2 (CR 671-2), dazzled by the ﬂashes of the photographers at the court hearing. In fact, virtually all the faces in Richter’s paintigs – and there are many – are full of light: the blurred portrait of Meinhof (Youth Portrait, CR 672-1), Ms. Marlow (CR 28), the Self-Portrait (CR 836-1), etc. Even in the later, enigmatic paintings where the model hides her face, with the back towards the viewer, such as I.G. (CR 790-5, 22) or Betty (CR 663-5) – the refusal to show the face to camera, ostensible and almost theatrical; the head turned toward the wall with its sharp shadow close to it – only underlines, in paradoxical way, the presence of the face and its potential meeting with the stream of intensive light.
But we can comprehend “a face” on more abstract level – as a sur-face, a façade, which is – according to Levinas – a dominant vehicle of ﬁne art. “By the façade the thing which keeps its secret is exposed enclosed in its monumental essence and in its myth, in which it gleams like a splendor but does not deliver itself.” As such, it is even more prevalent in Richter’s paintings: the glowing skin of the nude in Ema (CR 134) and Small Nude (CR 165) or the surface of the toilet paper roll, changing its appearance with the light (Toilet Paper, CR 75-1, 26).
And on the most subtle level, we can identify the “ﬁre-lit face” even where one would expect it the least. On the colourful, ever-changing, glowing façade of Richter’s large, abstract paintings.
Richter’s purely abstract paintings, made alongside with his photo-based, ﬁgurative works (if one may say so), have always aroused sense of confusion. Some critics tried to reconcile these two contradicting, yet coexisting directions by declaring the abstract paintings simulacra: “Even his abstract paintings, seemingly without any model at all, represent the abstract genre; moreover, they all bear the generic title ‘Abstract Painting’ (Abstrakte Bild) followed by a number.” For Storr, the “modernist abstraction” was for Richter a way how to escape the cul de sac of photo-based, griselle paintings by choosing opposite – colorful and abstract – strategy. This duality, which is mentioned in most of the discussions on the subject, reﬂects the assumption that Richter’s primary question as a painter is that of representation. I shall attempt to reread this group of paintings in the space created by the discourse of this essay; I believe this reading does not show them in opposition to the other, photo-based, monochromatic works, but rather as part of one oeuvre.
The pictures (See, for example, CR 757, CR 832-3, CR 330) are born out of nothing, ex nihilo. There are no images collected in the Album which had preceded them, which ruled their development. They seem to be pure ﬁelds of color patches, stains, strokes, gradients. But their place of origin is not the same as the neo-Expressionist “New Wild” of the eighties; Richter works are carefully constructed, built.
The less of an “image” these paintigs contain, the more of “history” is concealed within. Many of them had been painted with the anticipation of radical changes, the original painting technique being in contradiction with the ﬁnal outcome. Occasionaly, fully developed ﬁgurative work was turned into completely abstract painting. The thick, slowly drying layers of oil paint have enabled Richter to extend the work to long periods of time, to change strategies, tools, compositions, shapes, styles.
In other words, these paintings bear distinctive traces of life – their appearance is a witness that they were once changing, moving, living. They have a great deal of thickness – in the temporal sense. This feeling of sickness is caused by the fact that they have underwent two births and one death.
Unlike the photographic images, which always, as noted, bring about an experience of death, the abstract paintings, born out of nothing, ex nihilo, are perfect metaphor of life in its greatest intensity. They are conceived with no death (ﬁnal image) in sight, with all the possibilities open, with full, unlimited potential. Of course, they draw their vitality from the artist, and they are connected to him inseparably. It is the artist who puts the life forces of the abstract paintings into motion, but it is also him who declares their death by stopping these processes. At certain point, the time would have come to “ﬁnish” the painting – that is, to stop changes, to stop the process of painting. To bring about the work’s death.
Nevertheless, this singular moment, the moment when the paintig is being mortiﬁed by its parent, by its demiurge, is more complex than it seems. This moment of death is, at once, the moment of second birth. The death is a precondition for the work to become itself. To ﬁnish the work means also to put it into its full existence.
The paintigs hover between the life and death, dying and being born in a single, eternal moment.
In this context, one may recall the text of Maurice Blanchot, “The Two Versions of the Imaginary,” speciﬁcally the part that describes the appearance of a corpse. The deceased is no longer of this world, even though he is here; it is neither the same person he used to be in his life, nor is it anything else. The corpse has withdrawn from the living, it becomes something that cannot be grasped anymore. And then something rather peculiar happens: “It is striking that at this very moment, when the cadaverous presence is the presence of the unknown before us, the mourned deceased begins to resemble himself.”
What does the “resembling himself” means? As Blanchot explains, it is a resemblance to the self that is at the same time distant and inaccessible, and yet familiar. “[The deceased] is more beautiful, more imposing; he is already monumental and so absolutely himself that it is as if he were doubled by himself, joined to his solemn impersonality by resemblance and by the image.” But in our context, this comparison can be reverted. The expression “resembling itself” is perhaps the best description of a painting that reached the stage when it is ﬁnished. While Blanchot compares the corpse and the image (“the cadaver’s strangeness is that of the image”), one can see the opposite relation as well: when the painting reaches the moment when it resembles itself, when it is “momumental and so absolutely himself that it is... doubled,” it turns into a corpse, it undergoes death.
Therefore, Richter’s abstract paintings seem to ﬁt structurally into the event we have been dealing throughout this essay: the event of destruction on the bonﬁre. As in his violent happening before, Richter puts his painting to death so that he can cross the border between two states: the ﬁnished and unﬁnished. The result is a painting that is its own specter which – like the corpse in Blanchot’s text – is closed in its strangeness, incomprehensibility, and yet familiarity. This specter clings to the artist, but at the same time withdraws from him. It came from him and had been turned by him into his Other.
Painting and Time
The strange inner life (or rather the cycle of life and death concealed in their ﬁnished state) of Richter’s abstract painting is not, of course, limited to them. The same can be said about all his other paintings. As I have tried to demonstrate, the destructive, violent action that was peformed by him in 1962 and which left us without his early informel works was just a crude manifestation of the process that permeates the other paintings as well and which ﬁnds its most delicate form in the abstract works.
“And then I began.” This sentence reveals something about the necessity of the destruction that Richter felt. Perhaps he would not be able to continue painting the new works without burning the immature ones. Perhaps this whole process that ﬁlls all his work also gives Richter impetus, energy to progress further. Facing the surface of the painting, the specter at once alive and dead, the painter is hypnotized, led astray – and ahead.
I am tempted to think that this whole story does not stop with Richter alone; that we deal here with the very possibility – or perhaps necessity – of painting. Painting is an art whose very essence is the face, because painting can be seen as a façade per se, without the obverse, inner side. If, according to Levinas, the façade, which turns objects into their exhibition, is the fundament of ﬁne arts, and, therefore, the architecture is the ﬁrst of them, painting may be the most intriguing of arts.
The painter and his painting: I stand against the surface of the canvas, against its face. Strange meeting: I face something which have emanated from me and still is connected to me as if with umbilical cord, but it is also external to me, it has its own existence outside of me and independent of me. Its appearance is that of a face, it is an epiphany of the Other, which I cannot grasp and comprehend, but I know – and only I am certain about it – that it originated in me, in the Same. One more time I will repeat the word: a ghost. A being between here and there, between life and death, clinging to me and withdrawing from me.
This specter, whose ﬁre-lit face reveals itself to me and which I cannot completely separate from myself, though I feel it is external to me; the ghost in which “me” and “my painting” melt together, forces me to taste my death. This is where the experience of time – as advance, progress – intersects with the act of painting: “Time is precisely the fact that the whole existence of the mortal being... is not being for death, but the ‘not yet’ which is a way of being against death, a retreat before death in the very midst of its inexorable approach,” wrote Levinas. The time, perceived as ‘not yet’ preceding one’s death, is therefore related to violence: “In war the reality of the time that separates a being from its death, the reality of a being taking up a position with regard to death, that is, the reality of a conscious being and its interiority, is recognized.” The violent nature of the ceremony of public book burning and its relation to time – crossing from one era to another – is not coincidental.
While crossing the border between the living, unﬁnished painting, and the dead-yet-alive, ﬁnished one, the painter meets time. He learns how to approach his death, he learns how, in Blanchot words, he can “die content.”
In 1995, Richter painted a series of family portraits – his wife Sabine with their newborn child Moritz. At ﬁrst, I tried to understand these Madonna-like paintings as an expression of subtle Christian motives that can be occasionally found in Richter’s works. But only after I had ﬁnished writing the present discourse, I grasped their full meaning.
See, side by side, the Aunt Marianne (CR 87) from the beginning of Richter’s career, and S. with Child (CR 827-6): so much happened during the thirty years that separate them. On the former, the painter is in his infancy: aggressively present, his face in the middle of the composition, mouth opening for demanding cry. He still did not taste the time. On the other hand, what strikes me on the S. with Child painting is its loneliness, its hidden sadness: Richter’s absence in the portrait of his family is almost tangible. And precisely in spite of this absence, he somewhat does appear on the picture, or rather hovers between presence and non-presence, he is dissolved, blurred to the utmost limit. He knows already a lot about moving towards death.
Richter would not be able to make this painting without having faced for more than thirty years the ghostly appearance of time.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Fontana Paperbacks: London, 1984. Transl. Farrar, Straus and Giraoux from La Chambre Claire. Editions di Seuil, 1980.
Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of the Literature. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, 1982. Transl. Ann Smock from L’espace littéraire.
Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy.” in: Dissemination, University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1981, pp. 61–171. Transl. from La disémination, Editions du Seuil, 1972.
Levinas, Emmanuel. “Ethics as First Philosophy.” in: The Levinas Reader. Ed. Seán Hand. Basil Blackwell: Oxford, 1989. Pp. 75–87. Transl. Seán Hand, Michael Temple from Justiﬁcations de l’éthique, Bruxelles, 1984, pp. 41–51.
Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Inﬁnity. An Essay on Exteriority. Duquesne University Press: Pittsburgh, 1969. Transl. Alphonso Lingis, from Totaité et Inﬁni, Hague, 1961.
Rochlitz, Rainer. “Where we have got to.” in: Photography and Painting in the Work of Gerhard Richter. Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2000. Pp. 103–125.
Sauder, Gerhard (ed.) Die Bücherverbrennung. Zum 10. Mai 1933. Carl Hanser Verlag: München, Wien, 1983.
Storr, Robert. Gerhard Richter. Forty Years of Painting. The Museum of Modern Art: New York, 2002.
Storr, Robert. Gerhard Richter: October 18, 1977. New York, 1988
 From unpublished interview with Robert Storr, conducted in 2001. Quoted in Storr, Robert. Gerhard Richter. Forty Years of Painting. The Museum of Modern Art: New York, 2002, p. 27.
 Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Fontana Paperbacks: London, 1984, p. 27.
 Ibid., p. 25.
 Ibid., p. 26.
 Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Chicago, 1981, pp. 61–171.
 Ibid., p. 82–83.
 Ibid., p. 70.
 Ibid., p. 120.
 Ibid., pp. 134–142.
 Ibid., p. 142.
 See especially pp. 95–119.
 Ibid., p. 109.
 Ibid., p. 72.
 Ibid., p. 73.
 Barthes, Camera Lucida, p. 51.
 Ibid., p. 45.
 “Der überspitzte jüdische Intellektualismus nun in Deutschland ein Ende gefunden hat. Bei der Revolte im November 1918 sei der Materialismus durchgebrochen, worauf dann in Deutschland 14 Jahre unausdenkbarer materieller und geistiger Schmach gefolgt seien, und auch die Studenten verspürt hätten.” Sauder, Gerhard (ed.) Die Bücherverbrennung. Zum 10. Mai 1933. Carl Hanser Verlag: München, Wien, 1983, p. 180.
 “Darüber sind wir geistigen Menschen uns klar: machtpolitische Revolutionen müssen geistig vorbereitet werden. An ihrem Anfang steht die Idee, und erst wenn die Idee sich mit der Macht vermählt, dann wird daraus das historische Wunder der Umwälzung emporsteigen.” Ibid., p. 181.
 “Das ist eine starke, grosse und symbolische Handlung, eine Handlung, die vor aller Welt dokumentieren soll, hier sinkt die geistige Grundlage der Novemberrepublik zu Boden; aber aus diesen Trümmern wird sich siegreich erheben der Phönix eines neues Geistes, eines Gesites, den wir tragen, dem wir fördern und dem wir das entscheidende Gesicht geben und die entscheidenden Züge aufprägen.” Ibid.
 Aberdeen University Library MS 24, folio 55r-v.
 “Eine mächtige Flamme loderte hell empor und tauchte die Gesichter der Zuschauermenge in ein phantastisches Licht. Die Flammen spiegelten sich in den Fenstern der Staatsoper und des Aulagebäudes...” Sauder, Die Bücherverbrennung, p. 180.
 In order to see, just how essential the “ﬁre-lit face” to any visual representation of ritual burning is, one may consult the episode “Krusty Gets Busted” of The Simpsons series, taken from the moments Krusty’s merchandise for children is being destroyed in bonﬁre, with the Springﬁeld community watching, their faces ﬁre-lit.
 Storr, Robert. Gerhard Richter: October 18, 1977. New York, 1988. P. 32.
 Barthes, Camera Lucida, p. 15.
 The codes refer to the official catalogue raisonné. The hypertext links point to Richter’s online catalogue; however, their permanent relevance cannot be granted.
 Storr, October 18, 1977, p. 95–96.
 Derrida, Dissemination, p. 103–104.
 Ibid., p. 110.
 Barthes, Camera Lucida, pp. 13–14.
 Storr, October 18, 1977, p. 28.
 Ibid., p. 108.
 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, pp. 41–42.
 Levinas, Emmanuel. “Ethics as First Philosophy.” in: The Levinas Reader. Ed. Seán Hand. Basi Blackwell: Oxford, 1989. P. 76.
 Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Inﬁnity. An Essay on Exteriority. Duquesne University Press: Pittsburgh, 1969, p. 188.
 Ibid., p. 191.
 See Barthes, Camera Lucida, p. 89: “In the cinema, no doubt, there is always a photographic referent, but this referent shifts, it does not make a claim in favor of its reality, it does not protest its former existence; it does not cling to me: it is not a specter.”
 Levinas, Totality and Inﬁnity, p. 193.
 Rochlitz, Rainer. “Where we have got to.” in: Photography and Painting in the Work of Gerhard Richter. Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2000. P. 115.
 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p. 68.
 Ibid., p. 71.
 Ibid., p. 72.
 Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of the Literature. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, 1982. Pp. 256–257.
 Ibid., p. 258.
 Ibid., p. 256.
 Levinas, Totality and Inﬁnity, p. 192–193.
 Ibid., p. 224.
 See especially the essay on Kafka’s diary remark in The Space of Literature, p. 90.