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Painting ‘Birkenau’ — and our collective oblivion

On one of the last days of the “before” era, I went to the Met Breuer to see “Gerhard Richter: Painting After All” — an extraordinary show that you can now see in a video tour online.

As I walked to the museum, I saw groups of teenagers hanging out on Madison Avenue — while New York City’s public school remained in session, private schools had already shut down. I watched a family of rich people being loaded into their black S.U.V. by two uniformed domestic workers, one of whom cried after she buckled a toddler into his car seat and waved goodbye. Inside the museum, a few of the guards wore masks, and a bottle of Purell stood on the cafe counter next to the register. In the elevator, I overheard a couple of anxious conversations about the stock market. But the museum-goers — on a weekday afternoon, mostly elderly and tourists — didn’t appear concerned about contagion.

When I look back on that day now, I feel lucky that I got to see 50 years’ worth of Gerhard Richter’s extraordinary work in person. I also feel embarrassed about my role during the days, and even weeks, of our collective oblivion.

Fittingly, collective oblivion, and resistance to it, seems to be one of Richter’s preoccupations, particularly in works that directly address the legacy of Nazis in Germany. Born in Dresden in 1932, Richter trained as a painter in 1950s East Germany. He escaped to the West in 1961, two months before the building of the Berlin wall, and soon developed his best-known style, making photo-based paintings blurred horizontally in ways that evoke smudgy newsprint, film grain or TV static. These paintings forced the viewer to re-engage with their source images in a different way: to contemplate their context, as well as the obfuscation inherent to photographic records.

For the last 50 years, Richter, now 88, has moved between figuration and abstraction, painting and sculpture, but his work has rarely been purely formal. Rather, he is primarily concerned with representation and with the meaning images gain and lose as they’re captured and reinterpreted. Even Richter’s abstractions, in which overlapping layers of paint are repeatedly concealed and excavated, are, in a sense, history paintings.

Gerhard Richter’s “Uncle Rudi” (1965). Image by Gerhard Richter/Courtesy of Lidice Memorial

Two striking works, made almost five decades apart, anchor the Met Breuer exhibit: the small 1965 painting “Uncle Rudi,” and a 2014 series of four large-scale abstract canvases titled “Birkenau.” Both grapple with the the Nazi experiment, but in very different ways.

The diminutive, greyscale “Uncle Rudi” is based on a snapshot of Richter’s uncle posing in his Nazi military uniform. Richter’s signature blurring effect renders the image wobbly, liquid, unstable and foreboding. This quality contrasts with the self-assured, carefree smile on the subject’s face. “What can possibly go wrong?” Uncle Rudi, who was killed on the Eastern Front shortly after the picture was taken, appears to say.

Richter painting a member of his own family as a grinning Nazi soldier was a direct act of taking responsibility that confronted the euphemistic way post-war Germans preferred to address their past. And Richter went even further, giving “Uncle Rudi” as a gift to the Czech town of Lidice, where it was included in an exhibition that commemorated the massacre of the town’s population by German soldiers. However bleak its subject, “Uncle Rudi” is essentially an optimistic work. The painting conveys a belief in the possibility of reckoning with the past, the possibility of excavating painful history from a pile of family snapshots in order to confront it.

Gerhard Richter’s “Birkenau” (2014). Image by Gerhard Richter

Made half a century later, the challenging, unsettling “Birkenau” seems to convey the opposite idea: that one can attempt to confront the evil and pain of the past, but it’s impossible to ever come to terms with them. In “Birkenau,” there is no resolution, and no message — just layers of deep, frustrated contemplation.

“Birkenau” consists of four monumental abstract paintings exhibited opposite their digital copies, which are split into quadrants — more on those, later. The paintings are based on photographs secretly taken by a Sonderkommando, a Jewish prisoner forced to participate in the atrocities at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Those four photos are shown alongside the paintings.

When Richter made “Uncle Rudi,” the Nazi experiment was recent history. Many of the participants were still alive, and the goal of the artist had been to prevent the past from becoming politely concealed. By the time he began working on “Birkenau,” much of the reckoning had occurred. All that had been concealed or lost would likely remain so, and it was increasingly unclear whether humanity had learned any lessons.

“Birkenau” began with a similar approach as “Uncle Rudi.” In the initial drawing stage, Richter rendered the photographic images onto the four canvases. But while the snapshot of Rudi is roughly contemporary to the Sonderkommando’s photos, the photographers’ intents and the images’ historical contexts couldn’t have been more different. Perhaps these differences compelled Richter to ultimately change the way he approached these sources.

The photo of Rudi was never meant for public view. It had been a family memento, and it needed the painter to amplify it as a historical testament. To the contrary, the Sonderkommando’s photos are a product of a desperate, heroic attempt to broadcast the horrors of the death camp to the outside world. The prisoner who took them had hoped they would be widely seen. Smuggled out of the camp into the hands of Polish resistance fighters, these photos would become a powerful testimony to the horrors of the Holocaust. The only known photos to show the gas chamber murders, they were iconic by the time Richter began working on “Birkenau.”

The painting of Uncle Rudi detonated a landmine of historic responsibility in the genteel post-War world of Richter’s family, and probably many other German families. But what could have possibly been revealed by a painterly version of the Birkenau images? It’s almost guaranteed that had Richter reproduced the photos on a monumental scale, the resulting paintings would have been gorgeous. Yet such paintings would merely fetishize the accidents of light, shadow, and the blur of the moving figures — everything that the prisoner who had risked his life in an act of reportage, and whose goal had been to communicate the circumstances of a genocide, might have considered a failure. (Three of the photos show the burning of the corpses and women being driven to the gas chamber; the fourth one shows only the trees. It’s very obvious that the photographer had just moments to aim his camera.)

Ultimately, Richter abandoned straightforward representation for “Birkenau,” instead creating ruminative, dense abstractions whose heavily worked surfaces read as a record of frustrated attempts to excavate, uncover and understand. More than anything,“Birkenau” appears to represent the artist grappling with the horror depicted in the photos.

The technique Richter uses in his abstract paintings grew out of the blurring he employed in his earlier works. He manipulates paint with a squeegee, then scores and scrapes the painting’s surface, repeating the process multiple times until overlapping layers of paint read as shapes arranged in space. Because of this, his abstractions are full of figurative references. The dark vertical shapes of “Birkenau” evoke tree trunks, and its limited palette of black, dark red, and green brings to mind grass, blood and light coming through the trees in a forest. At the same time, the dense marks covering the paintings sometimes form a grid, evocative of cages or barriers, and their scraped surfaces read as static. Richter’s work is often breathtakingly beautiful, but of all the paintings in this show, the four canvases of “Birkenau” are the least seductive ones.

The Sonderkommando’s photos painfully underscore a quality inherent to all photographic records, and really to all recorded history: For all that is captured, incomparably more is lost. The photographer did all he could to testify to tragedy, but the resulting images fail to convey the individual identities of the victims, their names, faces and their souls. Richter’s “Birkenau” paintings read like a record of the artist’s engagement with this loss. Unlike “Uncle Rudi,” “Birkenau” is an essentially pessimistic work — instead of bringing things to light, Richter grapples with impervious darkness.

I still don’t know what to make of the four life-size digital copies that are installed opposite to the paintings of Birkenau, each physically split into quarters. As I was looking at them, it occurred to me that their parts could be rearranged into different combinations, with each rearrangement taking the viewer further and further from the paintings themselves, and from the photos, and from the events they depict. In this, reinterpretation would become another act of obscuring.

Revisiting the exhibit on the Met’s website today, I think of the imprisoned photographer’s single-minded purpose — to get the outside world to do something about the ongoing massacre. In the summer of 1944, around the same time these photos were taken, the New York Times reported on the mass killings of the Jews. Yet, despite this evidence, many Americans at the time were simply unable to contemplate the nature and the scale of what was happening in the death camps.

Today, the “Birkenau” paintings make me think of the static barrier that we all carry with us, a barrier that stops us from identifying with events that happen elsewhere, with people who are — just slightly — different from us. As I was spending a glorious mid-pandemic afternoon with the work of my favorite painter, something was stopping me, along with most New Yorkers, from looking at Wuhan and Northern Italy and drawing appropriate conclusions. In hindsight, this something wasn’t the lack of information. It was a failure of the ability to connect, to see clearly.

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