Gerhard Richter: Memory Images and German Disavowal in 1965
In the past twenty years or so, the debates in German literature and art history have developed a new concept of Erinnerungskultur, or the culture of memory. Quite rightfully artists such as Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer, filmmakers such as Hans Joachim Syberberg, or writers such as W. G. Sebald have been posited as central in such a project of reflecting and commemorating the destructions wrought on Jewish and European life and culture by Nazi Fascism and its impact on German history after the Second World War. Of course, I do not doubt in any way the fundamental and integrating functions that this introduction of a necessary memory culture has had for German culture at large, even though there have been moments when one could have asked whether the compensatory functions of Memory culture have been publically practiced in order to finally forget and dispose of the memories of that unmasterable past.
What I want to achieve in the following is to complicate the historical account of German reconstruction culture, by arguing that a phase that could justly be identified as the culture of German disavowal and historical repression in the arts, the period of 1955 – 1965 preceded the successful production of memory culture since the mid to late 1970s . That was in fact the historical period most clearly defined by what Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich had called the German inability to mourn in their foundational study, a text which became instrumental in opening up an actual phase of working through the German history of post war disavowal and repression for the first and second generation of post war Germans.
But to speak of a culture of disavowal is of course a paradoxon -- since we generally assume that one of the functions of cultural articulation is precisely the very dismantling of the repressive apparatus, and to make visible and readable what had been withheld from comprehension and symbolization. Thus I will contemplate and analyze the first artistic efforts at undoing precisely the apparatus of silence at the moment of 1965 as a dialectical constellation: a constellation in which these extreme forms of collective disavowal and repression on the one hand and the initial work of memory on the other collide, or rather, were consciously confronted, and I will claim that this constellation is the actual historical context for the work of the artists of that generation, Joseph Beuys, Bernd and Hilla Becher, and Sigmar Polke, but in particular the early work of Gerhard Richter that will be he subject of my presentation tonight.
What would be the interest then in returning to the moment of a collective disavowal and repression of history, especially from a seemingly successful transformation of that legacy into a fully developed and established culture of memory ? I want to trace three aspects in particular which might problematize an all too easily established practice of memory culture in the present. But eventually these arguments might also help us to clarify the extreme difficulties faced by the actual processes of aesthetic interventions in general whenever they attempt to confront massive social and ideological formations of disavowal in general, which is of course what cultural production performs when we can call it artistic.
This allows me to rephrase my initial question, and make it more precise: first of all, what were the actual cultural conditions confronted by Gerhard Richter in 1961, shortly after his transition to West Germany from the East German DDR ? The Communist state in which he had grown up, and had been educated as an artist, and where he had achieved his first professional recognition, had defined itself officially as the Antifascist State. The socalled Socialist Government of the DDR would neither recognize the State of Israel nor accept the politics of reparation , and its doubly deceived and self deceiving population declined any responsibility in the Nazi crimes and the Holocaust (similar to the Austrians who insisted fort he longest time on having been invaded by Nazi Fascism). Thus when Richter made his transition to West Germany, he had to confront German Nazi history for he first time, even though at that moment the process of what was then called Vergangenheitsbewältigung (the mastery of the past) had just been initiated. And it was rightfully criticized by Theodor Adorno as a project that seemed to facilitate forgetting rather than as a process of working through that history, a process of self justification rather than a process of accepting responsibility, and guilt, and of mourning the victims of the Holocaust and Nazi Fascism.
Yet at the same time, as Richter confronted West German politics and public life, and attempted to re-situate himself within its culture, he became the subject and the witness to a newly intensified tendency of cultural and political Americanization , which served a whole array of economical, ideological and psychical functions at the same time. The adulation of American consumer culture massively enforced and embraced throughout Europe since the late 1950s did not have its origins only in a sense of gratitude for the generous gifts of the Marshall Plan alone, but in West Germany in particular, it was also driven, as we now know better thanks to the work of Jeffrey Herf and Eric Santner in particular, by the desperate need for a counter-identification with the victors, since the narcisstic investments with the Fascist figures had been withdrawn, even if not by internal insight, but by external liberation.
Accordingly most artists in West Germany in the late fifties and early Sixties, with the notable exception of Joseph Beuys, of course, pursued a rapid assimilation of those models of an American and international artistic identity, adopting practices that were seemingly uncontaminated by German history. And while the veneration of the artists of the New York school was at that time pervasive in all European countries, nobody internalized the ethics and aesthetics of Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman more intensely than that generation of German painters, from Beuys to Blinky Palermo and Imi Knoebel, who actually claimed a connection by heroicizing painterly traditions with which they had in fact hardly anything in common at all.
And the same would hold true for the encounters between the recently Westernized Gerhard Richter and his discovery of Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Clearly, their dialogic inversions of Abstract Expressionism, and their succinct diagnosis of the status of painting under advanced forms of a steadily enforced culture industry, could only be received by Richter along the lines of an unmediated cultural import in the manner that the cultural industrial products themselves were by then massively imported into Europe.
Thus I want to ask the second question: to what extent were the labour of memory and the labour of mourning historically intertwined with the intensity of the resistance against mourning and memory that German culture of the 1950s and early 1960s had attempted to maintain. My hypothesis is in fact that a credible memory culture develops only to the very extent that it actually inscribes itself within the most hardened and pervasive forms of disavowal, and only then can it actually produce authentic memory images.
My third question will ask what the actual texture of artistic memory could be in a historical situation that had effaced all forms of cultural continuity. After all, we presume that practices and objects of cultural production are dependent on even a minimum of cultural precedence and dialogic continuity across generations, movements and formations (not the sudden adaptation of an idiom that has originated in a totally incomparable and incompatible context). What defined the period of postwar reconstruction culture in Germany, however, was precisely a total caesura. Not only the very concept of nation state culture had been destroyed, but, paradoxically -- and still insufficiently understood – is in my opinion the fact that German post war artists could not reposition themselves in relation to even the most advanced and radical forms of oppositional avantgarde cultures of Weimar Germany perhaps precisely because the reminiscence of the very violence with which this singular avantgarde had been destroyed by Germans on its own territory made it an unrecoverable object during the first ten years of reconstruction culture.
Again, we can only speculate at this moment why Berlin Dada, or the Bauhaus, or artists like John Heartfield, remained literally untouchables all through the 1950s and into the 1960s, when the younger generation of post war artists were desperate to reorient themselves at a model of post traditional and post national identity formation, presumably in order to avoid the question of the highly problematized interrelation between nation state culture and artistic production altogether, assuming that internationalist modes would from now on become the solely determining parameters. Thus, to give but one example, when queried about his relationship to the legacy of John Heartfield or Hannah Hoech, the two figures who conceived the practices of photomontage in Weimar Germany, Richter responded that he either ignored them altogether, or as in he case of Heartfield, that he intensely rejected him, and that he discovered the principles of photomontage by encountering the work of Robert Rauschenberg in 1959, but more about that shortly.
Paradoxically, however, to engage in cultural production at that time meant precisely to confront both, the necessity of constructing a post traditional identity, and to engage with the specifically German conditions of a collective disavowal of history. Artists like Richter, or Bernd and Hilla Becher, or Sigmar Polke seem to have understood this dilemma better than other artists of the same generation, like Georg Baselitz for example, who redefined his artistic project precisely in a manifest return to the prefascist German painterly culture of the late 19th century and pre Weimar German Expressionism in the hope of re-establishing an uncontaminated trajectory of cultural continuity.
This model, later on expanded by Anselm Kiefer, attempted to repair the cultural texture of the German nation state, and it is not surprising, that as a culmination of this approach a writer and filmmaker like Hans Juergen Syberberg would soon thereafter insist on a kryptofascist recovery project arguing that an authentic German postwar culture could only be achieved if the deconstruction of traditional models of identity formation as it had been theorized by the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, and Jurgen Habermas in particular, would be replaced by a recovery of mythical and coherent projects of cultural production.
And my last question will be addressing the actual materials of memory in cultural practices of that time. It is the question whether there is an iconography of memory, or whether memory is a performative semiotic operation. The semiotic performance of memory, i.e. the actual working through a given system of repressive representations, seems to be at least as crucial to the elaboration of mnemonic experience as its iconographic representation. Memory has to simultaneously conduct discursive and iconographic, political and performative operations in order to generate an actual rupture of the prevailing conditions of disavowal and forgetting.
Even a cursory glance at the contradictory typology of Richter’s painting as it emerges in the early 1960s, confronts us instantly with these questions: is the denotative, explicitly referential work, in which actual historical subjects appear, suddenly, unmediated by any predecessor, establishing what was in 1965 a totally unacceptable and unthinkable iconography? But such an iconographic interpretation becomes instantly problematized by the fact that the paintings depict perpetrators and victims at the same time, i.e. Uncle Rudi, the Nazi Soldier, as much as Aunt Marianne, the schizophrenic aunt who died as a victim of the Nazi’s Euthanasia program, or Dr. Eufinger , who was one of the medical authorities in that program and later Richter’s father in law, or Herr Heyde, who was of the central figures in the application of those programs of medical torture and extermination in the concentration camps, and who had lived for more than twenty years under an assumed name and practiced as a doctor, portrayed here shortly before he committed suicide in jail awaiting his trial.
Or is it rather the fact that other paintings from the same moment confront us with a totally illegible iconography, at least as far as their status as historical objects is concerned ? What is the iconographic meaning of a Chair, for example, or a Flemish Crown, or least of all, of a roll of Toilet paper? Yet in Richter’s depiction they suddenly confront us with an uncanny presence of objects that seem to have actually become the condensed carriers of disavowal itself, and their supposed normalcy and seeming harmlessness only intensify the sense of an undercurrent that links these objects to the then collectively prevailing attitudes of dissemblance and concealment.
Long recognized as the pictorial Urszene of Richter’s oeuvre, and having been ostentatiously positioned by the artist as Number 1 in his catalogue raisonne, the painting Tisch (1962) has received rather extensive discussion, and by now it is generally recognized as one of the key works of German reconstruction culture. Yet, it appears that its meaning and the causes for its historical centrality have remained ultimately opaque. What could we distill from the painting’s contradictory features as visual evidence, that would amount to a verifiable historical argument without exceding a modicum of interpretive speculation?
This first official work painted by Gerhard Richter in the West (as opposed to the former, twenty nine year old Dresden painter’s peculiarly anodyne, and simultaneously insiduous variety of East German Socialist Realism such as exemplified in Beach from 1960 or his mural Lebensfreude from 1959), tells us about his recent and sudden adaptions, about the programmatic elimination, and literal erasures of the painter’s earlier identity. First of all, of course, it tells us about his departure from East Germany, and his detachment from his first formation, as a fully trained mural painter for the Communist Party of Stalinist State Socialism, to which the artist seems to have been devoted, be it by youthful naivete, by careerist desire, or by ideological opportunism.
Second: beyond this programmatic pictorial exorcism from Socialist Realism, the painting engages in an infinitely more complex set of operations: an initiation, rehearsal and ultimate transformation, if not a travesty of all of the blinding encounters that the young Richter had made at Documenta II in 1959, when discovering the new epitomes of contemporary European pictorial practices. Two European artists in particular left an enormous impression on him, as he has frequently confirmed, Jean Fautrier and Lucio Fontana. And now, in Richter’s first attempt to emulate these discoveries in a peculiar palimpsest of recent painterly pursuits (French and Italian, not German), he will have to construct a paradoxial simultaneity of citations and erasures.
And thirdly -- perhaps most importantly-- we will have to address the emergence of a radical counterformation to European post war painting, the photographic matrix of painting in the work of the American Robert Rauschenberg’s which Richter had equally just discovered at Documenta II in 1959. After all, Tisch, at least according to its status in Richter’s catalogue raisonne, is really the first of an extended series of the so called photo-paintings. And while Tisch is still suspended in a climactic confrontation between newly discovered painterly modes and photographic matrix, Richter would paradoxically cancel all of the newly acquired painterly strategies at the very moment of their first public performance. No wonder Tisch appears as some kind of mad Herculean effort, since when confronted with either the European modes of painting, or the Americanized rehearsal of photomontage, Richter lacked any comprehension of context and motivation of these seemingly transformative operations.
Even though ruptures and discontinuities were generally the order of painterly discourse throughout the post -war period, hardly any two more mutually exclusive models could have been imagined than those that had been embodied in the hands of Jean Fautrier and Lucio Fontana, two key Europeans in the field of reconstruction culture . Having encountered the totally incompatible approaches to abstraction that Post War European painting had to offer, must have caused a major chasm of painterly identity in any young artist at that time. But in Richter’s case the shock and incomprehension manifested themselves in a more candid manner, in a fusion of attraction and repulsion that often distinguishes the genuine encounter with an unknown artistic practice from a mere acculturation of given conventions. And Richter has indeed emphasized, revealing his own misreading of the works under consideration, that shock value was precisely the primary virtue that he attributed to these works. While a certain degree of provocation might have been integral to Fontana’s and Fautrier’s work in the late 1940s, a strategy of shock, comparable to the manner in which the Dada and Surrealist avantgardes had responded to the first World War for example, could certainly not be claimed as as a constituting feature of painting after World War II.
Rather, if anything made these objects of Italian and French descent comparable at all, it was a certain degree of disillusion with regard to the avantgarde’s presumed utopian powers. Thus, while both Fautrier and Fontana might have shared common ground by defining a new zero degree of painting, it was certainly not the degree zero of Utopian reductivism from which revolutionary new forces had once emerged (as had been the case with the reduction of painting in the hands of the Russian and Soviet artists thirty years before). Now it was a degree zero determined by an apparent end of all progressive and critical aspirations , if not an end of cultural and artistic experience altogether, and it was that degree zero of despair which now had to be conveyed as culture.
Both, Fautrier and Fontana confronted these new ends from very different perspectives, or saw painting as approaching very different thresholds of disappearance, if not extinction. And that sense of finality was articulated either with ostentatious histrionics, as in the work of Fontana, or it emerged as a slow decomposition of painting in acts of mourning and melancholia as it was evident with Fautrier.
To put it schematically and thetically, in the hope of elaborating and clarifying these hypothesis as we move along: we could argue that Fontana announced painting’s initial confrontation with spectacle culture (which made him of course such an important influence on Yves Klein), and Fautrier declared painting’s disintegration while making it perform the tasks of mourning. Obviously, both positions, are encountered and will be embraced by Richter after his visit in 1959. And precisely because they are fundamentally incompatible, they confronted him with the demand of understanding if and how a young painter could possibly synthesize these oppositions in his response to the discoveries, at first misread in all likelihood, weak or strong misreadings that they might have been.
Even on the level of a mere description, we can reach some conclusive differentiations between the opposites that Richter’s Tisch would embrace. First of all, what defined Fontana’s gesture was its hollowing out of all expressivity, its declamatory mechanicity of execution, already brutally evident in the shift from paintbrush to paint knife or other tools of cutting, piercing and lacerating the canvas surface (such as screwdrivers), often explicitly --and problematically -- sexualized by the artist and his early critics as an attack on the canvas as virgin territory. What was in fact at stake in this violent laceration was of course not the pictorial surface as an object of the projection of male desire, but rather, the task of having to evacuate psychic presence and desire from the act of painting altogether. After all, with the onset of the spectacularization of all cultural practices, even the most agressive and antagonistic ones, previously thought exempt if not in opposition to its universal claims for control and domination, were now recruited for its ever expanding dominion of spectacularization.
Fautrier’s handling of paint and impasto situates his work at the opposite end of that historical spectrum, and endows it with the exact dialectical counterparts of painting’s dilemma after WWII and the Holocaust: his work asks the question of how paint can be embodied, or whether and how the traumatized body could even be painted, and it seems to be one of the questions that had driven Fautrier’s work throughout the forties and fifties. At the same time, Fautrier’s antimodernist paint application, in its explicit rejection of self-reflexivity as one of Modernist painting’s epistemological foundations, insists on the mnemonic functions of painting, i.e. on the assumption that the bodily inscription of chroma and texture will call up and correspond to a phenomenology of the mnemonic and prelinguistic forms of the subject’s constitution in haptic, tactile and visual experiences.
What we are suggesting then is not that painting in 1959 signalled yet another moment of ist definitive demise, but that it signalled the parameters of its perpetual disappearance under the threat of historical forces greater than itself, once the credibility of an aesthetic of bourgeois autonomy had come to a dramatic end, or rather, had been brutally extinguished at the hands of Fascism in the very countries from which the paintings so admired by Richter at Documenta had emerged.
After his encounter with this Scylla and Charybdis of painting’s historically determined fallacies, Richter will develop a practice of painting continously devoted to sustain the tension between these two insurmountable poles of painterly production after WW II.
Thus it is important to recognize the third foundational element in Richter’s newly constructed self constitution, provided by an American counterfigure, the work of Robert Rauschenberg: the found photograph of everyday life that is freefloating and detached from the seemingly constrictive and didactic bonds of what German political photomontage had originally demanded. Again a figure would be chosen by Richter that had no connections whatsoever to the German past.
Undoubtedly, the most important precursor for the rediscovery of the photographic image in post war artistic production, would be Robert Rauschenberg’s 1958-1959 cycle of illustrations for Dante’s Inferno, published soon thereafter also in the forms of a portfolio and widely circulating in the early 1960s. And while we have not yet found any firm evidence that Richter actually saw Rauschenberg’s drawings, even in reproductions before 1962, we have to recognize that the Dante cycle in many ways not only bridges the two continents and their two histories of pre- and post war artistic production, but also triggered a paradigm change for artistic production in general and for Richter in particular.
What are then the photographic conditions of Rauschenberg’s initial post-modernity in 1958, when he rediscovers and reintroduces the photographic idiom as the matrix of all pictorial production, and positions it in a complex relationship with both, original forms of Dada photomontage of the 1920s, and the prevailing painting of gestural abstraction that governed New York School artistic production at the moment of the mid to late 1950s. Hal Foster has described the dilemmata we face when confronting the photographic image in post war art succinctly:
Most readings… of postwar art based in photography divide somewhere along this line: the image as referential or as simulacral. This is a reductive either/or ….
Or, when Roland Barthes addresses the same problem, more pertinent even for our question whether Richter’s work should be read iconographically or semiotically, reads as follows:
"What Pop art wants," Roland Barthes writes in "That Old Thing, Art" (1980), "is to desymbolize the object,"that is, to release the image from deep meaning (metaphoric association or metonymic connection) into a simulacral surface. In the process the author is also released: The Pop artist does not stand behind his work,"Barthes continues, "and he himself has no depth: he is merely the surface of his pictures, no signified, no intention, anywhere."
We will examine three aspects in particular that will clarify which of these positions actually apply to Richters deployment of photographic images. The first aspect is the question of the photographic syntagma, i.e. the question to what extent Rauschenberg’s and Richters subsequent organization of photographic materials follows the initial principle of montage and collage to engender a effect of simulacral semiosis or signifiance ( in Julia Kristeva’s definition, where a field or an overall effect of a dissolution of iconographic or denotative meaning is engendered, in favor of a more general comprehension of the principles and procedures actually governing the process of meaning production and iconic represenation within that particular context. For Rauschenberg’s image montages this would imply – and this is the reason why the question is of particular importance for our analysis of Richter’s work as well—to address the question of the meaning of the individual image in opposition to the meaning of the very insertion of a photographic field of operations within the painterly context at large. What we would call the semiosis approach then would describe the very fact that a seemingly random accumulation of more or less meaningless photographs is assembled in order to articulate the invasion of the pictorial surface, heretore restricted to artisanal depictions of figures, objects of nature and culture, or to abstract gestural or geometric morphologies, and that this realm of the pictorial has been dislodged by the realm of the photographic image, its particular textualities and textures, its specific modes of production (technical vs artisanal, and its dramatically different supports, e.g. printed on paper versus painted on canvas, inevitably inducing the condition of multiplicity and reproduction already on the very level of the surface before any technical or iconic question even had had to be posed).
This aspect of introducing the universal rule of the photographic image into the very structure of the pictorial conventions, emerges of course in Richter’s work soon thereafter with a vehemence that is similar to ist appearance in Rauschenberg’s work in the fifties. And the interpretative dilemma in the confrontation with Richter’s work increases even more by the fact that he now singularizes the iconic image, yet each painting unfolds and appears in a seemingly random range of arbitrary photographic reproductions: perpetually asking the question should this image be read semiotically or iconically. After all, it is relatively compelling to read an image such as Uncle Rudi in 1965 as the crucial onset of an iconography of historical remembrance in Post War German art, but what are we to do with the quantitatively much larger images from the same period, beginning precisely with Tisch where an iconographic interpretation fails us completely. And Richter’s initial provocation in which he celebrated the arrival of found photography on his artistic shores, confirms of course the necessity of this reading if not as the sole mode of approaching his photopaintings but then at least as one dialectical half in a complex and contradictory pictorial structure.
Thus we have to recognize that the photographic order that governs Rauschenberg’s and subsequently Richter’s photopaintings, will forever remain divided, a necessary chasm originating in the photographic image itself: to be random a record and a chemical trace, and to be iconic image and a denotative document. It is however, a duality that will acquire historically very specific differences in each context, which will bring us to the next level of articulation, an attempt to understand how Richter’s photographic paintings both share their origins with the rediscovery of the photographic matrix in Rauschenberg’s Dante Series, but nevertheless initiate a fundamentally different image culture altogether, one for whom the principles of a universal validity and equivalence, and the sudden piercing of the historically pregnant image will operate in a dramatically different manner, one that we will explore in the remaining part of this essay as the dialectics of repression and remembrance, claiming that this is the central operation of Richter’s photopaintings of the mid 1960s.
This then leads us to the last question, concerning the technique, of the image transfer that Rauschenberg had invented, and that Richter would now mimetically embrace going as far as claiming, somewhat in a youthful provocation, that he actually did not want to make a painting based on a photograph but a photograph made by painterly means.
And indeed, that extreme tension between pictorial and technical representation had been performed at its most intense level of paradox in Rauschenberg’s discovery of a popular child’s play. Rauschenberg’s ingenuity in discovering a banal procedure of chemical image copying pervasive in the late 1950s and soon thereafter also a common entertainment device for European children, the ‘copyfix’ chemical seemed to provide the complete answer to all the questions at stake at that time.
First of all, that not a single gesture, painterly or graphic, could claim any longer to articulate the unconscious, subjective or collective. Thus, the control of the automatist gesture by the iconic mass produced image constructs a manifest form of containment that will become a universal condition of artistic articulation, positing itself in manifest opposition to the mythemes of the previous decades, surrealist and automatist, and their abstract expressionist continuation, that the subject’s unconscious articulation, if only performed properly according to the rules of an uncensored and unrestricted activation of the pulsation of the drives, would trigger off a contamination of liberatory impulses in spectators and readers of automatists texts alike. What the generation of Rauschenberg and Johns, of Twombly and Richter then ultimately criticized at the moment of an introduction of a photographic or graphic control of the gestural and the factural was not only the extreme political naivete with which the Surrealists had approached the circumstances of a collective organization of desire, but the very conception of the unconscious itself that they had still conceived of as a realm of prelinguistic bio-libidinal forces, rather than, as Jacques Lacan would teach the generation of post war Freudians, as a highly overdetermined system that was indeed structured like a social sign system, or even like a language. Thus the extreme duality between micrological gesture, the very act of copying the image operates as the very act of articulation, and the very act of gestural articulation inevitably leads to nothing but a mere technological copy of the preexisting image, ironically achieved even though the most common and banal procedure of a child’s toy, the copyfix chemical which diluted the printer’s ink on the page of the illustrated journal and allowed for a monotype transfer image to be stolen so to speak and shifted into the realm of the aesthetic sphere.
Not only is every gesture now contained within the idiotic activities of the infantilized copyist, but every gesture also inevitably amounts to nothing more than a photograph, or at best, a graffito vainly attempting to erase a photograph.
Yet we have not explored the process fully until we have not only understood the control of the gestural by the photographs, but also, its diametrical opposite, the total immersion and the invasion of the pictorial field by photographic technology . Thus we have to explore further, what historical role and functions the photographic image might have performed at that time, and whether its functions and historical status were at all comparable with the earlier onset of photographic culture in the 1920 when photography had been one of the fundamental forces to dissolve the hegemonic claims of painting to represent the apex of pictorial aesthetics. And it is here that the seemingly pointless comparison between the photomontage of the Dadaists and Rauschenberg’s pseudo-montages becomes even more pertinent and productive. After all, it makes evident that the utopian and progressivist aspirations with which the Dadaists celebrated the arrival of the photographic image for both its technologically innovative and epistemologically provocative implications, found a fundamental reversal in Rauschenberg’s cult of containment in the late 1950s. Neither the promise of multiplication and reproduction, neither the assault on painting supposedly liberating the aesthetic sphere from privileged forms of perception and experience could have possibly been claimed by Rauschenberg, Warhol and Richter as the motivations for their turn to the photographic. And in addition to the new sobriety with which photography was undoubtedly now reconsidered, i.e. as a violent force of control and domination, rather than as a progressive force of collective emancipation with technological and scientific means of depiction, recording and documentation that photography now had supplied for the first time in universal abundance and accessibility, photography now, at the moment of the late 1950s, not only appeared more and more as an already delinquent, if not bordering on obsolescence. This gradually growing insight into photography’s proper disappearance from the throne of having been the most powerful visual regime since the mid 1920 controlling the aesthetic sphere as much as the sphere of the infinite ideologies of consumption (fashion, design, tourism, journalism) to a secondary if not tertiary position with regard to the newly unleased superpower of televised images, inevitably would have imbued any deployment of the photographic image with an additional dimension of a sense of a melancholic disenfranchisement. And it is precisely this sudden dimension of a sense of loss and melancholic dissapearance of the photographic image that opens a deep chasm between the two photographic formations of pre war avantgarde and postwar reconstruction culture, a chasm from within which a fundamentally different system of photographic representation would emerge in Richter’s work as well, i.e. a photographic culture of the mnemonic image. Recognizing this dimension is of course central for our comprehension of what distinguishes Richter’s work (and of course also that of his friends and peers since the Sixties in Dusseldorf, Bernd and Hilla Becher) from that of his American predessors in the photographic turn.
It would also allow us to grasp more clearly what is specifically German about Richter’s recognition of the photographic image as the principle matrix of painterly production in the post war period. It is the function of the memory image that photography can now and will now assume, as much as it is the function of the culture of disawowal and repression from which what Jacques Lacan has called the ‘automatist’ vision of images has differentiated each image in Richter’s repertoire. Or has it? Would it be possible, might it be necessary for us to even start considering that a photographic image in Germany after Richter’s arrival might have served both purposes simultaneously, in fact that it was precisely this duality that constituted the functions of the photographic image culture of the early to mid 1960s in Germany?
Richter’s simulation of painting as photograph exceeds Rauschenberg’s tantalizing game of gesture and copy, of inscription and imprint, even though we should remind ourselves that that is of course precisely what is at stake in the overall assimilation of the pictorial production process to the photographic process of chemical and optical recording. And the simulacral operation that Richter performs in Tisch for the first time with incomparable provocative rigor, operates on all levels: in the ostentatious restriction to the grisaille, in the paint application that follows more the principle of an emulsion and liquid distribution than a painterly facture or compositional ordering, and of course first of all in the iconic banality of reproducing the seeming inanity of everday life and its aleatory objecst, after all, if it is not a table, it can be just as well a chair, or a lamp or a roll of toilet paper in order to make sure that we are not deluded into believing that the photograph actually functions here as a memory image, a memory image of what anyway, one would have asked from the moment of the deepest and most compressed collective disavowal.
At the same time, Richter’s simulacral imitation of the photographic blur suspends our reading in a perpetual undecidability, generating an iconic image, and effacing in in the indexical tracing of the chemical technical image production itself, denotative depiction and iconic legibility, simultaneously presented and withdrawn. It seems then that in this suspension, the procedure of forgetting and remembering itself becomes the subject of the painting, the simultaneity between the violence of forgetting and repressing and the desire to recall, the anamnetic desire. These paintings now appear as though they actually performed the compulsion to repeat and to forget as much as the desire to rupture that automatism of forgetting that photography fosters, yet at the same time they originate also in the desire to reconceive experience and revise it , on the way to construct an anamnetic representation , yet they are produced with images that make it clear that the photograph itself can never become the memory image, because it is always the afterimage of forgetting.
Let me sum up both my argument and my speculations: one concept to describe the historical situation from which Richter’s work emerges in the early 1960s would be to call it a moment of a fundamental memory crisis, the term that Richard Terdiman had initially coined to describe Baudelaire’s modernity, and that has since then been adapted by Susan Suleiman to identify key structures of post WWII French literature. Memory crisis in Baudelaire’s case had been caused by Haussmann’s destruction of Paris, its traditions and urban mnemonic spaces. The collective memory crisis in the post WWII period was caused by the eruption of an annihilating violence that Jean Francois Lyotard has identified as the Negative Sublime of the Holocaust experience that can be neither represented nor narrated anymore. The memory crisis of the German Fifties and Sixties however, was different, since first of all it was the memory crisis of the perpetrators, not of the victims, and their crisis was massive as the result not of the destruction inflicted on others, but because of the massive refusal or inability to initiate the process of mourning.
Recognizing this makes it even more difficult to call Richter’s paintings true memory images. But how would we actually define a true memory image, and how could we differentiate it from the vast onslaught of photographic images whose function precisely, especially in that period, served to sustain repression and disavowal by all means of consumption, tourism, fashion and entertainment culture. This question had of course already been posed by Siegfried Kracauer in his epochal essay on photography in 1927, and allow me to cite the famous passage where he distinguishes between the photographic function of forgetting and effacing, and the true ideal of the artistic memory image in which the subject takes on the form of a monogram:
"Never before has a time known so much about itself, if being informed means to have a picture of things, that resembles them in the manner of a photograph. Yet if photography would offer its weekly rations to memory, it would be memory that would select the images. But the flood of photographic images ruptures the damns of memory, and the onslaught of images if of a violence that it wil annihiate the consciousness of the essential traits of the subject…In the illustrated magazines the public perceives a world, which the illustrated magazines prevent it from perceiving. The camera’s spatial continuum and its perspective blurs and diffuses the contours of its history…Never has a time known so little about itself.”
Thus Kracauer offers us first criteria of a distinction between photographic image and memory image that we might introduce into our contemplation of Richters work as well.What Kracauer argues is that photography lacks the memory of death which is integral to the memory image. And since it is the function of photography in the present to deceive its spectators about the universal reality of death, they are all the more subjected to it.
The Memory image, according to Kracauer, originates in a freely constituted consciousness, liberated from the drives as much as from the disavowal of death, and it contains both that which has been recognized as much as that which has been excluded.
And in this manner that I would suggest to finally consider Richter’s Table as a memory image after all, because it makes the actually governing conditions of repression and disavowal its very structures, and identifies these conditions as the governing conditions of experience at the time of its production. It defines the tasks of paintig in the early sixties in Germany as the task of dismantling repression, not as a successful construction of anamnesis or mnemonic represntation, but as the initiation of the labour that these processes will involve collectively, and it signals itself as emerging from a deep rupture and caesura of civilized experience, not as the promise of its future re-emergence and continuation.
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