Poetic Thinking Today
An Essay
Amir Eshel

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Thinking Paintings

On Gerhard Richter

ATEMWENDE IN PAINTING

How do paintings think? When painters approach the empty canvas and turn it into a piece of art, how do they express both the urge to create and their thoughts, concerns, and ideas? How does a painter’s work, and the thoughts it engenders in the beholder, engage with the experience of modern tyranny? And how does that relationship between artist and audience partake in charting an ethics for our time? In other words, how does the notion of poetic thinking change when we consider it beyond the confines of the writer and the reader—when the artwork’s place is the public sphere? These questions were on my mind when I traveled to Dresden, Germany, in the fall of 2015 to visit the Galerie Neue Meister (New Masters Gallery) in the Albertinum Museum. I went to Dresden during the time I was writing about poetry for this essay to explore the notion of poetic thinking in painting—a medium I have never studied as a discipline yet have loved since my youth. From what I read about the works I was about to see, I sensed that while they (unlike poetry) cannot rely on words to present or engender ideas, they foster thinking on their own terms. I was curious to place my intuition to the test: to explore how the paintings I intended to see (like the poems I was writing about) think poetically, capture thoughts without submitting themselves to system or logic; and, more specifically, how they contribute to our understanding of ethics in our time. Set in a museum, this “understanding,” it was clear to me, is not least a public occurrence. Although it involves the aesthetic experience of the individual, as it does with poetry, it also includes the exchange an individual may have with other exhibition visitors, the conversation a visiting school class may have, and the media discussion about the works’ various meanings.

Gerhard Richter, Birkenau


I entered the main hall in the Galerie Neue Meister, a large space with a high, imposing ceiling, dedicated to contemporary masters. On a single wall were displayed the four large and thundery paintings I had traveled to see: Gerhard Richter’s Abstrakte Bilder (Abstract Paintings), soon to be officially titled Birkenau.1 They exude immense drama. They are all the same shape and size: 260 × 200 centimeters. They seemed like portentous giants united by the same color palette: a rich display of layered white, red, black, gray, and green paint and countless shades in between.

Gerhard Richter, Birkenau


One can view the cycle as a pictorial movement from either left to right or right to left. Either way, there is an irresolvable tension between the organic and more calming green of the two paintings on the right and the intensity and concentration of the two on the left. This pull is also immanent in each individual part of the series: each displays a polyphony of light and shadow, boundless energy and stillness. The clash of colors and shapes correlates with the enormous dynamism that Richter brought to bear on the canvases. I could easily trace the spirited movement of his squeegee and brush and detect the lines with which he combined and mixed different color fields. I could sense the scratching of paint and the motion of the artist’s hand in the geometric crisscross shapes that evoke fabrics, networks, windows, or fences. I could also discern the enormous creative attention involved in bringing the different colors and shapes within each canvas into conversation with the other three to create a congruent and forceful visual landscape. It was clear that here is a painter wrestling with enormous powers, struggling to restrain them, to give his emotions and thoughts a lasting form.

Gerhard Richter, Birkenau


Gerhard Richter, Birkenau


As I was searching for words to describe what I saw, two further things caught my attention. On the opposite wall Richter had placed digital copies of the paintings, as if to create a mirror image of the originals. However, each of the digital copies had been divided symmetrically into four. On a bench at the center of the gallery the museum staff had placed copies of newspaper clippings that gave a sense of the origin of these artworks and of their focus on the number 4. The clippings reported a press conference Richter had given on the occasion of the first public display of Birkenau, where he explained that the paintings are his artistic meditation on four photographs taken by members of the Sonderkommando, concentration camp prisoners who were forced to assist with the disposal of the remains of those murdered in the gas chambers. In August 1944 a few prisoners in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp collaborated in taking those four photographs under severe danger to their lives to bear witness to the extermination process and the Nazi attempt to conceal the physical evidence of the mass murder.2 Pressing the shutter button four times, the photographer—Alex, a Greek Jew whose last name remains unknown—and all involved in smuggling these images out of the concentration camp bluntly displayed to the world the unspeakable realities of the Nazi tyranny: corpses in a fire pit outside the crematorium, a group of naked women who would shortly be forced into the gas chamber. I read the newspaper clippings, looked again at the paintings and the digital reproductions, and my breath turned.

The four large canvases in the Galerie Neue Meister, the four reproductions, and the history recorded in the newspaper clippings elicited from me Atemwende. They evinced a “somatic quality” similar to the one I described when reading Paul Celan’s “Psalm” or Dan Pagis’s “Testimony.”3 Atemwende stands in Celan’s thought for a change in one of our most basic and instinctive human activities: breathing. Literally and metaphorically turning our breath, such poems as Celan’s and Pagis’s deliver a jolt to our customary being and bring the flow of time to a brief yet noticeable halt. Atemwende, I have suggested, is not only a bodily sensation. Emerging from the artist’s creative sensitivities and choices, it also captures the artist’s thoughts and may engender thinking in the reader.

Continuing this discussion, I now focus on Richter’s Birkenau as it embodies the thinking that led to the work, which I believe thinks poetically as it captures the artist’s evolving ideas about the Holocaust and how he might address that event in his visual language. Richter’s paintings, like Celan’s and Pagis’s poetry, give rise to much thought on ethics and politics in our time. To be sure, Birkenau remembers Nazism’s victims and presents a visual meditation on the tension between amnesia and memory surrounding what transpired in the German concentration camps, as some critics have suggested.4 Yet Birkenau also goes significantly beyond the challenge of remembrance, the demand to acknowledge the Nazi crimes that was central for post–Second World War literature and the arts. Invoking the crimes of the regime, Birkenau poetically thinks about the implications of the appearance on the world stage of the new class of modern human beings that Pagis’s “Testimony” so acutely describes.5 Drawing our attention to the fate and the actions of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Richter’s work, like Pagis’s “Another Testimony,” invites us to acknowledge those people of the modern era who were first stripped by a tyrannical political system of all their rights and then of all human attributes, leaving them, in the words of the poet, with nothing that “would die,” leaving them as mere shades or “smoke” lacking even an “image” or a “likeness.” Richter’s Birkenau, however, gives form, visible for all to acknowledge, to those who were brutally deprived of an image and even a grave. Birkenau also moves from the historical and the figurative to the abstract and thus invites us to consider the fate and choices of the Sonderkommando as they relate to the destiny of others, in our own time—those many men and women and children who similarly fall victim to tyrants, who are deprived of all rights, who are left with nothing in them that would die.

Birkenau, like Celan’s and Pagis’s poetry, avoids any conclusive argument or lesson. Suspicious of all metaphysical philosophical structures, especially ideology, it engenders a multilayered encounter between painter and audience, “one that involves the engagement of the audience’s intellect, psyche, emotions, and values.”6 Facing the abyss of modern civilization for which the name “Birkenau” stands, it expresses Gerhard Richter’s lifelong focus on the notion of hope, his ongoing interest in the human role in shaping history’s course. Birkenau is thus also a meditation, I believe, on the human ability to confront despotism and to resist it, even in moments when meaningful action seems impossible.

“BEYOND THIS SENSELESS EXISTENCE”

To fully grasp poetic thinking in Birkenau, we must first turn to Richter’s artistic beginnings, especially to those works that touch on Nazism and its aftermath. Since the early 1960s, when he became transfixed by pop art, Richter has sought to transform various photographs into paintings. Inspired by Andy Warhol, Richter’s early photo paintings turned our attention to familiar artifacts: a table, a chair, a piano. Along with the mundane objects of consumerist culture and its celebrities, however, these photo paintings also paid close attention to historical subjects: from jet fighters and bombers to family members whose lives were decisively touched by recent German history.7 This is hardly a coincidence. Richter was born in Dresden in 1932, so his early life was shaped under Nazism and marked by the Second World War, the destruction of Dresden, and the oppressive regime of the so-called German Democratic Republic, whose grip he escaped when he fled to the West in 1961.8 In 1965 Richter painted three works that have become canonic in regard to his interest in this history: Onkel Rudi (Uncle Rudi; CR 85), Tante Marianne (Aunt Marianne; CR 87), and Herr Heyde (Mr. Heyde; CR 100).9 All three paintings avoid presenting history through the distancing lens so typical of “history painting” as a genre. The traditional task of history painting was to represent an event or historical actors in the context of their time with the aim of preserving the past and, occasionally, lifting historical figures to the status of idols. But in Richter’s paintings, we don’t have heroes, kings, or armies in the throes of immense power clashes, resulting in works that, like Francisco Goya’s The Second of May 1808, intentionally or not, elevate the pain of war to the level of a moral tale. We instead encounter history in these works as the gray, leaden matter of everyday life, as it touches and ravages the lives of individuals, even of one’s own family members.

Gerhard Richter, Onkel Rudi


The painting Uncle Rudi was created from a photograph taken just before Richter’s maternal uncle Rudolf Schönfelder (nicknamed “Rudi”) died while fighting for Hitler’s Wehrmacht.10 The family was left with an image of the smiling man, who cannot know what is about to come. Blurring the specificities of Rudi’s face, uniform, and insignia, the painting invokes the factual uncle. Uncle Rudi is Richter’s artistic reaction to the original artifact rather than a representation of his uncle: it renders the person almost faceless. Emphasizing reaction, I follow Florian Klinger, who encourages us to focus less on the capacity of Richter’s paintings to represent an individual than on the artist’s imaginative response to the material he is working with; in this case, we should pay close attention to the act of blurring.11 Reaction also captures how we encounter the painting: the range of our somatic and mental responses to what we see—our visceral sensations, emotions, associations, and thoughts. Richter is consistent in his belief in art’s capacity “to help us think something that goes beyond this senseless existence.”12 His creative procedure in paintings such as Uncle Rudi counts on our ability to both recognize what we see (e.g., the haunting quality of the almost faceless Rudi and his ominous surrounding) and, crucially, to go beyond to reflect, ponder, debate with others something only we may create: insight, recognition, judgment, decision, and perhaps even some form of action.

Asked why his paintings look like blurred photographs, Richter replied, “I’ve never found anything to be lacking in a blurry canvas. Quite the contrary: you can see many more things in it than in a sharply focused image. A landscape painted with exactness forces you to see a determined number of clearly differentiated trees, while in a blurry canvas you can perceive as many trees as you want. The painting is more open.”13 In its openness, Uncle Rudi invites us to discover how individuals and families are implicated in events we habitually assign to the realm of history: it displays the interdependencies of the private and the public. History is not a set of events that takes place on some grand historical stage (for example, history paintings such as the 1807 Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David). It takes place everywhere, including in such intimate locations as a family. Uncle Rudi also allows us to see in the concrete figure many more things—for example, the countless German soldiers evoked in Pagis’s “Testimony,” those who “definitely were / human beings: uniforms, boots.” Like the poem, in which the poet considers the perpetrators as a group of humans, Uncle Rudi reacts to the image of one German soldier by blurring the specific features, by exposing many others in the one. Yet Richter’s hardly identifiable figure enables an even broader thinking regarding men and women of various times and places who opt to become faceless—who volunteer their bodies to the exercise of blind military might. Evading the concreteness of a discernible personality and an exact time and place, inherent in the original photograph, Uncle Rudi considers personal motivation as it intersects with ambition, ideology, and thoughtlessness: What kinds of choices do men and women face under historical duress? How do they make moral choices? What is the relationship between personal agency and collective belief in charting the course of their individual and communal lives? These and other thoughts emerge from the artwork itself. After all, in Uncle Rudi it is not only we who look. Staring at us, the figure of the carefree soldier questions us as well, asking where we actually stand and whether we will join him eventually. We must wonder what it means to be a human being in a world populated by Rudi and his ilk.

Gerhard Richter, Tante Marianne


Uncle Rudi, Aunt Marianne, and Mr. Heyde were all painted in 1965, and all embody their particular postwar moment: some twenty years after the end of the Second World War, such questions and, more generally, the relationship between evil and banality had taken center stage. The Eichmann trial in Jerusalem (1961–62) and the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials (1963–65) forced a global audience to reckon as never before with both the plight of Nazi Germany’s victims and the extent to which countless “ordinary” Germans had participated in the crimes of the Nazi regime. In the mid-1960s it became obvious that most of these perpetrators had continued to live their lives without having to account for their crimes. In a 1970 interview, Richter explained his interest in the family photographs of his uncle and similar subjects: “I tried to find nothing too explicit, hence all the banal subjects; and then, again, I tried to avoid letting the banal turn into my issue and my trademark.”14

In Aunt Marianne Richter wrestles with the “banal” (a laden term addressed later) by invoking his aunt Marianne Schönfelder. In a painting based on a 1932 photograph taken in the garden of his grandparents’ home in Dresden, we see the fourteen-year-old aunt fondly holding a baby: Gerhard Richter himself.15 Her hair is neatly combed, and Marianne’s gaze is turned away from the camera as if in embarrassment or distraction. Richter’s gray palette and the fine brushstrokes endow her face with a gentle, soft quality. A vivid light falls on both figures, making them appear like one glowing angelic being, yet they are surrounded by an ominous darkness. Marianne was twenty years old when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Under National Socialism, she was first sterilized and then placed in various institutions for the mentally disabled. Finally, in August 1943 she was sent to a psychiatric clinic in Großschweidnitz, Saxony,16 where she became one of the many whom the regime regarded as unwertes Leben, “unworthy to live.” The interned patients of Großschweidnitz were the target of the Aktion T 4—the euthanasia program aimed at “purifying” the Aryan race. They were starved and received overdoses of psychiatric medication with the aim to kill. Marianne Schönfelder died there on February 16, 1945. The reason given on her death certificate was “cardiac arrest.” Earlier, the doctors had noted that she was weak and had lost a lot of weight, signs of systematic undernourishment. Dreamy and somewhat faint, Richter’s Aunt Marianne is also an act of remembrance. In an interview he gave in 2016, Richter remembers witnessing his grandmother and his mother sob and scream when they returned from visits to Großschweidnitz: “They saw the misery. I noticed, of course, even if I, as a child, would rather not take it in, would rather go outside.”17

Painting Mr. Heyde later that year (1965), Richter further reflects on Marianne’s fate by rendering a newspaper clipping as an artwork. The painting brings into focus two elements: a seemingly ordinary man in suit and hat as he is escorted by a policeman and a prosaic caption that reads “Werner Heyde in November 1959, as he gave himself up to the authorities.”

Presented first in the photograph and then in the painting as an icon of a German dull bourgeois, Heyde was in fact a psychiatrist who had been involved in Aktion T 4. By making both him and the plain caption its subject matter, Richter’s painting reacts (in Klinger’s sense) to the source material—it highlights the vacuity of such phrases as “gave himself up to the authorities” and, more generally, of the German public discourse in the early 1960s when confronting the crimes of the Nazi regime. What the caption elides is that for fourteen years after the war, Heyde was able to live a conventional bourgeois life as a neurologist in the West German city of Flensburg, where he was protected from prosecution by the local authorities.18 Reacting to the source material, the painting also allows beholders to take another, closer look at a picture and a news item they may have encountered before; Hannah Arendt tells us that they are invited to stop, to think, to go beyond their previous, habitual existence. They may, in fact, discover that the painting highlights what the terse newspaper report of the arrest obscures: after the Second World War, Heyde and many others like him were able to proceed with their lives and avoid justice with the blessing of a political system that would rather look the other way and of a citizenry who wanted to forget their nation’s crimes.

Gerhard Richter, Herr Hyde


As Richter wrestled with the seeming ordinariness of Werner Heyde and his like, he was keenly aware of Arendt’s now-famous suggestion in her book on the Eichmann trial that there is a unique and radical quality of evil in Eichmann’s thoughtless willingness to serve as a cog in the Nazi killing machinery.19 Referring to Mr. Heyde in conjunction with Arendt’s notion of “the banality of evil,” Richter highlights the “horrific” nature of what seems to be common and banal: “It is much scarier to paint people’s faces as banal as I find them in photographs. That is what makes the banal more than just banal.”20 As mentioned previously, the customary charge of history painting as a genre was to invoke and preserve history, often elevating its actors to the status of idols, but Richter reacts to the historical actors: highlighting the banal, the everydayness of Heyde, the painting explores and exposes what the seemingly “decent” postwar German bourgeois existence painstakingly tried to avoid, to hide.

When Mr. Heyde was first displayed in West Germany in the 1960s, the younger citizens of that dynamic, rapidly recovering country were beginning to question whether their political institutions and their cultural discourse had done enough to investigate the crimes and pursue the perpetrators of the Nazi regime. Older citizens had often been part and parcel of the Nazi state. To a critically minded audience, Mr. Heyde’s portrayal of the banal offered a departure point for thought, debate, and possibly even action regarding what was thus far rarely recognized and confronted: the Nazi era. Along with other works by Richter, Mr. Heyde was an appeal to finally make the Nazi perpetrators and, by extension, German society accountable for the past. Whereas history painting suggests the inevitability of what happened, Richter’s photo paintings present events and actors of the past as objects of an ongoing examination: Why and how did a certain course of events transpire? Were the events inevitable? How did historical actors come to play their parts? What kinds of choices and alternatives did historical actors have under the conditions of a despotic regime such as Nazism? Reacting to family photographs by effacing the concrete facial features or by presenting the absurdity of allowing criminals such as Heyde to live a largely normal bourgeois life, Richter inserts himself into history’s terrain. As he makes something such as a familiar family photograph unfamiliar, and as he endows the photograph with new perspectives, he also suggests how we may choose to move beyond the mere registering and chronicling of the past and how we, like him, may challenge the notion of history as an inescapable course of events or as a static reality.

Notes

1. In our conversation in his studio in May 2016 and an e-mail dating October 4, 2018, Richter explained that he wanted to avoid any sensationdriven reaction to the painting cycle Birkenau when he first introduced it in Dresden in 2015. However, the artistic origin of the paintings in the four historical photographs was made clear in his February 2015 press conference in Dresden at the opening of his exhibition Gerhard Richter. Neue Bilder (May 20–September 3, 2015).

2. See Dan Stone, “The Sonderkommando Photographs,” Jewish Social Studies 7, no. 3 (2001): 132–48, esp. 132; and Franziska Reiniger, “Inside the Epicenter of the Horror—Photographs of the Sonderkommando,” https://www.yadvashem.org/articles/general/epicenter-horror-photographs-sonderkommando.html (accessed October 27, 2016).

3. Culler, Theory of the Lyric, 138.

4. In his discussion of Birkenau Benjamin H. D. Buchloh proposes this dialectic as a perspective on Richter’s entire oeuvre: “One could go as far as to suggest that for an artist such as Richter, this dialectics of amnesia and anamnesis is actually the foundation of all his interventions.” Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Gerhard Richter’s Birkenau-Paintings: Amnesia and Anamnesis (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2016), 34.

5. In recent years, there has been increased interest in the junction of Richter’s painting and notions of thought or “intelligence.” See, for example, Christian Lotz, The Art of Gerhard Richter: Hermeneutics, Images, Meaning (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Lotz discusses Richter’s work through the conceptual framework of “formed intelligence” (17).

6. Phelan, “Rhetorical Literary Ethics and Lyric Narrative,” 630. See the discussion of James Phelan in Section 1 and his description of poetry as engendering such an encounter.

7. On the difference between Richter’s work and American pop art, see, e.g., Robert Storr and Gerhard Richter, Gerhard Richter: Doubt and Belief in Painting (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2003), 57.

8. On Richter’s unique approach to German history in the 1960s, see ibid., 58.

9. I present Richter’s paintings by referring to the works’ designation in Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné, vols. 1–5 (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje/Cantz, 2011), and on his website, https://www.gerhard-richter.com/en/ (accessed March 13, 2017).

10. Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, trans. Elizabeth M. Solaro (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 140.

11. Florian Klinger, Theorie der Form: Gerhard Richter und die Kunst des pragmatischen Zeitalters (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 2013), 9, 21–22, 62, 133–35, 136.

12. Robert Storr, “Interview with Gerhard Richter,” in Storr and Richter, Gerhard Richter, 183.

13. “Interview with Irmelinde Lebeer, 1973,” in Gerhard Richter—Text: Writings, Interviews and Letters, 1961–2007, ed. Dietmar Elger and Hans-Ulrich Obrist (London: Thames and Hudson, 2009), 81.

14. “Interview with Rolf-Gunter Dienst, 1970,” in Elger and Obrist, Gerhard Richter—Text, 54.

15. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, 133.

16. Stefan Locke, “Als die Klinik zur Sterbeanstalt wurde,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, August 28, 2017, 7.

17. Ibid.

18. On the historical and familial circumstances of Aunt Marianne and Mr. Heyde, see Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, 129–32.

19. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin Books, 1994). On the affinity between Richter’s photo painting and Hannah Arendt’s thought, specifically her notion regarding the banality of evil (e.g., on Richter’s Uncle Rudi as an incarnation of this very idea: Nazi wickedness hiding behind a smile and the seeming innocence of a family snapshot), see John J. Curley, A Conspiracy of Images: Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, and the Art of the Cold War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 199; and Hubertus Butin, “Gerhard Richter and the Reflection on Images,” in Gerhard Richter: Editionen/Editions, 1965–2004; Catalogue Raisonné, ed. Stefan Gronert and Hubertus Butin (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje/Cantz, 2004), 59.

20. Storr and Richter, Gerhard Richter, 167–68. Hal Foster similarly suggests that by focusing on the banal, Richter subverts what appears to be the benign nature of the mundane. See Hal Foster, “Schein im Sinne Gerhard Richters,” in Gerhard Richter: Fotografie und Malerei—Malerei als Fotografie Acht Texte zu Gerhard Richters Medienstrategie, ed. Dietmar Elger and Kerstin Küster (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2011), 91.