The cycle October 18, 1977 consists of 15 paintings that Gerhard Richter worked on between March and November 1988. They result from his intensive research on the left-wing extremist, terrorist group Red Army Faction (RAF)[1], that had been active in West Germany since the beginning of the 1970s. Carrying out bank robberies, bomb attacks and assassinations to finance their life in the underground and to fight against the state, the lead members of the so-called first generation could only be captured in 1972[2]. They were roughly fighting against American hegemony, the German authoritarian state, that they perceived as another form of national socialism, and capitalism but were scarcely grounded in practical politics[3]. Their terrorist actions, their up until then unprecedentedly harsh prosecution by the state police forces and their collective suicide[4] in Stuttgart –Stammheim prison were subjects for discussion in German society for a long time and divided the minds[5].


The title October 18, 1977 refers to the day when Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe were found dead in their prison cells in Stuttgart-Stammheim. More than 10 years later Richter discussed these events again artistically. He outlined his motivation as follows[6]: “In the early 1960s, having just come over from the GDR, I naturally declined to summon up any sympathy for the aims and methods of the Red Army Faction. I was impressed by the terrorist’s energy, their uncompromising determination and their absolute bravery; but I could not find it in my heart to condemn the State for its harsh response. That is what States are like; and I had known other, more ruthless ones. The deaths of the terrorists, and the related events both before and after, stand for a horror that distressed me and has haunted me as unfinished business ever since, despite all my efforts to suppress it.[7]


The paintings were first presented to the public within the scope of the exhibition Gerhard Richter: October 18, 1977 in Museum Haus Esters in the German city of Krefeld in 1989 and caused an immediate scandal, which shows how much the depicted events were still dividing opinions in Germany. Afterwards, the pictures were shown in several other cities nationally and internationally, with strict regulations in place for reproductions of the images in the media[8]. The paintings were then given to the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt as a 10-year loan in 1990 and sold to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1995 where they are on display since 2000[9].


The 15 paintings comprising the cycle depict 9 different subjects, with some executed in several versions. The order of the paintings however is not explicitly defined[10]. The formats vary throughout the cycle and merely their content and the use of different grey tones indicate their affiliation. The reduced colours point to the original photographs published in contemporary media outlets that were mainly printed in black and white. All of the paintings, except for Youth Portrait [CR: 672-1], Arrest [CR: 674/1-2] and Funeral [CR: 673][11], are based on photographs taken directly by the police but mainly found and copied by Richter in press archives in Hamburg. This use of photographic source material points back to Richter’s early practice and his photo paintings. Part of the unused material can be found in edited and heavily blurred form in Richter’s Atlas [Sheets: 470-479] and in a work album containing 102 of Richter’s original copies. It was gifted to the MoMA archives in 1995 on the occasion of the sale of the paintings to the museum[12].


Originally, Richter had executed 18 paintings. However, before the presentation in Krefeld took place he separated and painted over three paintings, excluding them from the cycle. These include an image of Holger Meins on his death-bed, who had died on 9th November 1974 following a hunger strike, that became Abstract Image (H.M.) [CR: 686-9] and a second version of Hanged [CR: 668] that was painted over and renamed Blanket [CR: 680-3]. Both paintings still show traces of their original subjects[13]. Additionally, there seems to have existed a third version of Man Shot Down [CR: 669/1-2], that was probably overpainted as well but can’t be clearly identified at present[14].


As the artist refers to imagery that has been invariably committed to collective memory, it can be assumed that the contemporaries would have been able to identify the subjects easily in spite of the heavy blurring and the usage of impartial titles obscuring the immediate connection to the RAF and their actions. Richter therefore succeeds in encouraging a new examination of the events and their protagonists. Using photographs to emphasize the relation to reality, he also creates a certain distance by treating the images in a decidedly painterly way, not explicitly naming the events in question and therefore referring the viewer to his or her own memory and judgment[15]. Asked why remembering should even be necessary in case of the RAF and their actions, Richter answered: “It can give us new insights. And it can also be an attempt to console – that is, to give a meaning. It’s also about the fact that we can’t simply discard or forget a story like that; we must try to find a way of dealing with it – appropriately.[16]

[1] Robert Storr (ed.), Gerhard Richter. October 18, 1977, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2000, pp. 95-96.

[2] Cf. Stefan Aust, Der Baader-Meinhof-Komplex, 3rd ed., Hoffman und Campe, Hamburg, 2008, pp. 344-363.

[3] Storr 2000, p. 53.

[4] Ulrike Meinhof took her own life on 9th May 1976 in Stammheim, while the attempted suicide of Irmgard Möller in the night of 18th October 1977 failed.

[5] Storr 2000, p. 62.

[6] Storr 2000, p. 28.

[7] Notes for a press conference, November-December (held at Museum Haus Esters, Krefeld, February 1989), 1988 (translated by David Britt) in: Gerhard Richter: Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007, Thames & Hudson, London, 2009, p. 202.

[8] The six paintings showing the corpses just after their discovery by prison staff for example were only authorized to be printed when shown in context with the other works and not on their own out of consideration for the living relatives and friends of the dead.

[9] Storr 2000, pp. 32-33.

[10] Storr 2000, p. 26.

[11] Youth Portrait is based on a portrait photograph taken by the photographer Inge-Maria Peters, while Arrest 1 and 2 and Funeral are also based on photographs published in the media but are originally based on film takes. Cf. Storr 2000, p. 149.

[12] Ortrud Westheider, “Eine Idee, die bis zum Tod geht. Der Zyklus 18. Oktober 1977“ in: Uwe M. Schneede (ed.), Gerhard Richter. Bilder einer Epoche, exh. cat. Bucerius Kunst-Forum, Munich, 2011, pp. 161-162.

[13] Westheider 2011, p. 155.

[14] Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter, Catalogue Raisonné Vl. 4, 1988-1994, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2015, p. 121.

[15] Storr 2000, pp. 110-113.

[16] Conversation with Jan Torn-Prikker concerning the 18 October 1977 cycle, 1989 (translated by David Britt) in: Gerhard Richter: Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007. Thames & Hudson, London, p. 232.

Notes prepared by editorial team