The Theory of Anarchism

Gerhard Richter (1932—)

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In order for me to go on and examine the importance of anarchy in Gerhard Richter’s work, ‘Anarchism’ as a concept needs to be explained. Anarchy is often misunderstood, due to bad press, as being a state of chaos. This is far from the truth. Indeed, there are rigid theories put down by philosophers of Anarchism, validating it as a logical and ordered theory.

Among others, I will be referring to four main philosophers of ‘Anarchism’: Bakunin, Proudhon, Godwin and Kropotkin. Although these four differ in their attitudes, taken as a whole they provide the most comprehensive guide to Anarchistic thinking.

There are four basic criteria for a minimum definition of Anarchism. According to J P Clark,

“A View of the ideal society as being non-coercive, non-dominating and non-exploitative.”

“Anarchism has a criticism of existing institutions, based on this view of the ideal, present institutions are criticized as being oppressive, and destructive of freedom, individuality and autonomy.”

“Anarchists have a view of human nature which gives hope for a significant movement in the direction of the ideal, they believe that people have a great potential for autonomous creative action, which can be realised if the requisite social conditions are created.”

“Finally, Anarchists have a distinctive set of practical proposals for immediate change in the direction of the idea. They believe that voluntaristic, decentralist, liberatory alternatives can now be established to begin the development of a free human society.” (1)

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As we can see, the uniting feature of these three definitions is the elimination of one primary centralised authority, whereby the powers of officialdom are dispersed. Given this capacity, the multitude are able to control their own destiny. Obviously the state or government usually bears the full brunt of Anarchist criticism.

In his book The Concept of Law, Mr Hart defines the general features of control by legal government,

“It is applied by a small number of officials who issue general standing rules, to all members of society, and who enforce these rules with fixed penalties for each type of offence.” (2)

In this light Anarchists justify their position, “People are born free” their

“Rights are taken, not granted, and inalienable. Each person born to the world is heir to all the preceding ages. The whole world is ours by right of birth alone. Duties, imposed as obligations or ideals, such as patriotism, duties to the state, worship of god, submission to higher classes of authorities, respect of inherited privileges, are lies.”

Sentiments affirming this point of view, abound within their writings, Bakunin asks,

“Why should one obey another because he happens to be born to certain privileges, or because a concurrence of circumstances … has procured for him a share in the legislative or executive government of our country.”

Bakunin adds that the nature of government is to, “Impose and Force,” and it is,

“The legal violator of mens’ wills, the permanent negator of their liberty.”

He goes further,

“Despotism lies less in the form of the state, or of the power than in their very principle.” Proudhon explains this last statement, “I voted against the constitution, because it is a constitution.”

Without doubt anarchists place a lot of importance on freedom and liberty. This acts as the driving force behind their doctrine.

Bakunin describes himself as a, “Fanatical lover of freedom,” and recognizes it as the,

“absolute source and condition of all good.”

Godwin sees it as, “The most valuable of all human possessions,” while Proudhon proclaims it as his, “Banner and guide”.

“To be free” in itself” is a circumstance of little value.

Anarchists do not regard freedom as their goal, it is rather a means towards their purpose. Assuming that centralized sovereignty is banished, nothing is left except a multitude of people, each person individual in his or her own ‘make-up’. It would only be natural, following this, that certain characters would fuse together in a union. An anarchic community is born from this interaction and mutuality.

Freedom stands as the corner stone of individuality, Godwin sees freedom as fostering individuality,

“Liberty is chiefly valuable as a means to procure and perpetuate this tempter of mind”.

He adds,

“A free man must not only act freely. He must consult his own conclusions, exercise the powers of his understanding”.


No one is free, unless all his actions are determined by his own convictions”.

Proudhon, affirms this,

“One must think for oneself to be free”.

Given that we have individuals, who are in agreement with each other, thus forming a group, we have an anarchic society. Because there are no fixed single hierarchy, every member works with each other to fulfil their needs and wants. Godwin sees this community as containing people who are in a, “Free and unrestrained opening of the soul”, a “reading of each others’ minds”.

Proudhon claims that each member would, “recognize his own self in other”.

Bakunin gives the clearest explanation,

“The infinite diversity of individuals is the very cause, the principle basis, of their solidarity … this diversity draws them into a collective whole, in which each completes the others and has a need for them”.

Anarchism then is the relegation of power, as it is exercised in the present situation, down to the individual.

“Authority is used in anarchy on the basis of intimate knowledge of persons. Governmental laws are based on single truths, hence being unable to differentiate.”

Bakunin sees the authority of the individual as being,

“Not according to certain maxims previously written, but according to the circumstances of each particular cause”.

Godwin, authority in Anarchism is,

“exercised by every individual over the actions of others”.

In his book Anarchism: A Theoretical Analysis, Allan Ritter rightfully describes the purpose of Anarchism as, “communal individualism”,

“Anarchists seek to combine the greatest individual development with the greatest communal unity. Their goal is a society of strongly separate persons who are strongly bound together in a group. In fully fledged anarchy, individual and communal tendencies, now often contradictory, become mutually reinforcing and coalesce”.

What role would art play in an anarchistic society? Like Communism they use ‘Socialist Realism’ as their chosen art form. This art form in relation to Richter, will be analysed later.

As we can see, Anarchism is not illogical and chaotic, given the right situations people will act reasonably and create order anyway.

Shown here are the basic principles that constitute Anarchism.

The Beginnings

Richter comes from that part of the world where for the last 40 years, as a result of the war, the conditions which constitute the division between East and West Germany have been under much discussion. The Berlin Wall represents, universally, a barrier between ‘Communism’ and ‘Capitalism’. (3)

The opposing political forces of East and West which so painfully divided Germany during the 1950’s and 60’s were also reflected in the opposing philosophies of art on each side of the border – ‘Socialist Realism’ on one side, and ‘Free Abstraction’ on the other.

It comes as no surprise then that much of art from post-war Germany has dealt with this delicate subject, by artists such as Beuys, Auselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke, A R Penck and Gerhard Richter.

As regards to Gerhard Richter and his work, and its associations with Anarchism, this aspect of difference is vitally important. He has spent all his life within this fragile atmosphere of opposing ideologies. His work bears witness to these two opposing poles. He accepts the existence of both, and disregards beliefs in single laws and fixed truths.

“Any entity which is not split or constituted by an opposition is mere appearance. Anything which is not determined by its contrary is vague, particular, individual, tragic: it is a cipher of authoritorianism, and does not take part in the process of emancipation set forth by the general principle of ‘equivalence’“. (4)

This is very anarchistic.

Richter has sampled the circumstances of both East and West Germany. The first half of his life was spent in East Germany. Born in 1932 in Dresden, Richter decided to become an artist when he was 16 years old,

“It had a lot to do with being an introvert. I was alone a great deal and drew a lot”.

Later, Richter supported himself in various ways, making commercial souvenirs, working as a sign painter in the factory, painting scenery for the local theatre company, and a job painting political banners and emblems. The official and approved style of Richter’s generation in the ‘Eastern Bloc’ was ‘Socialist Realism’.

This style was derived from the realistic and naturalistic traditions of art, and its aims were,

“To produce art comprehensible to the masses, which inspired the people with admiration for the dignity of the working man and his task of building Communism. Heroic idealisation of the worker was the required theme, guided moulded and pruned by the guiding hand of the Communist party and its discipline.” (5)

This was the climate under which Richter studied in the Dresden Academy of Art. The tuition that he received was based on traditional courses, figure drawing, still life and landscape painting. Any information on ‘Modern Art’ was suppressed, the only exceptions being the works of Picasso and Ranato Guttuso, both of whom were shown in East Germany purely because they were members of the Communist Party.

“I really knew nothing – not Picabia, not Man Ray or Duchamp. I only knew artists like Picasso and Renato Guttuso, Diego Rivera and naturally the classics as far as the Impressionsists. Everything after that was labelled in East Germany as bourgeois decadence.” (6)

Art was subordinated for the use of politics.

“Social Realism” is truly idiotic. It doesn’t bring anything, is hocus, nothing but illustration. And the people don’t get anything out of it. There is nothing alive or new in that art.”

The feelings of inadequacy, which he had with the doctrines of the ‘Eastern Bloc’, prompted Richter to experiment. These experiments by Richter, to become a ‘Modern Artist’ gained sudden notoriety as deviations from the prescribed aesthetics”, as a result he was unable to exhibit.

“The situation in Dresden was unreal, they (the cultural bureaucracy), by calling you a formalist, could deny you the opportunity to exhibit. This gave you a false sense of your own importance, made you think you were a great artist, when really you were nothing.”

In 1958 Richter travelled to the ‘Documenta’ show in Kassel, where works by two renowned avant-garde artists of that period were being shown, Jackson Pollock and Lucio Fontana. The freedom shown by these artists, convinced him even more of the suppressive life that he led in East Germany.

“I might almost say that these pictures were the real reason for my leaving East Germany. I noticed that there was something wrong with my way of thinking.”

It is interesting to note that it was only through contrast and comparison, that Richter was able to full review the situation.

Richter was attracted to the less rigid system of the West, and free enterprise, or as he said to me in bad English,

“America is better . . there are lots of little groups .. much more open”.

And so in anticipation of a better life, Richter emigrated to West Germany, in 1961, two months before the construction of the Berlin Wall It must be remembered that when he left East Germany, Richter was 29 years old. (7)

Of the numerous articles that I have read on Richter, many of them do not dwell on this fact, instead skipping over it as a minor detail. The impression that these critics give is that Richter discarded his past existence in East Germany and fully welcomed the utopianism of Western society. Richter is now nearly sixty years old, and although I do not disagree with the critics evaluations of his shortcomings with Eastern Germany; He has spent one half of his life, and being the first half of his life, it has formed and shaped the character of Richter’s mind. Everything that he talks, writes and paints, is primarily based on his experiences under the ideology of Communism.

One example of this is that through ‘Socialist Realism’, and his experiences as a publicity and scene painter, he learnt about the communicative properties of the visual arts. Another influence of ‘Socialist Realism’ is the power of art to affect change.

“I know for a fact that painting is not ineffectual, I would only like it to accomplish more.”

And hence his much quoted statement, “painting as a moral act”.

“The decisive thing is that I have to begin from my possibilities, from the conditions that constitute my basis, my potential” (8)

In this respect Richter has more in common with the role of the individual, which in itself is heavily embedded in Nihilism and Existentialism, maybe also Anarchism (as I will discuss later).

“Rather than in terms of formal necessities, or as the next step in a long process of development begun in the first decades of the Twentieth Century, or in terms of considerations relative to pictorial and plastic problems”.

Nevertheless, Modern Art is important to Richter. Settling down in his new life in Dusseldorf, West Germany, he enrolled at the Dusseldorf Academy of Art, and began digesting all the new “currents of contemporary art” that cropped up in the early 60s. The most prominent of these being Art Informal, Tachism, or Action Painting, Yves Klein and the ‘Zero’ group, the assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg, Pop Art, and its European counterpart Nouveau Realism and Decollage, and last, but by no means least, Fluxus.

Through his experiences in East Germany and ‘Socialist Realism’,

“In a quite fundamental way he discarded trust in ideologies, aesthetics and the meaningfullness of subjective expression”.

The romantic meanderings of artists such as Yves Klein and movements such as Tachism seemed too ‘pie in the sky’. Instead he was heavily influenced by the palpable, simple and more real attitude of Pop Art, and especially Fluxus.

Benjamin Buchloch, a critic, gives the clearest explanation,

“Their ideas as to the relationship between artistic and social activity, the artist’s attitude towards himself and towards political realities and the general state of scientific knowledge and technical production corresponded much more with his own views than did the egocentric mystifications of an Yves Klein who was still trying to act out the obsolete conflicts of the 19th Century”.

One of Yves Klein’s most famous pieces was a performance where at his command, naked girls smeared with blue paint would fling themselves onto a canvas spread on the floor. To Richter this sort of thing was still too poetic and symbolic. It did not deal with the immediate surroundings in a way that Richter felt art should.

Fluxus and Pop Art was attractive to Richter precisely because of this. Allan Kaprow, an active artist from the sixties, explains some of the concerns of Pop Art and Fluxos,

“Pollock left us at the point where we must become preoccupied with, and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life. Not satisfied with the suggestion through paint of our other senses, we shall utilize the specific substances of sight, sound, movement, people, odours, touch. Objects of every sort are the materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things which will be discovered by the present generation of artists. Not only will these bold creators show us, as if for the first time, the world we have always had before us but ignored, but they will disclose entirely unheard of happenings, and events found in garbage cans, police files, hotel lobbies, seen in storewindows and on the streets and sensed in dreams and horrible events. The young artist will discover out of ordinary things the meaning of ordinariness. He will not try to make them extraordinary. Only their real meaning will be stated.” (9)

This new line of thought flourished against the background of Abstract Expressionism.

It revolted against such artists as Pollock and De Kooning. Abstract Expressionism had been the dominant art movement since World War II and owed much to surrealism and namely automatism. By the end of the fifties its concerns, personal spontaneous expression, and the artist viewed as s super being who articulated his inner emotions through the application of thick slushy paint on to huge canvasses spread on the floor, seemed to the younger generation of artists as old fashioned and outdated.

Fluxus and Pop Art on the other hand were more up to date because they dealt specifically with the products of the present situation, at that time.

These two movements would never have existed without Dada and Marcel Duchamp. Dada with its interest and questions for the role of art and the artist, and Duchamp with his depersonalization of the creative art in the form of the ‘Ready Mades’.

Pop Art as a movement was centred primarily in New York with Lichtenstein, Oldenburg Rauschenberg, Johns and Warhol being the leaders. Their subjects were generally drawn from the urban environment – comics, magazines, packaging, movies and the mass media and general.

Everyone knows the work of Warhol, Campbells soup cans, dollar bills and Marilyn Monroes. His bland mimicries parodied the advertising world. Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘palette’ was made up of found objects. The assemblage of his objects were greatly influenced by Kurt Schwitters with added puns and quirks of meaning. ‘Monogram’ 1955-59 was his most infamous work – a goat with a tyre around its stomach.

Another of the Pop Artists, Jasper Johns, principle motifs of the late fifties, were the American flag and targets. Like Duchamp’s ‘Fresh Window’ the objects are ironically deprived of their function – the flags do not fly and the targets are not meant to be aimed at. He questioned the familiarity of objects drawing attention to what we take for granted. In fact the flags with their encauistic surfaces are one of the few products of Pop Art which are beautifully banal. Lichtenstein was even more direct, in his use of ‘ordinariness’. He simply copied comic strip art and enlarged it.

In relation to Anarchism, Pop Art rates very badly. It started well, demolishing all previous aesthetic concerns, but took it no further. It had a limited shock effect – certainly the bourgeois were unaffected, they in fact surprised the public by buying Pop Art in bulk. In the end it became dogmatic, as can be seen in later works of Andy Warhol. It is interesting to note here that Dada too died out, the moment that it was turned into an official movement – Surrealism.

True Anarchism does not seek to categorize or define, because human nature is naturally unstable and defies exact classification. This is not to say that there are certain criteria, albeit very broad ones. People have moods, sometimes happy and at other times sad, and we often change our opinions, growing and learning all the time, never clear cut. Anarchism sees this change as an ongoing necessity, whereas Pop Art and Dada, started well by challenging, but became too complacent within this attitude, so in the end the precise people they were challenging accepted them into its system.

In this respect, the antics of the conceptual and performance artists of Fluxus were more successful, because what they did could not be bought and subsequently subverted the art market.

Fluxus was officially founded in 1962, although many of its members had been producing similar work well before. It was centred mainly in Europe but also in America. Many of its members studied under an experimental musician, John Cage. He taught them to be more aware of the environment that they lived in. Through the influence of music, or rather sound in general, many ‘Flux’ events had as their title, such ambiguous headings as ‘Composition £2’, although the events themselves were hardly ever musical, it was merely a title.

To its credit, Fluxus is not a movement that can easily be defined or packaged, in fact its being and meaning being so difficult to describe is the source of its interest and vitality.

This being the case then it is best to describe it by showing some examples of the events that they staged.


Draw a straight line and follow it.


Announce to the audience when the piece will begin and end if there is a limit on duration. It may be of any duration.

Then announce that everyone may do whatever he wishes for the duration of the composition.


The performers (any number) sit on the stage watching and listening to the audience, in the same way the audience usually looks and listens to the performers. If in an auditorium, the performers should be seated in rows on chairs or benches; but if in a bar for instance, the performers might have bars on stage and be drinking, as is the audience.

Optional: A poster in the vicinity of the stage reading:

COMPOSITION 1960 £ 6 By La Monte Young Admission


And tickets sold at stairways leading to the stage from audience. Admitting members of the audience who wish to join the performers on stage and watch the remainder of the audience.

A performance may be of any duration. (10)

The basis of Fluxus then is,

“essentially an attitude that ties people together. The starting point of a Fluxus event is usually a habit or common activity people do in an unreflective manner.” (11)

For example:

“A glass of beer is placed on stage. A participant enters and empties the glass. George Brecht enters, smiles at the audience and leaves the room again. Should he leave through the door marked ‘Exit’ he will have presented his piece called ‘Exit’“. (12)

this becomes,

“original, difficult to categorize and strangely novel”.

Jurgen Schilling goes on,

“The artists themselves refuse to develop the logic of Fluxus or list its antecedents, as if too thorough an explanation of their art would destroy its basis”.

Also, Fluxus had no official members. Artists varied in their personalities drifted in and out of Fluxus, often producing their own work while being involved with Fluxus. Its participants ranged from people like Yoko Ono and John Lennon to Joseph Beuys. Collectivity and not individuality was promoted, often characters of opposite beliefs would collaborate. It is incredible how similar Fluxus is to an anarchistic community.

“Fluxus is against art, as a medium or vehicle for promoting the artist’s ego, since applied art should express the objective problem to be solved, not artists’ personalities or egos. Fluxus therefore should tend towards collective spirit, anonymity and anti-individualism”. (13)

As a result,

“Fluxus is anti-professional (against professional art or artists making livelihood from art or artists spending their full time or life on art).”

In many ways a Fluxus event resembles a Dada concert, 90 years ago. On closer examination, the similarities that exist between the two are minor. Dada took as its foundation irrationality and buffoonery; whereas Fluxus is very rational.

Many of the Dada poems that were recited were truly idiotic, such as ‘Song of the clouds of Ladados’!

“Gadji beri bimba glamdridi laula …”

and ‘Elephant caravan’,

“Zim zim urallala zim zim urallala zim zim

Fluxus events were very ordered and conceptually based.

To me there seem to exist two forms of anarchy, anarchy which is used by the mass media, to label anything or anyone who in their actions and words bring slander and terrorism to existing institutions. This type of interpretation is false because it classes Anarchism with violence. The true form of Anarchism is intelligent and logical and one which is written about by sincere exponents of this doctrine.

Luigi Fabbri “Bourgeois Influences on Anarchism”; quotes a writer Henry Leyfet,

“That which is Anarchism, that which is worthwhile, the public knows nothing, or even less about. Anarchists are considered from a single, special angle, with all of us being compared with Vaillant, who it is undeniable, arouses a certain sympathy through being guillotined; that brings the public to accept conspiracy theories … The public delight in a mystery and are more enamoured of a person when he appears cloaked in an occult power, in this case attributing to the anarchists a formidable secret organisation …”

Through this type of misinterpretation, anarchists are seen in a bad light, in point of fact anarchists do not condone violence.

In their own way the Dada artists unconsciously have helped to perpetuate this mistaken notion of Anarchism as being illogical and absurd. Dada and Pop Art were, nevertheless, necessary if only for raising certain important questions.

Unlike Dada and Pop Art, Fluxus is akin to Anarchism, because it was logical, insisted on change, the transitory and never became a dogma. It also depended on collectivity and collaboration.

This is the phenomena which had the biggest influence on Richter. To Richter, Fluxus seemed to have retained the human appeal of ‘Socialist Realism’ with the extreme avant-garde art issues of the ‘Capitalist’ West.

Richter, Gerhard; Lueg, Konrad, «Leben mit Pop. Eine Demonstration für den Kapitalistischen Realismus», 1963
Still from the action of 1963 | Photography | © Richter, Gerhard; Lueg, Konrad

In fact, in 1963, Richter, along with a friend, Conrad Lueg, staged a performance in the spirit of Fluxus. It took place in a furniture store. The whole furniture store was exhibited unaltered. A programmed viewing of the demonstration was on show, and also in a separate space an average living room was exhibited as if it were being lived in. The two painters dressed in black suits, white shirts, ties were also on exhibition. Some pieces of furniture were placed on pedestals, like sculptures, to make people realise they were witnessing an exhibition, ‘A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism’, as it was called. Richter recalls,

“The title Capitalist Realism hit just right. There was Socialist Realism, which was very well known to me. This was just the opposite, and I could use it without taking it too seriously, because ‘Capitalist Realism’ was another form of provocation. There is no such thing as Capitalist Realism. This term somehow attacked both sides: it made ‘Socialist Realism’ appear ridiculous, and did the same to the possibility of ‘Capitalist Realism’“

With this performance Richter was making public his shortcomings with both ideologies. Although politically Richter is a confirmed ‘Capitalist’ because this is the society in which he lives, artistically he is an ‘Anarchist’ because art is totally different.

In the next chapter I shall try to show that Richter’s art is anarchistic.

An Analysis of Richter’s Work

This chapter is devoted to Richter’s output as an artist, and Anarchism as a role within it.

I have divided this chapter into three parts: The Photo-Paintings, the Constructions, and the Abstract Paintings. While this division is by no means rigid, because Richter usually works on styles that are diametrically opposed to each other, at the same time, it is still necessary if only for clarity.

The diversity of his work is quite astounding, and this interaction of various modes of visual presentation is of major importance,

“The change in style as a stylistic principle” (14)

Table’ 1962, the first picture in Richter’s list (15), has as it concerns, precisely this issue of opposites and contrast, which are still being played out by the artist to this day.

Table. 1962 90 cm x 113 cm Catalogue Raisonné: 1
Oil on canvas

In it there is an image of a table, which is very illustrational and realistic, but over it Richter has placed a distinct smudge. Richter has staged an event where there exist two completely different elements criticizing each other. The picture of the table, uses perspective and has depth, but the ‘smudge’ brings us back to the fact that this is only a surface.

Richter illustrates Anarchism in this painting. Painting, the medium, stands as the community and the two styles within represent characters of painting, interacting together and feeding from each other. Richter gives no solid solution, as this would be to dictatorial, other than the existence in real terms of ‘the two sides of the coin’.

“My method or my expectations so to speak that drives me to painting is opposition.”


In the early sixties, Richter began his artistic career by copying photographs, influenced by Fluxus.

“We became cynical and cocky and told ourselves that art is bull and Cezanne is stupid, etc. and . . I’ll paint a photo! Fluxus was the catalyst!”

The type of photograph which we chose to copy, was the black and white photograph, in the form of family snapshots, newspaper and magazine clippings; family gatherings, the family dog, the ‘smile please’ pose, the holiday photos etc. Other subjects ranged from buildings to wildlife.

Christa and Wolfi
1964 150 cm x 130 cm Catalogue Raisonné: 24
Oil on canvas
Motorboat 1. Fassung, 1965. Loan from private collection at Gerhard Richter Archiv, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. © Gerhard Richter, 2014.
Mirror, 1981
Nurses, 1965 (48 x 60 cm)

At that time art had to fulfil certain conventions in order for it to be art.

“People in Germany were constantly looking at the formal side”

This redistribution of the rigid spheres and boundaries of art down to a human level in the form of the amateur photograph, has similarities with Anarchism, where centralised hierarchy is eliminated giving rise to a form of society which is much looser.

Even when he painted a picture of Jacqueline Kennedy (1964) wife of the assassinated President, he did not reveal her identity; titled ‘Woman with umbrella’.

“I painted Jacqueline Kennedy but made her unrecognizable, because I was embarrassed to paint Jacqueline Kennedy. It was such a beautiful photo, of a woman crying”

In 1966 in response to Warhol’s silkscreens of the ten most ‘Wanted men’, Richter painted ‘Eight student nurses’ (9), who were mass murdered in an American hospital

Eight Student Nurses
1966 8 parts, each panel: 95 cm x 70 cm Catalogue Raisonné: 130
Oil on canvas

“I would rather paint the victims than the killers. When Warhol painted the killers, I painted the victims. The subjects were often poor people, banal poor dogs”.

“Painting as a moral act”. He is a painter who has a social role.

“My art has always had something to do with my life and how I deal with it .. I’m so ashamed to say this, because one can obviously discharge all the criminal energy one has stored up.”

Compare this statement with one written by Bakunin, human nature,

“has two opposed instincts, egoism and sociability, he is both more ferocious in his egoism than the most ferocious beasts and more sociable than bees and ants.” (16)

It is interesting to note, that although Richter dismissed ‘Socialist Realism’ as a backward form of art, its social concerns are apparent in Richter’s art. With his drive for society, he needed to find an art form that was not outmoded, but was more appropriate to the situation of contemporary life during the sixties. This he found in the amateur photograph with its worldwide appeal. Everyone loves photographs. Indeed this form of photography is very much imbedded in our culture, we get it ‘post-paid to our door’.

“One may only love things which do not possess a style, eg dictionaries, photos, nature, me and my picture!”

A photo

“has no style, no concept, no judgement.”

This last statement is very similar to Duchamp and his explanation of the ready-mades.

“Above all I wanted to avoid a ‘look’ … so you have to select an object which leaves you absolutely cold, which arouses no aesthetic emotion whatsoever. So the choice of a ready made must be based on visual indifference and a complete absence of good and bad taste.” (17)

The difference is that Duchamp was questioning the confines of art. Richter goes further usinng the Ready Made principle, to deal with issues outside of art, namely humanitarian concerns. So although there does exist indifference, his pictures are not ‘cold’ and do have a certain ‘look’.

Sticking with the black and white format, in 1968/69 Richter produced his ‘Cityscapes’ and ‘Alps Paintings’.

Townscape D
1968 200 cm x 200 cm Catalogue Raisonné: 176
Oil on canvas

In the ‘Cityscapes’ the images become very anonymous and the paint itself is very dissolved, verging on the point of becoming another image. Richter,

“they were horrible, like newly built housing developments, so inhuman, revolting. They looked as if they had been bombed though they were normal cities”.

Himalaya, 1968 (200 x160 cm)

The ‘Alps Paintings (too are very balanced with their interplay of shadow and light (These are forerunners of his ‘Window Paintings’ and the ‘Cityscapes’ are similar to the later ‘Finger Paintings’).

Keeping with landscapes, in 68-9, Richter started to work from photos that he took himself. To this day he still paints these romantic colour landscapes, introducing new themes, such as candles, skulls, apples and icebergs. These ‘Romantic Paintings’ are hauntingly beautiful, all of them in colour, smooth and glossy.

Seascape (Contre-jour)
1969 200 cm x 200 cm Catalogue Raisonné: 233
Oil on canvas

They stand for a side of Richter’s character which “yearns for a whole and simple life, nostalgic and dreamy.”

Richter uses these pictures as, “a sort of diversion” which “creates a balance”, to the other works which are more real.

However, this niche of his oeuvre is not merely used as therapy. They hold quite significant consequences.

“I simply think that we have not yet got over the Romantic epoch. The pictures of that period still constitute a part of our sensibility .. if not we would no longer look at them. Romanticism is far from dead.” (18)

But they are

“The regret or resignation that I can’t work that way anymore, that this classical art is past. Nevertheless, I want to paint that way, but not simply as a quotation – that wouldn’t be enough”.

This could also be a comment on the style of ‘Socialist Realism’.

Photography then forms a vital part of Richter’s work. The act of copying photographs and blurring, as techniques which Richter uses, creates distance and anonymity, which fits in with his opinion that all ideologies, “and forced ideas are unspeakingly stupid”.

Unlike other manipulators of photography, such as the ‘Super Realists’, Richter uses this medium in an intelligent and constructive manner.


Under this broad title comes the ‘Shadow’ and ‘Gray Paintings’ and ‘The Mirrors’.

The bulk of this work was done in the first half of the seventies, although he had started these projects in the mid-sixties while producing the ‘Photo Paintings’.

In the ‘Shadow Paintings’ such as the windows, beams and columns, Richter deals quite straight-forwardly with the surface and flatness of the canvas, as being a mediator of illusion.

Shadow Picture
1968 67 cm x 87 cm Catalogue Raisonné: 209-8
Oil on canvas

The ‘Finger Paintings’ too, also deal with spacial illusion. Although they may seem similar to Pollock, these paintings lack emotional involvement and are very detached. He compares these paintings to when he was a child; he would run his fingers through an empty greasy dinner plate, creating endless loops.

Finger Painting (Gray)
1969 50 cm x 60 cm Catalogue Raisonné: 225-9
Oil on canvas

In the same manner, these paintings are constructed out of continuously interweaving lines or broad tracks of paint, Richter describes the process,

“The different hues and forms develop with the continuous movement of the brush, bringing forth an illusive speciality without my having to invent forms and signs: the brush moves along a given path from colour spot to colour spot, first mediating, then more or less destroying and mingling until there is nothing left untouched, until there is almost a hodge podge, and equal expanse of interwoven form, space and colour.”

Chance plays an important role in these paintings. Indeed, Richter sees the part of chance in his work as being “an essential one”. But it is a different form of chance than that used by Pollock and surrealist automatism.

“It certainly is different. Above all is is never a blind chance. It is always planned.”

The most direct form of “planned chance” is evident in Richter’s ‘Colour Charts’. The ‘Colour Charts’ are constructed by the random placement of pure blocks of colour next to each other, reminiscent of paint sample cards that you can find in D.I.Y. shops) creating tremendous vibrancy.

1024 Colours, 1975 (254 x 478)

Richter explains his systematic process:

“In order to present all the existent colour tones in one picture, I developed a system which, based on the three primary colours, plus grey – permitted a progressive differentiation in constantly uniform steps. 4 x 4 = 16 x 4 = 64 x 4 =256 x 4 = 1024. It was necessary to use the number 4 as a multiplicator, because I wanted to maintain the same colour ratio between the size of the painting and the format and number of colour fields. It seemed pointless to use more than 1024 colour tones (e.a. 4096), for the distinction between one graduation of tone and the next would have been no longer visible.” (19)

He goes on,

“The arrangement of the colour tones in the fields was coincidental so as to achieve a diffuse, indifferent overall effect and thus permit exciting details.”

In effect what Richter is trying to say is that any colour could match another within their appropriate system,

“Colours match the same way as the right bingo numbers will. For it is quite difficult to cross five different numbers on a bingo board such as not to have their combination convincing. However, any sequence of numbers is always right and credible If it is the right one at ‘Bingo’.”

The “planned accident” becomes very important within the ‘Colour Charts’ along with the ‘Finger Paintings’ have no direct visual to reality. They live within their own domain. Each painting a ‘society’ which thrives on its own autonomous ‘build up’.

Townscape M8 (Grey)
1968 85 cm x 90 cm Catalogue Raisonné: 170-8
Oil on canvas

While producing these flamboyant ‘Colour Charts’, Richter also made his ‘Grey Paintings’. Given that Richter had always hated “forced ideas” and tried to rid his paintings of “the personal touch” these ‘Grey Paintings’ and the ‘Mirrors’ stand as the last word.

6 Grey Mirrors
2003 400 cm x 400 cm x 50 cm Catalogue Raisonné: 884
Glass covered with grey enamel and steel

“The ultimate possible statement of powerlessness and desperation”.

Richter explains why he chose grey,

“Grey is for me a welcome and unique possibility of achieving indifference of avoiding definite statements”.

But he adds,

“You realise after you’ve painted three of them, that one’s better than the others.”

These works are very nihilistic in their goals. Compare this statement by Richter,

“One picture should not in fact be more beautiful that another, or be different than another, nor should it be similar to another. It should be the same, although each individual picture was painted for its own sake, not as one and the same piece, like multiples. I intended them to look the same but not be the same.” (20)

With one written by a Nihilist writer, Max Stirner, who is considered by many to be the the spokesman of ‘PURE’ Anarchism,

“over each minute of your existence a fresh minute of the future beckons to you and developing yourself, you get away from yourself, that is from the self that was at that moment. As you are at each instant you are your own creature and in this very ‘creature’ you do not wish to lose yourself, the creator … (21) You are not only creature but likewise your creator.”(22) You are the totality of these momentary selves, from the first self which acts overlap at certain junctures with Richter, they too differ fundamentally in moralistic concerns.”


Abstract Painting (613-3)
Oil on canvas
260.7 x 203 cm
Collection of Preston H. Haskell, Class of 1960
© 2014 The Franz Kline Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / photo Douglas J. Eng

The ‘Abstract Paintings’ have been the main subject matter for Richter during the eighties, and they stand as the best illustrations of the structure of anarchism.

Note this statement that Richter made about his ‘Abstract Paintings’,

“I regard my abstractions as parables, as images of a possible form of social relations. Seen in this way, what I am attempting in each picture is nothing other than this: to bring together in a living and viable way, the most different and the most contradictory elements in the greatest possible freedom not paradise.”

Richter is a very shrewd man and is very aware of what is fashionable and what is not, and he always does everything that is unfashionable to criticize the situation. He is never a dull artist.

During the sixties he reacted in an anti-art manner with his ‘Photo Paintings’. He has said that it was fashionable to be against painting, and that he was one of the few at that time who tried to continue with this medium.

During the seventies, his work took on a ‘classical’ outlook.


“At that time something classical, an idea of euphoria of painting purity, clarity and beauty was strictly forbidden. “

His ‘Romantic Paintings’ , ‘Finger Paintings’ and ‘Colour Charts’ retain certain amounts of this “purity” and “clarity”.

During the eighties the ‘Abstract Paintings’:

“Beauty which is a word no one likes. ‘Beauty’ has become a downgraded word, because we would all like to be healthy, perfect, fulfilled everything, the opposites of war, crime and sickness.”

Richter’s colours and in particular the sensual layering of paint over paint in the ‘Abstract Paintings’ are meant to be experienced in this light, as pure beauty.

Anarchism is at its best when it goes beyond its analysis of the state and other social institutions to uncover an authoritarian consciousness which is not only shaped by authoritarian institutions, but also expresses itself through those exact institutions. Such an analysis sees no other answer than the transformation of this state to its opposite – a system of liberation social institutions which are the self expression of a creative, autonomous and co-operative person.

Seen in this light, Richter as an artist can be seen to at into the anarchist tradition – his works criticize the epoch in which they are set in.

But Anarchism is a doctrine which has at its roots, direct Socio-Political thoughts and actions, Richter, rather uses the medium of painting to seek this emancipation, and painting is just not radical enough to do this. It is afterall an established bourgeois pastime.

Richter is an anarchist, but he produces an anarchy which is artificial given the limitations of painting. This ‘artificially’ plays great importance in his ‘18 October 77’ exhibition which is the topic of the next chapter.

‘18 OCTOBER 1977’

On Tuesday 18th October 1977, a Lufthansa Boeing Jet containing 86 people was hijacked. They were later freed due to action taken by a special commando squad of the border police. Three terrorists were killed.

The terrorists led by Captain ‘Martha’ Mahmud, had hijacked flight LH81 from Palma De Mallorca to Frankfurt. In return for the safe conduct of their hostages, they had demanded that the West German government release four convicted members of the Baader Meinhoff gang from the jail where each was serving a life sentance for murder, attempted murder and a series of urban bomb attacks. With the hijackers failure the Baader Meinhoff (26) group’s last chance of freedom had vanished.

Jan-Carl Rapse heard of the failure of the hijackers on a small transistor radio that had been smuggled into the cell in Stammheim, a high security prison. He passed on the news to his Baader Meinhoff colleagues and co-inmates at Stammheim, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Irmgrad Moller, and they decided upon a suicide pact over a makeshift communications system cobbled together from the record players in their cells.

Andreas Baader in cell 719, took out a pistol concealed in his record player, held it against the nape of his neck and blew his brains out. Jan-Carl Raspe fished out a pistol that he had hidden behind a skirting board, put the barrel to his head and pulled the trigger. In another cell Gudrun Ensslin had hung herself using a length of loudspeaker cable, while Irmgrad Moller stabbed herself four times in the chest with a prison-issue table knife. She was the sole survivor. The other member of the gang, Ulrike Meinhoff had committed suicide more than a year before, during the group’s trial.

It is this horrifying event which forms the basis for Richter’s ‘18 October 1977’ paintings. However, the precise facts surrounding their deaths have never been satisfactorily explained.

Gerhard Richter has painted many different things and in many different ways. But this is the first time that he has dealt with politics, real people that are part of a public consciousness. What is under question in this exhibition is the total revolutionary intent that these people had.

“The public ambitions of these people, the non-private personal ideological motivation. And then the tremendous force, the frightening power of an idea to the point of dying for it, this was for me the most impressive and inexplicable aspect, that we produce ideas which are nearly always not only wrong and absurd, but above all dangerous… religious wars and whatever, and we take it so morbidly serious, fanatically until death do us part.”

I believe that with these paintings Richter has produced something which is quite unique and unforgettable in the truest sense of the word. This is due to a number of things:

  1. The suitability of his grey photograph paintings, to the problem of ideology.
  2. The Nihilistic drive of the Baader Meinhoff coupled with Richter’s own nihilistic tendencies.
  3. The timing of the exhibition.

The subject matter is so suited to Richter’s technique of copying black and white photographs and then blurring them until they are almost unrecognisable. When you stand in front of the paintings, especially ‘cell’ and the trptych ‘Dead’, it is very difficult to stabilise the whole image, due to the blurring. You end up approaching the paintings from various views and angles, in a hope that you may register the image successfully. You become very aware of your own presence in front of them.

1988 200 cm x 140 cm Catalogue Raisonné: 668
Oil on canvas
1988 62 cm x 67 cm Catalogue Raisonné: 667-1
Oil on canvas
1988 200 cm x 140 cm Catalogue Raisonné: 670
Oil on canvas

This is also true when we are dealing with ideologies, how do we approach such ideologies, what is out standpoint? How do we deal with it? IT is quite remarkable the success that Gerhard Richter has had in this respect.

The second factor is that there exhists a nihilistic drive behind both Richter and the Baader Meinhoff gang. Richter’s Nihilism is the elimination of spontaneous personal expression, to the point where he copies photographs; again this is so suitable because these are the actual police photographs. The ‘Mirrors’ are Richter’s most extreme form of Nihilism, where he seemed to say that if the purpose of art is to depict reality, then a mirror – not a painting – is the only frameable thing that can do the trick.

Confrontation 1
1988 112 cm x 102 cm Catalogue Raisonné: 671-1
Oil on canvas

The Baader Meinhoff gang were obviously nihilistic in their suicides but also in how they treated the people around them. During their trial, when asked to give evidence they remained silent, rejecting questions on the grounds that they did not recognize the institution that was trying them. When they were needed a second time, again they refused to acknowledge the system.

Youth Portrait
1988 67 cm x 62 cm Catalogue Raisonné: 672-1
Oil on canvas
Man Shot Down 1
1988 100 cm x 140 cm Catalogue Raisonné: 669-1
Oil on canvas

The other reason why I think these paintings are unique is in the timing of the exhibition. With all of his integrity and moralistic concerns, Richter gives the impression that he is a simple man. Don’t believe it. He is very astute and knows exactly the situation that current art is in. These paintings are a critical and radical criticism of the contemporary art scene.

“Art is always to a large extent about need, despair and hopelessness (I’m thinking of the crucifixion stories of the Middle Ages to Grunewald, but also about Renaissance portraits, Mondrian and Rembrandt or Donatello and Pollock) – and we often neglect this content by placing too much on the formal, aesthetic side alone. Then we can no longer see the content in the form, but rather see the form as what contains and supplements the content, the thing worthy of our examination.”(23)

Richter keeps one eye on his feelings, ‘content’ and one eye on the contemporary art scene ‘form’. In 1984 Richter wrote this in his diary,

“What characterises our time and in fact keeps it lively . is this parlour trash which we produce in immense quantities, which we record, discuss, comment on, in exhibitions, texts and films, which is the spiritual life of our time, our zeit geist.(24)

It is hard to argue with such strong convictions. Here is another diary jotting from November 25, 1982,

“The entire art scene is like a giant theatre of paucity, lies, deceit, decadence, misery, stupidity, nonsense. A waste of words”. (25)

During the touring of this exhibition, there were no private views held, and Richter insists that the paintings are kept together and refuses to sell them. He is trying to exercise as much control over his work, and condemning the art scene. It is so stupid in a way because he is a part of the scene that he condemns, and anyway, once you attempt to control the market by refusing to sell your work, you achieve the opposite of what you are trying to achieve. Interest becomes more intense, demand increases and in the process you lose control rather than strengthening it.

These paintings then raise two issues – one for human behaviour and one for the art world.

  1. The death of the utopian dream and revolution.
  2. Is art as a means to serving a social and moral function still possible? (In the similar way, whether ‘Socialist Realism’ 40 years ago was still possible.)

With these two issues, what Richter is implying is that the power and conviction that existed within these people is not evident in art today.

“Their deaths were the result of fanaticism and ideology. I am not concerned with the question whether it has been resolved or not. They are dead, and it is just the same if they were murdered or committed suicide.”

But what does interest Richter very much is their courage,

“I was certainly impressed by the energy, uncompromising will and courage of the terrorists. This is the reverse side of the coin that I appreciate despite the scepticism. This would be the glimmer of hope that should also be conveyed by the pictures.”

Richter has manipulated this horrifying event to comment on the art world. He is a painter by nature so he has no other obligations except to painting.

These paintings may depict death and may touch on a sensitive subject, but at the end of the day they are nothing other than a bit of paint on a piece of canvas, and you just cannot change things through this. This is what I think Richter’s problem is and it also acts as the driving force behind the work. He would like paintings to be more effective but he knows it cannot any more.

Again, however much these paintings may have political implications, ie the individual versus the state, the two channels, art and politics have entirely different functions.

They cannot and maybe never will come together again in such a way as used by earlier artists as David’s ‘Death of Marat’ or Richard Hamilton’s ‘The Citizen’: even these are very problematic. (26)


Richter depicts Anarchism on the surface of the canvas. The ‘Abstract Paintings’ in particular, illustrate the structure of Anarchism. They are quite simply the amalgamation of the most diverse elements. Collectively too, his paintings adhere to anarchistic principles with no one style taking precedence over another. But there is another more important issue.

Anarchism as a system obviously does not exist in real terms in our society, it is an ideal. And it is precisely as an ideal, as a touchstone to judge the existing world that the anarchist vision is useful. If this is the case then Richter is an anarchist since all his work has a critical claim to society, culminating in the ‘18 October 1977’ series of paintings.

The problem is that Richter uses the medium of painting to criticise the society in which he lives. It is an inept channel and he would probably argue against this, in which to effect change, but at the end of the day, he can do nothing else, he is a painter. He loves painting and tries his best within the limitations of art




  1. Quoted from Max Stirner’s Egoism by J P Clark.
  2. Quoted from The Concept of Law by C F H L A Hart.
  3. Now that this barrier has been broken in recent events, it would be interesting to see how this will affect Richter’s work and art in Germany in general. If art is about ‘need, despair and hopelessness’ what happens now?
  4. Gerhard Richter Paintings, Roald Naasgard. Quoted from ‘The Task of Mourning’ by Yves Alain Bois.
  5. Quoted from the Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art and Artists.
  6. Unless otherwise stated, all conversation quotes are from The Print Collector’s Newsletter September/October 198; Gerhard Richter Paintings’: an interview by Dorothea Dietrich; Art Forum – May 1985 Gerhard Richter – Painting as a Moral Act by Coosje Van Brugge; Gerhard Richter’s Paintings, An interview with Benjamin Buchloch; Parkett – March 1988 18 October 1988, An interview with Jan Thorn Prikker
  1. At 29 Richter was beginning his artistic career, whereas many artists of today receive retrospective while only in their thirties. A quote by an article written by Benjamin Buchloch in the catalogue of the ‘18 October 1977’ exhibition. During the planning stages of the recent Anselm Kiefer retrospective – the largest and most important commitment to a post war European artist by the four major American museums involved – one of the curators gave me an unforgettable answer to a naive question. Having asked whether as an art historian, he did not first feel the need to exhibit the work of a major artist of the 60’s generation – an artist such as Gerhard Richter – before according such an enormous retrospective to a relatively young artist of the current generation, he said briskly, “Kiefer is sexier than Richter” It would seem that general scholarship has been replaced by fashion.
  1. On my meeting him in August of 1989, Richter was more interested to talk about my background, and where I came from, “My basis, my potential,” than about anything else
  2. Quoted from Blam – The Explosion of Pop, Minimalisation and performance 1958 – 1964 by Barbara Haskell
  3. Quoted from Blam – The Explosion of Pop, Minimalisation and performance 1958 – 1964 by Barbara Haskell. (“Duchamp himself had foreseen that the character of the ready made would be extended, until it embraced the whole galaxy of objects with which we are surrounded. Quoted from an article by Benjamin Buchloch in the catalogue accompanying a Richter exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, March-April 1979)
  1. Quoted from Fluxus is Dead by Jurgen Schilling. Contemporanea September-October 1988.
  2. Quoted from Fluxus is Dead by Jurgen Schilling. Contemporanea September-October 1988.
  3. Quoted from Fluxus Codex by Jon Hendricks.
  4. Quoted from Jurgen Harten The Romantic Intent for Abstraction: Gerhard, Richter, Paintings – 1962-1985.
  5. Richter has a numbering system for all his paintings. ‘Table’ is number one in his list.
  6. Quoted from Anarchism: A Theoretical Analysis by Alan Ritter.
  7. Quoted from Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Pierre Cabanne.
  8. Quoted from catalogue for exhibition at Whitechapel Art Gallery March – April 1979.
  9. Quoted from Gerhard Richter, Paintings, Roald Nasgaard.
  10. Quoted from Gerhard Richter, Paintings Roald Nasgaard.
  11. Quoted from Max Stirner’s Egoism, J.P.Clark
  12. Quoted from Max Stirner’s Egoism, J.P.Clark
  13. Quoted from diary jottings from Parkett no. 19 ‘18 October 1977’
  14. Quoted from diary jottings from Parkett no. 19 ‘18 October 1977’
  15. Quoted from diary jottings from Parkett no. 19 ‘18 October 1977’. Much of what Richter feels, can be better understood by reading Thomas Bernhard, an Autrian writer who has a lot in common with Richter.
  1. It must be remembered that the Baader-Meinhoff were not anarchists, they were Marxist-Leninists and they meant it!


  1. The Print Collectors Newsletter, March – April 1988, John T Paoletti
  2. The Print Collectors Newsletter, September – October 1985, Dorothea Dietrich
  3. Artscribe, September – October 1989
  4. Art Forum, May 1985, Coosje Van Bruggen
  5. Parkett, No. 19 March 1989, Jan Thorn-Prikker
  6. Art in America, November 1986, Stephen Ellis
  7. Gerhard Richter Paintings, Roald Nasgaard
  8. Gerhard Richter: Bilder/Paintings, 1962-1985, Jurgen Marten
  9. Gerhard Richter – 18 October 1977, ICA Catalogue
  10. Whitechapel Art Gallery, Catalogue March – April 1979
  11. The Philosophical Anarchism of William Godwin, John P Clark
  12. The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, G P Maximoff
  13. The Essential Kropotkin, Emile Capouya and Kenna Tompkins
  14. Max Stirner’s Egoism, John P Clark
  15. A Theoretical Analysis of Anarchism, Alan Ritter
  16. Proudhon, Marx, Picasso, Max Raphael
  17. Bourgeois Influences on Anarchism, Luigi Fabbri
  18. Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Pierre Cabanne
  19. The New Art, Gregory Battcock
  20. Fluxus Codex, Jon Hendricks
  21. Blam – The Explosion of Pop Minimalism and Performance 1958-64, Barbar Haskell
  22. Contemporanea, September – October 1988 Jurgen Schilling
  23. Cutting Timber, Thomas Bernhard
  24. Old Masters, Thomas Bernhard