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Gerhard Richter German

Not on view

The Birkenau paintings are based on four photographs secretly taken in the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau by a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of mainly Jewish prisoners forced to dispose of victims of the gas chamber. In 2014 Richter returned to the photographs (which had preoccupied him since the  1950s) after encountering the French philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman’s writing about them in Images in Spite of All (2008), and he engaged once more with the question of whether—and how—art is able to address the history of the Holocaust.

After a yearlong attempt to render the photographic images, Richter gradually veiled his initial figurative drawings on the four canvases with color, in a slow, hesitant process of applying paint, then scouring each coat with a squeegee to produce layered, ruptured surfaces. The canvases’ distinctive facture and relatively subdued palette hold in tension the complex relationship of representation and abstraction, through the opposing forces of destruction and reconstruction. These features make evident the artist’s conscious struggle to address through painting the grim documents of historical trauma while curtailing the inevitable spectacular nature of the reproduced image.

In a further move to limit the fetishistic singularity of the image, Richter has produced digital duplicates of these paintings, including a version now installed in the Reichstag (German parliament building) in Berlin. This multiplicative action positions the series as not only a commemoration of the most horrendous genocide of the twentieth century and its specific historical and cultural magnitude, but also a critical reflection on the grave possibility that such crimes against humanity could reoccur.

Birkenau, Gerhard Richter (German, born Dresden, 1932), Oil on canvas

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