Gerhard Richter's divisive Holocaust art comes to Bundestag


'Birkenau': Hiding the Nazis' death factory

Gerhard Richter's "Birkenau" series is made up of giant tables of color, largely veiled in shades of grey. Added color accents of green and red permeate the canvases, while concealing the original background images taken inside the concentration camp in 1944. Rather than illustrating the Holocaust, Richter skillfully hides its horrors through abstraction.


'Atlas' of genocide

Richter has spent much of his life collecting Holocaust-related information - a subject of particular interest to Germany's most venerated contemporary artist. He refers to his massive compilation, which consists of photographs, newspaper clippings and other documents, as the "Atlas."


Recurring theme

This 1971 oil painting is also based on documents from Richter's "Atlas," and was exhibited at the Frieder Burda Museum in Baden-Baden alongside "Birkenau" in 2016. Richter gave this image a rather elusive name: "Ausschnitt," which translates as "section" or "cutting."


Reluctant record-breaker

Richter ranks as one of Germany's leading and most expensive artists. His artworks have repeatedly broken their own records at auction. But the 85-year-old from Dresden doesn't seem to care much about the lucrative art business. Richter has said the skyrocketing prices his works fetch at auction are proof of the "ludicrous" nature of today's art world.


Personal introduction

Richter was on hand in Berlin to personally deliver the "Birkenau" series to Bundestag President Norbert Lammert, willing to face any controversy head on. The effect of his divisive paintings as they adorn the parliament's entrance hall remains to be seen.

The much-debated "Birkenau" series by renowned painter Gerhard Richter is now on display at the Reichstag building in Berlin. The dark, abstract work is on loan and can be seen in the parliament's entrance hall.

Can the horrors of the Holocaust be painted? The art world has been debating that controversial question ever since German painter Gerhard Richter first introduced his monumental, oppressive four-part series "Birkenau" in 2014.

Read more: Gerhard Richter, savior of contemporary painting, turns 85

The works were based on the photographs taken in secret by a Jewish prisoner in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in August 1944. Richter took copies of those photos, blew them up and painted over them again and again.

On Monday, Richter personally delivered the four monumental works of art to Bundestag President Norbert Lammert. The works will be on show at the parliament building for a limited time.

The abstract paintings were first exhibited at the Albertinum modern art museum in Dresden. In February 2016, they moved on to the Frieder Burda Museum in Baden-Baden, west of Stuttgart. Richter, who normally avoids the limelight, was there in person to launch the exhibition.

Read more: Holocaust work goes on display in Baden-Baden

Divisive work

The painting series has drawn its fair share of controversy ever since it was first unveiled in 2014. Critics have accused the artist of illustrating and glorifying the Holocaust, and of giving the horrors of that time an artistic shape and style. More than 1 million people died at the Nazi death camp, the majority of them Jews.

Are these accusations correct? The huge panels feature islands of red and green heavily veiled by streaks of black and gray, all blurred and smudged in the typical Richter style.

The photographic originals made by the one-time prisoner are almost impossible to make out, and merely served as the starting point for Richter's works - the first layer, to be followed by many, many more. With these layers, Richter has obscured the view of the atrocities and skillfully hidden the horrors through abstraction.

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