Art History History Painting

History Painting: ‘September’ by Gerhard Richter, 2005.

Sometimes it is premature to name a significant event as a turning point in history. 9/11 and its aftermath, the war on terror and so on, rightly deserves to be termed as such. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Islamic extremists from a group called al Qaeda hijacked commercial airplanes and carried out one of the most sinister suicide attacks against business and military targets in the United States. In truth, the 9/11 attacks can also be called an attack on America. In short, four coordinated airplanes attacked sites on the eastern seaboard in the United States. Two airplanes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. A third airplane nose-dived into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, located just outside Washington, D.C; and a fourth airplane crashed in a rural field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers unsuccessfully tried to retake control of the airplane from terrorists. In total almost 3,000 people lost their lives that day. In the aftermath, President George W. Bush drafted a major new policy to combat terrorism which today is still felt around the world.

When I decided to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I didn’t want to walk the same path so many others have taken in the weeks leading to today because I felt we have been inundated and or saturated with so much information. Instead, I looked to my history painting series to see if I could find something that illustrates or evokes 9/11 memories from a different and or maybe a personal point of view. Imagine my amazement when I found something so utterly revealing and unique.

In his painting simply titled September, German visual artist, Gerhard Richter, often regarded as one of the most important contemporary of our time, may have possibly created the first important history painting of the 21st century. In doing so, Ritchter has seemingly singlehandedly revived a long lost form of painting that was once immensely popular during the 19th century. Interestingly, Richter’s history painting about 9/11 is relatively unknown to the public at large. In 2009 September was gifted to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and I must admit I didn’t even know it existed before a few weeks ago. It is my understanding that the actual oil on canvas, 28 1/3 x 20 ½ inches (72 x 52 cm) has never been exhibited. Richter has made print versions of it, which he has sold from time to time. 

Richter’s history painting September is a direct response to the terrorist attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre on 9/11. He chose to focus on the twin towers because on September 11, 2001, Richter was on board a flight en route to New York City when a second plane flew into the South Tower. His flight like so many others that day across the United States was suddenly diverted and grounded at the nearest airport. It wasn’t until he arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia that Richter discovered what had unfolded. Like millions of people across the world, Richter watched the sickening events of 9/11 before eventually flying home to Germany two days later. Four years later, in 2005, Richter was still rather moved by the events of 9/11 that he chose to commemorate the event in a small painting. At one point Richter felt sickened by the results, trying to paint the burning twin towers. He almost shelved the painting believing it was too real and offensive but rather than give up, Richter scrapped off most of the fiery paint surface and obscured the towers with a gray wash.

By blurring the painting in an abstract veil, it is said that Richter is making the event less traumatic. The ill-defined view of the second plane exploding upon hitting the second tower almost seems palatable, even for those who still suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and especially for those who lost loved ones. Moreover, I believe obscuring the painting in this way helps us to think about the events of 9/11 in a different light.

If I am to leave the reader with one final comment on the subject, I’m going to left it with American curator and art historian, Richard Storr, who understands Richter and his work more than anyone else of this earth. In his book September: A History Painting by Gerhard Richter, Storr wrote—“September commemorates the events of 9/11/01 as well as everything that led up to them and everything that has ensued since and might be called a consequence, by holding all in perpetual suspension and irresolvable tension.”


Photo credit: The header image is a Gerhard Richter print from 2009 of his painting September. It is courtesy of Gerhard Richter and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris. I make use of this image under the rationale of fair use for non-commercial, research and educational purposes. It also enables me to makes an important contribution to the readers understanding of the article, which could not practically be communicated by words alone.

8 comments on “History Painting: ‘September’ by Gerhard Richter, 2005.

  1. Wow. I’ve never seen this image before. It’s a powerful work. It makes a huge ominous feeling suddenly quite beautiful. Finding beauty in chaos is a very useful coping mechanism. Thanks for the post

  2. hanspostcard

    I had never seen that before- incredible.

  3. It’s understated tones and textures make it all the more powerful. Nice commentary Robert.

  4. A great, moving post and tribute. I find this painting Gerhard Richter potent somehow. Painting like that over the Towers, it seems almost like a reflection (e.g. in city puddles after the rain) and not a direct view, but what is reflected is most certainly not what any New Yorker should ever see.

  5. That’s a really evocative image.

  6. I enjoy your art posts but now have to ask? Is this going to be the start of modern or contemporary paintings? Anyway, maybe I really should bring back my own art post because it’s been a longtime still I blogged about art!

    • I personally feel that ‘history painting’ as a genre has a place in the 21st century. Unfortunately, examples like Richter’s ‘September’ are few and far between, where an artist’s ideas can inform and illustrate an event of importance. It can be argued that photography has superseded history painting as our preferred way of recording history.

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