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Berlin museum to receive large art donation, including Holocaust-related works

Gerhard Richter’s four-part series Birkenau is based on photos secretly taken in Auschwitz-Birkenau camp by a Jewish prisoner in 1944

The four-part Birkenau series by German artist Gerhard Richter is based on photographs taken in 1944 and smuggled out of the Aushwitz-Birkenau camp.  (Screenshot from a flyer on Richter's work written by the German Bundestag)
The four-part Birkenau series by German artist Gerhard Richter is based on photographs taken in 1944 and smuggled out of the Aushwitz-Birkenau camp. (Screenshot from a flyer on Richter's work written by the German Bundestag)

A Berlin museum is set to host over 100 paintings by renowned German artist Gerhard Richter, including his four-part monumental 2014 work Birkenau, based on photos secretly taken in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp by a Jewish prisoner during the Holocaust in 1944.

Richter has in effect donated the works in a long-term loan to the museum via a foundation he established, having vowed never to sell the 2014 paintings to avoid seeing them on the art market.

The donation by the 89-year-old Richter, one of the highest-paid living artists, is meant for the Museum der Moderne, currently under construction in Berlin. The museum is expected to open in 2027. The paintings will find a temporary home in the Neue Nationalgalerie in the German capital in the meantime, beginning in 2023.

“It was clear to me that I cannot sell the Birkenau paintings, and neither do I want to,” Richter told the broadcaster Deutschlandfunk (DLF), the Guardian reported last week. “Then I had the idea of creating a foundation which would take in additional works.”

“The Metropolitan Museum in New York wanted them, but we said: ‘No, they have to stay in Germany. They belong here,’” Richter added.

German artist Gerhard Richter. (Photo by Jindřich Nosek CC BY-SA 4.0, Link)

In those four 2.6 by 2 meter paintings, the artist “confronts the question of whether — and how — art is able to address the history of the Holocaust,” the Met has described.

The series “encapsulates his long-standing interest in art’s ability to reckon with issues of identity and collective memory, particularly in the context of post–World War II Germany,” the museum said.

The paintings are currently on temporary display at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, alongside the four original photographs, reflected in a mirror.

Richter came across the photos which depict the actual process of mass killing perpetrated at the gas chambers after they were published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2008 as part of a review of Georges Didi-Huberman’s book “Images in Spite of All.”

The four photos were the only ones to be smuggled out of the camp. They are believed to have been taken by members of a Sonderkommando unit in Auschwitz-Birkenau. While blurred, the images show naked female prisoners herded into the gas chambers, camp guards, and corpses on the ground.

Richter worked by putting the images on canvases and applying layer after layer of color in several phases including his signature squeegee technique.

Richter is the recipient of the 1994-1995 Wolf Prize, an international award granted by Israel to living scientists and artists. The Wolf Foundation wrote at the time that Richter was “reinventing painting for today, transcending its very laws in order to dare to impose beauty.”

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