Chiron, the erratic asteroid that weaves between Uranus and Saturn, was discovered on November 1, 1977 on a photographic plate that had been taken on October 18.
That second date might just ring a bell for you if you happen to be interested in contemporary art – because it’s also the collective title of some of the most famous works of art about terrorism ever made. Gerhard Richter’s weird, grungy pictures grouped under the title 18. Oktober 1977 reimagine the demise of Germany’s notorious Baader-Meinhof gang.
On that day, three members of the gang were found dead in jail — as depicted in Richter’s compellingly creepy series. Officially it was suicide, but the circumstances have always been murky.
Baader-Meinhof, or Red Army Faction (RAF), was the ultimate 1970s far-left euro-terrorist group, grabbing the headlines throughout the decade with a string of murders, kidnappings, spectacular arrests and hunger strikes. This was the era of the Weathermen and the Black Panthers in the US, the Red Brigade in Italy and many other less well-known groups. In the 1960s, young people demonstrated, in the 1970s, they took up arms. It turned out, much later, that the Baader-Meinhof gang had financial and logistical support from the Stasi, East Germany’s infamous secret police.
This day, October 18, was a critical one in the story of modern Germany. It was in the midst of the so-called
- German Autumn — 44 days of terror, which began on September 4 with the kidnapping of the German industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer. In the weeks that followed, harrowing pictures of Schleyer were released to the media, putting the country into a state of nervous horror. Then a Lufthansa plane was hijacked by allies of Baader-Meinhof, a Palestinian faction, the PFLP — on October 13. On October 18 — the same day as the prison deaths — a special task force stormed the plane, by then grounded in Mogadishu, and rescued most of the crew and passengers — although the captain had already been murdered. The following day, when they heard that their comrades had died, other members of Baader-Meinhof killed Schleyer in the back of a car in Mulhouse, France. The Autumn was over.
This ugly episode in the history of modern Germany haunted the country’s collective imagination. Did Baader-Meinhof represent some flaw in the German character — an inevitable attraction to nihilism and the dark? Schleyer himself had actually been an SS officer during the war. The gang, for some Germans, seemed to be acting out the self-hatred felt by many Germans after World War 2. Although Germans like Richter were too young to have been implicated in the holocaust, their parents were inevitably involved. The violence of Baader-Meinhof felt like a purge.
Wounds in a family or a nation take generations to heal. In fact when Chiron was discovered — between the time the picture was taken and the discovery was made — the maverick asteroid was in stable Taurus Rx, a sign where he had not been since Hitler came to power in 1933.
Chiron is known as the “wounded healer”. In Greek mythology, heroes were sent to Chiron in his cave — out in the wild on Mount Pelion, away from humans — to be taught medicine and astrology, archery and music. Astrologically, he is associated with outsiders, damage, medicine, teaching. (During the same fortnight that he was discovered, smallpox was officially eradicated. This was the first disease to be entirely wiped off the face of the earth thanks to vaccination, human intervention.)
The irony of Chiron’s story is that, despite all his learning, he could not heal himself when he was poisoned by the hydra’s blood. This is a lesson for all healers, of course: you cannot fix everything.
One of the central parts of the Chiron story is — intriguingly — a story about a violent riot. Heracles, while visiting another civilised centaur, Pholus, opens a jar of wine, the vapours from which drive the other centaurs wild. During the ensuing melee, Chiron is wounded by a poison arrow from Hercules bow.
Chiron symbolises the tension between the civilising arts and the wild animal within each of us. He is the point at which these two natures meet but maybe cannot blend perfectly. There will always be a gap and through that gap between beast and civilisation, what slips?
We are reminded of this gap regularly, collectively and individually. No matter how civilised we believe ourselves to be, we are bodies, we are animal, we are here on this earth.
Chiron eventually gives up his immortality. He chooses to die. He is here on this plane with us — not with the gods.
Richter is a towering figure in contemporary art. Not only is he technically brilliant, his work often has the
emotional impact of a punch (Moon, Venus, North Node in Pisces). He was born in 1932 — when Chiron was in Taurus. So during the German Autumn, Richter was approaching his Chiron Return — a period in everyone’s life when we must reconcile ourselves, or at least encounter, our psychic wounds. These wounds may not actually be wholly personal, they may belong to us through the collective — as with the German guilt for WW2.
Richter said this about the painting at the top of this page, comparing it to the original newspaper photograph: “I’d say the photograph provokes horror, and the painting — with the same motif — something more like grief. That comes very close to what I intended.”
Richter, through art, exorcises German demons of nihilism and guilt, which had recrudesced through Baader-Meinhof. In creating 18. Oktober 1977, he acted as a shaman for his nation. Turning horror into grief, murder into sacrifice. These paintings are confession and absolution: the nation is shriven.
Richter made 18. Oktober 1977 in 1988. The Berlin Wall came down a year later — one Jupiter cycle exactly after October 1977. This started to heal the wound that had torn Europe apart. That moment of hope and faith in the future seems a long way away now, but the wheel will come round again. Chiron was conjoining the planet of faith and expansion, Jupiter, when the Wall came down and opposing the famous triple conjunction — Uranus (awakening), Saturn (wall and border), and Neptune (idealism) in Capricorn. On the day the Wall came down, Venus (love) joined that powerful stellium.
Chiron is a shaman. He beats the drum for the collective, taking us on a dance to the other side. He weaves from Uranus to Saturn and back again. Look at the power in Richter’s Chiron. It’s at the point of both a T-square and a mini Grand Trine. Chiron in Taurus makes things real, makes them manifest on the material plane — artworks. He looks into the mirror across the Zodiac — into Scorpio’s underworld, into the face of death. He lends us his compassion. And for Richter, the personal is political — look at Sun in Aquarius opposite Jupiter in Leo on the axis of self and other.
The corpse of Andreas Baader and the asteroid Chiron were photographed on the same day. There is no such thing as coincidence.