Gerhard Richter Painting review: Ordinary film about an extraordinary artist
About two-thirds of the way through the interminable Gerhard Richter Painting, the titular subject himself passively balks at the prospect of being further recorded at work in his studio. Painting under observation, he grumps, is “worse than being in the hospital.”
If it feels that way for you, Gerhard, imagine what it’s like for your audience. Over its nearly two hours of drab, dull-as-dishwater footage of the politely taciturn painter quietly going about his business, director Corinna Belz tries mightily to offer a naturalistic portrait of the artist that many consider to be the greatest painter of his generation.
Early on, though, Belz’s conceit for the film wears thin. Granted access to Richter’s studio in Cologne, Germany for the better part of summer 2009, Belz assumes a fly-on-the-wall approach, which might work well if the subject is gregarious, dynamic or engaging.
Richter, alas, is none of these things. Introspective and near-mute — with, I’ll allow, a bone-dry sense of humour that surfaces infrequently, usually to address the absurdity of a camera pointed at him — the film unblinkingly casts long glances on the near-80-year-old artist at work, mostly on a pair of gaudy abstract paintings that Richter himself is both puzzled and troubled by.
The artist slaps a base coat of yellow on canvas with a thick, broad brush, like a house painter, adding swaths of blue, then red, before taking a huge squeegee to the surface, smearing the paint into decadent ruin. “It’s not working,” he shrugs. Belz gamely tries to have Richter explain why. Richter slumps to the wall, wordless. “We should talk about the film now,” he says, and starts laughing.
These kinds of unresolvable interactions are standard fare for Gerhard Richter Painting. It quickly becomes clear that Belz has set the quixotic task for herself of trying to contain, or at least describe, the ineffable — the torturous process Richter goes through to create paintings that match his standard, a standard that has established him as both a first-order master painter, and a multi-million-dollar seller. (Last year, his works sold at auction for a combined total of more than $200 million, more than any other living artist, and more than works by household names Mark Rothko, Claude Monet and Alberto Giacometti combined.)
Richter is kindly, but unengaged in Belz’s process, far too committed to his own. This, one would think, would lead a documentarian into a fleshing out of her subject’s life, history and relationships with others. But Belz does none of this. The only interviews beyond Richter himself are incidental chats with Richter’s assistants, who mirror his oblique obfuscations and a quick conversation with Richter’s New York dealer, Marian Goodman, who explains how she saw a particular genius in Richter’s work in the 1980s, when it was lumped in with so-called Neo-Expressionists like Julian Schnabel.
Goodman’s instinct was right. Richter’s work is nothing short of extraordinary, from his early works painting hauntingly indistinct portraits of murder victims from newspaper photographs on through his formal engagements with classical subjects like still-lifes and portraiture. Each time, Richter explored the strange aesthetic borderland between crisp photographic representation and the interpretive looseness of painting, until he arrived at pure abstraction, a more recent fascination.
Belz gives us almost none of this. So focused is she on the process of these two paintings, of the present moment, we get only the briefest snippets of Richter’s life, and how he arrived at where he is. He was born in Dresden in 1932, survived the allied razing of the city as a child, and slipped across the border into the West a few years before the Berlin Wall was sealed, in 1961. His fascination with darkness, despair, brutality, both personal and political (his Uncle Rudy, a blurred portrait of a kindly-seeming Nazi SS soldier, remains one of the most haunting images of the 20th century) is touched on hardly at all by Belz, who busies herself with trying to catch lightning in a bottle — a struggle Richter has yet to resolve for himself.
I have no doubt the Richter we see on film is true to life, though there is depth to be gleaned. In his very good, thoroughly researched and multi-sourced recent biography of Richter, Dietmar Elger manages to glean from him that “saying I was indifferent was an attempt at self-protection . . . but I don’t mind admitting now that I painted things that mattered to me personally —the tragic types, the murders, the suicides, the failures and so on.”
No such statement ever emerges from Belz’s film. Deflecting her queries with oblique, confused suggestions of unknowing — Richter maintains he doesn’t understand the quality of what makes a successful work, only that he knows when he sees it — we end up with less a portrait of Richter than a silhouette.
Given the extraordinary treatment his work has been given in the past year — Panorama, a survey of 50 years of Richter’s work, launched at the Tate Modern last fall; it was recently in Berlin, and will be at the Centre Pompidou in Paris by summer — this film might have been an opportunity to start thinking about legacy.
Instead, Belz appears to build her film around an archival interview with Richter from 1966, which she presents early on.
“To talk about painting is not only difficult but perhaps pointless, too,” the 30-something Richter says. “You can only express in words what words are capable of expressing.” Now you tell me.