Originally posted on Criterion Cast February 19th, 2012
Watching Gerhard Richter paint is an experience damn near revelatory. I went into this film knowing nothing about modern art, and admittedly, having my own baggage of hesitancy towards its more extreme sides of abstraction. I was also shamefully unaware of just who Gerhard Richter is, and why he is such a long-standing and significant figure. This outstandingly insightful observational documentary is not just about Richter, but about all aspects of the creative process, an artist’s relationship to their own art, other art, and to the outside world.
Corinna Belz’s ponderous pace equably matches her subject. Gerhard Richter is thoughtful and articulate but very internal. He easily retreats into himself and seems more comfortable doing so. But the film is less about the man and more about his methods and artistry. Filmed over the course of several years, we see gallery openings, archival footage, and Richter being questioned by historians, the press and Belz herself. Yet the film always comes back to its most central element, which could not be made any more explicit by the title, and that is Gerhard Richter painting.
Through an intermittent series of tracking shots that follow miniature exhibition models of Richter’s works, the sense of his seemingly infinite breadth of styles and phases is immediate. It effectively displays, without needing to be said, just how much ground Richter has covered throughout the decades. When he paints in Belz’s film, he is captured indulging in his current favored modes and styles of creation. These include abstract pieces that start with sweeping brush strokes and are continually modified with a giant squeegee that takes all one’s strength to manipulate.
Richter never truly knows what the final product of his creations will be. As he describes, he does not start with a concept. The canvas guides and speaks to him just as much as he to it, and he creates with a kind of semi-calculated intuition. After a time, he stops and steps back, inquisitive from various angles and reflects on what he has done. Richter painting is an indeterminate series of revisions and reflections. When he feels it is done, it is done.
Watching Richter, a man who knows his craft like the back of his hand, is a singular experience for several reasons. The abstract and somewhat improvisatory nature of his paintings instills a sequentially organic development, almost as if following a narrative’s progression, not knowing where it may end. Even the creator himself does not know when his piece will be finished or what it will look like, aligning Richter the artist, we the consumer, and Belz the filmmaker.
Sometimes he assesses in his head, other times he lets Belz know what he is thinking. His pieces go through many revisions and tweaks before he decides they are complete. At any stage of creation, Richter’s pieces could potentially be done. The difference between what looks like a finished abstract painting to the audience, and what feels unfinished for the artist is something Belz makes a point to distinguish. Belz allows us the freedom to observe and respond to Richter’s canvases as we would in a museum. The difference here is that the artist simultaneously takes part in the assessment, and the audience’s observations are of partially done works. Seeing and taking part in all of this, even as a bystander after the fact, is startlingly involving. Periodically, Belz will show the evolution of paintings using a series of dissolves, to illustrate the markedly transformative changes Richter, and artists in general, make to their creations over time.
Gerhard Richter Painting is also about the subject’s struggle with cameras, the media and the public. Being forced to elucidate on his work with explanatory expectations and the application of artistic theory and movements is daunting for him. Richter is articulate, but at the same time is unable to really express his process. In his eyes, painting cannot be described with words. So we see him deal with stress and frustration when asked to contextualize his own process and work in the same ways those who analyze and contextualize do.
Richter’s discomfort with the camera’s presence brings up a lot of stimulating broader questions about the documentary form. The fly-on-the-wall approach becomes compromised amidst the distraction that the camera brings for the subject. Belz is trying to create at the same time as Richter, and the collision of attempted creation across two mediums proves to be understandably difficult for Richter. He is always aware that he is being watched, and it halts his ability to paint with the internal mindset and somewhat spiritual sense of intuition needed to exert a satisfying creative output.
The compromise does not reflect a negative outcome here. It cakes on an additional layer with its inherent questions about observational filmmaking. It makes clear that capturing a naturalistic reality is on some level impossible when cameras enter a room. The acknowledgment and time spent (by Richter speaking of it, and Belz’s purposeful inclusion of the footage) on said interference makes it yet another thought-provoking element of Gerhard Richter Painting, instead of it being unintentionally implicit, and thus problematic.
Gerhard Richter Painting explores the universality of creation and the individualistic relationships between artists and their visions, process and products. It confirms that these individualistic relationships belong only to the artist. As gratifying as the insight that Belz gets and gives us is, neither a witnessing camera, nor words from the creator himself can truly represent the process of creating. What Belz and her marvelous film assert is that it makes being a bystander to the process is no less meaningful, and that our own individual relationships and responses to any work of art are no less essential.