Gerhard Richter Painting, the title of Corinne Belz' new documentary, is at once literally accurate and conceptually deceptive.
True, the bulk of the footage consists of the German artist working on large canvasses with paint and diverse tools (mostly large objects that the subtitles refer to as "squeegees"), while a camera records his actions.
But for a minimalist film about a contemporary master with a decades-spanning career, who has experimented with and mastered a dazzling variety of styles and forms (running the gamut from photorealism to extreme abstraction), a more descriptive title would have been more appropriate. This is not so much a documentary about Richter's body of work (though several shows circa 2008-09 are discussed, including a world-touring retrospective) or his biography (though some family photos are obliquely discussed and a few quotes are excerpted from 1960s and 1970s black and white footage).
But announcing a film about Richter's "painting" does make the prospective viewer wonder which of the many Richters will be the one showing up to his studio in Cologne. Would it be the Richter fascinated with the gray gradations of black and white film? Would it be the one who translated the accidental blurs of out-of-focus cameras into very deliberate comments about history and memory? Or would it be the one who repurposed the quiet beauty of Vermeer classics for the late-20th century resurgence of Europe (led by his troubled Fatherland) as a cultural and economic power? Or perhaps the one of the bleak landscapes, or the monochromatic depths or the explosion of pixellated colors?
None of the above, as it turns out. You could more precisely call the core of this film (An Almost 80-Year-Old) Gerhard Richter (Reluctantly Allowing a Documentarist to Shoot Him While) Painting (a Series of Abstract Canvasses Covered with Layers of Paint and Then Deliberately Distressing Them With Large 'Squeegees' A Couple of Years Ago for a Show with Abstract Expressionist Overtones).
It is, of course a privilege to be allowed to enter Richter's inner sanctum, a sterile environment that reinforces stereotypical notions of German order and lack of clutter, with soft-spoken assistants and the general vibe of a not-particularly-cheerful architecture firm (made more evident by Richter's reserved glee when he keeps repeating in a morose monotone that his work is so much "fun").
When Belz first tackled the subject in her 2007 short Gerhard Richter's Window, Richter had been refusing interviews and requests to comment on his work for 15 years. As filming for Gerhard Richter Painting got under way, he became more and more reluctant, and Belz got him on camera admitting that he couldn't even walk around the studio in his usual manner with the cameras trained on him.
Quietly, pained, without raising his voice, he tells her that painting under observation is worse than being in the hospital because he feels "just as exposed." Hypersensitive at having to create under a microscope, he offers that painting should be " a secretive business," something you do in secret and then reveal to the public. "Maybe the Philip Glass film isn't so bad," he adds about a documentary on the American musician who could be one of his closest artistic counterparts. "Walking in the street and so on..."
Gerhard Richter Painting would like to be a Euro-style documentary about process, something very much like last year's El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, the Gereon Wetzel documentary where genius-level Catalan chef Ferran Adria and his team of food scientist/artists went about the mundane tasks that resulted in astonishing dishes. There's the same aseptic spaces, the same silence, none of the joie de vivre or angsty desperation one would associate with passionate art -- which, of course, it's one of the main points of this portrait.
Richter is undoubtedly one of the living masters of contemporary art, but he has the affect and demeanor of a reserved working class guy from the provinces who could have ended up a prosperous dental hygienist, or in middle management at BMW. This is the artist as anti-Picasso, anti-Pollock, anti-Warhol -- or, in the German context, the anti-Joseph Beuys, the charismatic, sexy, prank neo-surrealist that most of the other aspiring artists idolized when Richter was in art school.
There's a telling moment when Richter snickers at the name of the flashy Beuys and rescues the figure of a much more prosaic art instructor whose work was mediocre, but he was a "regular guy from the Rhineland" and a much more useful role model for him. The problem with a charismatic artist, Richter implies, is that he invariable becomes too convinced and people adopt him as "leader" -- and the German word Richter uses is, of course, "Führer." Though Richter is made to admit he "believes" in his art, he quickly adds, "but with caution and skepticism."
Of course, all this reserve and average-guy imposture has deep and conflicted roots in Richter, which the filmmaker painfully gets out of him in the long run.
He was born in 1932, grew up in Dresden (though the firebombing is never mentioned), the war marked his childhood, and he escaped from East Germany in 1961, immediately before the Berlin Wall went up, not knowing he would never see his parents alive again.
Richter's maxims in the film, whenever he talks to critics, collectors, groupies, or the filmmaker, are all commonplace stuff, boilerplate advice and denials of any kind of "special" status. "I am not a radical" he says at an opening. On aesthetic choices and morals he points out that when "it doesn't look good, then it's wrong." When a critic tries to make him expand -- "Can we dig deeper than looking good or bad?" -- a deceptively befuddled Richter only adds that "it's extremely difficult." "Is 'good' related to 'truth'?" insists the critic. "Yes," the artist noncommittally assents.
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The portrait of Richter Belz has achieved, perhaps in spite of all her frustrations, can only be glimpsed between the lines and between the humdrum, endless shots of the artist cryptically wielding his large squeegee looking for the internal logic of the painting he's making.
It's the master painter as bemusedly stoic, fully adjusted, not that different from any other survivor of the horrors of the 20th-century who found a way to go along (with the American galleries, with the large European museums) to get along. A model culture worker for the New Deutschland who, if one were to believe what one learned from Fassbinder's films, has paid or will pay a steep price for this deceptive adjustment.
The days of Fassbinder are Beuys are long gone, though. At the time of this writing, Richter continues showing new art, his retrospectives keep attracting large crowds, and is one of the most successful artists in the world, by both commercial and critical standards.