Rating: 3.5/5Two large canvases hang from the vast walls of Gerhard Richter’s studio in the Hahnwald district of Cologne. The room is an intense, bright white, making it difficult to tell where the blank canvas ends and the white wall begins. There are workman’s tables topped with tarps, buckets of paint, huge brushes and an enormous squeegee prepped for the artist. The quiet scene in his studio is filled with palpable anticipation, as Gerhard Richter Painting has promised a glimpse into the somewhat reclusive painter’s creative process.
Gerhard Richter Painting expects the viewer to approach the film with a certain degree of knowledge about the German-born painter, and this expectation is sure to create an unintended distance for many viewers. Yet those who already know about Gerhard Richter may not find much enlightenment about the artist himself. The singular purpose of the filmmakers appears to be to reveal Richter’s working process through access to his studio. We are introduced to Richter’s assistants and get glimpses into their work of preparing paints and documenting the painter’s progress. The small scale models of various international galleries are fascinating; in preparation for upcoming exhibits, his paintings are printed out in tiny scale replicas and placed on the walls of these models. Most interesting is the extended sequence of Richter at a press conference before the opening of a highly-anticipated exhibition. Photographers fight for a good shot of the artist, personal questions are asked, speeches are made and autographs are requested. It’s a rock star life, at least in those moments, and the strain on Richter shows almost immediately.
There are lengthy, meditative looks at Richter’s painting process as well, and it is interesting to watch how he creates, but the novelty wears off quickly. All artists have their secrets, and their method is a personal one that mere observation, even by an astute camera, cannot fully capture. And because of Richter’s innate reserve and belief that painting is a secretive process, there is always a distance. When the camera focuses on Richter’s face as he studies a canvas in progress, when it follows his body as he swoops over his work with an enormous squeegee drenched in a primary color, we’re not seeing an artist in action as much a man hindered by his struggle to create while a camera invades his reality. The creation of art by its very nature is repetitive and often dull to an outside observer. Hoping to shine a light into an artist’s soul by watching the physical, tangible act of recreating an inner intangible emotion is futile. Most of the time, at least in Gerhard Richter Painting, it achieves nothing but an uncomfortable intrusion on the creative process.
It’s the brief discussions with Richter and documentarian Corinna Belz that highlight this tension between filmmaker and painter. Words meant to encourage discussion only shut it down. Belz’s frustration with Richter’s vague answers culminates in a moment where Belz openly states she does not understand what Richter means when he says an artist can often hide behind his art. With an open, friendly smile, Richter nods and says he doesn’t understand it, either. It’s a lovely moment, but one that sours when Belz falls silent. Though we don’t see her on camera, we see Richter reacting to her and realize something is wrong. Richter continues, futilely attempting to explain what he means, and the scene ends awkwardly, the audience as uncomfortable as the artist must have been. It’s a common enough thing for a documentary to become as much about the filmmakers as the subject, but often in Gerhard Richter Painting the intrusion of the off-camera questions interrupt the reality the film is ostensibly trying to capture.
To an extent, Gerhard Richter Painting fails to provide much substance or insight into Richter’s work. This is no comprehensive look at his oeuvre, though the film does attempt a simulation of such by scanning across the tiny copies of his paintings used in scale models. But while the many genres Richter works within is touched on briefly, the film fails to specifically mention of any of these genres. Nothing is said about Richter’s landscapes, murals, his memento mori or of the many portraits of his family and colleagues. A lengthy segment of Richter looking at family photos while considering whether it wouldn’t just be better to throw them all away loses all import if the viewer is not already familiar with the politics that have affected Richter’s personal and artistic life.
Richter is clearly reticent to give concrete answers to questions posed. He is constantly considering, thinking, remaining open-minded but also obviously aware of the dangers of too much intrusion into his artistic life. The pain and distrust in his eyes is often palpable, and though the conflict shown between the public and private is an interesting one, it unfortunately seems unintentional on the filmmaker’s part. But we the audience are still forced to face our own entitlement and selfishness, our destructive curiosity about the artists we admire. By the end of the film, one wonders just what we hope to get out of a film where the cinematographic response to Richter’s clear discomfort of always being watched is to zoom in so we can see every detail of his sad eyes.