Filmed over the span of 10 months in the year 2009 Gerhard Richter Painting is a rare glimpse into the studio and life of one of the world’s most renown painters. The film shows the artist while he works on a series of abstracts documenting in part his creative process. No film can truly capture the essence of an artist at work, but filmmaker Corinna Belz does a fair job. The problem of trying to document the process of art creation is that the minute the camera is set up the painting becomes more of a performance and the art may suffer because of it. Picasso famously destroyed all the work created for the 1956 film The Mystery of Picasso. He realized the camera’s presence was a distraction and felt that it compromised the work. Richter also acknowledges the camera’s affect in so much that ‘it changes the way he walks’.
Richter in fact is no stranger to change. Since establishing his name in the late 60’s, he is one of the few artists who can easily travel between the worlds of photo-realism and pure abstraction. The documentary touches upon his career through a series of retrospectives held throughout the world highlighting the range of his distinct styles. This aspect of the film dwells too heavily on the mock-ups of the gallery layouts and miniature reproductions of the work. It provides a glimpse into his immense catalogue but leaves the viewer wanting to see the actual paintings.
The film does however do a wonderful job of revealing the charm of its subject. The 81 year old artist is both humble and open while being very self aware of his trajectory. A telling scene comes when he is casually strolling through a gallery full of Picasso’s and is more interested in the florescent lighting above him than the masterpieces in front of him. In October a painting by Richter sold for a record 34.2 million (update he just recently beat his own record -37 million). This is the highest price ever paid at auction for a living artist. He enjoys the attention of all the exhibitions and the adoring public but all these obligations for him take time away from his true love painting.
Witnessing the decisions Richter makes as he executes the work is the true joy of this film. His insight into what’s worth keeping and what’s worth discarding is always surprising and always on the money. Favour is a fickle mistress that changes from day to day. A painting has to pass the test of time to be able to leave the studio. Knowing when something’s finished may be the hardest part of being an artist. It is a shame that this documentary only runs an hour an half because I could have watched him paint all day.