Few bodies of work in any medium have expressed the tension between photography and the world, between representation and expression, between memory and history, as that of the German painter Gerhard Richter: the blur or softening or tricks of light that envelop his photo-based work can also be detected in much of his abstract work. So there’s something almost inherently satisfying about the notion of making a documentary about Richter at work, of photographing the making of paintings whose content or aesthetic are founded in photography.
Largely devoid of commentary, Corrina Belz’s straightforwardly titled Gerard Richter Painting is primarily concerned with bearing witness to the moment when something mysterious comes into being, with tracking the turning points in Richter’s process, moments when he decides to revise the face of an entire canvas in a single broad gesture—moments about which Richter himself has relatively little to say. Which makes Gerhard Richter Painting an unusually physical movie, its key recurring image being that of the very fit titular octogenarian taking his massive flat brush and pushing it slowly and carefully across a work-in-progress. Squarely framed, the act appears mythical, almost Herculean, and the sound is equally impactful, that tremendous echoing whoomph as he lifts the brush away. These scenes are simultaneously meditative and exhilarating.
The rest is the film is pretty interesting too: Richter preparing a number of major international exhibitions, building his 1:50 scale models; glimpses of Richter’s family; Richter’s chipper assistants taking lumps out of paint; Richter examining old photos and recalling childhood memories; Richter speaking of the secrecy involved in painting, but very matter-of-factly—there is no forced mystique to his countenance; he’s pretty much a friendly, smart, but no-bullshit kind of guy. (Every once in a while he reminds me of Anthony Hopkins.) There are also excerpts from earlier television documentaries about Richter dating from more than 40 years ago, and these are also fascinating. In one, the young Richter tries to dismiss the notion of the artist as purely cerebral, as working from clear and realizable intentions. “You can’t think while you’re painting,” he says. “Painting is another form of thinking.” And in this sense, Belz has successfully captured thought on film.