The Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Tate Modern will give you as good a gander at his artwork as you’re going to get, but Corinna Belz’s new film Gerhard Richter Painting will show you just how the German painter makes his masterpieces.
The humble squeegee is elevated to high art tool as Richter forces it across vast canvases; the sound like thunder claps, whale tails slapping the sea or ski edges on ice. Big abstracts are the focus of the film as he keeps dragging the thick coloured paints (“the classics”, not “exotic” colours) until “according to my standards, nothing’s wrong anymore, then I stop”.
Archive footage of Richter in Düsseldorf in 1966 sees the dark, dashing young man reveal: “To talk about painting is not only difficult, but perhaps pointless too.” But approaching 80, he gives it a go for Belz, offering opinions that range from simple descriptions of his “nice” and “cheerful” works to agreeing with philosopher Adorno that “paintings are mortal enemies.” It’s this range of pleasant and profound that makes Richter so charming to watch work. He’s not always at it though, stopping at one stage to confess, “I don’t know what to do next,” as he stares at two pieces. Feeling exposed and struggling to paint, he gives up. Belz perseveres and manages to coax him into further filming, but all the while, his stated belief that painting is “a secretive business” makes you feel a little guilty watching, like staring at a great lion in a cage.
i-D online caught up with Belz to talk about capturing Richter on camera.
How did you even manage to get Gerhard to agree to the project? Of course I knew Gerhard Richter’s work, but I didn’t know him personally. After making a film about his Cologne Cathedral window, I constantly encouraged everybody – Richter, his assistants, and also myself – to go for a feature-length documentary.
Were you at times uncomfortable filming him paint, since he was clearly uncomfortable at certain stages? There were two or three situations where I really felt uncomfortable. One of them is in the film. But we managed these crises with contemplating, creating distance, starting anew. Beyond that, Richter also gave us the feeling that painting was “the most natural thing in the world” – filming, too.
How would you sum him up as an artist and a personality? Always on time. Always ahead.
What did you feel watching him paint? I felt very concentrated and relaxed at the same time. The film is about the privilege of spending time with him while he works, and I try to pass that on to the viewer.
Gerhard Richter Painting will be on release from autumn 2011 to winter 2012. A collectable Limited Edition DVD & Book set featuring the film, exclusive extras and postcards, new writings and director’s notes will be available from early October through Tate shops and at select art, book and design shops, and at Frieze Art Fair.
Images: Stills from Gerhard Richter Painting, 2011, courtesy Soda Pictures.
Text: Stuart Brumfitt