The film Gerhard Richter Painting is exactly what it says it is: A documentary about the 80-year-old German artist putting paint on canvas that offers a look at the mighty mountain of creative achievement.
In his Cologne studio, Richter takes a bucket of lemon-yellow paint and a big brush begins to cover the surface of a large canvas, leaving a couple of ragged spaces bare.
Next, he covers two of the spaces in blue, which bleeds into the yellow to form green boundaries. In the upper right-hand corner, a slash of red pours down like a red gusher. If you saw it in a hotel lounge, it would be called something like Hawaiian Landscape with Volcano.
"I'll leave it for a while," he says.
Immediately, he begins another painting, with the same colours, then returns to the first and adds a red loop and a line like a Japanese kanji character. He looks pleased.
"These won't hold up long here," he says skeptically. "It's like this: It's so much fun and they look good for two hours. Sometimes for a day."
All of this feels quietly contemplative, the slap of the brushes, Richter's calm focus and the ever-changing play of shape and colours. In an archival interview (he looks in his early 40s) he tells an interviewer that painting is another way of thinking. We gradually fill in the bare spaces of his history. Raised in eastern Germany, and, from his late 20s on, immersed in the modern movements of the early sixties, his career stands as a one-man museum of modern art, ranging from photorealistic paintings to conceptual pieces to abstract canvases.
But director Corinna Belz isn't interested in promoting or explaining Richter's career. The artist's most famous figurative paintings – Ema (Nude on a Staircase) (1966) and Betty (1988) – are barely seen, and his sensational series on the Baader-Meinhof Gang in the late 1980s is only briefly mentioned. The focus here is on his big abstract paintings, the arena for the artist to wrestle with his own subjectivity, where planning and chance collide.
"When I begin, theoretically and practically I can smear anything I want on the canvas," he tells the German art historian Benjamin Buchloch. "Then there's a condition I have to react to, by changing it or destroying it."
After an art gallery opening where the modest Richter endures the phalanx of photographers and gushing fans, we see him back in the studio again, deeper in the work now, noticeably less calm. This time he's wielding a giant squeegee, as tall as he is, which he scrapes across the surface of his paintings, adding a new layer of paint, while scoring the surface for unpredictable effects At this stage, he says, each painting is a "mortal enemy. That's the correct term. It has to do with destruction."
The camera becomes an accessory to the crime: "It's not working," he complains to Belz. "I don't think I can do this – painting under observation. It's the worst thing there is, worse than being in the hospital."
Though exasperated, he returns to the task, pushing his squeegee across the now beige-grey mottled surface of the painting. It suggests the cursed Greek king Sisyphus, pushing his boulder up the incline. When he reaches the end, an unexpected streak of yellow emerges from deep down among the layers. He looks upon its appearance with the shock of seeing a long-lost friend.
"Man, that was fun," he says.
Gerhard Richter Painting
- Directed by Corrina Belz
- Classification: PG
- 3 stars