Richter for Reel

This last week I watched the film “Gerhard Richter Painting,” (an apt and self-interpreting title). This isn’t a film for everyone, but I was spell-bound. Richter could well be Germany’s most famous cultural export. His paintings and photo-paintings are simply sublime. From time to time, I load one of his works of art onto my computer and just stare. Objectivity likely doesn’t inform what follows.

The film chronicles Richter working on a handful of paintings, alongside of his musings about the past, and film slices from his attendance at public events. Richter appears to eschew attention throughout the film, which makes one wonder why he agreed to the project. Nonetheless, the viewer is awarded interesting insights into the mind and work of this master. At one point in the film, he is working on a piece, and then begins to pace nervously about, looking at it from different angles. It is hard to describe the look on his face: pensive, impatient, ponderous, all of these and more. He stops, and says “I don’t know what to do next.” His face is blank, having become a canvas of its own as the viewer projects his or her own moments of anxiety and failure onto this visage. He walks over to his bench and loads some blue on his spreader, but pauses saying, “It’s not working.” There is an interchange between Richter and the interviewer, during which Richter mentions the movement towards the blue was “overblown.” The interviewer asks him if it was because he was “at a loss.” Richter replies “There’s always that. That’s not the problem. It won’t work. I don’t think I can do this.” If I was his mother, I would weep watching this anguish. But I’m not his mother, I’m his fan.

Fans expect both excellence and confidence from their heroes. Richter bursts that bubble. I can’t imagine how a man who has been producing seven figure paintings for decades could ever be at loss. I imagine him being full of the confidence reflected in his paintings. But that is my vision, not his reality. Richter produces astounding works of art, but by his confession, they come from the place of being “at a loss.”

Well, his loss is my, is art’s, is the world’s gain. He injects arresting beauty into creation. It comes from a place that I too am familiar with, yet a place I try hard to hide. I scurry to bury loss deep; Richter spreads it across his canvas. I imagine certainty and clarity to be the mark of the master, but this master gropes in the dark, even while chronicling his artistic wager with creativity for all to see. In so doing, he reminds us that often the path forward is behind us; the illumined way begins in the dark; life makes its appearance in death; and faith treads the way of doubt.

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8 thoughts on “Richter for Reel

  1. shoreacres says:

    I watched the trailer. I need to watch the complete film, or do some reading, as I’m not familiar with his work. I have a sense my response – at least to his larger, more abstract canvases – would be much the same as my response to artists like Rothko. I admire them, I respect them and acknowledge their right to be in the pantheon, but I don’t respond to them viscerally. There’s no “connection”, as they say.

    On the other hand, there’s a strange little truth about some of these artists. They’re as good as anyone at turning the creative process inside out and shaking out its pockets. I love hearing what they have to say, even when I don’t especially “enjoy” what they produce. That’s flat mystery, but it’s put “Richter Painting” on my must-see list.

    • agjorgenson says:

      Thanks for your insightful comments. i have to admit that I really didn’t connect with Rothko until I stood in front of one of his huge canvases. Richter is a bit different. I remember first seeing his work at the Art Gallery in Chicago: I walked toward the painting, and then backward from it, and my head just spun. Not all of his work is abstract, but most of it has a kind of blurred, or soft, quality to it that I quite like.

      I like what you have to say about the manner in which some of these folk turn things on their heads. That is usually helpful. I generally assume that people who do this are self-assured, and I was surprised to see the degree of self doubt in Richter.

      As I noted in the post, the movie might not be for everyone, but I really found it fascinating. I hope you “enjoy” it, although that too may not be the right word!

  2. diannegray says:

    I really want to see this film. It’s amazing how we have the impression that successful artists and writers can just whip something up with all the confidence in the world. It’s so refreshing to know that this is not the case and this sort of film ‘humanises’ those who (we think) find their work comes naturally to them with ease. I’m really looking forward to it.

  3. agjorgenson says:

    Thanks for commenting Dianne. I really enjoyed the film, even though it moves along quite slowly. The genre fits the subject matter in that way. I really found it quite inspiring, and touching at times.

  4. jannatwrites says:

    I’m not familiar with this artist, but what struck me was the idea that we expect successful people to have it easy. I wonder why it’s so surprising to find out they struggle, and sometimes fail. Interesting idea that creativity could stem from a place of loss. We’ve all felt that, but not everyone channels it into a creative endeavor.

  5. agjorgenson says:

    Hi Janna, thanks! I agree with you: it is odd that we expect that successful people have it easy. Maybe we are simply hoping that one day life will be effortless for us as well?

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