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.