Corinna Belz, Gerhard Richter Painting
Capturing the moment a work of art is born, or rather the arduous process through which a particular masterwork begins to reveal itself to a painter or sculptor, is an old subject for cinema. Hollywood in the classical and postwar era loved biopics, bringing to the screen highly romanticized, larger-than-life portrayals of everyone from Rembrandt to Van Gogh, Michelangelo to Toulouse-Lautrec. There are fewer great films that focus single-mindedly on the creative process, however. Jacques Rivette’s La belle noiseuse is one, a masterful film about a fictional artist whose laborious, continually frustrated efforts to paint his beautiful young muse are rendered in minute documentary detail and large swaths of real-time concentration. On the documentary side, Victor Erice’s Quince Tree of the Sun (aka Dream of Light) is an enthralling depiction of Spanish artist Antonio López’s perennial efforts to faithfully depict the way light hits a tree in his garden every autumn, slyly combined with one or two fictional techniques, as if the impurities in the artist’s work had become the director’s own.
Corinna Belz’s Gerhard Richter Painting delivers precisely what the title of the film promises: for most of the film, we witness one of the world’s most celebrated and prolific artists at work in his studio, creating a series of large paintings, and the effect is mesmerizing. Richter applies layer after layer of paint to his canvases, first with brushes and then with his redoubtable giant squeegee, continually altering the surface and expression of his spontaneous abstracts, which become richer and more mysterious with each pass. Richter, a laconic, gentle artist who has never allowed anyone to film or observe him while he is at work, is openly discomfited by the camera, telling the director at one point, “We have to talk about the film.” Occasionally, Belz inserts brief cut-outs of interviews with the Dresden-born painter from the late ’60s and early ’70s, after his defection from East Germany, impressing upon us the continuity of his thinking about art as well as his reluctance to expound upon its most secretive inner qualities. Glimpses of Richter navigating the klieg lights of fandom at a major exhibition (“There is often no time to paint,” he tells an interviewer who asks about how he copes with fame. “You can suffer.”) or chatting with long-time friend and gallerist Marian Goodman are illuminating, as are Richter’s blunt yet moving confessions about the pain of leaving his parents behind the Iron Curtain as he glances through a pile of family photos. But for most of Belz’s film we are simply locked into Richter’s head space, watching him transform gobs of thick paint into richly textured museum pieces, often destroying what was “finished” a few days before. It’s a process to behold.
Filmmaker spoke with Belz about creative destruction, artist anxieties, and the spontaneity of documentary filmmaking. Gerhard Richter Painting opens today at Film Forum in New York City.
Filmmaker: Did you have any conceptual plan for the film or was it spontaneously constructed?
Belz: I first made a 30-minute film, Gerhard Richter’s Window (2007), on his stained-glass window in the Cologne cathedral. That was good because we got to know each other. Afterwards, we decided to go for the feature, but there was not a written script or proposal. I knew that wouldn’t work and that I’d have to fade in the working processes whenever I could. So my idea was to be more like an anthropologist, to look at [his process]. The first thing was to get rid of my own expectations — that’s always a problem for doc filmmakers — and then I developed the shooting days. The most important point for me was to film Richter while he worked on a series of paintings. That was not easy to arrange. In 2008, he himself didn’t know when he would start to paint — even his assistants didn’t know. Then we had to persuade him it could work — he was a little bit afraid. Not even close friends and art historians had ever been present while he was working in the studio. At first we only used a tripod, and then I decided to use a handheld camera.
Filmmaker: What do you think Richter’s openness to the project sprang from? Why did he allow you in?
Belz: He wasn’t that open in the beginning. He was much more reserved — I was only in his studio once for the short film. But perhaps there were two reasons: One was I didn’t have a shooting plan and I wasn’t there every day, standing in front of the house waiting! [Laughs] It would have been difficult for him if somebody had come from L.A. or New York or Australia. He’d have felt responsible to go on filming. I live in Cologne and [all it took] was a phone call: “What is happening in the studio?” Then I could quickly react. When we started to film, perhaps he thought “It doesn’t feel so bad,” and maybe he got interested in this new situation. To be, like Nietzsche says, “dancing in chains.” [Laughs]
Filmmaker: Funny you mention Nietzsche, because his concept of “creative destruction”— the Dionysian force — was on my mind early in the film. Richter himself mentions that he read Nietzsche and Goethe in his youth. I wonder if his willingness to allow you into the studio was also an act of creative destruction, a way to dismantle the idea that painting needs to happen in secret.
Belz: That’s important for him, that painting needs to happen in a hidden kind of way. So perhaps it was a way for him to overcome his shyness and to have a special approach to this filmmaking process. I even left a little camera with him. The film starts with the scene where he installs a tripod for the camera. Therefore he had an instrument for himself to film the paintings. When I wasn’t in the studio, I phoned and said please don’t forget the camera! He loves to work on weekends when no one is there. So he [made] his own sequences. But destroying is an interesting idea — maybe he wants to destroy the myth.
Filmmaker: From what he tells you in the film, art still has a powerful sense of mystery for him.
Belz: Yes, of course. He believes nothing can replace this process of working with paint on canvas. I think that’s what his work is all about.
Filmmaker: It’s amazing to see all of the tension in his process as well, and the fact that he needs the emotion rendered to feel authentic and complete, something he often changes his mind about after finishing a work and returning to it days later. What’s your sense of how he reaches that place?
Belz: It’s still mysterious for me as well. There are different moods captured in the paintings. When I saw [how he applies] layer after layer, it’s for me like the painting has an inside as well, not only an outside. Maybe that’s how Richter sees it, too. The painting surprises him. He always wants to get to the point where he loses control. He wants the painting to speak to him. He once said, “I have to find out what the painting wants.” In the middle of the film, where he says, “Let’s talk about the film,” I was a bit afraid. Afterwards you see him sitting in the garden watching, and then you see the paintings. That’s an important scene for me, because you have the feeling that the paintings are staring at you. [Laughs]
Filmmaker: What did you take away from the process of observing Richter at work that you didn’t expect?
Belz: One thing was that with this huge squeegee, he often risks the whole painting. I didn’t know that. At one moment he says, [after applying] the blue squeegee, “the painting is destroyed.” Sometimes he can remove the color but that’s not always possible. I didn’t know this was such a risky situation when he comes to a certain point of destruction, that the painting won’t come back. The other thing was, he was so open and didn’t control me. That was important for me in developing our conversation. Normally, there are a hundred questions in your mind! But you have to know to forget them and really to develop questions spontaneously, improvising, and not to have all the things you’ve read in your head. You need to create this atmosphere where the subject feels free to express [himself], to be open and not demanding.
Filmmaker: If you’d approached Richter the way a journalist might have, he might have felt assaulted by the interrogation.
Belz: Yes. He wouldn’t have answered at all. In all the written interviews, you can see he has a technique to make the interviewer answer his own questions. I spoke with [Yale School of Art dean] Robert Storr about this deflection tactic, and he agreed, so I tried to avoid that. It’s why I would say to Richter, “I didn’t quite understand that, please go on.”
Filmmaker: Clearly, he feels it’s pointless to speak about something nonlinguistic and so fundamentally internal. Yet what he does say about art is really interesting. At one point, he tells [art historian] Benjamin Buchloh there’s no plan for his art, and yet it’s not formless. That’s the paradox.
Belz: Exactly. For him, the balance between control and chance is important. He always tries to work with these two elements. What he addresses in the film are really key questions: Is what’s “good” related to truth? That’s what Buchloh asks, and he says yes, of course. These are basic issues in conversations about art, but you can’t answer them in a 90-minute film!
Filmmaker: Or perhaps ever.
Belz: Yes, that’s what Richter thinks.
Filmmaker: From the brief glimpses of archive, you can see the consistency in his thinking over the years and that he’s always been very circumspect about how he articulates his thoughts on painting. How did you choose material so it would convey what you needed but wouldn’t overwhelm the more general concept you had for the film, which was simply watching him paint?
Belz: We spent three months in the editing room and decided we only wanted these bits. In one version, we included sit-down interviews from the ’80s, but we threw them out. I also filmed two long sit-down interviews with Richter, but he hated it. You feel how uncomfortable he is, so we made a decision not to use these other materials.
Filmmaker: That contributes to the feeling we have of being in his head space. You immerse us in his thinking, just by observing. However, the circumstances under which he left East Germany were pivotal for him, and you do touch on that briefly.
Belz: I wanted to introduce this subject in the scene where he looks at his family photos. He told us a little bit about his parents, but not so much about his time studying in Dresden. That time was important for him, but most important was his decision to leave. If he had stayed, he’d never have become the artist he is today. It’s very emotional [as he explains it] – all of a sudden, you have the feeling that he is very touched. The fact that he never saw his parents again was nowhere mentioned [previously], even in his written biography. No one mentioned that this was a goodbye forever.
Filmmaker: Yes, for a moment it feels like he’s going to weep. And then he looks at all the photos and says, “I should just throw these away.”
Belz: That means he is what he is by his own thinking, by working. He really was inventing himself. By the way, the scene was not proposed by me. In 2008 his assistant told me, “At the moment, Richter is working with his family photos,” and I said, “Please, can I come and film him?” It was work he was doing for himself.
Filmmaker: Richter had a chance to see the film and offer some notes. How did he respond?
Belz: I feel responsible for the people with whom I make a film and I think he felt this. But when he came to see Gerhard Richter Painting, when it was almost finished, he was afraid of what he would see. After watching it, he was relieved. He said, “I’m so happy that I don’t have to tell you to throw it away.”