Artist’s creative process makes for compelling documentary

  • Thu Mar 22nd, 2012 10:57am
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

What does a painter actually do in his studio? How does that paint get on the canvas, why does he begin with yellow or blue, how does he know when the painting is finished?

A movie that allows you to sit and observe the process has automatic appeal for art mavens who wonder these sorts of things. So a documentary like “Gerhard Richter Painting” captures a process in a way that will fascinate anybody with an interest in the subject.

But there’s a problem. How does the observation affect the painter? After Richter paints for a while in his large studio in Cologne, he stops and talks to the filmmaker, Corinna Belz.

He’s not sure he can go on like this, he admits. He can’t forget the camera’s presence, and it’s affecting his work. It’s even affecting the way he walks around the studio, so self-conscious is he about being watched.

This admission only deepens the film’s exploration into the mystery of art. And, eventually, Richter does relax enough to resume his process before the camera, but now we’re inside his head a little bit more.

Belz fills in a few biographical details around the edges, and she employs footage of a younger Richter taken from previous documentaries. He came of age in East Germany, but left for the West in 1961; he never saw his parents again. We also see him alternately basking and shrinking from the demands of being an internationally famous artist, as photographers descend on him at a gallery opening.

By its design, this is not a portrait of the artist. This is fly-on-the-wall stuff. And what we see is Richter covering a blank canvas with great swaths of color, only to then muddy up his colorful abstracts by rubbing dark paint on the surface.

In his career he has made art in many different styles, but here we watch him use a squeegee to alter the surface of his paintings. (Great detail: the sound of the squeegee as it scraaaaapes across the canvas.)

The physical process is interesting to witness, but it’s also intriguing to guess at the psychological game going on: Why is Richter going back for another round of squeegeeing? The painting looks pretty cool as is — what internal barometer is telling him it isn’t finished yet?

In interview asides, Richter addresses some of this stuff. But he doesn’t really know the answers, either. Which may have a lot to do with why his work — and this movie — remains so tantalizing.

When people say a movie is boring they say it’s like watching paint dry. This film challenges that assumption by coming pretty close to literally making you watch paint dry. And it turns out to be more suspenseful than you might have guessed.

“Gerhard Richter Painting” (3 stars)

A documentary look at the critically lauded German painter — but not a profile. Instead, we watch Richter in his studio, painting (and sometimes struggling to paint) canvases that he then scrapes over with large, paint-soaked squeegees. Which becomes (at least if you’re intrigued by the mystery of artistic creation) a thoroughly suspenseful process. In German, with English subtitles.

Rated: Not rated; probably PG for subject matter.

Showing: Northwest Film Forum.