The best documentary ever made about a painter at work is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Mystery Of Picasso, in which Pablo Picasso paints on glass in real time, letting Clouzot’s cameras catch the spontaneous processes of inspiration and revision. Corinna Belz attempts something similar with her documentary Gerhard Richter Painting. She shows the then-septuagenarian artist approaching blank white canvasses with buckets of paint, applying large swaths in layers before returning with a squeegee to smear the colors together. Belz shortens up Richter’s handiwork in the editing, adds footage of him preparing for gallery shows, and cuts in archival interviews in which Richter talks about his methods and demonstrates the range of his art, from photorealism to abstraction. But really, the title of the movie describes what it is.
It’s harder to describe whether Belz’s approach is adequate to the task of capturing Richter. The biographical information is sparse, aside from the occasional anecdote about Richter’s boyhood in Dresden, or about how he developed his interest in color-tones and textures. As Richter himself points out in a 1962 interview excerpted here, painting is a form of thinking that’s beyond language, which means Richter makes little effort to explain the meaning of his work to Belz, or even to hash out the technical reasons for why he does what he does in the studio. Following her subject’s lead, Belz only calls on a few critics or peers to provide perspective. Beyond Richter, the voices we hear most are his assistants, as they busy themselves smoothing out the paint for their boss’ buckets or helping him organize shows using tiny photographs and scale models of galleries.
Still, just as a document of the sheer physical labor that goes into covering a giant canvas with color, Gerhard Richter Painting is never less than absorbing. Richter does talk a little about how he made a breakthrough in his career when he learned to distinguish the qualities in varying shades of grey, and he does point out to Belz how he carefully plans out which color to apply in which order—and at what time—to get the effect he wants. But mostly, he just goes about his business, quietly and slowly pushing his squeegee inch by inch, allowing some accidents to occur so the paintings can reveal themselves, while also knowing that one slip can mean the difference between a stunning study in controlled chaos and a goopy mess.