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Painting with the master

September 8, 2011

The German painter Gerhard Richter has long been considered one of the most significant contemporary artists in the world. A new documentary film offers a rare glimpse of the artist at work in his studio.

Gerhard Richter at work
Richter's studio is usually off-limitsImage: Piffl Medien

"Somehow the paintings just do what they want to do," declares Gerhard Richter in a scene from the new film "Gerhard Richter Painting" by filmmaker Corinna Belz.

Chance is a large part of the 79-year-old German artist's creative process, but the method is always the same. His paintings are the results of a long and careful process. Richter applies layer upon layer of color to the canvas in a manner similar to that of a plasterer working on a wall. Sometimes Richter will use a paintbrush, but he mostly works with a large wooden plank - a giant squeegee - enabling him to cover vast areas of canvas with paint.

Corinna Belz filmed the artist at irregular intervals over a period of months at work in his two studios in Cologne observing his preparations for a series of exhibitions in Cologne, London and New York. Richter's creative reclusiveness is what distinguishes him from other contemporary artists making the presence of a camera team somewhat of an experiment for him.

A painting in progress, by Gerhard Richter
Richter has worked in a wide variety of stylesImage: Piffl Medien

"We didn't pretend as if we weren't there and neither did he," Belz told DW-TV, "That's a good way of dealing with it."

The savior of painting

Alongside his work in the studio, the film also explores the connection between Richter's personal history growing up the communist East and his stylistic vocabulary, which oscillates between the purely abstract and a type of photographic realism. After experiencing the extremes of both the propagandistic art of the Nazi regime and then the politically dogmatic state-sponsored art of the former German Democratic Republic, Richter had become disillusioned with painting.

Shortly before the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 he fled with his wife and one suitcase from his home town of Dresden to West Germany. There he studied at the State Art Academy in Dusseldorf under Karl Otto Gotz and began working relationships with the artists Sigmar Polke and Georg Baselitz.

At a time when many artists were turning to installation and performance art, Richter was gaining an international reputation as the savior of painting, bringing new creative energy to the discipline. Richter described his photo-realist style of painting as "Capitalist Realism," his works often drawing on subject matter taken directly from print media.

The gray color palette of his famous Stammheim Cycle paved the way for a series of monochromatic paintings produced during the 1970s. Richter once commented that the gray tones provoked contradiction through the representation of a sense of "hopelessness, desolation and a lack of partisanship."

Stained glass for Cologne

Gerhard Richter
Richter is one of Germany's most renowned living artistsImage: Piffl Medien

Richter would not return to East Germany for over 20 years. In West Germany, Richter rapidly established himself as one of the most internationally significant artists of his generation. His works hang in galleries and museums across the globe with collectors willing to pay millions for just one pieces. But Gerhard Richter's art has not only impressed the global art scene: In 2007 the Catholic Church commissioned the artist, who currently lives and works in Cologne, to design a new stained-glass window for the Cologne Cathedral.

It was while Richter was at work on the window that filmmaker Corinna Belz was able to film him at work for the very first time. During filming, Belz slowly but surely gained his trust. Richter is known for being a particularly media-shy artist who very rarely gives interviews. As such, "Gerhard Richter Painting" provides an extraordinarily rare glimpse into the artist's creative process in his studio, which is normally never open to strangers.

Glimpse at the 'secretive affair'

In the film, Richter declares painting to be "a secretive affair," although the remarkable 101-minute documentary film quite literally peers over the artist's shoulder, observing every stroke of the brush. We see how Richter drags a giant squeegee loaded with color over the canvas and later carefully works at stripping away layers of paint with stunning sound effects. The streaks of color sometimes bleed into one another, creating unexpected tonal nuances, or form large opaque areas of canvas over dried sections of the work.

To begin with, Richter smears layers of paint all over the canvas, and then stands back and lets them work on him. "The critical way in which he looks at his pictures and being able to look at his pictures with him, that's what I found the most interesting," said Belz.

Richter only stops work on a painting at the point at which "nothing else is wrong," he tells his friend, art historian and critic Benjamin Buchloh during a visit to his studio in the chic district of Hahnwald in Cologne.

'I believe in nothing'

A painting in progress, by Gerhard Richter
The birth of a masterpieceImage: Piffl Medien

Two assistants help Richter with his work, filtering colors and assisting with the hanging of paintings on the walls. A studio coordinator is responsible for dealing with exhibition requests, transportation of works and fending off the press. Richter prepares for his exhibitions fastidiously, hanging photographs of his paintings in small, self-made architectural models of each museum or gallery. This enables him to decide upon the exact positioning of each work inside the gallery space.

Richter once said it was almost impossible to describe the act of painting and throughout the movie he remains tight-lipped. He is famously critical of ideological thinking, once declaring "I believe in nothing." Throughout the film he responds to questions from Belz with only a limited number of words, appearing reluctant to offer any definitive interpretation or art-historical account of his works.

The film focuses instead on the act of painting, with a series of detailed close-ups of gloopy, wet paint being swept across the canvas. But what does the artist himself think of the film? "It's good, because it's so boring!" says Richter, smiling. "It is so quiet and unassuming. It's similar to an exhibition - you want to show what it is that you do."

Author: Sabine Oelze / hw

Editor: Kate Bowen