Richter is the world’s foremost living artist and the documentary shows him, mainly in his studio, in 2009. Breaks occur to cover his exhibitions at leading galleries on both sides of the Atlantic that were either in preparation or occurring at that time. These shows, mostly retrospectives, illustrate his immense range for both realistic and abstract painting as well as his creative handling of subject and materials. They expand the perspective of the studio scenes, which show him working on a large-scale abstract series.
The painting scenes track him from underpainting and then to either large or very large squeegees to move paint around the canvases - either layering on or removing paint. Long periods of silence show him going through these back and forth stages - including frequent angst and dissatisfaction. In terms of watching an artist at work, this is the best documentary I have seen. It illustrates his process from beginning to end - at least in a few cases. Apparently, even when he decides a painting is done, he frequently pulls it back and continues to work on it some more.
The movie’s drawback is Richter himself as he is shy and frequently inarticulate. He accepts the fact that he must be out in public and seems to do it graciously if uncomfortably when necessary. As he comments at one point, he cannot paint when being followed by a camera. Further, his explanations of his work are often challenging and filled with painful silences. It is hard to follow the logic of what he wants to say. He was a tough subject for the filmmaker who did her best to draw him out but he clearly prefers to show his final products and not have to talk about how he work or his process. Certainly, he is a thoughtful person and has had a life full of challenges - born in Nazi Germany, growing up in East Germany, defecting to West Germany in the 1960s and never being able to see his parents again. He has internalized all these things, but finds it difficult to speak meaningfully about them.
Gerhard Richter Painting opens a window onto a modern painting giant, offering at least some insights into his process, techniques and struggles. Much lesser artists can draw comfort from seeing the challenges he also faces after more than 50 years as a painter.