Gerhard Richter is a humble man; a renowned German visual artist and squeegee pro.
But these aren't your momma's squeegees. Varying in sizes, some large enough to cover the entire height of a wall-sized canvas, Richter's squeegees are applied with paint and then pushed across a wet surface, and depending on the pressure and direction, the paint already underneath the squeegee gets blended and squished into a beautiful mess of Modern art. Hell yeah.
Corinna Bels, the director of Gerhard Richter: Painting, was already a devoted fan of Ricther's work, so it's clear why she decided to spend extended periods of time filming the talented artist. The film, a polished ~100 minutes or so, is an exquisite study of not just Gerhard, but his masterful-yet-flawed process.
Filmed over a couple years, the tone of Painting never really changes. The majority of the documentary exists in his studio, where Bels's steady camera spies on the perfectionist painter. It's clear in the opening shots that Richter is very uncomfortable being captured, and it gets to the point where it affects his ability to focus on the work he wants to do. Gradually, however, he gets used to the camera crew, and this is where the film really begins to shine. He opens up and becomes candid on the canvas.
That sincerity makes me want to say Bels has filmed the art-world equivalent of a rare mating dance from an African bird-of-paradise. Really, Painting is exactly as the name implies: it's a documentary on Richter painting. On a big screen. But while that sounds pretty common, Painting is really more about the methods and passion in every stroke of Richter's brush; the evolution of his canvas.
The sound design is wonderfully textured. Each slop, drip, and slap of the brush hitting a surface exudes a luxury and richness that feels unrivaled in art documentaries, and the camera sits still enough for you to feel lost in his work. Audiences unfamiliar with Modern art will likely attempt to try and find meaning in the slew of colours and stripes, which is fine, but it won't come easily. Richter's finished pieces are like those magic 3D puzzles: if you stare at them long enough, a beautiful cohesion comes into focus.
Richter is nearly an octogenarian, so seeing him struggle to push a two metre squeegee vertically across a canvas is compelling and downright inspiring. The squeegee has an uncanny ability to blend colours and reveal layers underneath, and the results will surprise and beguile. It's enough to deeply impress even the most boorish of uncultured audiences.
So, yeah: Gerhard Richter: Painting could feel tedious to impatient viewers. This film takes its time. And so should you: what appears to be arbitrary swipes of paint becomes a life-long dedication to getting things perfect, or leaving the studio for a day and coming back to it until the work is.