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Old 12-15-2019, 03:21 PM
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Movies: “Gerhard Richter Painting” and “The Mystery of Picasso”

I’ve watched both these on DVD recently. If you haven’t seen them, they’re worth a look.

“The Mystery of Picasso” was released in 1956, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot; in French with subtitles. The film isn’t a biography, and doesn’t document Picasso’s long career. It is just Picasso, sketching and painting.

The cinematographer uses techniques which place the making of art at the focus, and that focus never wavers. It's filmed using tricks which make it appear that the ink on paper or oil on canvas appears magically, almost brushstroke by stroke. Picasso sometimes appears in the camera frame, but there is no analysis or commentary to speak of. Only the blank support, and then shape of a matador, a woman, a horseman, a goat suddenly appear, stroke after stroke.

The “mystery” is, for me, that Picasso’s hand is so confident and his art so immediate. The line of each work appears apparently without any preliminaries, as if it existed already and the artist simply opens it out into the world.

The finale is the best part, in my opinion. Picasso attempts a full-scale oil on canvas, filmed in stop-action so that many hours of painting appear in about 10 minutes of film. We see him start a landscape with figures in the foreground, paint out and rework sections, change the entire scene, add and subtract, try different styles. And we see him fail, by his own standards, to make an acceptable painting. “This is bad,” he says at one point. Then, later, “This is very bad.” Finally, he abandons the work – “Now I know what I want to paint” – and then the film cuts to a completed canvas obviously based on the failed one.

None of the works in the film are particularly good Picasso paintings, in my opinion (all were destroyed, intentionally, so that the only record of them is on film). The value of the film is in seeing the artist’s sure hand, his quickness, his ability to play with styles and ideas inside the flow of painting, confident that his inimitable technique will carry through.

This movie was hard to find in the libraries near me, or on the streaming services I checked. I had to buy the DVD.

“Gerhard Richter Painting” was filmed in 2009, and directed by Corinna Belz; German with subtitles. It features some footage of Richter painting, but much of the film shows him working with curators hanging an exhibition in Munich, with his assistants in his cavernous studio, and with the German art historian Benjamin Buchloh.

Richter seems a very private man, reticent, and his thoughts on art can seem elliptical. At one point, as the camera pans across a few paintings, a voice off camera (presumable director Belz) asks Richter how he knows when one of his abstract paintings is finished.

“When I feel there’s nothing wrong anymore, then I stop. Then it’s good.”

Can we go a little deeper, the voice asks. What makes it good?

“That’s more difficult,” Richter replies. He says that he knows when it’s good, and some viewers will also know when it’s good. But in the end, it seems he cannot say what “good” means – perhaps because there is a visual aesthetic which cannot be put into words. Beyond words?

And that, to me, is where this film becomes most interesting. Buchloh, who seems to be an old friend of Richter’s, approaches the same topic during a conversation in Richter’s office. He looks at a painting on the wall, and says, That one is good. So is the red one. Richter replies, Yes, all the red ones are good. Buchloh: “The most fascinating question is, why is it good?” Richter chuckles. But there is no straightforward answer.

Part of Richter’s charm, for me, is his reticence. At another point in the film, he has been using a large plexiglass squeegee on a painting as tall as he is. He lays down his tools, then looks directly at the cinematographer. “I don’t like the camera,” he says. “It makes me walk differently.” Somehow his dislike for being on-camera, for revealing himself, make him seem particularly honest when he does speak.

Elsewhere, he says, “It [painting] is a complex thing. Something you do in secret, and then reveal in public.” Asked about his international fame, and how he deals with it, he looks nonplussed. It’s part of the thing, he says.

Richter: “It’s an aggressive business. Paintings are always mortal enemies. That’s the correct term.”

Richter: “When I first approach a canvas, I can smear anything I want on it. Only then is there a condition I can react to by changing it, or destroying it, or wiping it off again, or repeating it. It happens – not by itself – but without plan or reason.”

Richter, about interpretation or analysis: “Paintings communicate with the viewer. A third person is not needed.”

(The art historian Clement Greenberg, writing in “Homemade Esthetics”: “...When it comes to taste, there isn’t any such thing as proving things. That is, every individual has to see for himself how good a good painting is… This cannot be communicated.” p. 94)

I don’t know if this film is available on the streaming services, as I bought the DVD on a whim. It can probably be borrowed through a public library.

--------------

Of course, the above is just my personal memory of, and reaction to, these films. I like the way they show Picasso and Richter engaged in art, and pretty consistently refuse to tell you why or how. I like that we never have to put up with the well-modulated voice of a narrator, pretending to be omniscient or reducing the mystery to chewed-over “facts”. It's just about the art and the artists.
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Old 12-15-2019, 04:13 PM
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Re: Movies: “Gerhard Richter Painting” and “The Mystery of Picasso”

Quote:
Originally Posted by Gerhard Richter
Paintings are always “mortal enemies.”

not always
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Old 12-15-2019, 07:56 PM
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Re: Movies: “Gerhard Richter Painting” and “The Mystery of Picasso”

John, I truly don't understand what Richter meant when he said that. In St. Louis I saw a triptych he painted -- January, December, November -- and, well, to my mind the individual paintings "cooperated" in some way. They shared secrets, though each had a personality as an individual.

Mysterious. It makes me wonder if the thought behind his statement is not what I imagine. I don't know, though. Perhaps in the original German there are subtleties which would help understanding.
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Old 12-15-2019, 09:07 PM
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Re: Movies: “Gerhard Richter Painting” and “The Mystery of Picasso”

Quote:
Originally Posted by Gerhard Richter
"Paintings are always mortal enemies. That's the correct term. It has to do with destruction.
Each painting is an assertion that tolerates no company."

in my case it's not so

maybe that's unusual
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Old 12-16-2019, 10:01 AM
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Re: Movies: “Gerhard Richter Painting” and “The Mystery of Picasso”

John -- quick reply, as Laura and I are about to travel.

Perhaps, in some of Richter's work, the idea might be that a painting (especially pure abstraction?) must "stand up to" or "prove itself" against previous work. If one is not to repeat oneself in a boring way, or if one is not to produce work that feels "less interesting" or "less good" than previous work, then a new work must demonstrate something artistically, something worthwhile, something unique, a new vision.

In that sense, perhaps, Richter's aesthetic needs each painting to prove itself against the established oeuvre. To stand up to the ones already on the wall. To make a space for itself, it's own claim on unique identity, an assertion "that tolerates no company".

Is this the situation with realistic landscape, or portrait, or still life? I'm not at all sure. Not at all. It seems to me that each new motif, or even each new view of a familiar motif, was enough for Monet, and each new face -- or new view of a face, even his own -- might have been enough for Albright.

Not to say that these artists didn't strive for a "better" painting every time they put brush to canvas. I'm sure they did. But perhaps not in the assertive, combative sense Richter describes.

I'm about to hit the road for 8 days, but I'll probably check in on the topic if I can. Perhaps others will chime in!
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Old 12-16-2019, 01:57 PM
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Re: Movies: “Gerhard Richter Painting” and “The Mystery of Picasso”

my work is very different yet harmonious

which may not be usual
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Old 12-17-2019, 10:55 AM
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Re: Movies: “Gerhard Richter Painting” and “The Mystery of Picasso”

Quote:
Originally Posted by HikingWithDogs
John, I truly don't understand what Richter meant when he said that. In St. Louis I saw a triptych he painted -- January, December, November -- and, well, to my mind the individual paintings "cooperated" in some way. They shared secrets, though each had a personality as an individual.

Mysterious. It makes me wonder if the thought behind his statement is not what I imagine. I don't know, though. Perhaps in the original German there are subtleties which would help understanding.


I have not seen this film.

Do you recall the context? Is he referencing the business side of the art world or the actual act of painting?
I am referring to: “It’s an aggressive business. Paintings are always mortal enemies. That’s the correct term.”


I was taken by his other comment: “Paintings communicate with the viewer. A third person is not needed.”.
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Old 12-17-2019, 10:53 PM
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Re: Movies: “Gerhard Richter Painting” and “The Mystery of Picasso”

Quote:
Originally Posted by Gerhard Richter
"Each painting is an assertion that tolerates no company."

this could be the case, or possibly not
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