Painter as Cinema: Gerhard Richter and Never Look Away
One of the difficult processes of being solidly past sixty years of age has been the near-weekly grieving for the passing away of cherished, long-time film, television, and music personalities. Many of my favorite musicians are over seventy years old, and although they are leaving our common “stage,” there are many recent recording artists whom I respect that can at least partially fill the void left by their absence. It was only when I decided to write this article about one of the world’s greatest living artists, Gerhard Richter, that I realized that within the genre of the arts, the number of genius painters has dwindled down at breakneck speed to a handful of survivors. And as for a new generation carrying the creative torch, I can’t think of a single talent anywhere close to their level of accomplishment.
I tend to read a limited amount about the personal life of contemporary painters outside of books and articles. I try to focus more on the works themselves in the context of art history. In some ways, the mystery of living American legends such as Jasper Johns (b. 1930), Ed Ruscha (b. 1937), and Frank Stella (b. 1936) might be diminished in my eyes, should I read details on what they do day-to-day for amusement or how they fare as family men (think the disappointment of knowing about Picasso’s personal traumas).
Two of the best living painters are German and both have made it a point at times to starkly depict subjects centered around their country’s horrific Nazi history and the avoidance by everyday people of individual responsibility for crimes against humanity.
Each time I have viewed a large, multi-faceted work by Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945), I have been stunned and awakened to a world not quite recognizable, but in some way tangible while horrifically unreal. His many dark textures and use of thick substances in his choice of paints and other materials literally jump off his canvases and emerge far beyond the emotional, colorful gobs of tortured oils used by van Gogh. As you take in Kiefer’s ordered madness, you realize that the overload is systematically planned, and that he is as strong in personality as an artist can be and could never conceivably end up like poor Vincent. In February 2020, The New York Times Magazine ran a lengthy feature on Kiefer, where the famous and eccentric Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard met up with him on several occasions to learn his working process while attempting to discover the motivations of his soul. Knausgaard reports back to his readers about this mission and highly personal quest to draw back the wizard’s curtain of Kiefer’s private incentives and succeeds in exposing the character strengths and perplexing weaknesses of the artist. Kiefer is presented as a confident, eccentric genius but with flaws that at times render him callous and vacant.
In my opinion, the world’s greatest living artist is Gerhard Richter (b. 1932). Richter gives interviews from time to time for the Wall Street Journal about art and life, and I look forward to them, few as they are. Richter has had an interesting career, making his name with early monochromatic, photorealistic paintings that dig to the core of the beholder in an unfathomable manner. He later moved on to paint everything from color charts to large abstract canvases and even turned to using electric lights in his works. My favorite paintings are his early large photorealism depictions of scenes and portraits from family snapshots, and his Forty-eight Portraits (1971-1972) series where with the precision of early twentieth century official academic portraiture and a palette of black and white tones, he created representations of well-known writers and composers such as Kafka and Mahler. Richter’s early work also featured slightly blurred canvases showing candles that seem to slowly waver on viewing. His Woman With an Umbrella is a portrait of the grieving Jackie Kennedy, composed in a startlingly different way than Warhol depicted her in his many silkscreen pieces.
Although I enjoy and revel in Richter’s magical, photorealistic work, there has always been a lurking disturbance in each painting that I never truly attempted to understand or define until I viewed the fifteen works at the Museum of Modern Art that make up October 18, 1977. MoMA’s website notes that the paintings “evoke fragments from the lives and deaths of the Baader-Meinhof group and reflect Richter’s distrust of painting’s ability to accurately represent the world, a recurring subject of his work.” One cannot view these images of a terrorist group, three of whom were found dead in their jail cells on the series’ title date, and ignore their unsettling underpinnings. Richter may consider himself the artist of removal, yet by choosing such a controversial subject and presenting it in such eerie fashion, he makes an absolute statement. But what exactly is that statement and how much meaning does the viewer bring to it from their own heart and mind? That has always been an interesting aspect of looking at art, but in this case, the mere looking at it in a museum setting seems to evoke collusion in an undefined societal crime.
In 2018, the movie Never Look Away, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and said to be based on the life of Gerhard Richter, was released. Prior to viewing it, I read a piece in The New Yorker about how the filmmaker approached Richter to loosely base the young protagonist’s life on the German’s early travails. Richter at first eagerly cooperated only to suddenly lose interest and become very angry about the project. That said, the movie is a great one, an extraordinary personal journey of a young painter painstakingly discovering his identity, vision, technique, and philosophy, which turns out to be a purposeful avoidance of philosophy. Never Look Away is emotionally wrenching and an up-close trip through Cold War Germany as the nation both accepts and hides from its responsibility for Nazi atrocities.
In the movie, the artist-to-be, Kurt Barnert (portrayed as a young man by Kurt Schilling), is of a very young age during the years of Nazi rule. In the opening sequence, his eccentric aunt, the young and beautiful Elisabeth, brings him to a museum where a curator leads visitors through an exhibition featuring one of the surveys of what the National Socialists pronounced “degenerate art.” To the surprise of the little boy, his aunt confides in a gay, laughing secret that she admires the paintings, going against the official party line.
Elisabeth proves to be clinically manic and loses herself to madness. The film shifts to the institution where she is held at the mercy of cold-hearted physicians who are triaging patients to be transported to camps for extermination, selecting those they believe to fail mental and physical Nazi standards for German citizenship. Elisabeth makes a last tearful plea for clemency to a doctor in his private office, who is visibly both moved and horrified by her burst of raw honesty. After she is taken from his office, we see this cruel man hastily sign the medical papers that will lead to her death.
The subsequent story is partially but not entirely true to Richter’s life and that of one of his wives. After the war, the physician conceals his past behavior and escapes punishment for complicity with the Reich. By the 1950s, he is living as a reputable and respected doctor. Ironically, the Richter-character, Barnert, falls in love and marries the doctor’s daughter without a clue that his father-in-law doomed his aunt to death in the camps. The doctor proves to be as brutal and calculatingly cruel with his own daughter and Barnert as when he was a Nazi collaborator.
Early in their careers, both Richter and Kiefer painted as subjects or put photos on display of Nazis in casual poses, shocking the German establishment of the 1950s and 1960s with their honest portrayal of local, familial pride in the Reich. In Never Look Away, Richter’s character eventually reaches the eureka moment of discovery of the photorealistic style and we watch his first solo exhibition that ends up launching his long career as a successful artist. In addition, when his father-in-law drops by his studio to see the photographically-based paintings, he is shocked to see portraits of the long dead Aunt Elisabeth, recalling how he’d signed off to have her murdered as she desperately asked him to think of her as a daughter and as a growing young woman like those of his own family. Neither painter nor doctor know any details of the other’s ties to this woman. In addition, Barnert based these large paintings on personal photographs from the 1930s of the medical institution where his aunt was held and his father-in-law worked. His father-in-law can’t fathom how these people came to be the subject of his son-in-law’s art. Finally, this beast of a man appears to understand the horrific things he has done and continues to do to his own family and we watch with satisfaction as this previously unflappable doctor stumbles unhinged and physically unbalanced from the studio.
Toward the conclusion of the movie, we finally hear words from Banert at his solo exhibit’s press conference that sum up what some of us have learned to be the real Richter’s attitude towards painting: The artist, by definition, is not in control of their own work and can give no meaning to their creations—there’s no point or reason to debate otherwise. Never Look Away does not make the viewer ponder art and life in the same way Richter’s paintings do. It makes a louder and broader statement, and the viewer cannot retreat from it like one can in a museum, strolling from canvas to canvas and then out the door to the sidewalk. This film and its powerful sequences remain in the mind for days after viewing, eventually lodging in the unconscious where it simmers and ponders in continual background revelation. I, for one, think that is a good thing.