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Daniel Richter

Director: Pepe Danquart (Germany). Year of Release: 2023

Daniel Richter is sat on a balcony talking about his work. He speaks quickly and eloquently, and – unlike some interviewees who we will encounter – sticks largely to the point. The film director, hidden behind the camera, asks: “tell me Daniel, why are we making this film, and why are we making it now?” At first Richter looks puzzled, as if he had never considered this. Then he moves straight into an articulate answer about the different possibilities offered by film and painting.

Richter came late to art – well, to art studies, he corrects himself – first starting a degree course at the Hamburg Kunstakademie when he was almost 30. His early work includes album covers and posters for bands. He was particularly close to the Hamburg band, die Goldene Zitronen, with whom he once shared a flat. He also made a number of political posters, and speaks with pride of going down a street and seeing his art fly posted on the walls.

The scene changes to the basement of a posh restaurant in Paris. A live jazz band is playing Sweet Georgia Brown Stéphane Grappelli-style. The waiters are wearing suits and black Covid masks and looking suitably subservient. You can’t imagine a place less suited to Richter. But he’s here for the opening of his latest exhibition at the Picasso museum, and maybe he feels compelled to sit down and listen to the speeches telling him how great he is.

I am not an expert on Richter’s work, but this film gave me a decent enough overview. An old associate says, with a little disgust, that Richter’s work have become less abstract and almost (grimace) accessible. The large paintings still seem to all start from a monochrome base – we see Richter carefully adding horizontal lines of paint to a huge canvas. Then he gradually adds figures which aren’t exactly abstract – they look like something – but nor are they realistic.

If you look closer, you see there is much more content than the apparently abstract form allows. Some of the pictures are of members of the Taliban kissing, or of war veterans on crutches – a reproduction of a photograph from 1916 that Richter found. And they somehow look great, bursting with light and colour. But rather than trying to explain what they look like (as some in the film do, unsuccessfully), I’d rather advise you go and see them for yourselves.

Richter has an eye for his work. There is a scene in a New York gallery, where he seems to be getting very precious about exactly how many pictures should be in which room, and which works should be placed next to which others. But, just as you’re starting to get frustrated with the self-absorbed artist, the camera pans back and you sees exactly what he was trying to do. The painting complement each other perfectly, and removing some of them gives the others room to breathe.

Richter doesn’t just paint large intimidating canvases. There is a moving exhibition of anti-war pictures, based, he says, on the postcards sent by German soldiers during the First World War. Each time they invaded a city, they sent pictures of the destruction back to their families. Richter enhances these grim images with pictures of modern greed – Rolex watches, Muammar Gadaffi or of imposing Twin Towers towering over a tiny Statue of Liberty.

Although his political engagement seems to be genuine, one of the recurring themes of the film is to ask how much art is possible within capitalism. It’s not just the posh Parisian launch party, to which we return before the end. We also visit an auction house where one of Richter’s works sells for almost $1 million. You can see the pained look on his face, the feeling that this is not what he’s in this for and that by earning money he’s somehow betraying his punk roots.

When we follow Richter to New York, he looks much more at ease browsing the Strand bookshop or watching a concert of his old mates in the Goldenen Zitronen than engaging in any of the sales work required of him. Visiting an exhibition where the programme reproduces some of his pictures in roughly the same size, Richter says approvingly that people don’t need to visit the exhibition. They can just pick up the catalogue. This is art in the age of mechanical reproduction writ large.

Work in Richter’s studio looks like a heap of fun. He has rigged up a sound system which blasts out live music (there’s a lot of John Cale’s Hedda Gabbler, which can only a good thing). Every so often, Richter’s pet parrots come and perch on his head, or onto the glove he wears to protect his hand from them. He sometimes paints several works simultaneously, going to each one to maybe add a little detail, unsure when he’ll be able to declare it complete.

I’ve already mentioned the main negative part about the film. The interviews with Richter show him to be an eloquent articulate man, a genial bloke who would be good fun at a night in the pub. You can’t say the same about his friends and art collectors who tie themselves in knots searching for highly abstract descriptions about what Richter’s work is like (being hugged by a Yiddish mother apparently). These make us understand the art less, when it would be better to just look at it.

Nonetheless, this is an engaging portrait of a humble man, who says early on that he doesn’t think that anyone would be interested in this film. Many films about artists try to portray their heroes (and very rarely heroines) as geniuses who inhabit a different universe to us. That usually offers us no favours in trying to understand their art. This film, by contrast, depicts the artist as ordinary man, making both the art and the artist all the more fascinating.

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