Category Archives: Film Reviews

Gerhard Richter and Never Look Away: scandal, the biopic and the register of truth

 

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Film Still used to advertise Never Look Away, 2019 release in the US

Gerhard Richter is the towering figure of contemporary European art. You’d never know it in Australia though. Apart from the brave retrospective at the GOMA in Brisbane (October 2017-February 2018) Richter’s art and reputation barely registers here. One can speculate about the reasons: his early art was weird (he painted full-scale black and white oils which were blurry copies of old photographs), his landscapes were almost abstracts and then when he started painting abstracts they looked like landscapes) but quite apart from the art, he has never comported himself like a suitably glamorous and dramatic/exotic figure and of course there is the contemporary sticking point, he is an old white male and a German at that’

Richter was born in 1932 and spent his boyhood in obscure Lower Silesia, now Bogatynia, Poland, and in the Lusitian countryside. The family moved to Dresden where his father, a teacher, struggled under the emerging Nazi education system. He was forced finally to join the Nazi party. Gerhard aged 10 was conscripted into the Hitler Youth but was too young to be an official member. Somehow the worst effects of the war passed the family by, and Gerhard was able to study at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, where his first application was rejected because his work was too “bourgeois”. Now he was living under the DDR, but managed to escape to the West two months before the building of the Berlin wall.

So, an early life under the shadow of the Nazis and the Commies, then freedom in the West and a dazzlingly successful career in art. So has gone the accepted story. Richter has been extremely protective of his privacy and although he has given many interviews and written his own books (wonderfully stimulating books) he has never strutted the stage as the kind of glamour boy which the art world so adores. He hasn’t been a drug addict or murdered anybody and he has nurtured his reputation by judicious management and with a quiet sincerity which is so against the grain these days.

Perhaps this reticence has aided his growing reputation. As the international art scene became big business in the new millennium a strange phenomenon occurred: the older and quieter Richter became, the greater and greater were the sums being paid for his work. Richter has become beyond collectible. In 2012 one of his Abstraktes Bilde set an auction record for a living artist at $34 million US. In 2013 his 1968 piece, Domplatz, Mailand sold for $37.1 million and in 2015 another Abstraktes Bild sold for $44.52 million.

Richter himself has watched this bizarre development with no little distress. These staggering prices do not go to him, of course, but to whoever had the foresight to buy his work earlier. He has described the situation as “absurd” and “daft” in 2011.

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-gehardrichter-market/prized-painter-richter-calls-art-market-daft-idUSTRE7932RF20111004

As this huge and unstoppable process continues, he has been saying less and less about it.

But now everything has changed. In this age of self-curation and self-revelation, everyone has to have a narrative and they have to share it with the world and if it contains a lot of bad stuff so much the better. For some unknown reason Richter permitted famous German film director and Oscar winner Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others, 2006) into his life and thoughts. For weeks they met and Donnersmarck recorded candid conversations with Richter about his life, on the understanding that the resulting screenplay would be “fictionalized”. The film, titled in German Werk Ohne Autor (Work Without Author) was released in Germany in 2017 and while its central character is not called Gerhard Richter and none of his actual paintings are shown (one of his assistants was hired to paint pictures like them for the movie) everyone is referring to it as the biopic about Richter. Now it is about to be released in the US, although at this date (January 2019) there has been no release planned for the UK or Australia.

donnersmarck
Director Donnersmarck, 2018

What did he imagine would happen? Perhaps it speaks to the naivety of an older person about the operations of the new technologies of knowing (of knowing everything about everybody all the time whether they like it or not) or perhaps he trusted Donnersmarck as a fellow-artist. But the resulting film has resulted in a scandal of a horrible kind. No, it’s not allegations of sexual impropriety or dirty secrets, it’s somehow worse than that.

It turns out that between 1937 and 1967, while Richter was consolidating his art practice and developing his early career in East Germany he was benefiting from the support and patronage of his first wife’s father, a former Nazi officer who worked in the euthanasia program. One of Richter’s most famous early monochrome blurred photo-paintings “Aunt Marianne” is based on an image of his aunt, who was herself captured, sterilized and executed as part of the euthanasia program.

tante marianne
Tante Marianne,  1965: Oil on canvas 100 x 115 cm

Richter is very angry and upset about these revelations. He rightly judges that the fictionalization will become the truth. He has repudiated both film and director, although Donnersmarck says he hasn’t even seen the film yet, only the trailer. Never Look Away has been nominated for an Oscar and for the Golden Globes, and will be released in the US shortly, so everyone will be seeing it soon.

Donnersmarck’s film is an act of provocation, both to the art world itself and to the continuing German reluctance, or refusal, to face up to the realities of the twentieth century past. More and more films focusing on this issue have been emerging lately, and this can be seen as just another in the series. By putting this world-famous artist’s story, even in disguise, at the centre of an ethical demand it creates a compelling focus for the kind of coming-to-terms with the past which every Western nation needs to undertake. The role of art in collective self-recognition, and its role in the revelation of trauma under the unfolding of historical events, has never been more compelling. In a way Donnersmarck’s films make the psychoanalytic demand: live in the register of Truth!

Has Richter’s famous privacy been an effort to cover up or disguise his entanglements with German history? If so, why has he made these revelations to a film director famous for his work in disrobing historical disguises? Did he really think such a film would not be “about” him? Or is there some inner compulsion at work, where his own reality is demanding a release? In some ways the whole situation reminds me of what happened when Martin Heidegger’s “Black Notebooks” were published recently. Right-wing critics and philosophical conservatives went through them line by line, trumpeting “See we told you all along he was a Nazi” as if this disproves the validity of his writing and hence the whole of contemporary leftist philosophy.

Is this about to happen to Richter and the “value” of his art? Or will it only make it more valuable?

But there are more profound questions here. Is everybody always responsible for decisions they made in the distant past when everything was different including the meaning of behavior? Was Richter wrong not to denounce his wife’s father? How much did he in reality accept from her family, to what extent is his present success the result of these murky antecedents? Has his whole life been a kind of cover-up? And isn’t everybody’s?

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Poster advertisement for the German release 

In the poster for the German film (above) we are confronted with a beautiful young man who seems to be hiding behind his own blurry hands. This is the director’s message, perhaps. I haven’t seen the film and I look forward to it. At over three hours long it probably won’t receive a release in Australia but who knows, maybe SBS will get some cojones after the next election and go back to its original mandate.

 

Mr Turner: very Artistic but what about the art?

Turner with mystery painting

Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner, a soi-disant biopic concerning the final fifteen years of the life of Britain’s most famous artist , was released in the UK on 31st October following its premiere at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival where it competed in the Palme d’Or. Timothy Spall playing Turner won Best Actor; cinematographer Dick Pope received the Vulcan Award for his outstanding work.

This is without doubt a very artistic film. It drips and oozes its credentials from first to last, with scene after scene composed and shot in homage to famous paintings of the past. Some of these scenes especially the hazy glowing skyscapes on which the camera lingers so peacefully could be Turner paintings. Others are constructed as if we have entered into interiors painted by Dutch or Flemish masters of the previous century.

 

Film Still Dutch style

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in 1775 in London’s Covent Garden and died in 1851. Best known for his romantic land- and seascapes in oils, he also worked in watercolour, producing remarkable works of astonishing scale and detail.  The contemporary art world seems to be increasingly enraptured by Turner. This is strange, considering the turn away from classical and traditional forms and the critique of painting which has dominated our cultural consciousness for decades.

The film is being released to coincide with a major exhibition at Tate Britain, from September 2014 to January 2015, a blockbuster entitled “Late Turner: Painting Set Free”. For those who don’t do their sums, the movie covers almost precisely the period of the works being shown in the exhibition. As the intro explains, the show “celebrates Turner’s astonishing creative flowering in these later years”. The fine work of this period was “controversial and unjustly misunderstood”. So, we might say that the film illuminates the life, while the exhibition illuminates the work. Side-by-side, they should open out, reveal, the reasons for a new appreciation of the remarkable talents of this scion of British art.

Why should it matter? Why do we need to engage with Turner now? There are several clues. The first key is in the sub-text to the exhibition title: Turner’s is “Painting Set Free”. The blurb accompanying the exhibition is at pains to position it as a challenge to the myths and assumptions around his later work, to highlight his “radical and exploratory techniques”, and to connect his perceptions of modernity – the machine age – with the deep historical and mythological themes arising from the cultural traditions of his era.

In this revisionary art history discourse, Turner turns out to be okay, even though he was a painter who did pictures of sea battles, ancient cities and historical narratives – Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, Dido and Aeneas – as well as the extensive hazy sky-dominated landscapes for which he is best recognized today.

Agrippina Landing with the ashes of GermanicusAggripinia Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus

Just to emphasize the point, one of the few late paintings remaining in private hands, Rome, from Mount Aventine, sold for over thirty million British pounds in December 2014, the highest auction price ever for any pre-20th century British artist.

rome from Mt Aventine

Rome from Mount Aventine

To understand what this all means requires a familiarity with the changes in art historical and critical discourse which has been going on hesitantly in recent times. There has been a slow creeping up of representational painting almost hidden away behind the continuing domination of installation, performance and video art since the turn of the millennium. Because of the vast level of financial investment in contemporary art, especially in Britain and the US, it has been impossible to grasp openly the implications of this shift. The writing has been on the wall for a while though. Julian Spalding in 2012 gave reasons “Why you should sell your Damien Hirsts while you can” and the commercially driven imperatives of the late global art market has been attracting more and more bemused critical attention from the artistic world itself – see Isaac Julien’s film Playtime for instance. Could it be that we have to take painting seriously again?

According to the received wisdom of most of the last century, Turner’s late work was pretty terrible. The decline in its quality was thought to be the result of many factors, notably a fog of poor eyesight, ill health, gloom, and personal disarray. The death of his father, who took care of all the most important but invisible elements of his painting practice – he selected and purchased the pigments, ground them, made up the frames and the canvas supports – was a significant loss. The film makes much of this, by the way. The lack of representational accuracy, the domination of his palette by an extremely unsubtle use of chrome yellow (which so disturbed the young Queen Victoria, a scene also featuring in the movie), his vague and hazy outlines, seemingly confused compositions and bizarre methods of working – being strapped to a ship’s mast in a snowstorm for instance – were all seen to explain the strange and disturbing quality of his late work.

steamer in a snowstorm

Snowstorm: Steamboat at a Harbour’s Mouth

Because he was a much appreciated figure in the art world of the time, in no small part due to the enthusiastic support of critic and aesthete John Ruskin, he continued to be hung in the annual Academy exhibitions, albeit in a back room or annexe. His art still sold, due largely to his name and to the patronage of high-born figures such as the Third Earl of Egremont whose lavish family seat in Surrey was the site of many visits and exhibitions. Nevertheless, the late Turner was until recently a rather sad footnote to a brilliant artistic career.

Now, though, we are asked to revalue this work. Late Turner turns out to be a father of Impressionism. His very vagueness and haziness are to be seen as part of a deliberate strategy of radical innovation, a means of overcoming the stringent, boring and traditional practices of British art in order to usher in a new kind of vision consonant with our current understanding of what good painting could be. His late style, the energetic brushwork, the lack of details and the modern subject matter of some works of this period surprised his supporters and lent abundant material to his critics who compared his pictures to lobster salad, soapsuds and whitewash. We moderns however can see beyond this strait-laced view and embrace the late Turner as one of our own.

The British critics so far love the film. Without didacticism or any clear plot or narrative strategy, the points for revaluing late Turner are made clear in scene after scene. Mike Leigh of course is another favoured son of British art. His films are unique in their approach and resonance, built on character rather than narrative and characterized by an almost total lack of screenplay. The actors go beyond Stansilavski, especially those playing the main characters, Turner, Mrs Booth and Hannah the housemaid. The film is very long, at 150 minutes, but never drags or loses the viewer’s attention, in spite of the lack of story arc which is typical of a Mike Leigh film but very unusual in mainstream popular cinema. Given the general public and critical enthusiasm, it seems picayune to complain about the way it depicts Turner as an artist.

If the viewer knows nothing about painting or the practices of plein air work or the use of pigments in oil and water or the physicality involved in working on a large scale in a studio at an easel it all seems so very easy. Turner rushes about with a little leather satchel and produces a pencil from it, drawing something or other in a little notebook. He holds the pencil near its end. He never seems to need to sharpen it. We never get to actually see what he puts in the notebook, or how it relates to the picture he ultimately paints from it. Although he worked astonishingly well in watercolours as well as oils it is impossible to tell what medium he is using at any one time, although when he asks Mrs Booth the landlady at Margate (with whom he finally shacks up) for a bowl of water we must assume those sea views are being painted or sketched in watercolours. When he stands grumpily and half-bent over at an easel scrabbling into the canvas surface with a thick stubby brush we might imagine this is an oil-painting but then he starts spitting on it. Why? Would an artist spit into oil-colour? Surely not. So this must be one of his watercolours, but if so why would he be working at an easel? We are given occasional glimpses of half-finished canvases but they are obscured and the glimpses are transient. We do see some of the finished works – are we to assume these are in fact the very works themselves, or copies of them? – and we see him daubing onto a canvas while the picture is already hung in the annual Academy exhibition. Actually we see a lot of painters daubing away on what seem to be finished works. This would be very strange. Finished paintings were meant to be dried and then varnished before entry, and certainly retouching them in the exhibition itself would be most peculiar.

The publicity for the film makes much of the fact that the actor Timothy Spall went to great trouble to get his painting and drawing right, taking art lessons for two years. If so, his art teacher has a lot to answer for.

I was, in short, astonished that an artistic film about an artist would take so much artistic licence with the art itself. I then came across an excellent piece in the Guardian by Andrew Wilton, “A brush with Mr Turner: why can’t films about painters get the painting right?” (The Guardian, Monday 27 October 2014). Wilton is a world expert on Turner. He is on the Turner House Trust and was consulted by Mike Leigh and his team, but already they had decided what they were doing with the film and any advice Wilton may have given them was apparently superfluous. Wilton called it a “deeply moving and beautiful fim” but, modestly, commented that “it’s not quite the Turner I know”. He gave his reasons, which are simply stated and based on the art itself. For example, Turner’s sketchbooks are full of tiny water colours full of topographical and atmospheric detail, showing delicate and subtle observation. His oils, for example the famous “Steamer in a Snowstorm” (exhibited 1842) were painted with great care, although you’d never know it from the way the act of painting is shown in the film. As Wilton comments, Spall’s depiction of Turner’s painting practice is full of smears and spits and swiping, which is what modernism has asked us to believe, because we are meant to see this film as a demonstration that Turner, great British artist, was after all a modernist, like we are today, and not one of those boring traditionalist representational painters who worried about technique and composition. Wilton also addresses the myth that Turner was some kind of abstractionist. Although the Tate show claims to do otherwise, it reinforces it, casting Turner as a rival to the American abstract expressionists. Wilton is so right: this draws us away from the real quality of Turner’s art.

Wilton’s comments infuriated many readers. It is a real education to go through all 106 of them. The great majority pour scorn on Wilton for failing to recognize that this is a “film”, not a “documentary”, which means apparently it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether it gets the details of the art right or not. According to this logic, Turner could have been painting Jackson Pollocks for all it would matter to the viewers. As one said, “why can’t art snobs appreciate artistic licence?” and compared the problem to that of World War 2 movies using the wrong tanks. A few commentators tried to bring the issue round to the key question, namely the fact that how you put paint on canvas makes a difference to the results you get. But the majority thought these arguments smacked of elitism. If you know how art is produced you are an “expert” and so you should shut up about “movies” because you make it less fun for others. So art critics are not allowed to be film critics, because they don’t understand that “screenwriters on non-documentaries” can put in and leave out what they please.

There is a problem, though. What people see in a film, especially one which claims to be about a real historical artist and how he made his actual artworks (ones now worth millions of dollars) is likely to be what they understand to be the truth of it. This is not the place to discuss the contentious problem of historical truth in cinema, but it certainly warrants some more consideration than the viewing public is willing to give in this case. It seems, rather, that what they like is the depiction of an artist who is ugly, unattractive, badly dressed, poorly spoken, gross and often vulgar, having it off with the unfortunate eczematic housemaid at random intervals, enjoying himself with his landlady and generally behaving just like an early nineteenth century Bad Boy might be expected to behave. Yes, that is the artist we like to see today, and if it means we think he spent his time spitting all over his canvases, that just adds spice to the mix.