I love movies about art and artists. There never seem to be enough of them. I know they are often cheesy and the art is fake and the stories are inaccurate or overblown or just plain wrong, but it’s so rare to be able to enter the world of art at a visual level apart from going to galleries or looking at pictures online. Even the good movies can be hard to come by: they often have short releases and disappear completely unless you are old school and collect DVDs.
Mostly they are biopics. A recent unexpected hit was Mr Turner (2015), an interesting attempt to explore the art through the strangeness of the man.
Other titles since 2000 include Frida (2002), Modigliani (2004), El Greco (2007), Shirley (2007), an attempt to bring to literal narrative some of Edward Hopper’s paintings. Probably the most famous movies (and books) are those about Vincent van Gogh, including the recent At Eternity’s Gate, with Daniel Defoe in the role (2018). Haven’t seen it yet, but no doubt will do so soon (and write a review).
Velvet Buzzsaw is something completely different. It is a kind of horror film, a kind of parody, a kind of postmodern fantasy and a trenchant critique of the excesses of today’s art world. A remarkable cast includes Toni Collette styled after a famous (real) museum director, Jake Gyllenhal as the awful but powerful art critic Morf and Rene Russo as the art dealer. It is also a great outing for British actor Zawe Ashton, playing Josephina, the only likeable character in the ménage.
The Variety reviewer calls it “a tarted-up throwback to a certain kind of trashy ‘70s horror movie”. As a dedicated fan of trashy 70s movies, I disagree. While writer-director Dan Gilroy uses some of the tropes and gestures of that genre, he is also offering more than cheap thrills. Just as his creepy and unforgettable film Nightcrawler forced us to focus on what it means to “get the picture” (in that case, video footage of ultra-violent late night events in Los Angeles) VelvetBuzzsaw insists on the bizarre linkage between art, consumption and the ultra-wealthy elites who circulate and control the market in art and who destroy art (and truth) in the process.
It is interesting that Gilroy originally wanted to make a film about Weegee, a crime photographer in New York in the 1930s.
Weegee was known as “The Father of Crime Scene Photography” and after being considered a weird outsider for decades he is now being recognized for his major innovations in photography, documentary and journalism. What he has in common with Gilroy is that he shows the kind of horror which everyone wants to see – a desire they can’t admit to. This would have made a fine follow-on from Nightcrawler but the logistics of recreating the era which calls for a brutalist noir approach would have been difficult and the result might have been too much altogether for the contemporary movie audience.
What matters to me in Gilroy’s work to date is that he is exploring the consumption of images, art, photography and the unconscious. He is tracking something about the hidden (or not-so-hidden) truths behind the emergent forces created by contemporary excess-capitalism. Art and media representation collide along a continuum of cruelty and inequality. The viewers want the gore: the super-saturated world of elite wealth and good taste masks a limitless violence against art in its deepest meaning. Although elements of the film jarred somewhat and the idea of a dead artist’s works having a kind of demonic intention is a bit OTT, see the film for its inventive depictions and wonder how much further the art world can go with its exuberant destruction of the concept of value and its embrace of very expensive cheap thrills. For Netflix fans, Velvet Buzzsaw is streaming now (February 2019).
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.
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 WithoutAuthor) 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.
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.
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?
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.
The distance between the art student, the practicing artist, the gallerist and the collector/investor often seems so vast that it’s hard to believe they are all part of the same ecosystem. But of course they are, the product of a complex interlocking network of ideas, preferences, cultural values, economies and desires. Once was a time when artists stacked up their finished canvases in a corner of their studio. If they were lucky enough to be shown in a gallery, then the gallery got a cut, but often enough collectors or art-lovers visited the studio, had a glass or two of absinthe, paid some cash to the artist and walked out with the painting. Perhaps, as in Bazille’s amazing painting (above) a gentleman played piano while the negotiations were in progress.
OK, it’s an oversimplification. But the idea of a “quality” artist selling from their studio is now almost unthinkable. The link between artist and seller is so distant that many artists have no idea who currently “owns” their work. If they do meet up, over a glass of Cristal at a glamorous dinner party perhaps, it’s because the artist too has become a celebrity. Many successful artists never see their works again because they are consigned to storage as part of an investment strategy. Did you know that if you buy art as part of your superannuation you are not allowed to look at it? It must be locked away somewhere, otherwise you are getting a benefit from it before you are allowed to. You have to be sixty and retire first. Crazy! Strict rules govern investment in SMSH’s
A good artist has to have a gallery. Galleries compete for artists, but only if they sell, and especially if they have a rising reputation. Once with a gallery, the artist is no longer free to sell from their studio. They can give paintings away as gifts, of course, but even that is frowned upon. For decades this was the accepted system: an artist, a gallery, a buyer. In the secondary market, where art is on-sold from its first purchaser, auctions were the norm, but there were also private sales.
This was a fairly stable process until round about the 1990s. Then, in a strange contortion of late global capitalism, the rise of the super-elites, including traditional oligarchs, real-estate tycoons, movie stars and glamorous celebrities with infinite wealth saw the system change.
There were new players awash with funds from the “developing” economies: China, Brazil, India. And with the end of so-called communism funds were flooding around the globe and into the hands of gangsters and various versions of Mafia with their new-style goon squads: armies of suited accountants and investment managers. Gazillions of dollars went into superannuation funds which had to give a decent yield.
Periodic panics emerged, as they always do in a capitalist system. Stock markets rose and fell, raw materials markets collapsed, industrial work moved off-shore to low cost countries and then their bloated and unbalanced economies went off the rails. Democratic systems stalled. Military rule came back. Nothing was stable.
Where then could the super-rich, or their financial managers, deposit their gotten (ill or otherwise) gains?
Aha! The art market! What a great idea. Original works of art are just that: original. Walter Benjamin put his finger right on the pulse when he wrote about the aura of the art work in the age of mechanical reproduction. [It is worth reading and re-reading this work – so prescient, yet he had no idea in the 1930s how it would unfold].
The magic is that you cannot duplicate an original work of art. You can make prints of it, of course. Or someone can try forging it. But in the end there can one authentic example of each work, and only a limited number from each artist especially when the artist is dead.
Artists become superstars. A dizzying variety of choices emerge, some of them hard to “collect”, as in the best-known works of Tracey Emin. Tracey recently married a rock in a formal ceremony and they are reported to be very happy.
A dense supporting cast in the art world decide which works are important, which styles are great, which fashions are in. The art market itself slides in its preferences from time to time. How to invest in the right pieces? Let the market decide, it is capitalism after all.
And so the glamour auction houses emerged in the main cities of global capitalism: London, New York, Hong Kong. Lesser markets emerged in outliers: Melbourne, Sydney, Vancouver, wherever there were funds to be invested and profits to be made. Some great books have been written about the world of the auction house. I mentioned some time ago the wonderful film of Isaac Julien, with its glimpses of the art market and interview with one of the main players in the British art market. Isaac Julien: PLAYTIME.
I will add shortly the titles of some books and articles I have really enjoyed, including some fiction.
So here we are today. The profound impulse to make and enjoy art has been ripped away from its base in local cultures and economies. The new Global Art Market is a dizzying beast. In the next few posts I will be looking at some recent trends and think about what it all means for the ordinary artist in backwaters like Australia.
More thoughts on the Germans. Gerhard Richter is by far the leader in the top ten most expensive living German artists. But even leaving Richter aside, German art, particularly painting, is experiencing a dramatic upsurge in popularity among international collectors. Alexander Forbes writing for Artnet News in April 2014 reported that the power of German art in the market has actually increased since the 2008 recession. There is no sign of it slowing down. Richter himself believes the market for art generally, and for his own art in particular, has gone crazy. Richter criticizes the art market.
Forbes suggests that German art’s penchant for “stringent conceptualism and a highly art historical approach likely proves a safe bet for value retention regardless of economic conditions.
I want to hold that idea. It suggests that art which reflects both conceptual thought – a philosophical element – as well as an embedded engagement with history is likely to hold its value best. On this analysis the German art market is likely to continue to ever higher peaks.
Richter’s mysterious Domplatz, Mailand (Cathedral Square, Milan) painted in 1968 during the height of his blurred monochrome period sold recently for $37,125,000 at Sotheby’s 2013 contemporary art sale. His paintings hold the first 53 places on the top achieving auction sales of German art, 33 achieving over $10 million.
The range of Richter’s work is astonishing. Probably best known for his “blurred monochromes” of the 1960s, his abstract works have also taken on a special aura of mystery, seeming to move away from figuration and narrative completely. You really need to read Richter’s own writings (which are extensive) to get an idea of what he is thinking in this strand of his work, which seemingly just gets better and better. Cage 5, 2006, (below) is a vastly large oil painting reflecting back on his early vision, yet imbued with endless hints and depths of experience which could be landscape or water-surface or a close-up of a lot of brushstrokes – something he also explored in the 1980s. But he invites us to think of a cage, and that opens up a whole different set of associations.
The sheer scale of Richter’s work is entrancing, but so is the sense of our shared collective history, that mid-twentieth century Europe with its horrors and excesses which he opens up to us from the 1960s on. Neo Rauch, my second favourite German artist, does the same, although it a totally different way. You can read my academic article on Neo Rauch here.Neo Rauch Post Socialist Vision, Collective Memories
It is overwhelming in so many ways to enter the Richterian world. Fortunately it is also easy, as Richter’s own website is an absolute miracle of clarity, order and revelation. You can find (almost) anything he has ever done there, complete with full references, links to written and audio discussions and interviews, the ability to zoom in onto details, and the complete presentation of his Atlas project, which really is no more than a full record of every image he has collected (or photographed) in his life. Explore the miracle of Richter’s work here.
Unbelievably there is almost nothing of Richter’s art in pubic collections in Australia. The AGNSW at least made some effort and holds three items, a painted monochrome sphere from 1989, a photograph from 1967, and his strange version of a nude descending a staircase, titled Ema, from 1992.
The Art Gallery of South Australia holds one of his luminous abstracts (Abstraktes Bild) from 1977 (Catalogue Raisonne: 424). * (Eric Clapton sold another in the Abstraktes Bild series for 21.3 million British pounds in 2013). One of Richter’s finest 1990’s abstracts CR:752-3, 1990, 225 x 200cm) is held in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, purchased with corporate funding assistance from Westpac Bank, and the NGA in 2003 purchased Juno, oil on canvas 300 x 250 (NGA 2004.2).Richter’s 1995 Abstract at the NGV
Gerhard Richter’s work is now so valuable that there will be little or no opportunity to ever acquire it in Australia. Should public collections in Australia be more open to contemporary work from outside Australia? Why German artists, and not those from Romania, Holland, or wherever? Should we just focus on local art and artists and make a kind of nationalist stand? This might be a valid position but when you consider the extent of Australian gallery holdings of recent American and UK artists you just cannot help but conclude that the good old neo-colonial world order underpins every level of public culture, including public art. Sensible use of public assets or parochialism and subservience to a highly limited Anglophone culture sphere?
*Strangely though this rare work hardly features on the Gallery’s site. No image of it is available there. It has been shown only once in public as part of the exhibition “Making Nature: Masters of Early European Landscape Art” (June-September 2009). Why it was included in that collection is a mystery as Richter can hardly be considered “early” and this painting is very far from one of his landscapes. An image of it is available on Richter’s website – just click on the “Abstracts” collection with the CR number 424.