Category Archives: art history cinema

Looking at a painting through the eyes of a filmmaker

1024px-Antoine-Jean_Gros_-_Bataille_d'Aboukir,_25_juillet_1799_

A visual essay – click to read

or read the text here:

This painting by Antoine-Jean Gros is in the Palais de Versailles.

Bataille d’Aboukir, 25 Juillet 1799
This is a good example of a ‘cinematic’ painting. Let’s consider the elements of what makes a painting ‘cinematic’
Let’s start with LIGHTING
Notice how the central part of the picture is much brighter and ‘lit’ even though this is supposed to be taking place outdoors in ‘natural’ light. The sense of brightness is created by the placement of white things in the centre of the picture, rather than then any suggestion of a change in the natural lighting. This is a good example of the painter Antoine-Jean Gros’s fidelity to realism, within the context of a highly dramatic setting and action. Gros’s main body of work depicts Napoleon, and he did a great job of it; I will be posting more essays about his paintings.

COLOUR
Gros uses three main colours in this picture; yellow, red and white. Yellow (shades from yellow to brown) is the colour of nature – the dust and earth of Egypt. White appears in the clothing of some of the figures, but in the main, it is the colour of Napoleon’s horse that stands out. Red is very dominant; redness forms a circle around all the centre whiteness. it’s a striking effect.

RED!!
MOVEMENT
Paintings can’t move, but the ‘cinematic’ painting very often gives the illusion of movement, usually through the gestures of the figures or through the use of dynamic composition such as strong diagonals horizontals and verticals that indicate that something is moving through space. Even though we don’t see it moving, we can easily understand that it is moving. When we look at paintings such as this one we really get to see the dynamism of movement as a painted illusion. Here movement is indicated in the centre of the painting by the diagonal positioning of the standard, which slices through this section of the painting in a very strong diagonal line. It is also red, which almost gives it a sense of being like a sword slash, through the painting. The gestures of the figures, with outreaching arms and the twist of the bodies, also indicates movement. The whole painting feels as though it is vibrating with movement, writhing and alive.

MOVEMENT – THE DIAGONAL!
This kind of highly dramatic realism is very common in cinema. In art history, painting something so that it looks as though it is really there or really happening, is often referred to as ‘naturalism’. The struggle and the figures look natural even though as a depiction of the actual battle of Aboukir, I’d seriously question how ‘realistic’ it actually is. I mean, why would the man at the feet of Napoleon’s horse be stark naked? It’s really unlikely the Ottoman troops would go into battle stark naked or wearing clothes that fall off really easily. However from a dramatic point of view, it allows the painter to demonstrate the vulnerability of the Ottoman soldiers (and the weakness of their position) overcome by the magnificent French troops under Napoleon. Additionally it allows Gros to show off his ability to paint the human figure. Of course if we were to try to re-create this battle for cinema we really couldn’t get away with showing this nudity, not for decency reasons but because it would actually be completely ridiculous. In fact even in this picture it’s completely ridiculous but somehow painting gets away with it.
The depiction of battles in cinema has a long history, and has produced some extremely interesting scenes in films but these scenes are difficult to shoot. Partly because unlike in painting, is difficult to get single compositions within the frame so that one can focus on specific incidents. However, painting is itself a guide for the filmmaker. Lighting, compositions use of colour and gesture in paintings can inspire the filmmaker because they demonstrate very clearly what is effective and engaging to the eye.
Some great battles in cinema history:
Omaha Beach Saving Private Ryan
The Street Protest Turned Battle, The Baader-Meinhof Complex
Braveheart – The Battle Of Falkirk
Apocalypse Now, Helicopter Beach Assault
Waterloo (1970), The Charge Of The Cuirassiers
Gladiator, Battle In Germania
Glory (1989), The Storming of Fort Wagner
Zulu (1964), The Battle of Rourke’s Drift

WRITTEN BY GILLIAN MCIVER, 2017 CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSE Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International
SOME RIGHTS RESERVED YOU MAY SHARE, REPRODUCE, DISTRIBUTE, DISPLAY, AND MAKE ADAPTATIONS SO LONG AS YOU ATTRIBUTE IT TO GILLIAN MCIVER.
GILLIAN MCIVER IS THE AUTHOR OF ART HISTORY FOR FILMMAKERS (BLOOMSBURY PRESS) 2016 AVAILABLE AT ALL GOOD BOOKSELLERS INCLUDING AMAZON AND THE REST

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cinema of the Dutch Golden Age

512px-girl_with_a_pearl_earring

[Jan Vermeer Girl with a Pearl Earring,  WIKIMEDIA COMMONS]

I’m writing a chapter on realism and Golden Age Dutch art, and the films Girl with a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber), Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway) and Admiral (Roel Reiné). All 3 films are interesting represntations of the Dutch “Golden Age”, yet are totally different in subject and style. I recommend all of them! Girl with a Pearl Earring is about Jan Vermeer making the famous painting (above); Nightwatching is about Rembrandt making the eponymous painting and the consequences of that, and Admiral is about the life of Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter.

To my mind, the main thrust of Girl with a Pearl Earring is to achive heightened realism by the total recreation of 17thC Delft life; Nightwatching‘s thrust is to explore Rembrandt’s painterly techniques transposed onto film; Admiral uses tropes of Dutch painting (from Vermeer to van der Velde) to cement the story’s time and place, give it gravitas and affirm its significance. It’s interesting to see how each film does this and how the paintings they refer to resonate in different ways. Also the totality of Dutch painting as a precursor to cinema is always present in the back of the mind of any who sees these works.

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the ‘POW!’ power of Colour: Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy

A few weeks ago I managed to have a free day to go down to the Royal Academy on Piccadilly to see the Abstract Expressionism exhibition. This is an absolute massive exhibition, and apparently it’s the first time all of the major abstract expressionists of been brought together in one place in London since the 1950s

Information about the exhibition:
https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/abstract-expressionism

The show was huge, and it was honestly too much take in at any one time and the only thing I really came away with in any important sense was an extremely overwhelming sense of colour. Yet that’s enough for me. I’d never really thought about the abstract expressionists as revolutionists of colour but indeed that’s exactly what they were. In their hands colour, that includes the monochrome of black and white, takes on a completely new aspect, completely new from the whole history of painting. Yet their sense of colour is also deeply embedded in the ancient history and tradition of painting. It was so exciting; I really wasn’t expecting this.

Okay I’ll own up, actually never liked abstract expressionism. Thing is, I never saw any of it. There’s very little of it in Britain, where I had my creative education and certainly there wasn’t any of it in Vancouver where I grew up (NOT an art city, tbh). I saw glimpses here and there: the occasional Jackson Pollock in the (excellent) Seattle Art Museum and a Motherwell at the Tate Modern, but I had never seen them brought together in any meaningful way and I’d certainly never seen a sufficient number of them to really get strong sense of what these artists accomplished.

Instead, like many people, what I really saw was a whole lot of derivations and simulacra of copies that vaguely remembered resembled abstract expressionism at a level far below pastiche – adorning the walls of banks and institutions. That is, washes of bland colour designed to create a soporific and unchallenging atmosphere away from the intellectual/emotional engagement invited by figuration. How lame; how horrible, who on earth would like abstract expressionism if this is what they think it is?

Luckily I grew up and started to engage more meaningfully with it. It was an interesting trajectory, Rauschenberg led me to an interest in the earlier abstract painters which led me to an interest in Motherwell which led me to bit by bit more than appreciation for abstraction, although (until the RA show) I still completely rejected people like Barnett Newman.

413px-mark_rothko_no_name_1969

Mark Rothko, no name, 1969, at Museum of the University of Navarra
[By Mika58 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44153557%5D

Simon Schama’s Power of Art opened my mind up to Mark Rothko. Yes I admit, before Simon I actually thought Rothko was boring. Pretty, but boring. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with Schama’s emotive take on Rothko but it certainly engaged me to look at the paintings differently and spend a lot more time with them at the Tate. I grew to love them. I think it’s not necessary for art critic or an art historian to necessarily be “correct” (boring!) but to engage and inspire and then I can just make up my own mind. (Thanks Simon Schama and Waldemar Januszczak!)

So, the exhibition: as I said, the thing that I came away with was this sense of being completely assaulted by colour. The way in which the colour appears and doesn’t appear in these paintings is completely fascinating and absolutely absorbing. The greatest experience for me was understanding finally, something I’ve never been able to understand from looking at any reproduction or matter how high quality. Which is that Jackson Pollock was an incredible, delicate, sensitive colourist. His colouring is on a level with the greatest Renaissance painters, and with my personal favourite colourist John Singer Sargent. Okay how can I compare Jackson Pollock to Fra Angelico or John Singer Sargent or Titian for example? Because of the way in which he lays the colours on the canvas, the combinations, the way moves the colour into shapes, the way the eye follows the colour across the canvas. See, amazing. I’m really hoping to find some kind of book or article on Jackson Pollock as a master colourist and his relationship to the tradition of colouring.

BUT, you have to go see the paintings in the flesh to get any of this. NO reproductions can offer a real sense of the colour. Sadly.

Colour is the most interesting subject in painting, although relatively not that much written about it.

Now of course in terms of my own research, this brings me to think about what was going on in cinema at exactly the same time as the Abstract Expressionists were doing these incredible things with colour; of course! colour cinema in the 1950s! the successes of Technicolor and so forth! the development of blazing new film stocks and the evocation of a whole brightly coloured world, fantastical and seductive! Haven’t got any conclusions about this now … it’s all going on in my head but it’s really interesting … stay tuned.


Mark Hudson’s review in the Telegraph

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/abstract-expressionism-royal-academy-review/

Januszczak’s review in the Times
http://www.waldemar.tv/2016/10/abstract-expressionism-the-show-of-the-year/

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thoughts on Caravaggism

tavern-manfredi

Tavern Scene with a Lute Player by Bartolomeo Manfredi. prob early 1600s

One of my favourite artists in the National Gallery’s Beyond Caravagio show – Bartolomeo Manfredi was a real find for me.

To my mind, Bartolomeo Manfredi is one of the most interesting of the characters just painters, the direct followers of Caravaggio who either studied with him or knew him or had opportunities to see his work at first hand in the period immediately following his death. Like Caravaggio, Bartolomeo Manfredi did not live long, he seems to have died around the age of 40 and sadly there do not seem to be any books about him, although he does appear in various books about Caravaggio (of which there are many). Many if not all of Manfredi’s picutres seem to have been attributed to Caravaggio at some time or other. But he has his own style and interests.

It seems clear to me, from this and other of his paintings, that like Caravaggio, Manfredi was deeply involved in urban life, painting not only “from life,” (that is, from a model), but from observation of the life around him.

This is the great strength of Caravaggio and his immediate followers. Although they did paint from models, they also were exceptionally observant of the world around them and wanted to paint or incorporate into the world their paintings, to incorporate people and scenes from everyday life. This is true even in the greatest religious paintings. They rejected “classicizing naturalism” that is, painting things realistically but in the classical manner (according to the rules laid down by classical aesthetics and classical statuary). They were after the ‘here and now’. Whether it’s found in the detail of a table’s still life, a hand gesture, the tailing of a garment or facial expression, these things really bring the pictures to life and they don’t feel posed or modelled at all. The absolute lack of idealization in Manfredi’s work, like Caravaggio’s, is I think what makes these paintings reach out across the centuries and appeal to us.

Frenchman Valentin de Boulogne was another  Caravaggist of the era, and his work is equally fine – “naturalistic emotional drama.” Both Valentin and Manfredi bring realism and comprehensibility to religious painting, and drama to genre painting.

http://www.wga.hu/art/v/valentin/lastsupp.jpg

above, Last Supper by Valentin de Boulogne 1625. Each person in the shot is an individual, having his own personal feelings/reaction to the situation.

Of course there are deeper layers in the Caravaggist work. They appear quite easy and communicable on the surface, but like many paintings they can be read for much more complex symbolism and allusion, should you want to. The beauty of them is that you don’t have to. Like a great film, these great Caravaggist paintings have both text and subtext; this is what makes Caravaggist painting so close to cinema.

 

[here is a review of a show I wish I had seen]

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