Category Archives: art

art i have made

Enjoying ‘Les Halles’

leshalles
[Léon Lhermitte ‘Les Halles’  1895 – my photograph]
Léon Lhermitte ‘Les Halles’ from 1895 is an example of a superbly cinematic painting. Painted well after the establishment of photography, it’s an astonishing accomplishment of realism and the drama of everyday life. You can really revel in Lhermitte’s ebullient depiction of the huge Paris fruit and vegetable market (this scene is in the section of  Le Carreau) – which is now replaced by a shopping centre that still bears the name Les Halles.
This painting – which is absolutely vast – 404 x 635 cm – scotches the idea that ‘photography replaced painting’ – because at the time there was no camera available that could replicate such a scene with so much depth and motion.

1895 is also as we all know, the ‘birthdate’ of cinema as we know it, the year the Lumieres made their first screening. yet it would take half a century for the movie camera to capture a scene like this.

What L’Hermitte teaches us, though, is how to to look at the scene. Not just to sieze the camera and film it, but to really look at what is going on, what is doing what and why. What does your eye ‘grab’ onto?
Les halles
[bigger version from Wikipedia]

This picture is at the Petit Palais in Paris, and you need at least 30 minutes just to look at it alone. In its vibrance, detail and combination of realism and imagination, it is really a movie!
petitpalais
[the glorious Petit Palais, where you can spend a wonderful day if you’re so inclined]

As well as Les Halles, L’Hermitte made a number of excellent paintings of working people. His Glaneuses, below, might not be as well known or as atmospheric as Millet’s depiction of the common activity of gleaning, but it has a strength and power of its own.
Lhermitte_-_Les_Glaneurs,_1887
[Glaneuses, Philadelpha Museum of Art, from Wikipedia]

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Raft of the Medusa – the exciting disaster movie we are all waiting for?

The Raft of the Medusa,  (1818–1819) by the French painter and lithographer Théodore Géricault (1791–1824) is a massive painting, well over life size. The closest thing I can compare it to is literally the cinema screen.

It depicts a true story. On 2 July 1816 (that’s 201 years and 4 days ago) the French naval frigate Méduse ran aground off the African coast (what is now Mauritania). Three days later a group of  at least 147 people set out on a hurriedly constructed raft. IN the 13 days they drifted, all but 15 died.  Those who survived were starved and dehydrated, and finally some of them succumbed to cannibalism.

Then as now, the press went into paroxysms of titillation, and the story was widely reported. It was also a scandal because the ineptness of the ship’s captain (and implicitly, the French Navy) was blamed. Géricault was as interested as everyone else in this story and he decided that this would be the narrative that – on canvas – would really  launch his career. And so he began to produce on the of the largest scale uncommissioned works on a modern topic ever painted. Perhaps THE largest.

Géricault did a lot of research. He got body parts from the morgue and copied them, trying to get the right shade and pulpiness of a drowned human body. He interviewed survivors. He cleverly combined Classical compositions with the dynamism that came to be called “Romantic” (I hate these labels and try to avoid them, but that’s what they call Géricault when you look him up) – and manages to convey both the pathos of the situation and the moment of hope as the survivors at the front of the raft spot a tiny ship in the distance (they ship that did in the end rescue them).  By the way, unless you go to the Louvre and see the picture in real life you probably won’t see the tiny rescue ship.

The tonality is dark and Géricault uses the dramatic lighting style associated with Caravaggio – chiaroscuro – though it is probably fair to say that the original picture may have been somewhat brighter. The  paints used at that particular time never aged very well (see Philip Ball’s brilliant book Bright Earth, on colour) so you’re not seeing exactly what Géricault painted. But clearly he did mean to have strong contrasts and dark tonality as the sea is rough and the sky is louring, though there is brightness ahead.

Aside from its film screen size, the painting is highly cinematic: dramatic, realistic, with a sense of the epic-heroic tragedy and a dynamic composition with a strong diagonal pyramidal structure. When you go and see it, you’ll really look at it for ages

So where is the exciting Titanic-like feature film based on Raft of the Medusa? It’s a  great story with everything a filmmaker would want. It turns out that there IS one, a French film directed by Iradj Azimi (1998). But I can’t seem to find it. There’s a French graphic novel that looks good. But the film seems to have disappeared. Anyone up for doing another version? I’m available!

raft

However the Raft of the Medusa I like the most is this preliminary sketch that the artist made. It’s also in the Louvre and it’s much smaller. Here we relay get to see the brilliance of Géricault’s composition and his storytelling ability

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Visual Storytelling: the podcast

http://newbooksnetwork.com/gillian-mciver-art-history-for-filmmakers-the-art-of-visual-storytelling-bloomsbury-2016/

A while ago I was invited to do an interview for podcast with the Art Historian Kristin Ellsworth for the New Books Network. The NBW is a podcaster which seeks out new publications and does interviews with the authors – it’s not just about promoting books (it’s not run by a publisher) but about promoting new knowledge.

I was pretty flattered and keen to do this anyway, but when I met Kristen online I knew this was going to be really fun! She is a great interviewer and we chatted away long after the offical ‘podcasty’ bit was done.  She’s a Professor of Art History at Cal State, so it was great to have that ‘art history into film’ conversation.

Anyway, here’s the podcast (above) It’s 47 mins long, so I’d suggest you pace yourself and maybe have a cup of tea at hand 🙂

book01

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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

podcast version – YouTube audio visual essay

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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after the revolution

russian_art_petrov-vodkin__fantasy__1925_1486817258_crop_550x415

[ Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Fantasy, 1925, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg]

Looking forward to seeing this show at the Royal Academy tomorrow. I’ve been to the great Russian art museums many times and am familiar with much of this work so it will be like seeing old friends, without the vodka. I’m a particular fan of the symbolist painter Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin.

I had a friend in St Petersburg who used to have to paint Lenins for a living, back in the Soviet Union. He had to do it, he got a salary from the government to paint Lenin all day. Every building in the land had to have at least one Lenin pinitng. Obviously he gave that up after the end of the cold war, when nobody wanted Lenins anymore. Later his work was quite a bit more like Petrov-Vodkin’s, highly symbolic.

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lecture

I used to lecture for a living, teaching art and film. I have given it up for now, focusing on writng and creative work but periodically I do give lectures. I did one yesterday at Central St Martins and it was really fun! Really stimulating discussion too.

I did not record the lecture but here is a short 15 min podcast recording of a lecture I did at the IF Project, a kind of ‘free university’ in London, on ‘how to interpret visual art’

http://podacademy.org/podcasts/how-to-interpret-visual-art/

me90s

[me giving a lecture – actually no, its a Halloween event a few years back]

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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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TATSUKO STORYBOARD — SMOKINGBRUSH

the Tatsuko Storyboard: A graphic novel version of the 44 minute long, silent feature shot in black and white. Consisting of one continuous watercolour [with mixed media additions] on a sheet of paper 8 metres long, and concertinered into an A4 sized portrait format book. Ribbon ties and bookmark. This unique book features as an […]

via TATSUKO STORYBOARD — SMOKINGBRUSH

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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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