Tag Archives: art

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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short film review: BBC ARABIC Film Festival 2017

Today I visited the BBC Arab film Festival 2017, which is a showcase of films from across the Arabic-speaking world, presented by the BBC with the support of the City of London and involving a wide variety of people from the BBC, the Guardian and independent film production. It’s a big deal and is probably the main showcase for films from the Arabic-speaking world in the UK. Unfortunately, films from the Arabic-speaking world rarely get screened in the UK, even in London.  I don’t know why, because as a general rule London has a broad taste for world cinema and I don’t doubt that there’s a big audience out there. Certainly the screening I went to was packed, and I would be surprised if the rest of the screenings are not similarly busy. However, I wish it was possible to see films from the region on a more regular basis, in cinemas, screening events and of course on DVD.

So what did I see today? It was a program of shorts, one documentary and four fiction films and I’m going to review four of them. I discuss them in the order that they were screened today

The first film I saw was called Aida, directed by Maysoon ElMassry, a student at Egypt’s National Film School. It’s not like any film school project I’ve seen; it’s a really strong and well realized piece of observational documentary. The subject is a very old woman called Aida, who was well known in the city of Alexandria as a flower seller. For over fifty years she has trudged the streets of Alexandria selling flowers; the film shows her in the twilight of her life when every movement is slow motion without a camera. We see her getting ready to go out, as she edges slowly and gingerly down a long staircase from her upper story flat to the street below, where she pushes an old wheelchair piled with flowers to sell on the street. Each day is a repetitive, Sisyphean event. It is pathetic. Yet she is not pathetic; she is strong and proud, dignified and, we suspect, stubborn. She never speaks, and the filmmaker never directly addresses her; it is truly fly-on-the wall cinema. The camera focuses all the time on Aida, but we get a strong sense of the chaos and cacophony of the modern city, as she trundles her way through heavy traffic stopping cars to sell them flowers and cadge a cigarette. As a portrait of old age, it is sad. Yet as a portrait of human dignity it is immensely beautiful and makes us understand just how valuable human dignity is.

The second film, Jareedy, is also by an Egyptian filmmaker, Mohamed Hisham, and it is a drama set in Nubia in the far south of Egypt. A “jareedy” is a type of small boat used by the Nubians to cross the Nile, and it becomes the dream of a young boy who is haunted by the stories and cultural memory of the displacement of the Nubian people for the building of the High Dam. The most striking thing about the film is the cinematography, revealing the beauty of the landscape, the power of the river and the starkness of the sandy, sundrenched hills. The village, with its painted houses and exuberant children,  comes alive in this film, showing a world which few of the film’s audience will probably have seen (even among Egyptians, as the director pointed out during the Q&A). Again the theme of human dignity comes out, as both the young boy and the old man refuse to forget the Nubia that once was; they claim their rootedness in the land, and their insistence on memory and story is a stance of dignity.

Fate, Wherever It Takes Us is a different type of film, a personal autobiography by Kadar Fayyad. Fayyad works with NGOs on human rights issues, and issues around youth and conflict. However, she is also a refugee – a Syrian national who went to Jordan to do her master’s degree and found that her country had fallen apart when she was away. Now she lives under asylum in Amman, where she continues her work. She was invited to create an auto-portrait on film in a workshop organized by Danish film project. Fayyad use her phone camera, which leads to some very interesting experimental moments, as she muses on the concept of “fate.”  It is an immensely moving, touching portrait of an ordinary woman, little different to myself or any of my friends, who has found herself in this strange position. She speaks delicately about her state of existence at this fault line of human tragedy which is the Syrian conflict. Somehow she makes us feel as though it could happen to any of us, any time – and indeed this is true.

The final film of today’s screening was shocking and it made me cry. Yes, really. It is a drama called Mare Nostrum and was made by the Syrian filmmaking duo Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf. I really wish everybody with eyes should see this movie. It is set on an unnamed beach on the Mediterranean shore where a Syrian father rehearses over and over an agonizing ritual in the hope that it will lead to salvation. It is beautiful, with gorgeous painterly abstract moments, which are at the same time taut and terrible. The best and worst thing about the film is how recognizable it is, how much we are already aware of the story, and of the suffering and of the helplessness. Yet it is not a despairing film; it forces us to confront our own judgments and the judgments of others – particularly those voices in the media – and examine, and imagine what it takes to make such a decision. Shocking, yes; compelling, yes; essential, definitely.

 

Following the screening, there was a really interesting panel discussion featuring the filmmakers which (barring the usual complete idiot’s question – there’s always one) was enlightening and stimulating.

Out of today’s experience watching these films, it comes to me again, in a very immediate and urgent way, how important art is, and how important a tool like cinema can be to give voice and visual complexity to things which are talked about endlessly in the media.  But the nature of media discourse makes what we see/hear there almost impossible to feel. Art is not media discourse, it has much more potential to make us examine things in depth and to engage emotionally. All of the films presented today manage to do that very successfully, and this is what art is for.

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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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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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The first ever horror movie?

Art History for Film Makers

The first ever horror movie?

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[the woman holds a ‘magic’ lantern casting the drawing of the Devil onto the wall]

Giovanni Fontana “bellicorum instrumentorum liber” – showing how to create a projection of a Devil drawing, using a ‘magic’ lantern
These were used for a variety of purposes: as entertainment, in theatres, at sideshows and by those seeking to manipulate the credulous.
Fontana was a scientist trained in medicine, but he fancied him self as a bit of a magician (called himself a ‘magus’) and this was probably due to his interest in “natural magic” – a fine line between the natural sciences and alchemy.
The original “bellicorum instrumentorum liber” is in the Bavarian State Library in Munich, but the pictures are all online.
I can’t find a date for the book, but Fontana was born in 1395 and died in 1455 so it was sometime in that period.

The specific technology of the lantern is not apparent here, as the illustrated lantern seems to simply have been a glass  lamp with a candle, with the devil figure drawn on the glass to project a larger image. However, although this does work to some degree, it probably wouldn’t project the image as clearly as Fontana’s drawing suggests. But in this period  Leon Battista Alberti is thought to have possibly projected painted pictures from a small closed box with a small hole* so I am guessing that quite a few people were experimenting with projections, for different reasons – to create theatrical effects, to understand the science of light and vision and – as Fontana suggests – to scare and manipulate the credulous. Fontana seems to be saying that these were used for that purpose and did work. It could be that neither Fontana nor Alberti were quite ready to share the specifics of their own technical discoveries, hence Fontana’s sketchy drawing that does not reveal the mechanics of his lantern, and the absence of detail about Alberti’s box.

 

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Guillermo del Toro exhibition

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My main reason for going to LA (do you need a reason?) was to visit the Guillermo del Toro show AT HOME WITH MONSTERS at LACMA. I have always been a fan of his films since Cronos was first released and I went to the cinema to see it.  I love his artistic vision and strong sense of aesthetics. He is a film maker for whom the title “artist” is fully justified.

But i also went see exactly how a major museum creates an major exhibition that pulls together fine art, cinema and popular culture. And I have to say, it is a triumph. The show features all kinds of things, from fine art to historical artifacts, strange compelling things Del Toro has collected, prints by the master Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada, comic books, film clips, props and maquettes. Glorious introduction to the stimulating cornucopia of visual elements that make up a movie! Wow!

The show travels to Toronto and Minneapolis but NOT the UK, which is a pathetic oversight on the part of our museum culture… However I think that the show could/should/must stimulate curatorial interest in mounting sjhows of this nature, that integrate cinema inot the musuem space ina  truly meaningful way.

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SACRED GEOMETRY AND THE FILM FRAME

I was watching Intolerance and noticing how Griffith shot so much of the film using differently shaped frames. The normally-rectangular frame is masked and the frame becomes circular, triangular etc. Also sometimes Griffith uses dramatic lighting to create a frame. It’s quite dramatic and effective.

So I got to wondering exactly what is behind the iconic shapes that we respond to when we are composing a film frame: the rectangle, the circle, the triangle and so on. And why are diagonals “dynamic”?

Composition books don’t tell you the “why”, but I’ve been interested for a while in the idea of “sacred geometry;” this suggests some possible answers. I got interested in it when I read about the relationships between mathematics, optics and alchemy (developed well in Laura Snyder’s book “Eye of the Beholder.“)
“Sacred geometry” today sometimes seems to belong to the “New Age” tendency, and is rarely discussed in relation to art and never in relation to cinema. yet it has a long and very signficant history. It certainly goes back to ancient time, the Egyptians and the Greeks and others, and was also referred to in the Renaissance by da Vinci, Kepler and others.

Deleuze also talks about Griffith’s geometry, noting how “a very fine image in Griffith’s Intolerance cuts the screen along a vertical which corresponds to a wall of the ramparts of Babylon; whilst on the right one sees the king advancing on a higher horizontal, a high walk on the ramparts; on the left the chariots enter and leave, on the lower horizontal, through the gates of the city.” but he doesn’t offer any insight as to WHY these verticals and horizontals affect us.

Watching Intolerance the other day made me realise that perhaps it’s necessary for film studies to investigate and think about how geometry and the symbols it connotes pervade our visual culture and how they are employed in cinema without our being aware of it.
[this blog post is part of my think-process as I develop my current research proejct “Between Realism and the Sublime: History in Cinema and Painting” and follows on form my recent book Art History for Filmmakers (Bloomsbury 2016)]
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Skinner, Stephen (2009). Sacred Geometry: Deciphering the Code. Sterling.

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reading about seeing

 

goodbook

 

reading this, “Eye of the Beholder: Jan Vermeer & Antony van Leeuwenhoek and the Reinvention of Seeing”
Loving it..

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thinking about realism and the sublime

two paintings of similar (not the same) events: people fighting in the streets of Paris

The first painting is by Eugene Delacroix, LIBERTY LEADING THE PEOPLE, depicting the fighting in Paris during the 1830 revolution. Delacroix did not himself participate in the Street fighting but he knew plenty of people who did. Writing to his brother about the upheavals, he wrote if I cannot fight for the revolution at least I can painted. This is an example of a painting with sublime action. There’s a sense of rapid intense forward movement led by the symbolic figure of lady liberty and the surging crowd behind and around her which occupy the upper portion of the picture feel as if they’re about to hurtle out of the canvas. If you go and see the picture itself hung on the walls of the Louvre its immense size really does give a sense of everything about to fall on top the viewer.

liberty

[source: self]

There’s something definitely sublime about this, something overwhelming, dangerous, frightening – the kind of delicious terror that Burke wrote about. At the same time, because it’s an artwork we – like Delacroix, who’s painting it – don’t have to actually be there, risking being wounded and trampled on like the figures in the lower part of the picture. Off to the distance on the right-hand side,  we see the massing troops of the regime with their heavy weaponry,  which is also frightening.

Horace_Vernet-Barricade_rue_Soufflot

[source: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS]

The second painting is much less well-known, it is Horace Vernet’s Street Fighting on the rue Soufflot 1848, a depiction of the June days of the 1848 uprising in Paris when the workers rose up against the regime to protest working conditions.
I don’t know much about this particular historical incident, nor why Vernet chose to painted except that Baudelaire refers quite disparagingly to Vernet  as a “journalist.”  And we can certainly see that what we’ve got in this painting is something much more documentary-like and concerned with actually showing us what it might’ve actually been like to witness the Street fighting. Vernet’s picture is not theatrical: there is no heroic Phantom of Liberty leading the charge; in fact the composition itself is not structured in the highly dramatic pyramid that we see with the Delacroix.  Instread,  it’s much more diffused;  although there is a big, dramatic diagonal in the running through the centre of the painting with a number of converging lines, there isn’t a single dramatic focus. The most eye-catching detail in the painting is the red flag of the workers juxtaposed against the white Sacre Coeur. Vernet’s intention here is much less clear; what is he trying to persuade us? He is not trying to involve us in some kind of heroic identification with the figures. Instead he shows us something quite dreadful: the  civil guard shooting the workers and the workers hurling huge stones of the guard.* Yet for all its lack of theatricality and emotion it’s a compassionate vision. We see the destruction of the city; we see the clear inequality between the shirt-sleeved, unarmed workers and the uniformed armed guard.

A film I’ve always admired that has a great street violence scene is The Baader-Meinhof Complex directed by  Uli Edel and shot by the great cinematographer Rainer Klausmann  (who shot one of my favourite German films Head-On). In an early scene, protesters get caught up in extreme violence when they are attacked by both police and militants. It’s terrifying.

All three works have something strong to tell us about street fighting – when violence engulfs the city’s streets and there is no where to go, nowhere safe to run. And all three are based on eyewitness accounts.

 

* According to Wikipedia “Things did not go peacefully and over 10,000 people were either killed or injured, while 4,000 insurgents were deported to Algeria.”

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