True to Life: British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s

a1 July – 29 October 2017

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern 2) Edinburgh

Harold WILLIAMSON (1898–1972) Spray, 1939 Oil on canvas, 60.5 x 85.8 cm. Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth: purchased from the artist, 1940. © Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum

In the world of Art Realism is an entirely relative term. Between what appears real and the truth lies a world of interpretation. The desire to faithfully render what an artist sees before them is never without projection of one kind or another. When this SNGMA exhibition of Realist painting was announced, I was interested to see what forms it might take in the context of 1920’s and 30’s Britain, both in terms of Art and curation. Having had a typically European/ USA and Australian centric exposure to Art History of this period, dominated by movements and manifestos, the work of individual British artists of the era were less well known to me. Although familiar with the work of Laura Knight, Stanley Spencer, Winifred Knights, James Cowie and Edward Baird, among the fifty-eight artists on display with nearly 90 works between them, there were many unexpected new discoveries. Drawn from public and private collections across the UK, the “untold story of a forgotten generation…of British artists” proved quite definitively that “there is more than one way to be modern” and many ways to be true to life. Surprising works by John Luke, David Jagger, Meredith Frampton, Henry Epworth Allen, Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein), Glyn Philpot, Harold Williamson and Winifred Knights surpassed all my expectations.

I must confess that when confronted with anything too perfect, I’m not naturally inclined to react with instantaneous trust and admiration. In my mind “True to life” means penetrating the surface, however technically adept or gorgeously rendered, something I learned from very early exposure to the reality/ Art of photography, the writings of John Berger and Surrealists like Magritte. The more faithful, real or truthful something professes to be, the more my critical suspicions are aroused about being duped or sold something!  Growing up in Australia, I remember seeing Charles Meere’s Australian Beach Pattern (1940, Oil on canvas) which even then struck me as highly composed, but with all life drained out of it. As a child, I could see the pattern, but it left me as cold as the artist’s blue-tinged palette.  I realise now that what I felt immediately was that Meere was unable to transcend its own time to be convincingly alive in my own. My prejudice walking into this show was anticipating the same and I was glad to have the assumption challenged. This isn’t just about subjective personal taste. There are certain modes of representation that are too easily appropriated in the service of mass consumption. Images of youthful Brits and families enjoying the outdoors, engaging in healthy physical pursuits in a coolly detached, highly perfected realist style are merely a stone’s throw away from Nazi propaganda posters or Stalinist Social Realism. The visual history of fallible human beings has taught me to always take anything trying too hard to be “real” in the absolute sense with a handful of salt. Regardless of the subject, whether an artist paints in a realist or totally abstract style, we will feel the truth of it. What is real is what we believe and belief is (hopefully) about more than what we see with our eyes. As Magritte stated visually in his 1929 Surrealist work “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, also known as “The Treachery of Images”, a precisely rendered painting of a pipe is still not a pipe.

Gerald Leslie BROCKHURST (1890–1978) By the Hills, 1939 Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 63.5cm. © Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston-Upon-Hull., purchased 1939.

Intriguing subversions of appearance abound in this show. The highly plausible society portrait By the Hills (1939, Oil on Canvas, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull) by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst, with its glossy, brushless technique and signature aloofness, looks astonishingly “true to life” but is in reality a composite of two different models, tempered with a darkly atmospheric background of oncoming storms, conflict and war. The painting is very apt as the main PR image of the show, which is far more complex than its aesthetically pleasing, glamourous veneer might imply. Although perceived as conservative rather than “dramatic” or revolutionary, compared to contemporary developments in European Art, as this exhibition clearly shows, there is much still to be written, discussed and celebrated in the history of British Art. Overlooked until very recently by art historians, resisting PR by never being a coherent group and culturally aligned with the national British tendency to be backward in coming forward, this is a ground breaking show in bringing these works out of storage and into the public eye.

Many of the artists in True to Life exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy, were well known and highly successful in their own time, then fell out of fashion into obscurity. Stuck in the 21st Century cult of NOW, we often forget that being radical sometimes means reviving the past. In fact, you can’t be innovative or shift perspective without understanding the historical foundations of your chosen discipline, even if you choose to completely reject them. As I walked around the exhibition I heard numerous remarks about “what a shame” it was “that this kind of Art is now out of fashion”, how “beautiful” and “unbelievable” the “technique” was and that “you don’t see work like this in galleries anymore!” Art that looks real, is figurative and therefore relatable on a primal level, that people from all walks of life can respect for its Craft (if nothing else), is rather at odds with the dominance of Conceptual Art in 21st Century practice. Too often there is either technique on display or ideas which on their own, in the Art of any era, aren’t enough. They have to equal each other. There are plenty of Realist, representationally “true to life” works which are just soulless technique, manipulation or created in avoidance of feeling. You only have to walk around the annual (and very popular) BP Portrait Award to find countless images of perfectly rendered human beings devoid of insight. In times of great social and cultural upheaval we like to be reassured by the familiar, the popularisation of Retro fashion and design in our own age is a good example. The British stiff upper lip approach to the monumental upheavals and losses of WWI and WWII did not produce a Pablo Picasso or a George Grosz, but equally the sensibility of reserve (or subtlety) and seeing value in tradition produced, in the work of some British artists, works which still speak very powerfully today and will do for generations to come. This certainly isn’t the result of vacuous technical precision, retreat into the idyllic, the idealised or wallowing in nostalgia for times long past. The best artists in the show, each in their own unique way, represent confrontation with the here and now.

Winifred Knights (1899-1947) The Deluge 1920, Oil on canvas, Tate, purchased with assistance from Friends of the Tate Gallery 1989.

Winifred Knights (1899-1947) is undoubtedly one of the most exceptional Realists of her generation. Knights studied at the Slade School of Art and was influenced by early Italian Renaissance composition and painting techniques. She was a superb draftswoman, with a breath-taking command of complex figurative groups, based on extensive drawings. Her paintings are supremely balanced, bordering on abstraction in their understanding and orchestration of the essential, raw elements of painting; form, tone, colour, line and texture. Like a great symphony, it isn’t the structure or design that hits you first, but the level of emotional intelligence.  Knights reveals herself in this exhibition as a socially enlightened, visual activist, positioning female protagonists at the centre of her paintings. In Scene in a Village Street with Mill-Hands Conversing (1919, Tempera on canvas, re-lined on board, UCL Art Museum, London) her use of tempera harks back to Italian Fresco painting. What emerges out of these fine washes of pigment suspended in egg yolk are harder edged (but no less fine) linear pencil marks, defining individual honest faces, modelled on friends and family. Tempera is a labour intensive and rapidly drying medium, with a delicacy sympathetic to the vulnerable human form, saints and angels. Here workers are being addressed by the main female protagonist, dressed in vital red crimson with open palms. There’s a curious mix of social realism and religiosity in this woman as a spiritual leader or potential agent of political change. Knights has a less is more approach to colour, therefore heightening its impact and compellingly leading the eye into the painting, a quality which reaches its zenith in The Deluge (1920, Oil on canvas, Tate, purchased with assistance from Friends of the Tate Gallery 1989). Knights won the prestigious Rome Scholarship for Decorative Painting for this work. The award was initiated in 1913 by the British School in Rome as an opportunity for artists under 35 to work and study on the continent. Fellow recipients of the scholarship included Colin Gill, (whose portrait of Knights appears in his painting Allegro /Allegory (1920-21) in the exhibition), Knights’ future husband Sir Thomas Monnington and Edward Halliday.

The biblical subject of The Deluge, or great flood from the Book of Genesis, reimagined by Knights is a strikingly contemporary, post-industrial, apocalypse. The female figure in the foreground is a self-portrait, her body twisted in frozen flight, hands pushing away in one direction, with her face turned back towards calamity. The extreme angularity of the figures takes British Vorticism’s short lived machine age dynamics to an entirely different level. Grey flood waters flow like liquefied steel, pale grey concrete barriers divide the canvas and the palette of industrial green/ grey are contrasted with accents of stylised red clothing on isolated women and girls in the crowd. The formal geometric structure of disjointed buildings, the bunker-like island and floating debris, together with the uniform stylisation of humanity is pure dystopia. Natural forces like flowing water become solidified, like congealed factory waste as men and women flee, massing as the grey water rises, arms in the air appealing for salvation, attempting to climb up a steep incline towards an idea of safety that cannot be seen. From a distance, human movement is accentuated by the pattern of high toned hands and feet, but as you move closer the chaos of directional gazes takes hold, conveying the feeling that the threat is all around, permeating the entire atmosphere. It is a remarkable, highly charged work, where perspective, colour, tone and form are completely unified. The impact on the nervous system is immediate and illuminating. In the background, a grey panel of light extends from the sky to earth like the natural phenomenon of “God’s fingers”, but here it takes on the appearance of an artificial searchlight, in a world where human forms cast long shadows over land engulfed by the inference of man-made catastrophe. Made two years after the end of WWI the context of this work is resoundingly real and of its time, but significantly it is more than that. Place this painting anywhere in the world today and it would be understood through the prism of religion, wars, displacement of people or the truth of climate change. It’s a stunningly faithful rendering of a universal human narrative, piercingly relevant in the present.

Another painting inspired by biblical text, transformed by modernity is John Luke’s Judith and Holofernes (1929, Oil on board, Armagh County Museum, purchased 1980). The story of Judith seducing and beheading Holofernes in defence of her homeland combines female sexuality and male aggression/ violence within the central female protagonist. Luke’s composition sets the scene in a contemporary home of the 1920’s, where a young woman with a bloody knife in one hand and the severed head of a man in the other forms the apex of the composition. The traditional female servant is replaced by an undefined female companion with her back to us, about to place the head in a sack. The rest of the man’s body lies prostrate on the floor at the foot of a bed. Like a blonde Hitchcock anti-heroine, the intense resolve contained in “Judith’s” dark eyes fill the room. The only warmth afforded in Luke’s subdued palette of greys, greens and brown are her flushed cheeks, lips and the Horror of blood which is heightened by its sparing application. In total contrast with the rest of the painting, the smeared unfinished hands of the man on the floor give the appearance of flailing movement. This unexpected animation in the perfectly rendered scene is masterful. The sense of control and violence is a fascinating twist in relation to the cool glamour seen in fashionable images of women at the time. The 1920’s youthful ingénue becomes something altogether different in Luke’s painting, a psychological and societal threat to the ruling power of masculinity, perpetuated for centuries by male scribes and Old Masters.  Luke reimagines Judith as a force in her own right in a new era of emancipation, in the form of a young woman who looks only in her late teens. Dressed in a plain green collared drop waist dress and dark stockings, she has the stance of an avenging angel and the command of a general. Positioned centre stage in a room of flattened perspective like that of Italian Quattrocento painters of the early Renaissance, there is drama here outside tradition. Unlike the treatment of the subject by many European Old Masters, it isn’t the deed itself that is depicted but a state of calm self-possession immediately after, alive in the here and now.

Marguerite Kelsey 1928 Meredith Frampton 1894-1984 Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery.

Another British Realist with an intensely psychological edge is Meredith Frampton. Don’t let the air of cool concealment in this artist’s work fool you into thinking he’s just being decorative- the longer you look at his paintings the more they reveal beneath the surface! Woman Reclining (1928, Oil on canvas, Tate.) is a good example, appearing brushless, highly refined and almost clinically detached. The sitter was Marguerite Kelsy, a professional model, whose faultless skin, carefully groomed hair and ethereal beauty is part of the emotional distance between artist and subject. Her stance is elegantly dignified and professional, dressed in red shoes and a plain white dress purchased by the artist for the sitting, accentuating the warmth of her skin. The composition is as impeccable as her formal pose, hands crossed in her lap, gazing steadfast to the right, way beyond the picture plane, the artist and the viewer. The triangulation of red shoes, pink lips and red flower stamen is contrasted with an understated palette of warm reddish brown, cool sage green and grey blue. The paint feels like it has been applied with the artist’s fingertips. The woman on a sofa/ pedestal, isn’t reclining at all, but still possesses a sensuous beauty in the eyes of the artist. The flower basket reads like a bird cage, sat on a round table beside the serpentine curve of a charcoal coloured couch. In many ways this is an idealised, passive image of womanhood, steeped in classical goddess-like stillness. Her pure blue eyes aren’t focused on the male gaze beholding her, but on her interior thoughts and she is giving nothing of herself away in her expression. In terms of form, colour, tone and composition the artist could do no more. There’s a cultured edge of irony in this highly staged painting from life that feels Austenesque and quintessentially English. The suggestion of repressed (or confused) impulses of adoration and desire seem to inhabit the canvas. Painted with immense care and conviction, Frampton emerges as amazingly complex artist and a fascinating Realist.

Meredith Frampton, A Game of Patience (1937, Oil on canvas, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull)

A Game of Patience (1937, Oil on canvas, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull) takes these qualities to another level. “A critic in the Scotsman” at the time remarked that the painting was “a tour de force of fastidious craftsmanship. Since Lord Leighton died surely no Englishman has painted in a way so learned and deadly smooth.” It feels very much in this portrait that more is being communicated about the learned man behind the easel than the female subject. Her white porcelain complexion and face turned in half shadow tells us that she’s not actually playing solo. Like an unlikely fortune teller, she holds up a card which we cannot see. Her other hand is poised over another card about to turn it over, paired with an upturned King of Spades in the centre of a circle of hidden cards. The warmth in the painting is outside the room, in golden agricultural land seen through the open doorway to the far right. The stylish curve tipped frame fits the interior psychology of the image as perfectly as the pink turning lavender blue crisscross pattern, like a protective fence on the backs of the playing cards. There is so much being concealed and revealed in every detail of this image, reminiscent of the heavily codified portraits of the Renaissance.  There are apples on the table to the left of this modern-day Eve and on her right, sheaths of wheat, together with poppies cut before they’ve had a chance to bloom. Her puritanical white collar and sphinx-like poker face are contrasted with the red sash around her waist, accentuating her figure. There’s no hint of understanding the woman behind the porcelain mask in this portrait, but in terms of the male gaze, it is a totally absorbing projection of the male psyche perceiving the Feminine.  Having survived WWI there is also a sense of the artist constructing order and purity in the form of his female protagonists and within himself. The psychological depth and impeccable technique in Frampton’s paintings is quite breath-taking and one of the highlights of the show.

David JAGGER (1891–1958) The Conscientious Objector, 1917 Oil on canvas laid on board, 55.2 x 46 cm. Private collection © Estate of David Jagger

David Jagger’s The Conscientious Objector (1917, Oil on Canvas, laid on board, Private Collection) is a powerful response to the Military Service Act 1918-1941 by the pacifist artist. In stark contrast to many of the adjacent paintings, Jagger’s brushwork delivers a spirited defence of non-violence. Clearly influenced by Dutch Masters, out of the dark ground, beautifully lit with what feels like firelight, a young man in a hat and pink scarf, immediately confronts the viewer, meeting our gaze. Earthy umber and vibrant flesh tones convey engagement with humanity, together with the strength, hope and determination of the individual in his expression. Believed to be a self-portrait it also captures the heat of the creative process. Jagger strikes a pose as if about to turn away from the mirror to the canvas or move off into a dark city street. This painting feels like a statement of integrity and defence, in a society that did not accept refusal of duty. The portrait is as alive as when it was painted 100 years ago. Although there is self-projection on the part of the artist woven into the canvas, generations to come will look at this portrait and know immediately that this is the face of a man who stood for something. His strong features, straightened brow and fiery expression reveal a fighting man, but not in the name of war or conscription.

One of the most poignant images in the exhibition is Henry Epworth Allen’s The Timber Dump (1935-37, Tempera on board) which borders on expressionism in its immersion in the psychological aftermath of modern warfare. A self –taught artist who fought and lost a leg in WWI, Allen’s painting is like a no man’s land. You don’t have to know anything about his personal history to feel it. I certainly knew nothing about this artist when the painting first drew me to it. It isn’t just the visual associations with the ruined tractor and the tank-like alignment of a tree trunk, workmen sunk into the earth or the stark, annihilated trees. It’s the fact that in this emotionally realist image, we can’t see or feel a horizon. The protruding trunks sunk into upper picture plane, extend beyond it, leaving the viewer sunk in the mud. This is no rural idyll but a landscape of fractured buildings and “creeping urbanisation” informed by witnessing slaughter on an industrial scale. It is a trench view of the world in decaying hues of green and grey, infused with the eerie acidic light of a gas attack and entirely without the light of redemption. Allan’s realism is in complete contrast with the “British landscape as sanctuary and symbol of what they fought for in WWI”. You know from this one painting that this man’s soul and vision have been shattered, it is so palpably real.

Philpot, Glyn Warren; Resting Acrobats, About 1924, Oil on canvas; Leeds Museums and Galleries, gifted by H.M. Hepworth 1934.

There were many surprising images which I felt in my guts to be true to life rather than simply representing or illustrating it. Heavily influenced by German Neue Sachlichkeit/ New Objectivity figurative artists such as Otto Dix and the early work of Picasso, Glyn Philpot’s The Resting Acrobats (About 1924, Oil on canvas, Leeds Museum & Galleries, gifted by H.M. Hepworth 1934) was one of my favourite works in the show. As if channelling the spirit of Weimar Germany, Philpot’s style and ethereal paint handling captures the pariah status of the defeated. His performers in the circus of life stand in straw like beasts of burden, their haunted faces drained bloodless through sheer exhaustion. One acrobat with his hand extended, supporting himself the corner of a backstage set has the gaunt pallor of someone deceased. His young male companion stares sideways at the viewer with only a dim glint of life in one eye, like the opaque creep of death in the eyes of a fish, half dead out of water. Suspended ropes ominously frame the whole figurative group whilst the youngest boy on the far right is absorbed in petting a small costumed monkey. The female trapeze artist sits amidst their semi-circle, her face whitened with stage makeup and the fake merriment of rouged cheeks, with glacial blue eyes staring out into nothing. By the 1930’s the rise of Nazism and the shadow of a second World War was looming, once again altering the lives of this generation forever. Philpot’s The Resting Acrobats presents an image of the real cost of the Roaring Twenties, experienced by ordinary people. There is no high wire escapism or glamorously lit, immortal star performers here, just a feeling of desolation and a generation utterly spent. This is Realism and painting at its most potent, transcending time, place and technique.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/true-life-british-realist-painting-1920s-and-1930s 

North & South: Landscapes of Lotte Glob

8th July – 29th August, The Watermill Gallery 

Lotte Glob, La Gomera Walks X (Ceramic) Image courtesy of The Watermill Gallery, Aberfeldy.

Lotte Glob’s 5th exhibition at the Watermill Gallery is a celebration of her distinctive vision, boundless creative energy and perpetually evolving practice in ceramics, etching and drawing. For the viewer, it is an invigorating experience of connectivity with Nature, guided by the artist’s masterful transformation of materials into deeply grounded, visceral works of Art. Born in Jutland, Denmark in 1944, Lotte Glob’s command of her chosen media is undeniable, with over 50 years’ experience as a leading international ceramic artist. Her vibrant energy, reverence for the natural environment, creative experimentation, playful humour and enthusiasm for life are inspirational, expressed in the prolific outpouring of works in ceramics, sculpture, painting with clay, printmaking and drawing. She is a remarkable woman and a force of Nature, inseparable from the mountainous Sutherland landscape. The UNESCO North-West Highlands Geopark is her back yard and from her home on the shores of Loch Eriboll, the rugged, ancient landscape is a natural wellspring of creative renewal, providing raw materials and spiritual sustenance. Rocks and sediments gathered on treks into the surrounding country are incorporated into Glob’s work, fused with glass, clay and fire. Often works are returned to the landscape of lochs, mountains and moorland, a way of restoring balance within and without. The artist’s characteristic strength of form, rendering of texture, sensitive handling of colour and glazing techniques are incredibly painterly, bringing extraordinary depth, skill and understanding to the Art of Ceramics. Her drawings and etchings also bear the unmistakable mark of a human hand aligned with Nature’s endless cycles of creation, destruction and rebirth.

Seeing Lotte Glob’s work is always an immediate, heartfelt experience of connectivity with forces greater than ourselves, testament to our essential relationship with the natural world.  Like the Australian Aboriginal vision of the Dreamtime, not as a dream but as a timeless, living reality, where everything is alive; rocks, water, trees, animals and ancestral beings, there is an overwhelming sense of holistic Creation in Glob’s work. It’s in the substance of her materials drawn out of the physical and unconscious ground, the alchemical process of creative distillation and the artist’s vision, above and below the surface, which enables us to perceive the world around us with renewed, multifaceted richness.  For the last six years during the Scottish winter the artist has travelled to La Gomera, off the coast of Morocco, spending time walking and absorbing the colour, light and raw energy of the volcanic island. Inspired by North and South, the sense of rejuvenation in the exhibition touches the soul.

Lotte Glob walking on La Gomera. Image courtesy of The Watermill Gallery, Aberfeldy.

Blue Lagoon (Ceramic, 61 x 61, Edition No: unique) is a stunning introduction to an exhibition you can dive into on so many levels. The glassy pool of vivid turquoise and ultramarine blended with umber, descending to black, contains a world of life on a universal scale. You feel immediately that the gradients of hue in this sphere have been created by a knowing hand, an absolute master of the medium who can control exquisite accidents of firing, fusion and glazing. Glob paints with ceramic, suspending umber like peat sediment in water, blurring the line between Nature’s marks and her own. The primary circular form feels like a portal of the imagination, a scrying mirror, the human eye/mind as a window and the substance of an entire planet. There is depth, breadth and height in this cosmic view, like a feature in the landscape captured by satellite from infinite space.  There is a sense of macrocosm and microcosm in this life-giving pool that sets the tone of the whole exhibition in terms of rejuvenation through creativity and the forging of raw elements; within the individual/ collective Self and the wider world. In the presence of Lotte Glob’s work, it is impossible not to feel the connectivity of humanity, our dependence on the natural world and the power of Mother Nature. Framed by what feels like the cracked, parched skin of the earth, cream layered crust separating from red molten core, Blue Lagoon is a sublime and tactile affirmation of life and fertile imagination. It is a pool of blue that unexpectedly swallows you whole with its beauty, a release and relief from the everyday, relentless blur of urban existence. At its centre is the stilled truth about how to heal ourselves and renew the world through shifting perception.

Hung side by side in perfected symmetry are Erratics on the Move-Day (Etching, 68 x 87, Edition No: A/P) and Erratics on the Move-Night (Etching, 68 x 87, Edition No: A/P), which bring an ancestral presence to stone, darkness and light. On a geological level, ‘erratics’ are rocks or boulders that differ from the surrounding land, having been carried and deposited away from their place of origin by glaciers. There are also human associations with the word, which we feel in the paired forms present in both images, isolated in darkness and light. Inclined towards each other, they feel like aspects of Self, masculine/ feminine elements of procreation or the beginnings of life on a cellular level, ‘on the move’ in a state of metamorphosis.  The erratic, wandering spirit that creates a different path through life, defying expectation, is also part of the artist’s identity. In the “Day” image two steely, solid forms with a delicate patina of etched marks are illuminated by a cream, green tinged ground of light, whilst “Night” immerses the viewer completely in the tonality of moonlight. Ovid hollows of stone are formed by the finest etched marks imaginable, receding into orbital craters of mind, scoured by time, winds, rain and lunar tides. The two etchings operate beautifully in unison like hemispheres, evoking a sense of completion and illumination moving from darkness to light.

Lotte Glob, Erratic (Etching) Image courtesy of The Watermill Gallery, Aberfeldy.

A larger scale work; Erratic (Etching, 120 x 80, Edition No: 1/10) in blues, greens, rusted orange, burnt umber, yellow ochre and charcoal black, also brings humanity to consideration of Nature. The seemingly precarious balance of a smaller stone holding up an enormous boulder is a relatively common sight in the North West Highlands and Islands, landscapes sloughed and smoothed by the last Ice Age, but this isn’t a vision of landscape as mere scenery. Incredibly focused details; striations and cross hatching, energy and light, hit the haloed edges of the boulder, as if energy were flowing out of it, creating a powerful force field of resilience. Made up of tightly coiled circular marks and elongated forms flowing into each other in emerald green, yellow, rust and charcoal black, the boulder opens out like a living organism. The land is a matrix of air, stone, earth and water, imprinted with vegetation, scratched and etched marks like miniature energy trails of mind, boring into the soil. In the mid ground, the wave of a mountain seems reflected in the water, then perception shifts, moving beneath the surface it as if entering an underworld, swimming through etched, undulating lines which the mind parts in the eye being drawn into the image. The blue pool in the foreground is where we stand immersed at the centre of evolutionary life, pivoting like the grounding stone and held in the palm of the artist’s hand. Pigment is drawn right to the edges of the composition, suggesting that we are seeing only a vertical slice of the monumental landscape.  The adjacent pastel drawing Boulderland presents a grouping of living stones, each with an eye or nucleus, resting in rubble like sentinels as the earth turns, erodes and reforms itself, a process invoked by the artist’s use of earthy ochre, burnt umber and charcoal black. There’s a sense of what is held in the landscape in Glob’s drawings and etchings, the mythology and depth of ancestral knowledge which reveals itself when we choose to be still, listen and (collectively) remember.

The permanence of ancient stone is contrasted with the dynamism of elements and seismic events in Eruption Diptych (Ceramic, 30 x 61 each) and Hills on Fire (Ceramic, 47 x 64). In the latter, the artist captures in mind, body and spirit the ethereal spatter of ash and smoke rising from the flames, the burning heat becoming air, scorching our senses. Glob’s La Gomera Walks series are journeys into different strata of landscape, utilising a palette of red rust, acidic, sulphurous yellow, moss green, pure ultramarine, turquoise, peaty umber and black with the separation of ground, pigment and glaze akin to the volcanic formation of the earth’s surface. Saturation of colour, variation of texture, density of light, minerals and sediments create a feeling of landscape that combines an aerial, God’s eye view with microscopic culture. We can feel the granular friction of stone, massed energy, the flow of lava and the dry atmospheric air of Tazo Walk I & II encountered by the artist as a physical reality and transformative state. That sense of journeying into the landscape reaches a zenith in Bird’s Eye View/Ridge Diptych (Ceramic, 30 x 61 cm each) where we move along a sculptural path of fused rock and in Spine of the Hill (Ceramic, 30 x 61) with the interior structure of the mountain laid bare in white stone vertebrae, exposing our bones of ancient lineage. These powerfully structured, abstract compositions work in brilliant counterpoint with the artist’s ability to create highly nuanced, illuminations. This phosphorescence, isn’t an optical experience, but operates in the same way a Russian icon painter uses light reflective minerals, engaging the mind’s eye of the viewer to complete the devotional work of Art in the act of seeing. In Northern Lights a ceramic tile becomes a lustrous, shimmering, iridescent movement of pure radiance, a shared human experience of the Divine in Nature that is instantly relatable and awe inspiring, regardless of belief.

The open stone work and exposed timber beams of the historic Watermill in Aberfeldy provides complimentary textures and a series of intimate spaces to contemplate Glob’s work. The artist also features permanently as part of the architecture, with a large fused disc of glass, clay and sediments in vivid turquoise at the entrance to the building and the outdoor lower terrace area home to a group of her wonderfully animated flying stones. This is an exhibition to stimulate your senses, nourish the imagination and revive your spirit.

http://www.aberfeldywatermill.com/art/exhibition/lotte-glob-tiles-and-etchings

http://www.lotteglob.co.uk/ 

Looking Good : The Male Gaze from Van Dyck to Lucian Freud

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

24 June to 1 October 2017

David Williams (b. 1952) Michael Clark. Dancer, 1989. Silver gelatine print, 35.2 x 35.4 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland. Commissioned by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 1988. © David Williams.

What attracted me to this show initially was the whole idea of turning the tables. We are so habituated to seeing the male gaze directed at women in the history of Art, Photography and popular culture in general, I was intrigued to see what the nature of the masculine gaze turned inwards might look like. Or to be more accurate, what the exhibition curators might do with the overarching theme of “male image, identity and appearance from the 16th century to the present day”, selecting 28 works from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, London. Kate Anderson (Senior Curator at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery) assisted by Ola Wojtkiewicz, have created an interesting show, exploring changing “attitudes to status, wealth, sexuality, masculinity and beauty.” The exhibition is part of a national tour of Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s final Self-Portrait c.1640, recently acquired for the nation by the NPGL with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund. For a relatively small exhibition it packs some punches, contains some fascinating work and gave me a lot to think about, particularly about inferred narratives through curation.

Jonathan OWEN (b. 1973) Untitled (Patrice de Mac-Mahon, Duc de Magenta), 2013. Sculpture (bust), marble, 58 x 30 x 56 cm. Collection: Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, © Jonathan Owen
Photo: © National Galleries of Scotland.

At the entrance to the exhibition Jonathan Owen’s Untitled (Patrice de Mac-Mahon, Duc de Magenta) (2013, Sculpture (bust), marble, 58 x 30 x 56 cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) is an appropriate metaphor for masculine reconnaissance and the deconstruction of enshrined ideals. Taking the historical white marble bust of a bearded aristocrat, decorated for military service, Owen abstracts the head, re-carving and excavating marble until the individual face is transformed into  an arrangement of geometrical hollows, resembling an architectural atrium and guarding an inner sphere.  Traditionally the marble bust elevated on a plinth celebrates and memorialises ideals of masculine power, duty and nobility, reinforcing social hierarchy and individual status, but here the artist takes a sculpture from an age of Empire and critically reimagines it. The rigid Neoclassical form of masculine authority becomes something much more ambiguous, an interplay of positive and negative space, expanding form and ideas in the imaginative cavity of the head. Strangely there’s a cyber quality to this human form without an individual identity, potentially a new code of etiquette at work in a face composed as a structural framework. It has that sinister Dr Who feeling of something familiar and seemingly benign, comfortably relegated to history and yet alive in its altered form, as cold and intellectualised as marble so often is in the hands of men and state. It’s a portrait bust lacking humanity and individuality, focused on the power of intellect. The artist’s psychological archaeology conceals as much as it reveals about masculine identity past, present and future, which is an incredibly interesting position for the audience in terms of projection.

The intimacy of the exhibition space, accompanying soundscape and video by Mercury prize winning band Young Fathers (AKA Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and ‘G’ Hastings) encourages deeper contemplation of the works on display. The looped sound accompaniment to the show operates as an undercurrent of provocation, informing the images in unexpected ways as you encounter them. The timing and associations for each viewer will be different as they move through the space  and within their own connective loops of sound, image, memory and meaning. The visitor meanders through fragments of haunted piano, natural sounds like wind moving through aged buildings, human breath, voice and chanted commands conjuring the playing, athletic or military training field. The video by Young Fathers, which is the final statement in the show and by far the edgiest work, is a brief, edited sequence of young men half in shadow, illuminated momentarily in the heat of red light, being directed in the manner of a photoshoot to express emotions or adopt a certain stance for the camera/ director/ viewer. The male voices in charge of the camera prompt the sitters; “snarl”, “laugh”, “batter your eyelids- you’re pretty, really pretty”, “have you given enough?”, “be a man, cry for me!”  “look over here- smile”, “who loves you?”, this last question unsettlingly underscored by the kind of cheering background chorus you’d hear at a competitive sporting event. It’s survival of the fittest, the threat of being prey to whoever holds the camera and what that means in the political arena of gender. There’s the contradiction of public intimacy and the power differential between the filmed subject and film makers, provoking questions about the nature of the dialogue. I liked what this added to the visual/ auditory interpretation about what masculinity means, individually and collectively, in the 21st Century and in the context of the whole show. Although the directions given by male voices are not to female models or sitters, they are very familiar as such. It’s a dynamic of inequality which plays out terms of self-worth through dominance or submission to the commanding voice over. It’s a dialogue we’re not used to seeing between men in this kind of setting, but very telling in human terms. The real point is not just “Looking Good” but how the gaze is directed and to what ends socially, culturally and politically.


Francois-Xavier FABRE (1766–1837) Portrait of a Man, 1809. Oil on canvas, 61.5 x 50 cm.
Collection: Scottish National Portrait Gallery Purchased with the aid of the Art Fund (Scottish Fund) 1992. Photo: © National Galleries of Scotland.

The works on display are incredibly varied from the dashing, highly Romanticised Portrait of a Man by Francois-Xavier Fabre (1809, Oil on canvas, Scottish National Portrait Gallery), John Pettie’s haughty, highly coiffed portrait of Sir David Murray (1890, oil on canvas, Scottish, National Portrait Gallery), in which facial hair becomes as potent a calling card as the artist’s signature, to much rawer, more confrontational works by artists such as Lucian Freud and Robert Mapplethorpe. What I found myself doing, going through the exhibition rooms several times, was reimagining the signposted hanging sequence. The five exhibition themes: Dress Code, Good Grooming, Men in the Mirror, The Male Icon and Modes of Manhood were provocative for me because they proved a bit too safely boxed. Less obvious labelling/ hanging, with works juxtaposed in more challenging ways to actively interrogate different themes or underlying questions, rather than comfortably illustrating them, might have been a better overall strategy. For example, why place Richard Ansett’s image of Grayson Perry (2013, chromogenic print, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London) in the status of “other” by hanging it in what is essentially the alternative “Modes of Manhood” section? Give the man his due and challenge public expectations of masculinity by placing Perry in the Male Icon section! Not just to disrupt the perfume ad portraits of brand Beckham and super broody Gerard Butler, but because Perry’s status as a contemporary artist, social commentator, journalist and television documentary maker is Iconic. Single handed he has done more than anyone in recent years to encourage debate about what it means to be a man in the 21st century. Although visitors are free to draw their own conclusions about the Male Icons VS Modes of Manhood face off on opposing walls, this relegation seemed strangely at odds with the open stance towards masculinity present in individual works and in the aspirational nature of the show.

Richard Ansett Grayson Perry, Commissioned for BBC Radio 4’s Reith Lectures 2013 © Richard Ansett/BBC. National Portrait Gallery, London

The image of Grayson Perry dressed as his alter ego Claire is one of a “plethora of masculinities” forming his identity and a vision of what masculine and feminine outside the box might look like. Hung adjacent to Robert Mapplethorpe’s Smutty (1980, Silver gelatine print, Artist Rooms, National Gallery of Scotland & Tate) and an exquisitely beautiful, melancholic portrait of dancer/choreographer Michael Clark by David Williams (1989, Silver gelatine print, Scottish National Portrait Gallery) notions of masculine and feminine become more visibly fluid through the lens, despite being thematically confined in the exhibition space.  Ansett’s portrait of Grayson Perry/ Claire speaks resoundingly of the Self as masculine and feminine. Claire’s gaze meets the viewer’s, her red drawn eyebrows raised in confident punctuation, silently addressing the camera/viewer with a mature, worldly gaze. Standing steadfast in orange platform shoes, the exit door in the corner of the plush, red room appears too small, giving an Alice in Wonderland shrunken quality to the surroundings and heightening Claire’s dominance in the room. This photograph, taken for the BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures, is a vibrant, unmissable statement in recoding dress and viewer expectations. The pattern on Perry’s dress incorporates his childhood teddy bear “Alan Measles”, it’s colourful and intensely psychological, an element that speaks of the formation of identity in childhood.  Claire’s flamboyant style combines youthful bobbed hair with middle aged 1970’s party host dress, a contradiction of doll-like red lips and intellectually loaded “blue stockings”. Claire launches a “so what?!” stare to the viewer/ photographer, the playfulness of the outfit in tandem with the artist’s impending public address. Perry’s everyman status integration into the mainstream comes through in his TV appearances. All of his work raises a mirror to Self and society, never shying away from the complexity of being the masculine/ feminine humans we all are psychologically. Perry/ Claire is not just about fashion, grooming or being outrageous, he/she’s about being visibly him/herself, a living, creative force for reflection, empathy and positive change; a true male icon acknowledging the Feminine within himself.

A portrait that feels real amongst the pumped-up sport/ rock/ film star “Male Icons” wall is Nadav Kander’s image of Tinie Tempah (Patrick Chukwuemeka Okogwu), (Ink jet print made in 2011, National Portrait Gallery, London.) What shines through is masculine beauty through self-possession. Tempah is a rapper, singer, songwriter, with his own fashion and independent record labels. The portrait exudes confidence, pride and ambition but without aggressive dominance. He’s a man looking beyond the viewer and the confines of the frame, rather than measuring himself against them. Dressed in a white shirt, bow tie and diamond earing, his groomed success is refreshingly stained with shades of purple spray paint from the street. The fine paint splatter isn’t makeup, but identification and strength in the knowledge of where you come from. It feels like the foundation of the man and his character inhabiting the image. Tempah exudes the beauty of self-possession not in posturing but from his pores, nuanced with the purple sheen of nobility, the anti-establishment spray of graffiti and a natural blue/black lineage of pride. Although the head a shoulders image is traditionally composed, the introduction of different hues and attitude of the subject subverts this, becoming a much more layered statement of gender, class, race, artistic intent and individuality. The adjacent photographs of actor Gerard Butler and footballer David Beckham seem doubly one dimensional by comparison, simply selling a celebrity line on masculinity in black and white, as if the name / brand/ macho snarl were enough- and perhaps they are for a two second hit. However, in the Art and specifically portraiture, it isn’t just about looking good, flattering the sitter or selling a product, but being human and vulnerable on some level- traditionally considered a very un-masculine trait, especially for men in the public domain. In that respect, the relationship and trust established (even in a single sitting) between the artist/ photographer and the subject is critical. Individuality and identity are often about revealing that which is hidden, because in the words of T.S Eliot we all “prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet”. For men, being strong is often a necessary part of that self- projection to the world, but strong doesn’t have to be overly aggressive, physical and in your face. It can be found in quiet, contemplative dignity, as we see in Kander’s very masculine, equally beautiful image of Tempah, subverting the super machismo normally associated with the Rap music industry. The independent spirit of this portrait is about more than the ego or status of the sitter, displaying layers beneath his worldly success, sprayed onto his skin and clothing, not to conceal who he is, but to reveal something about his core self, not just as a man but a human being. It’s exactly that kind of insight that sorts out the men from the boys; a level of understanding, integration, mutual respect and sensitivity in collaboration between the artist and subject.

Gerard Jefferson-Lewis. Untitled (Butcher Boys) Portrait Number 472. Photograph, three framed C-type digital prints, each: 59.4 x 84.1 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, gift of the photographer 2013. © Gerard Jefferson-Lewis.

A very ambiguous, intriguing collaboration between artist and subject unfolds in Untitled Man (Butcher Boys) Portrait No 472 by Gerard Jefferson-Lewis (Digital chromogenic print, made 2012, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Gift of the photographer 2013. NB/ in the exhibition this consists of one image only rather than a sequence of 3)  The butcher’s white frock becomes a generic uniform, intensifying our sense of the individual face emerging from the ground of white and grey. The young man’s sensuous lips, eyes in mutual exchange with the male presence behind the camera, coupled with his “unfixed identity” in uniform is a compelling exploration of power, or perhaps the illusion of it. The series “Butcher Boys” has homoerotic undertones, of youthful, raw meat and (at least to this female viewer) the ironic suggestion of how women are often posed for the male gaze in a very different type of uniform. Jefferson-Lewis’s portrait is arguably more understated and complex. The male subject here is clothed in a metaphorical blank canvas, a frock of service and the purity of white. On one level, he can be whatever the viewer imagines him to be and yet his individual face stands out from the adopted costume with an expression that contains and projects his own desire. There is conformity and individuality in this image of a masculine presence that is seductive without resorting to clichés of rippling muscles and obvious physical virility. Here the proposition and exploration is sensuously cerebral.

Daniel MYTENS (1590-1647) James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton, 1606 – 1649. Royalist, 1629
Oil on canvas, 221 x 139.7 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland. Purchased with help from the Art Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Pilgrims Trust 1987. Photo: Antonia Reeve.

Daniel Mytens’ portrait of James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton, 1606 – 1649. Royalist, (1629, Oil on canvas, 221 x 139.7 cm, National Galleries of Scotland) presents a face to the world befitting Hamilton’s status as chief advisor to King Charles I. It’s the theatre of the portrait flanked by drapery on one side and an Italian marble column on the other. This richness becomes opulence in the silver threads and bobbin lace of his clothing, soft kid gloves, fine shoes and spurs. His eyes meet ours as sharp points of light like the tip of the rapier which hangs at his side. The background suggests dominion over sea and land. We are clearly faced with calculated masculinity, standing above us in the context of the royal court and the nobleman’s sovereignty over his own estate. Nearby is Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s portrait of Lord George Stuart, 9th Seigneur of Aubigny (1618-1642), (Oil on canvas, circa 1638, 86 in. x 52 1/2 in, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London) displaying an equally opulent but almost mythological persona in union with nature. The spring of flowing water, roses, foreground plants, together with the hoe or fork he’s carrying  symbolically hooking into the tree in the background, position the male figure at the centre of the composition, but there’s a twist. Stuart is leaning on an ancient stone in this pastoral idyll with the inscription; “ME FIRMIOR AMOR” (Love is stronger than I am), an encoded admission of personal vulnerability from a member of the ruling class, harking back to the Classical world of Gods and nymphs. He’s not showing us his whole hand though, one is hidden beneath his robes of ochre/ gold and blue, as if holding something back from the viewer and this mysterious air keeps us on the backfoot as spectators. His luxurious hair and embroidered boots make him look effeminate to contemporary eyes, but this is a heroic image of manhood and learned passion which commands the space he occupies.

Sir Anthony VAN DYCK (1599–1641) Sir Anthony Van Dyck, circa 1640. Oil on canvas, 56 cm x 46 cm oval. Collection: National Portrait Gallery, London.Purchased with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund in honour of David Verey CBE (Chairman of the Art Fund 2004-2014), the Portrait Fund, The Monument Trust, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Aldama Foundation, the Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation, Sir Harry Djanogly CBE, Mr and Mrs Michael Farmer. Matthew Freud, Catherine Green, Dr Bendor Grosvenor, Alexander Kahane, the Catherine Lewis Foundation, the Material World Foundation, The Sir Denis Mahon Charitable Trust, Cynthia Lovelace Sears, two major supporters who wish to remain anonymous, and many contributions from the public following a joint appeal by the National Portrait Gallery and the Art Fund, 2014

Anthony Van Dyck’s final self-portrait (circa 1640, Oil on canvas, 56 cm x 46 cm oval, National Portrait Gallery, London) speaks of masculine confidence in maturity, secure in his position as one of the most celebrated court painters of the age. Although dressed as a gentleman, the loose painterly handling of his clothes suggests that fashion isn’t the focus of the image. He’s reached a stage of life where he doesn’t have to accentuate the finery to know or tell the world who he is. What he sees in the mirror is his skilled accomplishment as an artist in his own right. His stature emerges in the presence of the man, his head turned towards the viewer in a three-quarter pose. He’s utterly composed and assured; intelligent eyes acknowledge his self-regard in the mirror and address the viewer. His turbulent hair gives him a strong, independently spirited air. He’s not playing at being anything, he’s just convincingly painting himself. The clothes he wears feel unfinished, almost abstracted from his conscious being. The man in the mirror can be the truth or a lie and here the former triumphs over the latter in an image that feels sketched, unfinished and imperfect. The focus is very much on capturing the face and identity of the artist as an individual and it continues to speak across the ages.

Lucian FREUD 1922-2011. Self-portrait, 1963. Oil on canvas. © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

The artist’s touch also speaks volumes in Man’s Head (Self Portrait III) by Lucian Freud (Oil on canvas, 1963, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London). Rendered entirely in potently, earthy flesh tones, the artist’s furrowed brow of impasto hides his eyes as he squints to perceive the truth in himself. It’s a visual statement of Freud’s belief; “As far as I am concerned, the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as the flesh does.” We can feel that physicality in animated strokes defining cheeks, brow and chin and in the caress of his parted hair. This life in paint is contrasted with the horizontal linear pattern of marks in the uniform brown background. He makes himself stand out, in an audacious and highly accomplished visual statement, making the most of a reduced palette and the immediacy of brushstrokes which have their own distinctive rhythm. Hopefully how various rhythms and themes harmonise, contradict or clash, leading to examination of the viewer’s underlying beliefs, stimulating debate about the nature of masculinity, will be triggered by the works on display. It is wonderful to see, even on a small scale, collaboration and exchange between national collections so that audiences can experience works which may not have otherwise toured to different parts of the country. On one level I can’t comment on what it means to be a man in the 21st Century, but this exhibition provides a window to the complexity and interconnectedness of masculine and feminine and the need for both definitions to be expanded, in our own minds and in the wider world. Portraiture is above all else the study of humanity, faces which are public, private and potential agents of change in how we perceive ourselves.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/looking-good-male-gaze-van-dyck-lucian-freud

Beyond Caravaggio

National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.

17 June – 24 September 2017

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, 1602 On indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St., Dublin who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr Marie Lea-Wilson. Photo © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) remains one of the most radical, explosive and influential artists in the history of Art. Although his undeniable brilliance, profound insight and consummate skill as a painter attracted esteemed patrons during his lifetime, he was also a man of the street and a murderer, spending the final four years of his tragically brief life as a fugitive. If he were alive today his rise and fall would be meteorically tabloid. “Brilliant, challenging, argumentative and violent, our image of his work is inseparable from his tumultuous personal life.”  Despite his deeply conflicted, volcanic temper and fatally impulsive personality – or perhaps because of it, he dared to simultaneously level and elevate humanity in his art. Controversially using ordinary people as models for the saints and placing them in everyday settings, he consistently “blurr[ed] the lines between [the] sacred and profane.” His highly dramatic compositions are designed for inclusion, bringing the viewer into the frame, regardless of the Age. Caravaggio’s theatre of the human condition spills into our foreground, combining desire, divinity and illuminating darkness. Profoundly moving, dazzlingly theatrical and intimately cinematic, the technique of Chiaroscuro is very much about the light and dark of the soul. It appeals to our primal instincts and higher senses, the creative drive to construct meaning, alive in shadow play on cave walls, Silent Film, the black and white morality of Film Noir and in the work of this 17th Century Master. Caravaggio’s protagonists erupt from an intense, dark ground of worldly experience. On the high altar of Catholic morality Caravaggio is a burning contradiction, accessibly grounded in the language of everyday mortal life with the breath-taking ability to transcend it. His masculinity admits the feminine in fascinating ways and his ability to convey essential truths through visual narrative is truly spectacular.

This exhibition of works by the artist, his ‘ Caravaggesque’ followers and contemporaries from across Europe including; Artemisia Gentileschi, Orazio Gentileschi, Orazio Riminaldi, Mattia Preti (Il Calabrese), Giovanni Antonio Galli, Nicolas Régnier, Francesco Buoneri (Cecco Del Caravaggio), Matthias Stom, Willem Van der Vliet, Jusepe de Ribera, Valentin de Boulogne, Gerrit Van Honthorst and Nicolas Tournier, is the first of its kind in the UK and part of this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival programme. The touring exhibition is a collaboration between The National Gallery, London, the National Gallery of Ireland and the National Galleries of Scotland, sponsored by Credit Suisse International. Over forty works are on display, “normally housed in museums, stately homes, castles and private collections within the UK” and Ireland, providing a fantastic opportunity to discover the artist’s influence on an entire generation of painters in juxtaposition. Many works and artists in the show will be unknown to visitors and the artist’s influential scope is extremely varied. Caravaggio’s individual brand of naturalism, focus on human gesture, the symbolic narrative of light and his proficiency as a storyteller have enduring appeal, significantly influencing other art forms in the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Something which begs exploration out with the parameters of this show is wider exploration of Caravaggio’s influence on Theatre Design, Photography, Cinematography and film directors such as Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman, Vincent Corda and Martin Scorsese. Taking a cross-disciplinary approach could provide alternative pathways into Caravaggio’s work for those not immediately drawn to the work of a ‘Master’ from the canon and that of his 16th and 17th Century contemporaries. In the world of gaming, illustration, photography, writing, animation and filmmaking, this artist has much to teach contemporary artists about storytelling through body language, expression, gesture, positioning of the figure in space and the physical/ metaphysical power of lighting. There are many hands-on approaches to Caravaggio’s work that would have tied in beautifully with EIFF just around the corner, enhancing both programmes and appealing to younger audiences. Hopefully Caravaggio’s billing as the “bad boy” of Art History will make people curious and encourage those unfamiliar with his work and that of his contemporaries to visit this amazing exhibition. For visitors who are familiar with the artist’s work, there are new, dynamic connections to be made.

There are certain images that are masterpieces in the holistic sense of the word-perfection on every level in terms of composition, Craft, emotional intelligence and expression. I can say unreservedly that Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ (1602, Oil on canvas, 133.5 x 169.5 cm, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) is one of them! From every angle, at distance and up close, it drew me back to it like a magnet. It is hung facing another sublime painting in the largest RSA gallery space, Caravaggio’s much celebrated The Supper at Emmaus (1601, oil on canvas, 141 x 196.2 cm, The National Gallery, London). Both were commissioned by Ciraco Mattei and it is wonderful to see them reunited in the space as examples of an artist at the height of his powers. In a wider thematic context and in terms of influence it is fascinating to see the relationships between works and how they bounce off each other. The technical influences are obvious; positioning of light, use of shadow, the naturalism of live models and everyday settings, but there are many more nuanced connections to be explored in the show. One of the most humbling aspects of The Taking of Christ for all its sophistication and artistry is what Caravaggio achieves in terms of expression. It is a story told through the hands, body language and gesture, the most basic means human beings use (primarily unconsciously) to communicate. The artist didn’t labour over preparatory drawings, he reacted very directly to life within and around him in an immediate, visceral way. It doesn’t matter what age you happen to be standing in, your education, cultural background, what your religious beliefs are or if you have none, the gesture and psychology of this composition appeals to human hard wiring to read each other and construct meaning visually. It is an absolute masterclass in the artist transcending themselves to create something timeless and revolutionary.

The Taking of Christ is like a single frame of a film frozen for the spectator to fully contemplate a moment  and the condition of betrayal. Unfolding biblical drama aside, it is a story communicated progressively through the hands and with the power of light. The artist is literally and metaphorically holding a lamp in the scene, creating balance in the composition with a line of light bisecting the arrow of arresting light on the arm of an armour-clad soldier. This clash of hard metal and vulnerable flesh contains violence in what is a compressed pictorial space and a dark night of the soul. The figures in closest relationship to each other (Jesus and Judas), one gripping the shoulder of the other in an extension of the arresting arm of the soldier makes the character complicit. The intimate space between the two men is divided by shadow and we feel in the downcast gaze and hands turbulently entwined beneath the weighted burden of deepest blue the psychological anguish and gravitas of human betrayal. The betrayer looks past the betrayed, his furrowed brow communicating the conflicted nature of the act, whilst the figure in the far left of the composition cries for help with his arms raised, beyond the picture plane into darkness. We understand in the darkness beyond the frame it is too late and the call for deliverance will not be answered. The scene is highly charged and intensely dramatic, but crucially not melodramatic. Its emotional core is interior, rather than being trapped in exterior performance and that is the real source of the painting’s power and appeal. Even if the viewer does not know the story of Christ and his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane prior to the crucifixion, the image appeals to our emotional intelligence in portraying the complexity and conflict of betrayal, beautifully, miraculously through hands which reach across time to touch our own. These are men in the dress of the day feeling as we do, not gods or heroes, even though the central character is the son of the Christian God. That piercing light of intentionality like a sword hits us immediately, instinctively and emotionally, requiring no further explanation. Interestingly, as Aidan Weston-Lewis suggests in his exhibition catalogue entry, it is Caravaggio inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s depiction of The Betrayal of Christ (1509), which for me is one definitive, singular personality and trajectory of creative intent, inspirationally leading another.

Giovanni Antonio Galli, called Lo Spadarino, ‘Christ displaying his Wounds’, about 1625–35 © Courtesy of Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council

Displayed in the same room, we see how humanity is communicated in the figure of Christ in a painting by Giovanni Antonio Galli (called Lo Spadarino, 1585-1682).  Christ Displaying his Wounds (about 1625-35, oil on canvas, 132.3 x 97.8cm, Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council, Scotland) shows Christ illuminated in resurrection, emerging from the dark, mysterious ground of death. His fingers of his hands part his own flesh, opening the wound for us to see with the felt sense of our own body, coupled with an expression that calls for us to examine the truth of what we are witnessing. Although lit from above, Christ’s eyes directly, inescapably address the viewer; furrowed brow and mouth slightly open, questioning not as an elevated being but eye to eye. The biblical text/concept of “blood of my blood and flesh of my flesh” made real and relatable.  This arresting painting aligns with Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601-2) in terms of the doubting disciple/ human doubt, poking a finger into belief. The resurrection Galli’s risen Christ suggestively affirms is within our own souls. It is the gesture and the immediacy of touch which flows between the hand of Caravaggio, Galli, the human/ philosophical subject, the painting as object and the viewer. The link between Caravaggio and his followers is often more complex and visionary than simple aesthetic or stylistic imitations. Throughout the exhibition it is extremely interesting to see what aspects of his Art appeal to different artists from Italy, Switzerland, France, Spain and the Netherlands and how this manifests in their individual approaches to the secular and sacred.

In the Painting from Life: Music/ Drinking/ Gambling themed room Nicolas Tournier’s Dice Players (about 1620-25, Oil on canvas, 127 x 172.7cm, Attington Park, The Berwick Collection, The National Trust) conjures the atmosphere of illicit activity and potential violence in a quartet of men assembled around a makeshift gaming table. The light invested in the faces and hands of the three central protagonists skilfully pulls us into the game, aligned with the three die cast on the table top, an expression of their individual personalities, attitudes and fates. The gaze of the central figure is fixed on his opponent. His hand assertively placed on the table operates in dialogue with the players flanking him and the illuminating placement of their hands and bodies frame the tension of the scene. It is taking place in the shadows, perhaps in an alley or the back room of a tavern. It is absorbing how the merger of everyday faces and settings enters into more religious subject matter in the show and the levels upon which this operates, especially in the context of Faith under threat in later generations. Caravaggio’s rebellious introduction of traditionally unworthy models; street urchins, prostitutes and crimminals as the faces of religious art caused a sensation in the early 1600’s. Anchoring storytelling to familiar settings and dress, or the use of dark, ambiguous spaces into which the viewer can project themselves, is aided by the artist’s choice of foreshortened views. Rather like the eye of the camera in modern cinematography we imaginatively enter the scene, we can’t help it because the artist has placed us very deliberately in the foreground of the composition. He doesn’t just want us to see, he wants us to experience and more importantly to feel.

Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), an artist who knew Caravaggio in his lifetime, brings this dynamic into play with his rendering of David and Goliath (about 1605-8, oil on canvas, 185.5 x 136 cm, The National Gallery of Ireland) which spills emotively into the viewer’s space. The scene of the boy David about to slay the giant is presided over by a drawn sword. The active steel engulfs the top of the composition, whilst the background plays a subtler role in establishing the internal, unconscious Nature of the image. Behind David’s head is a living tree with an arched branch following the curve of his sword about to deliver the decisive blow, whilst just below it a dead branch inclined at a precarious angle, aligned with Goliath’s hand as he lays on the ground. David’s slingshot and the arrangement of stones topple into our foreground and we’re effectively cast as participants in the emotive tension of the scene.

Artemisia Gentileschi Susannah and the Elders, 1622, Oil on canvas, 1615 x 123cm
Signed and date on lower centre, above Susannah’s knees. ARTEMITIA GENTILESCHI LOMI /FACIEBAT.A D. MDC XXII. The Burghley House Collection, BH no. 218.

Hung opposite this painting in the thematic “Sacred and Profane” room is one of the finest, most subtly nuanced paintings in the show by Orazio Gentileschi’s daughter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-about 1656). Her stunning treatment of the Old Testament subject of Susannah and the Elders (1622, Oil on Canvas, 161.5 x 123cm, The Burghley House Collection) outstrips the adjacent skills of her father and introduces, perhaps for the first time in Art History, the biblical tale from a Female point of view. Her beautifully crisp treatment of detail and acute emotional intelligence shine through a highly unusual treatment of the subject. It’s the only painting by this artist housed in the British Isles and brings into play a much more highly evolved sphere of influence, engaging fully with the complexity of emotion at work in Caravaggio’s paintings. Curator Letizia Treves comments on the mistaken attribution of this work to Caravaggio “throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth centuries, the signature confirming Artemisia’s authorship [ signed and dated in the lower centre, above Susannah’s knees] only becoming apparent after cleaning in 1995.”

The influence of Caravaggio on Artemisia Gentileschi’s work is multifaceted, arguably operating on a deeper level than many other followers. Something that has always struck me about Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard, an early work painted between 1594-5 (Oil on canvas, 66 x 49.5cm, National Gallery, London) is that even then, the technical prowess is matched by the artist’s capacity for expression of complicated emotion and desire. It’s a quality that elevates his Art and enables it to speak in a modern, secular world. Caravaggio’s audaciousness and tenacity puts many contemporary artists in the shade in that respect. Whilst many have written about Boy Bitten By a Lizard as an expressive study of surprise, reacting to the physical stimulus of the young man’s finger being bitten, there’s a whole lot more going on in this picture, not just in acknowledging the homo-eroticism of it, but how the artist achieves a multi-layered rather than a simplistic reaction to desire. The exquisite attention to detail in the ripe, glistening fruit you could reach out and touch, the glass vase with running beads of water and delicately modelled blooms, certainly establishes the painter’s ability as a calling card, but the function of the image, sold on the street, is more than the artist working from a live model to convincingly capture a single expression. The youth’s shoulder is sensuously exposed and the directional light catches the rhythm of his robe, the curve of his hands and fingers in a highly animated serpentine curve as he leans into the table. His open mouth, curvaceous lips and tongue combine with his furrowed brow, creating an expression not simply of surprise but of pain mixed with the suggestive promise of pleasure. It is a moment of experience, a twist in the tale of innocence transformed and a projection of desire on the part of the artist and potential client. It’s an intimate view of a street wise Bacchus and the worship of a different God through the body and senses. Caravaggio isn’t afraid to confront challenging subject matter, he is who he is, fuelled by impulse and instinct, refined here with the unnerving clarity and transparency of glass. There’s a sense of unease and anticipation in walking that knife edge, a precariousness that strengthens his compositions. He is supremely confident, isn’t prone to overworking the painting, is spontaneous in his reaction to the subject/ aspects of Self and equally controlled in how he composes the world within the frame.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Boy bitten by a Lizard, about 1594-5
Oil on canvas, 66 x 49.5 cm. The National Gallery, London. Bought with the aid of a contribution from the J. Paul Getty Jr Endowment Fund, 1986.© The National Gallery, London.

What Artemisia Gentileschi brings to understanding Caravaggio is to take command of the composition in painting and in life. She grasped from a very young age what many mature followers of Caravaggio do not, namely the emotional complexity, sensitivity and internal power of his work. The light and shadow in her Susannah and the Elders comes from within, depicted as never before in the history of Art. She’s not just a follower, like Caravaggio she is uniquely herself in this work and eclipses her contemporaries in the processThe biblical tale of Susannah and the Elders is (unsurprisingly) a very popular subject amongst male artists and patrons as it provides the opportunity for the appearance of Old Testament piety, coupled with imaginative wish fulfilment and sexual gratification in the female nude.  In Gentileschi’s version, the core of the image is Susannah herself, she isn’t cowering or running for cover, but is self-possessed and symbolically lit from above. Her eyes are raised beyond the space in the high right hand corner of the painting where the two elders lean into the frame, leering at her. Pushed to the edge of the painting their presence is balanced on the left-hand side by the heavy, oppressive form of an urn, which cuts into the blue sky and torn grey clouds as negative space. This feels very much like the archetypal woman as a vessel, establishing a masculine / feminine power differential in a society led by male elders. The putti in the fountain cast a sinister show as her private bath is invaded. Susannah’s back is literally and metaphorically to the wall and in deflecting the advances of the two elders. Her body twists in on itself, one arm across her torso and the other crossing her knees as she tries to wrap her white chemise around her body. Her form isn’t idealised beauty but voluptuous and real. Although some viewers might confuse the arrangement of form with erotic display in one breast being revealed, it is also protectively enclosed by her bent arm and elbow. The painting commission may have dictated an open treatment of the subject in terms of the female body but the artist delivers this on her own terms. Susannah’s entire expression and posture denotes shielding herself, but still being the woman she is and that gives us hope for her and her story. There is a feeling of psychological survival in her separation from the elders’ close proximity and threat of violation. In the minds of contemporary viewers the story would have completed with her vindication and reputation restored. The artist’s empathy with the female protagonist is impossible to separate from her own experience of sexual violence and the horrific public rape trial which profoundly affected the course of her life and Art. As we see it in her painting of Judith and Holofernes (about 1614-20), a composition inspired by Caravaggio’s image of the same subject painted between 1598-9, but far stronger as a pure, visual expression of revenge and rage. She is the strength behind the composition, resoundingly bound together by her skill, insight and experience as a true Master. That same self- possession tempers the extreme distress we see in Susannah’s face and her vulnerability, communicated in tiny details such as her earrings which catch the light not as adornments, but rendered in the same manner as her tears. The posture of the elder in blue is one of appraisal of her body as property, something to be used, while his voyeuristic companion crassly clambers to get a better look over his shoulder. Their fine clothes and status amplify the statement of moral hypocrisy and corruption, but do not overshadow the virtue and resilience of Susannah, or indeed Artemisia herself. This is a hugely important painting, not just in terms of the artist’s development, but in what it reveals about gender equality, society, politics and culture not just in Artemisia’s time, but in our own century which has only begun to question and re-evaluate our visual inheritance. Like Caravaggio, Gentileschi can stand alone in any century. She makes Nicolas Régnier’s beautifully painted Saint Sebastian tended by the Holy Irene and her Servant (about 1626-30) look like staged artifice by comparison. She has Caravaggio’s fortitude and guts, but without the misdirected brute force of inherited masculinity and arrogance that was his downfall.

Styles of painting fall in and out of fashion and even painting in recent years has fallen out of favour but as this exhibition demonstrates, holistic engagement with the human figure still has a far reaching influence. Generations after Caravaggio’s death, the nature of his influence as a Master without a School is as potent and fresh as ever and what a joy it is to see the work of other artist’s inspired by him step out of the shadows and into the public domain.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/beyond-caravaggio

www.edinburghartfestival.com

British Museum presents: Hokusai

Dragon rising above Mt Fuji. Hanging scroll, ink and slight colour on silk, 1849. Hokusaikan, Obuse. On display from 25 May – 2 July.

Eden Court Cinema and in cinemas nationwide from 4 June 2017

Although I’m a firm believer that the best way to experience any work of Art is being present in the same space, clearly this isn’t always possible. As I and many others won’t have the opportunity to travel to London this summer, I was very excited to see that the British Museum’s current exhibition Hokusai Beyond the Great Wave (25th May to 13th August) was to be broadcast in cinemas. Having attended similar exhibition related events, re-examining the work of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Goya and Bosch, I was very much looking forward to rediscovering Hokusai up close on a big screen. He’s an artist whose work will be familiar to many people reproduced in poster form, but is less well known in terms of the substance, scope and subtlety of his Art. Seeing exhibitions presented on screen brings a different scale of viewing into play, at times allowing the audience to get closer than would ever be permissible in a gallery or museum, especially where fragile works on paper are concerned. Dependent on selective editing of original works, choice of interviewees, depth of commentary and the final documentary edit, filmed exhibitions can be truly insightful, inspirational, even revelatory experiences. As a continuous record of human thoughts, actions and aspirations lived visually, Art History demands constant reappraisal, not just within academic circles but in the public domain. The collective cinema experience arguably reaches a wider audience than any Art Historian ever could, either in print or on television and coordinated international distribution by More2Screen is huge step forward in terms of accessibility. Art reveals everything humanity is capable of, bringing us face to face with who we are right now (or could be) as part of an ever-expanding field of reference. The cross-border collaboration and investment necessary to stage such an exhibition, in the museum and on screen, reflects this shared inheritance, following in the footsteps of an artist who bridges East and West.

Weeping cherry and bullfinch. Colour Woodblock. c. 1834 © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is an artist of profound and lasting influence on global visual culture. When we have the opportunity to see his work up close, we begin to appreciate why in the truth and immediacy of our own responses. Although the film and exhibition will be a natural draw for anyone interested in painting, drawing, illustration, Manga, animation, design, Japanese history and culture, I think many more people would find the thinking and craft behind familiar images, examined afresh with the latest technology, a complete revelation. Some of the filmed images drew gasps from the audience! In tiniest accents of colour and variation of mark “Paint is not paint anymore but plumage”.  Hokusai has ducks swimming through paper, capturing the essence and spirit of the animal. His composition of a bullfinch about to take flight from a branch of cherry blossom is breathtakingly exquisite in its simplicity and connectedness, which is also the source of its beauty. Hokusai is an artist who continues to generate immediate, heartfelt responses in viewers across time and an important question to ask is why? He has much to teach contemporary artists, in many ways challenging not only how we view and value creative practice, but how Western 21st Century popular culture perceives the creative “I”, the aging process and the relationships between Humanity, Nature and Spiritually.  The appropriation of Hokusai’s Great Wave as an emoji is often interpreted reductively in a Western corporate / urban context as an individual emotive response or a branded illustration of activity and aspiration. However, as a visual symbol it has far more expansive capabilities on the artist’s own terms. Hokusai’s entire ethos of making, way of seeing the world and himself, is still a revolutionary wave of thought and practice. In the context of global affairs circa 2017, this renewed focus on his work and way of being in the world could not be timelier.

Dragon in rain clouds. Hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, 1849. Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet, Paris, given by Nobert Lagane. On display from 25 May – 13 August.

The British Museum exhibition Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave includes prints, paintings and illustrated books from the last 30 years of Hokusai’s life on loan from public and private collections in Europe, Japan and the USA. To have these exhibited together with works from the British Museum collection is exceedingly rare and due to light sensitivity, some works can only be displayed for a limited time. In the interests of conservation, the museum will rotate half of the works with the exhibition closing between 3rd and 6th July to facilitate the changeover- an excellent excuse for a second visit if you happen to live nearby or visit London regularly! The show is the result of curatorial collaboration with Dr Shūgō Asano, “leading Hokusai scholar and Director of the Abeno Harukas Art Museum, Osaka, where a similar exhibition Hokusai – Fuji o koete will be shown from 6 October – 19 November 2017.” Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave is also “underpinned by research undertaken by the British Museum and Dr Angus Lockyer, Lecturer in the Department of History at SOAS University of London”, as part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project Late Hokusai: Thought, Technique, Society(April 2016-March 2019) “focusing on Hokusai’s last three decades”. The exhibition is a remarkable achievement, demonstrating the importance and value of continuing art historical research, education and international collaboration, bringing new perspectives to work of global importance. It is also the culmination of a 10 year ambition shared by Tim Clark, head of the Japanese section in the Department of Asia at the British Museum and Art Historian/ Hokusai scholar Roger Keyes to honour the consummate skill, artistry and vision of the artist in presenting his finest works. The Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries (Rooms 92–94 in the British Museum) containing objects from ancient porcelain and Samurai armour to Manga comic books, compliment the blockbuster exhibition focus on one of Japan’s finest artists.

British Museum presents: Hokusai. Screen shot courtesy of More2Screen.

For cinema audiences worldwide, the 90 minute documentary British Museum presents: Hokusai co-produced with NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) with support from the Japan Foundation and Mitsubishi Corporation, enables viewers to examine and enjoy the artist’s work as never before using 8K Ultra HD video technology. The first part of the film directed by Patricia Wheatley looks at the artist’s life, work, techniques and context ,drawing on the perspectives of contemporary British and Japanese artists, while the second part directed by James Norton is a private view of selected works from the British Museum exhibition with commentary from Art Historian Andrew Graham Dickson, artists Grayson Perry, Kate Malone, Maggi Hambling, curator Tim Clark and art historian Roger Keyes who has studied Hokusai’s prints for over 50 years.

Learned credentials aside -what impressed me most, particularly as an art historian, were the genuine, immediate emotional responses to the artist’s work which communicated with such excitement, enthusiasm and actual tears, why this artist’s work is so important, enduring and meaningful to so many people around the world. Not because the artist is a name, a brand, a fortune in the auction house, or part of a canon, but because his work still speaks resoundingly for itself, transcending the time in which it was made and the artist’s persona. Speaking personally about the effect, influence and sheer joy of his work to camera, Maggi Hambling, Grayson Perry and Hokusai scholar Roger Keyes reveal much about the three pillars of Hokusai’s practice; Nature, Humanity and Spirituality, suggesting multiple pathways into his Art. My only disappointment was that there weren’t more standalone views of works in the exhibition, simply to be able to spend more time with them! There’s a balance to be struck between specialist commentary and unguided access to an artist’s work, but overall the documentary succeeds in helping to “relocate Hokusai from niche to world stage.”  This is largely due to the natural dynamics at work in Hokusai’s Art, his rapport and regard in relation to everyday subjects and Nature, which people can readily relate to, complimented by the passion, honesty and devotion expressed by the interviewees. Film presents a unique opportunity for direct interpretative responses to original works as opposed to receiving an illustrated lecture. Whilst editing certainly shapes our view, there is perhaps more scope to come to terms with Arts as Humanities in a broader sense. Something that often strikes me in academic circles is the tendency to write about Art in a way that says more about the writer than their subject, the spark of what drew the author or commentator to the visual artist in the first place is regrettably absent. Thankfully here, that vital energy connecting the artist, work and viewer to something greater than themselves alone is heartily celebrated on screen, one of the very best ways to encourage people to seek out the original work for themselves and make their own connections with it.

Roger Keyes’ devoted study of Hokusai’s work is truly inspirational and his response to works in the exhibition deeply moving.  This is not the artist as a brand or style but something more lasting and authentic, fully integrated into life. In the words of Keyes from the age of 6 to Hokusai’s death at the age of 90 “he never gave up”, never stopped making work and considered in each vital decade of life that the best was yet to come. In Western popular culture, we’ve become accustomed to a permanent state of denial of death and aging. Age is increasingly seen as a burden rather than an asset to society or another stage of positive growth, experience and maturity. Japanese belief in the 60 year zodiac cycle whereby aged 60 one enters a new phase with renewed purpose, informed Hokusai’s conviction that everything he’d done up to the age of 70 “wasn’t worthy of notice”. The iconic work Under the Great Wave off Kanagawa (Colour woodblock, 1831. Acquisition supported by the Art Fund. © The Trustees of the British Museum) known to many as The Great Wave and the most famous of his series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, was simply another beginning. The intention to continue to draw and paint in his 80’s, 90’s, even beyond 100, never wavered and this spirit of renewal through creativity is inspired.

Although in the West creativity is often percieved, branded and marketed as a product of ego justified by the right to individual expression, Hokusai’s Self orientation was defined by his religious beliefs and connectivity to a more expansive reality. When I look at Under the Great Wave off Kanagawa I don’t see the fishermen cowering in their boats in the face of a potential maritime disaster. Perhaps influenced by the Western Romantic tradition grasping the Great Wave as a Sturm und Drang force of Nature, I see them bowing in reverence, held in awe and stillness, meeting the sheer power and wonder of Nature. That frozen moment of consciousness in the unfurling wave connects to the eternally sacred presence of Mount Fuji which is the subject, vanishing point and spiritual core of the whole series.  The feeling of motion and belief caught within the image is anchored to the mountain and although the crest of the wave looks like a giant, animal-like claw that could easily crush the boats below, an attitude of worship permeates the entire composition.  Toweringly sublime Prussian blue and white touching the mountain peak, with subtle background washes conveying an attitude of contemplation. In Hokusai’s Great Wave, Human scale is completely dwarfed by Nature and whilst this could be a fearful admission of vulnerability, it is the relationship between all the elements of the image, as part of an entire system or cosmology, which Hokusai enables us to feel. The force of the momentous wave is being itself; an overwhelming presence certainly, but also part of the ebb and flow of life forever suspended before our eyes, in our minds and the universe. As artist Maggi Hambling very perceptively observes on camera, today when confronted by Nature people are inclined to “take a photograph of themselves standing in front of it” rather than being fully present. Belonging to Nichiren sect of Buddhism, Hokusai demonstrates a progressive way of being throughout his life’s work.

Clear day with a southern breeze (‘Red Fuji’) from Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831. © The Trustees of the British Museum. On display from 25 May – 13 August.

Clear day with a southern breeze (‘Pink Fuji’) from Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831. . Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet, Paris. On display from 25 May – 13 August.

Apprenticed to a wood carver as a young man, by the age of 18 Hokusai was under the tutorage of Master ukiyo-e printmaker Katsukawa Shunshō. What isn’t often appreciated in a digital age is the complexity and artistry of original printmaking in terms of crafting the image and it was wonderful to see footage of this as part of the documentary. There is physicality in carving a woodblock that in Japanese Art demands more than starkly gouged strength of line. There is supreme delicacy in broken lines conveying the qualities and feeling of movement in air, clouds and water. Hokusai’s early woodblock prints reveal multi-layered treatment using 3 or 4 blocks with varied inking techniques to achieve an incredibly nuanced effect. Clear day with a southern breeze (‘Pink Fuji’) from Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji. (Colour woodblock, 1831. Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet, Paris) and Clear day with a southern breeze (Red Fuji) (Colour woodblock, 1831. © The Trustees of the British Museum), demonstrate the artist’s finely rendered treatment of tone, hue and texture contrasted with mass reproduction in heavier blocks of colour and greater uniformity of line. The art of “capturing the brush line in wood” and “the subtlety of the ink mark with pigment running out” so “prized in calligraphy” presents an interdisciplinary understanding of the artist’s chosen medium, linked to a wider cultural and spiritual perception of the world. In Pink Fuji the forest isn’t treated as a flat graphic pattern but vibrates with life in multi-layered marks and the inking process. True to his Faith there is life in all things, “animal and mineral”, sublime gradients of colour and light in the landscape, in the smallest insect, birds, blossoms and the eternal snow-capped mountain. Hokusai’s stunning Thunder Storm print achieves a highly animated flash/ “strobe effect” to rival CGI We can hear the thunder reverberating as the trees incline with air pressure and people take shelter from the oncoming storm and lightening, achieved with the highly directional light and bleached colour palette.

British Museum presents: Hokusai. Thunder Storm Print. Screenshot courtesy of More2Screen.

It is not surprising that in the mid Nineteenth Century, when Japanese colour wood block ukiyo-e prints by artists including Hiroshige, Kunisada and Hokusai began to be exported to Europe as mass reproductions that they caused a sensation. Artists such as Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Whistler and Picasso saw the world of European perspective reimagined, influencing the course of Western Art History with the bolder form of inking several steps removed from the artist’s exacting hand. In our own century technology has further smoothed variations of line and mark to the point where studio based computer generated animation often feels like uniform plastic. Hokusai’s understanding of the woodblock process realises the concept that “only a human hand has the awareness to make such a mark in the world”. His illustrated book 100 Views of Mount Fuji in three volumes (I 1834, II 1835, III 1849) expands this idea, stretching the image in terms of perspective and composition in dynamic response to his chosen subject as the spiritual anchor of the ‘Floating World’. During the Edo period in Japan (1615-1868) mass-produced prints of famous actors and actresses, courtesans, landscapes, legends and folk tales were extremely popular. Hokusai’s apprenticeship in ukiyo-e carving and printing techniques grounded him in a Craft with a social dimension, combining the mythic with the everyday. As highlighted in the documentary two streams of Hokusai’s practice, his book illustrations and random drawings without narrative combined are precursors of modern Manga.

Shōki painted in red. Hanging scroll, ink and red pigment on silk, 1846. Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Mrs Charles Stewart Smith. On display from 25 May – 13 August.

Moving fluidly between Nature, Humanity and the supernatural, the artist’s paintings and prints of ghosts, mythological creatures and deities are among the exhibition’s filmed highlights. Shōki painted in red (Hanging scroll, ink and red pigment on silk, 1846. Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Mrs Charles Stewart Smith. On display from 25 May – 13 August) a demon-queller who offers protection against smallpox stands steadfast, an expression of powerful benevolence and determination on his face. His character is reassuring to the viewer, perceived in the fiery overlapping folds of his robe which animate his advance mentally and physically into our foreground. Ready for battle but not showing his hands which are hidden in the billowing sleeves of his robe, there’s a feeling of heated anticipation in every bold, assured mark. The heroism of the figure isn’t communicated by a drawn sword but is carried inwardly, allowing the audience to feel unconsciously protected. The seal on the lower right takes the pictorial form of an erupting volcano which also informs our view of the figure and his strength as protector. Emotionally and psychologically the image operates way beyond illustration.

Kohada Koheiji from One Hundred Ghost Tales. Colour woodblock, 1833. Purchase funded by the Theresia Gerda Buch bequest in memory of her parents Rudolph and Julie Buch. © The Trustees of the British Museum. On display from 25 May – 13 August.

Hokusai’s wonderful vision of Kohada Koheiji from One Hundred Ghost Tales (Colour woodblock, 1833. Purchase funded by the Theresia Gerda Buch bequest in memory of her parents Rudolph and Julie Buch. © The Trustees of the British Museum. On display from 25 May – 13 August) sees the mosquito net pared down like pink flesh from the bone with the skeletal ghost of a murdered/ drowned husband peering over an edge between worlds. Although most of the flesh is decayed from his face revealing expressively stark bone, beyond the ghoulishness we know he has been wronged. His bare teeth mirror the squared form of Buddhist beads around his neck as he stares down at his wife and her lover completely out of frame, the tale empathically alive in the viewer’s imagination. This quality of allowing the viewer to complete the image expansively in their own minds is one of Hokusai’s greatest gifts to audiences past, present and future.

British Museum presents: Hokusai. Chicken Feet Screen Shot courtesy of More2Screen.

Hokusai’s work also reveals humour and a lively personality, demonstrating his Art by action painting blue ink onto a long sheet of paper, then dipping the feet of a rooster in red pigment and having it walk across it, announcing the visualised concept of autumn leaves falling on the Takusai River to his wowed audience. “He could draw onto a grain of rice”, was “childlike” in the playful spontaneity of drawing subjects called out at parties, collaborated with other artists and writers and as early as 1822 was experimenting with a hybridised style of European perspective in paintings commissioned by Dutch officials. Formal trading relations began in 1609 between the Netherlands and Japan and this influence informed Hokusai’s melding of Eastern and Western perspectives. As artist David Hockney keenly observes during interview, Hokusai understood that in depicting space “on a flat surface everything is abstraction.” This relates not just to pictorial elements of perspective, line and colour as part of formal composition, but the holistic spirit behind those human marks. Van Gogh felt a kinship with the devotional in Japanese art, attuned to what he saw as the Divine in Nature and everyday labour. Writing to his brother Theo from Arles, 15 July 1888 he stated that; “all my work is based to some extent on Japanese art”, seeing it as part of a shared lineage, which he describes in September 1888 like that of “the Primitives”, “the Greeks “and “our old Dutchmen, Rembrandt, Potter, Hals, Vermeer, Ostade, Ruisdael. It doesn’t end.” [1]When Van Gogh uses the word “primitives” in this context it is a mark of authenticity, Humankind’s unique creative drive to make sense of the world and ourselves, with the hope and possibility of reimagining and renewing both.

Self-portrait, aged eighty-three. Drawing in a letter, ink on paper, 1842. Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Leiden. On display from 25 May – 13 August.

The soul of this artist is belief, the rejuvenation of name changes throughout his life accompanying his development as a man and artist. Hokusai is the “North Star” a fixed point in the heavens within and without, the “North studio” of Craft and identity who becomes the “old man-crazy to paint”.  He wasn’t struck by the legendary lightning strike of egoistic talent but by Nature as the vital spark of his own inner nature. We see that communicated in his progressive work, reaching its zenith between the ages of 70 and 90 when he frees himself, engaging fully with the connectivity of every vibrating mark, making approaching death simply another threshold. He becomes the Dragon rising above Mt Fuji. (Hanging scroll, ink and slight colour on silk, 1849. Hokusaikan, Obuse. On display from 25 May – 2 July.) Equally there’s humility in his drawn self-portraits such as Self-portrait, aged eighty-three. (Drawing in a letter, ink on paper, 1842. Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Leiden. On display from 25 May – 13 August) with no affectations towards nobility or greatness. Hokusai isn’t afraid to depict himself as an old man and flawed human being, delighting in the expanded possibilities of perception through experience, even in reduced circumstances and the abject poverty he suffered in later life. There’s joy, reverence and power in his Art which speaks to people very directly, regardless of belief. Like the work of Rembrandt, it’s the artist’s humanity which irrepressibly shines through.

There are many pathways into and extending beyond Hokusai’s Art in the way we interact with the world and in relation to further research. The documentary includes a tantalising glimpse of the work of his daughter Eijo “(art name Ōi, about 1800-after 1857) an artist in her own right who “quit an unsuccessful marriage” “to care for her aged father” working “with and alongside him.” Given that Manga is a female dominated Art Form this also begs further investigation in the public domain. There is so much for visitors to the exhibition and cinema audiences to explore and contemplate in relation to Hokusai’s extraordinary, prolific and varied work. If you can’t get to the British Museum in London then get yourself to the nearest cinema screening, for the price of a cinema ticket you’ll be very glad you did!

[1] Inspiration from Japan, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/stories/inspiration-from-japan

British Museum Exhibition website: http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/hokusai.aspx

More2Screen: http://www.more2screen.com/events/hokusai-british-museum/

PART TWO 2017

EOGHAN BRIDGE, FIONNA CARLISLE, SAM CARTMAN,KIRSTIE COHEN, ALAN MACDONALD.

Kilmorack Gallery, 27 May – 5 August.

Sweet Mystery (Ceramic) by Eoghan Bridge.

Kilmorack’s latest exhibition of solo statements by five individual artists works beautifully in the whole space, joyfully punctuated by sculptor Eoghan Bridge’s latest body of work. Introducing vivid primary colours into his Art, Bridge is knowing, playful and often poignant in its treatment of the human figure, balanced against the recurrent archetypal figure of the horse. This essential relationship feels like an extension of self in equine form, deriving strength and stability from the unconscious. It’s a circular dynamic where the powerful stability of the horse and the vulnerability of the human rider are symbolically entwined. Work such as Trojan (Ceramic) cleverly places one figure inside and in relation to another in an abstracted inner love triangle, playing with the Classical myth of the Trojan horse and whole idea of emotional and psychological defences.  Jungian psychology; animus (the feminine inner personality in men) and anima (the masculine inner personality in women) linked to creative process also comes to mind. This isn’t theoretically implicit in Bridge’s work, but there is an aspect of striving to balance emotion, instinct, vision, form, human and animal aspects of the psyche at the base of his work which always fascinates. Human figures are often dwarfed by the animal form supporting them in elevation, or inverted with the horse balanced precariously above. Seated human figures fold in on themselves, faces hidden in melancholic withdrawal or poised in acrobatic movement, reminiscent of the joy and wonder felt being taken to the circus as a child, tinged with a captive edge of sadness. When I Close My Eyes (Ceramic) is a beautiful example, with the seated human figure cast in a sorrowful, introspective posture, facing a horse poetically doing a handstand with upright stability, balancing a red ball with its hooves. Face to face the horse looks like a best friend, partner or inner companion being a metaphorical rock, attempting to make us laugh our way out of grief, loss or isolation.

There is great joy and humour in Bridge’s work but also compelling fragility. In Up and Away (Ceramic) the human figure is tethered to a bright cadmium red balloon horse held aloft by an uncoiled, spring like umbilical cord of thought and feeling. The inflatable horse is almost comic, invested with the tension of colour and form about to potentially burst into life. The balloon horse feels like hope as a life line extending from the human figure, resiliently poised with its hooves steadfast, holding up the infinite imaginative space above it which the figure is blind to in the moment. On one level it is quite whimsical, a surreal, improbable juxtaposition and yet it feels very much like the existential reality of being human.  Kiss my Rider (Ceramic) connects the geometrically square horse with a buttoned mane of Mondrian primary colour, to the bent human figure, both rendered in pure white. The horse is defying its weight and gravity, balancing upon its nose on the back of a female figure, bent not uncomfortably double. Her hair is styled into a dairy swirl cone point and her figure is childlike, suggesting a process of creative development, enabling her to support the form she’s still flexible enough to hold aloft. The horse miraculously rotates when guided by the hand, adding a dimension of animated delight into a work which instantly made me smile.

Party Time (Ceramic) by Eoghan Bridge.

In Sweet Mystery (Ceramic) an outstretched, youthful, masculine figure is balanced along the horse’s back, supporting a cobalt blue balloon in his mouth and a horse’s head with his feet. The horse supporting the rider beneath gracefully bows its head in a role reversal of quiet vulnerability. Narratives are triggered from each angle of interlocking, natural dependency and through awareness of positive/ negative space in three dimensions.   Party Time (Ceramic) is a technically ingenious work where Human figures are gathered, alienated and alone in jovial suspension, supported by the tabular, equine form of their collective unconscious. They are all connected but that isn’t their conscious experience above the surface, where eyes never meet and each figure is absorbed in their own gaze. The horse as an archetypal symbol of grounded power and unbridled freedom forms a richly meditative sculptural base for exploring the human condition. Bridge’s strength is that he understands positive and negative spaces physically, aesthetically and psychologically. What I love about this work is the supreme care in crafting the delicate patina of ceramic; seemingly transforming it into the green, oxidised sheen of bronze. This is contrasted with glorious, emotive accents of colour in pure, yellow, red and blue, unexpected bursts of joyous humour and the intriguing possibilities of multi-layered interpretation. Bridge’s work is enjoyable and thoughtful in equal measure.

Mountain Rock I (Mixed Media) by Kirstie Cohen.

Regular visitors to Kilmorack will be familiar with Kirstie Cohen’s Northern landscape paintings in oils, however this latest body of work incorporating mixed media, collage and drawn figurative elements  allows the artist greater latitude, bringing a spirit of bolder experimentation into play with her signature paint handling. Mountain Rock I (Mixed Media, 50 x 50cm) is akin to Chinese ink drawings and paintings, communicating the essence of Nature with monochrome strength and economy. Mountainous forms created from collaged black brush work on paper are given weight, substance and texture, with flourishes of opaque, fluid handling, delicately feathered edges of pigment and torn edges of rag paper contributing to the subtlety of textural marks. There’s a feeling of focused energy in the flow of water, ancient rock, depth of reflection blocked in black and the movement of torn horizontal strips of cloud above.  The image sits confidently between abstraction and recognisable natural forms and this spirit of experimentation has also informed the artist’s work in oils. Cloudscape Study (Oil on board, 30 x 40cm) is a fine example, with a hovering mass of softly striated rain bled into pure, vivid, turquoise and deepening hues of quiet turbulence. The mid ground is fixed with striated marks and finely scraped impasto, golden yellow accents drawing the eye into an atmospheric space between the water and sky.

The Gathering I (Mixed Media) by Kirstie Cohen.

In The Gathering I (Mixed media, 35 x 40cm) Cohen’s fusion of the drawn human figure with elements of nature and multi-layered abstraction present an ancestral vision in ochre, turquoise, green and indigo. The sketched figures emerge and recede into shadow and tree forms with densely spun branches anchor the triangular composition in an apex of light. This sense of experimentation in the studio brings strength and regenerative energy to Cohen’s characteristic approach to landscape and it is wonderful to see this evolution in her work.

Caley Salsa (Acrylic on paper) by Fionna Carlisle.

Fionna Carlisle’s strongest works in the show emerge from vibrations of colour, rhythm and music combined with the human figure. Drillfloor from Doghouse, Alwyn North (Acrylic on Paper, 79x 67cm) depicts a whirl of human industry in orange hardhats, flashes of pink and yellow protective clothing and heavy, black lines of rapidly sketched movement. This expressionistic handling becomes a painterly celebration of life, colour and movement in Caley Salsa (Acrylic on paper, 58 x 64cm). With a lucid palette reminiscent of Franz Marc, Carlisle’s loose brushwork fills every part of the picture plane creating its own carnival-like rhythm. Cool, deep blue and flashes of emerald wash vibrate against the heat of yellow, pink, orange and red as figures fragment, joyously losing themselves in the dance. When seen  alongside paintings which place the human figure, colour and movement centre stage ( both in terms of the artist’s paint handling and treatment of the subject) Carlisle’s still life works and smaller static studies of musicians feel less convincing and immersive, reading like decorative surfaces in comparison.

Tracklines, The Loch (Oil on board) by Sam Cartman.

Sam Cartman’s unique, abstract focus on rural landscapes, abandoned and semi industrial sites is fused with exploration of formal composition, paint handling and drawn marks to create strong, unified paintings, leading the eye into the work in surprising ways. Incorporating flat planes of industrial greens, greys, white, marine blue and yellow with restrained accents of red and orange, Carrtman’s palette is decidedly man-made in terms of pigment and control. Move closer and determinate contrasts of line, unexpected delicacy of drawn marks, fluid washes of underpainting and textured ground begin to emerge, contrasted with the bold, planar treatment of buildings, land and sky. Typically human figures are entirely absent in the artist’s work, communicating an eerie, forsaken quality in the landscape , however it is the drawn mark of a human hand, usually scratched into thicker swathes of paint which draw the viewer into the image. Tracklines, The Loch (Oil on board, 91.5 x 122cm) is a good example with the expanded width of track becoming the viewer’s foreground. Pencil marks lead us into the distance to a higher horizon line, defined with blue/ red built structures and fluid yellow hills. The shallow tonal range of mint green in the sky and land create an atmosphere of stillness as we set out following the tracery of human marks across an agricultural landscape. Whilst the Romantic myth of wild Scotland prevails, dominating landscape painting in the form of misty mountains, colourful seas and atmospheric moorland, Cartman’s vision is grounded in a landscape transformed by cultivation. The profound white silence of winter in Lambing Tracks (Oil on board, 61 x 74cm), spatially divided with planes of grey and icy blue are, on closer inspection, tempered with fine details of mark, tone and texture. The red, linear horizon line encompasses the abstracted form of a barn roof and clustered outbuildings in angular black and sky blue. In many ways it is a desolate space reinterpreted by the artist in formal compositional terms, creating a strange kind of beauty. The crux of this is how colour, line, form, texture and tone are balanced in the image as a whole. Ae Forest Study (Mixed Media, 15 x 21cm) punches far above its modest scale in that respect as a beautifully realised fusion of pictorial elements. Glimpses of yellow and pink emerge through the grey and aqua blue/ green progression of forms and pencil marks, leading us down the road into the journey of the image. The cool, assured palette beckons us into a space which is ultimately greater than the physical dimensions of the picture plane.

Pop III (Oil on board) by Alan Macdonald.

Informed by the canon of Art History, the techniques of old Masters and consumer Pop Culture, Alan Macdonald’s lively, sophisticated paintings always contain a gleeful element of play. With the exception of Hungry Hearts (Oil on Linen, 45’ x 36’) which includes an uncharacteristically clumsy cartoon character trope, Macdonald is on top form. Pop III (Oil on board, 12’ x 14’) is a work of playful genius, a wry and beautifully executed puzzle of a painting.  Macdonald frames the middle aged bearded male protagonist in a series of locked/ keyholed panels or hidden drawers, flanked by two delicate wooden columns, one painted decoratively in blue stripes aligned with a bluish bubble in the lower left of the painting. Positioned above the central portrait is the tantalising museum-like display of a wire skewer, just out of reach, daring the viewer to disrupt the scene by bursting bubbles. The protagonist’s historical costume has another instrument of deflation in the safety pin attached to his collar. It’s an emblem of shared mischief between artist and audience, like the sphere of pink bubble gum in his mouth and anticipation of the inevitable “pop” of sound and meaning. His cap is tethered to the left hand side of the frame, supported precariously with a small rope tied bag which resembles a balloon losing air. The word POP is planted beneath the masculine Father figure as a multi-layered punchline. This is Macdonald doing what he does best, grappling with the truth of being a man and an artist in the serious playground of the studio.

The Prophets of Doom (Oil on board, 10’ x 16’) delivers a visual judgement by definition in the text planted at the base of the figure with Black defined as an adjective; “the darkest colour, reflecting no light, obscure, dark, dismal, sullen, horrible,  dusky, foul, dirty, malignant, dark haired.” Above that negative pronouncement of written language a naked, cloaked prophet has come in from the wilderness, holding a bible-like tome with opened pages blankly illuminated by the torch he’s holding. His mouth is agape, hair dishevelled and face marked with dirt, nervously looking above to the stone frame or proscenium arch of the composition which is visibly crumbling. Likewise the ground beneath his feet is cracking and strewn with stones. The shadow under his foot places him on a ledge, with the viewer occupying his negative space, a theatrical pronouncement of fear and nothingness in the act of beholding (without Faith) the comedic play of life. It’s an image which is immediately humorous but also devotional in its search for meaning through Art. As clever as it is heartfelt, crafted with deliberation and instinct, it’s a painting that repays the participant viewer every time we return to the painted scene. The restrained palette is Spartan browns, sienna and umber with a deepening blue background onto which we can construct and project our own narratives, which is exactly the beauty of Macdonald’s Art.

The Tower of Dreams (Oil on board) by Alan Macdonald.

Whilst Hungry Hearts dominates this suite of paintings in size, The Tower of Dreams (Oil on board 30’x24’) with its central Female protagonist trumps it completely. This aspect of the psyche is tremendously strong in Macdonald’s Art and surfaces with the presence of women who command attention entirely on their own terms. Clothed in a blue, hooped dress with her hair piled high like a Goddess, head tilted and one eyebrow raised to question the viewer, she is resoundingly positioned centre stage. The song lyrics “close your eyes and drift away” are hung in an oval pendant around her neck, whilst above her, poised between “North” and “South” is the perfect symmetry of a banner; “This is the day that your life will change. This is the day when everything will fall into place.” Attended by figures in miniature she has the mysterious presence of an oracle. The plucked nib of leaves in her hand feels like they are about to be dropped in an act of divination onto the cracked stone stage, damaged by a cannonball lodged in its surface. The background treatment of deserted, villas, Roman colonnades and countryside, receding into blue water, sky and distant shores, creates a dreamlike dimension with Renaissance players enacting scenes of trial and torturous revelry around the central figure.  The background Feminine self stands on one hand, balanced above a canal. A bottle cap becomes a stage where a masked male figure on horseback impales another version of the heroine in a joust. This circular stage form is mirrored in an erupting vertical fountain of underground water, upon which the female figure stands behind a seated, male figure in a monk-like robe, tightening the rope that binds him. Just above the hem of the central figure’s skirt a door is opened like a drawbridge, revealing a fiery, purgatorial scene with skeletal Death and Bacchanalian fauns attending another splinter self or feminine doppelganger, loosely clothed and about to be cloaked in yellow. Right at the edge of the painting in the extreme foreground is an enigmatic man in historical costume observing beneath half closed eyelids a space just beyond the picture frame, with his white Venetian styled mask resting beside him. Every element of the composition triggers potential narratives in an endlessly engaging visual game of conceal and reveal. The complex arrangement of figures in tableaux is expectantly still, waiting for the viewer to interpret and project their own dreams, visions and fantasies into the painting.  The figurative tower is feminine, unconscious, multifaceted and more powerful for being so.

This is a diverse show, cleverly annexed so that bodies of individual work can be fully appreciated. Allow yourself time to take it all in.

All images courtesy of Kilmorack Gallery.

www.kilmorackgallery.co.uk

BEHIND THE DOOR

Newly restored and re-released on DVD/ Blu-ray 4th April, 2017

*This review contains spoilers

I’m always excited by the miraculous survival of early films and the international collaborations that make restoration and re-release possible. Sadly we’ve lost an enormous amount of Silent Era film production, but amazingly material is still being discovered, in private collections, archives, vaults and attics. The establishment of global networks and conventions to help bring this scattered material together also makes me eternally hopeful of Silent treasures still out there waiting to be found. The transformation of these fragments through restoration, honouring the vision of the original filmmakers and providing scope for reinterpretation, contribute significantly to how we see the world and ourselves.

The newly restored DVD/ Blu-Ray release of Behind the Door (1919) by Flicker Alley is the result of an inspiring international collaboration between the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF), the Library of Congress and the Gosfilmfond (Russian national archive), with a new score composed and performed by one of the world’s leading Silent Film accompanists Stephen Horne.  It is a magnificent achievement in the preservation of international film heritage, crafted with care, attention to detail and with humanity as the baseline of musical interpretation. The level of skill from film restorers and the composer in serving the film, creating an emotionally intelligent and multi-layered experience for audiences is extraordinary and heartfelt. Behind the Door will be a surprising discovery for contemporary viewers in terms of how the shocking nature of the story is compassionately nuanced by colour, composition and sound. This isn’t just a post WWI propaganda film or one dimensional shock Horror but something more satisfyingly complex in its original Craft, contemporary restoration and brilliantly insightful musical score.

Hobart Bosworth and Jane Novak in “Behind the Door”, image courtesy of Flicker Alley and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

The restoration of Behind the Door is the blessed sum of surviving elements.  An incomplete 35mm print, a roll of outtakes and a small roll of shots from the estate of lead actor Hobart Bosworth preserved by the Library of Congress were brought together with an edited export print conserved by Gosfilmofund, Russia and a copy of director Irvin Willat’s original continuity script loaned by Film Historian Robert Birchard. In the words of restorer Robert Byrne the director’s script was a significant discovery in ensuring “that the reconstruction matched the original editing sequence”, providing “a reference for the reel missing its English-language intertitles. The original colour tinting scheme [was] also restored, based on analysis of the film leaders and the structure of the printing rolls.” What we can now enjoy is “the most complete version of the film” seen since its original release almost a century ago and I hope that cinemas and festivals will enable audiences worldwide to discover it on the big screen.

In addition to the US feature restored by Robert Byrne, James Cozart, Seth Miller, Lori Raskin and Anne Marie Smatla, the DVD/Blu-ray release also includes the Russian version of the film re-edited and re-titled, documentaries on the restoration and the career of director Irvin Willat by celebrated Film Historian Kevin Brownlow, outtakes, stills and a booklet featuring essays by Film Restorer Robert Byrne, Film Historian Jay Weissburg and composer Stephen Horne. Regardless of your level of interest, there are multiple routes into the story, making, context and preservation of the film that add value to the release and shed light on why restoration is so valuable, vital and relevant in a digital world.

Hobart Bosworth and Jane Novak in “Behind the Door” image courtesy of Flicker Alley and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Behind the Door was a revelation to me on multiple levels and I’m sure that it will provide potent inspiration for contemporary artists. It also presents an opportunity for reappraisal of our relationship to early film, our understanding of history, human behaviour and current events. To some extent the film’s reputation precedes the experience of watching it. The expectations of contemporary audiences in terms of what is considered “shocking” , “gruesome” or violent doesn’t prepare viewers for the emotional impact of what is not graphically depicted on screen.  When Behind the Door was first released in 1919 it was a box office success and highly praised by critics with favourable comparisons to the work of D.W.Griffith. The sensationalism of the story and the whole notion of Horror, rooted in the traumatic aftermath of WWI transcends the period in which it was made, aided considerably by the contemporary score. Behind the Door and its sensitive restoration demonstrate beautifully that Silent Films aren’t primitive relics or the remnants of a bygone age but a living, breathing Art. The plight of the central character Oscar Krug (played by the wonderfully expressive Hobart Bosworth) as “other” has resonance on many levels, particularly in a rising tide of xenophobia circa 2017.

Jo Taylor’s photography together with the depth and emotional texture of colour tinting, a practice which was widespread at the time, enhances the tone of the film beautifully. In the opening sequence when we witness Krug’s return to the windswept coast of Maine, the hilltop scene is aglow with the pink setting sun, contrasted with the silhouettes of gravestones in deeply immersive indigo. That setting sun/ end of life colouration together with the mercifully tender voice of solo piano frames the character and gently foreshadows the arc of the story about to unfold. Later in the opening sequence the evocation of night in inky ultramarine soothes like the texture of velvet and the glockenspiel aligns with that feeling, introducing an otherworldly sense of a man revisiting the life and love he once had amidst the decaying ruin of his taxidermist shop.  The sparing, plucked sound is as fragile and vulnerable as the character we see before and within us. As Krug lights a candle the yellow glow of the interior provides an atmosphere of compassion and remembrance. “Alone, forlorn and forgotten” he sees the handkerchief of his beloved Alice and we feel as he does, in the delicately mysterious melody of the flute, the state of holding on to someone long after they’ve passed. This melody is fluidly expanded by the piano, leading us on “a back trail through the haunted lanes of yesterday”, into Krug’s past, to the town of Bartlett, Maine, 1917.  The seamless pacing of the score is perfectly in tune with the emotional gravitas of each scene and integral to our empathy with the central protagonist. Horne’s music renders the character in flesh, blood and consciousness, emerging out of the dire circumstances he finds himself in and becoming a more sympathetic character than we might have imagined.

Hobart Bosworth in “Behind the Door” Image courtesy of Flicker Alley and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Although he is a demonised figure, the focus of anti- German propaganda and ultimately a murderer, Krug is also an expression of collective loss and it is the subtle restraint of the music that enables us to feel that underlying truth. This reinterpretation through sound is one of the defining features of the restoration. The scale of mechanised carnage during WWI had never been seen before. Made just one year after the war ended, an entire generation of shattered lives was the reality with mental and physical scars still painfully raw. In this context the film is arguably not shocking at all. It is that psychological perspective and historical hindsight that bring perceptive shifts to the interpretation, illuminated through sound. Krug’s extreme actions feel like a manifestation of the pain, loss and rage so many would have felt at the time. The Horror in this film is lived rather than imagined and I suspect that this, together with the propaganda element helped the film make it past the censors. In killing a German Commander, someone with whom he shares language and ancestry, Krug kills part of himself, in turn becoming the barbaric, brutal, vengeful, cruel and despised figure the townsfolk have cast him as. But surprisingly Oscar Krug is overwhelmingly a figure of grief rather than a monster. In the end love redeems him in being reunited with his beloved wife Alice (played with great conviction and sincerity by Jane Novak). That tempering of judgement towards what could so easily have been a one dimensional villain is expanded by the score. The empathy we feel for Krug almost eclipses his crime because it is effectively given a wider, deeper frame of reference. Krug’s final actions are an expression of the worst that human beings are capable of.  Whilst that is anchored to the historical horrors of war, it is also timelessly rooted in the human condition and what fundamentally drives us. The unhinged capacity for vengeance is fatally partnered with love. In early scenes Krug is portrayed as an obsessively passionate man and a true patriot willing to defend himself, his home and his principles with his bare fists if necessary. The fight that ensues is startlingly real as the escalating energy of the mob spirals out of control. The suggestion from the massed townsfolk is that propensity for violence is in Krug’s blood, accompanied by the derogatory label of “Hun”, but the lack of civilization is in the home grown lynch mob who turn on a member of their community as “other” with frightening speed.

“Behind the Door” Image courtesy of Flicker Alley and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Even with the anti-German sentiment of the time, it is hard not to imagine potential identification with the suffering of Oscar Krug and returned survivors of WWI. Although part of the navy rather than serving in the trenches in the story, his shaking hands echo the tremors of shellshock. When we first meet him he is clearly a broken, destitute man engulfed in shadows, as so many were in the aftermath of the Great War. That unspoken Horror becomes the unconscious driver of his revenge for the violation and death of his wife Alice. Surprisingly here in 1919, a largely hidden war crime is depicted. Although certainly used to portray the enemy as sadistic, amoral animals devoid of human empathy, the unspeakable violence inflicted upon Alice is also on some level an acknowledgement of the wartime experiences of generations of women.  Sexual violence is a policy and a weapon still being used around the world today that cannot be relegated to history. More often than not the image of the devoted sweetheart/ wife / mother keeping the home fires burning is the one we see, with the suffering of women as casualties of war rarely given screen time. In Behind the Door Alice isn’t simply a passive love interest but a woman who chooses Krug against her father’s wishes and community, follows him to sea and becomes an innocent victim of circumstances beyond her control. We see in her interactions with the suitor her father has chosen that she has made up her own mind about her destiny and future happiness before the madness of war intervenes. Although in 1919 the atrocities of rape, torture and murder in Behind the Door were undoubtedly used as a vehicle for propaganda, for this contemporary viewer the suggestion of violence in being unseen is what powerfully takes hold. We are so accustomed to violence and gore depicted graphically on screen, that visual storytelling placing Horror behind the door for the audience to imagine is stronger and more affecting than anything the director could have shown us. Contemporary directors and screenwriters take note!

Stephen Horne’s score is resoundingly led by the film and its “visceral”, cathartically emotional” core. With characteristic grace and skill he refrains from over the top declarations of drama or pushing obvious, emotive musical buttons. His multi instrumental approach utilising the full expressive range of piano including the inner strings, thumb piano, glockenspiel, accordion and flute, provides scope for multi-layered exploration of the story, the characters and their motivations. Even in highly dramatic scenes his control is enviable with Horror communicated in a haptic way, in the finely scraped inner strings like the glint of light on a scalpel being drawn across the viewer’s skin. Sound isn’t used as a ham fisted statement of rage illustrating action, but as an exchange between the idea, the emotional core of the story and the motivations of human beings portrayed on screen. Equally the tenderness of Krug’s promise to Alice; “after the war we’ll go back to my shop” flowing into a faded rose tinted dream where love, hope and memory are entwined is conveyed by the fragile, ethereal timbre of the flute. What we feel in that moment is the characters’ shared vision and something more vulnerably real than the forced emotion and sonic illustration that dominates mainstream cinema. When interpreted in such a way Silent Film communicates a different way of seeing /being in the world and an expansively innovative creative vision. The re-release of Behind the Door is defined by the inspired alignment of the surviving film, its loving restoration and sensitive score now preserved complete for future generations.

www.flickeralley.com

www.silentfilm.org San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF)

www.stephenhorne.co.uk

7th Hippodrome Silent Film Festival

Phyllis Haver as Roxie Hart in “Chicago” (1927)

Bo’ness, 22- 26 March 2017

“I am a woman and I’m full of viewpoints!” ‘Patricia’ /Marion Davies in The Patsy (1928)

After my first Hipp Fest experience last year I was delighted at the prospect of returning to Bo’ness for another sustained dose of Silent movie heaven! Regrettably I could only attend the final 3 days of the festival, but what I experienced was truly exceptional, joyously entertaining and totally immersive.  Under the starry domed ceiling of the historic Hippodrome we were transported by the quality of musical accompaniment and the wonderful discoveries, creative innovation and artistry to be found when delving into the Silent era. Every performance is unique and as a member of the audience the thrilling immediacy of the whole live experience simply cannot be bettered. There are many ways into film, but the most potent trigger for love, appreciation and preservation of our global film heritage is the big screen experience. At Hipp Fest this is supported by highly experienced musicians responding directly to human stories, characters and themes projected before them in real time. This year audiences were blessed with the combined talents of some of the best Silent Film accompanists in the world including Frank Bockius and Günter Buchwald from Germany, Filmorchestra The Sprockets from the Netherlands, Stephen Horne, John Sweeney, Forrester Pyke, Mike Nolan, Neil Brand, Jane Gardner & Co and acclaimed musicians Raymond MacDonald, Christian Ferlaino and R.M. Hubbert.

Beyond the annual festival the universality of Silent Film which crosses all borders feels like a very timely focus politically, socially and culturally. Collaborative partnerships between Hipp Fest and its director Alison Strauss, the Goethe-Institut Glasgow, the Confucius Institute for Scotland, academic institutions and archives are vitally important in terms of sharing international film heritage and enabling cultural exchange. Bringing together never seen before films, restorations, live music and local audiences is one of the best ways of preserving film for future generations by making it proudly and publicly visible. In recent years the mainstream film industry has been justifiably criticised for its lack of equality and diversity. Ironically when the industry was still in its infancy there were more creative opportunities for women and studios were assembling the finest international casts and crews to challenge Hollywood dominance. In the Silent era women were much more powerful and visibly active behind and in front of the camera than they are in mainstream cinema today, working as directors, producers, writers and actors. Pioneers of the new medium creatively developed their techniques through experimentation, with the eternal baseline of visual storytelling in light and shadow. Although Silent Film is sometimes thought of as “niche”, “historical”, or “vintage” with the tone passing fashion, every Hipp Fest screening reveals that it is so much more in terms of being progressively modern, illuminating and visionary.

My first event was a talk The Last Silent Picture Show by Geoff Brown (film historian, critic, Chief Researcher on the AHRC-funded project ‘British Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound, 1927-1933’ and a Research Fellow at the Cinema and Television History Research Centre, De Montfort University), examining the British Film Industry’s response to the advent of sound in 1929. The discussion caused me to reconsider the gains and losses from rapid technological advances in film production and publicity.  Illustrated with clips from Hitchcock’s Blackmail, “the sentimental drama Kitty, the steamy White Cargo”, and “the tartan nightmare of The Lady of the Lake” this period of transition from Silent to Sound (1927-33) is fascinating in terms of stripping the medium back to its most essential, enduring elements. The development of sound may have been inevitable, but the overnight result was thousands of musicians and international actors out of work, with the insistence that stories must be told in the “the Mother tongue”. Arguably the most successful transitions from Silent to Sound were by artists like Hitchcock, grounded in the Silent Art of storytelling. Significantly Hitchcock’s approach to the new technology was not to have it dictate the vision, but to use it as another tool for the inner trajectory of the story and its characters. As Brown suggested, in Blackmail for example a conversation round the breakfast table emphasises the heroine’s state of mind focusing repeatedly on the word “knife”. Dialogue is a vehicle for suspense in that moment, on one level ratcheting up the tension with repetition; however on a deeper, psychological level it’s the character’s guilt that speaks to the audience rather than the word itself. Silent Film has a huge amount to teach contemporary artists about crafting moving images. Technology can’t do that on its own. The gift of now, regardless of future advances, is in retaining choices about how cinematic stories can be told. Brown’s talk on Silent, sound and hybrid productions raised many pertinent questions about current technology, artistic intent and what leads 21st century film production.

Marion Davies (Centre) in “The Patsy”.

Friday night’s gala screening of King Vidor’s The Patsy (1928), starring Marion Davies, Orville Caldwell and Marie Dressler was the perfect film for getting into the 1920’s spirit and many members of the audience came along in Gatsby style fancy dress. Cloche, bowler and top hats, suits, tails and ties, feather boas, fans, sequinned and fringed Flapper dresses, gloves, black eye liner, beauty spots and pin curls helped set the scene with a friendly, welcoming buzz around the venue. The Patsy’s sparkling free spirited comedy was complimented beautifully by Filmorchestra The Sprockets: Daphne Balvers (soprano sax), Frido ter Beek (baritone, altsax), Marco Ludemann (mandolin, banjo, guitar), Jasper Somsen (double bass), Rombout Stoffers (percussion, accordion) and Maud Nelissen (piano), who also composed the score. Neilissen’s music brought a distinctive quality of worldly, feminine knowing to the central characters and their predicament, revealing musically the great unsaid in familial and romantic relationships. Brassy, exuberant Jazz was used to great effect in giving appropriate accent to the comedy on screen. This celebratory sound was charmingly contrasted with quieter, lovingly composed moments of intimacy on piano and mandolin.

The Patsy is a hugely appealing film due to the amazing comedic talent of Marion Davies, who film historian Kevin Brownlow aptly described as a woman whose “memory is clouded in myth”. History often assigns female artists the dubious honour of enduring fame by association with male partners. Davies is better known as William Randolph Hearst’s mistress and her fictitious alter ego-Susan Alexander in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane than for her talent as an actress. Davies’ 35 year relationship with Hearst was very real, but it is only in contemporary audiences seeing her work that she has the opportunity to step out of the shadow of tabloid infamy and male genius to be what she truly was, a gifted artist in her own right.  The audience response to the film resoundingly affirmed that quality, delighting in her attempts to “get a personality”, find her confident self and win the only man she has eyes for. Pat’s/ Davie’s impersonations of Mae Murray, Pola Negri and Lillian Gish, trying on the feminine stereotypes of vampish Femme Fatale or saintly goody two shoes are discarded in the end for something more authentic. Pat is constantly picked on by her proper dragon of a mother and spoiled sister, who is two timing Tony (the man Pat loves) and playboy Billy Caldwell. Her hen pecked father is seemingly the only person who sees her for the good natured, intelligent, witty and spirited young woman she is. Although she dreams of being as much admired as a stocking model, in the end all she has to be is her honest, down to earth self. This is a film of magnificent clowning and plenty of laughter, punctuated by genuine sweetness and sincerity, especially in the exchanges between father and daughter.

Silent Film provides surprising challenges to accepted norms of conditioning behaviour which are all too often frighteningly absent in contemporary mainstream content. Interestingly it is the mother figure who insists on Pat being relegated to a seen and not heard domestic role, while the masculine parental influence is infinitely more nurturing- rather like the relationship between Elizabeth Bennett and her Father in Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. The visual gesture and intertitle dialogue between father and daughter makes it clear that they regard each other as equals, sharing humour and emotional intelligence. Part of the joy of this film is the juxtaposition of manners with physical comedy and freedom of expression, revealing human hypocrisy and foibles we all know and recognise. The heroine is a feisty, independent alternative to the passive set decoration women are so often assigned on screen. Davies and her character Pat convincingly carry the film, offering a Silent reappraisal of gender roles and challenging the regressively persistent idea that brains and entertainment in Film are mutually exclusive. In The Patsy masculinity can be as tender as it is strong and femininity can be a three dimensional possibility rather than a polarised cliché of self-denial and sacrifice. The Patsy or scapegoat, someone cheated of their rightful place or taken advantage of, is actually women as represented in mainstream contemporary film. This charming, 1928 crowd pleaser delivers irrepressibly buoyant fun, but also the opportunity for reflection on what constitutes box office gold in our own century.

Ruan Lingyu in “The Goddess /Shen nu” (1934)

Twenty seven year old director Wu Yonggang’s 1934 debut feature The Goddess (Shen nu) presents a very different view of Femininity in the story of a mother’s love and self-sacrifice for her child. It is a film confronting the harsh realities of poverty, corruption, class oppression and moral decay through a Social Realist / party political lens. In the background of the opening intertitle cards we’re introduced to a Feminine ideal via the low relief Neo-Classical sculpture of a woman leaning down to the child at her feet. Tellingly her body is bent double, compressed into the rectangular frame, overwritten with the idea of the “double face” of a “Goddess struggling with life”. We are then quietly introduced through small everyday details to the central female protagonist, a prostitute by night and devoted mother by day. As the sun goes down the camera moves through her rented room, lingering on her two dresses hanging from a peg on the wall, her trade makeup, a doll and baby basket. As she tentatively looks in the mirror and dresses for the evening of work ahead the camera doesn’t judge her, it humanises and dignifies her as she prepares to walk the streets to earn a living beneath the harsh neon of 1930’s Shanghai. That empathic view was supported perfectly by John Sweeney’s accompaniment, well suited to the understated grace and presence of the unnamed central character who carries the entire film. She is presented as a noble figure battling reduced circumstances, trying to ensure that her son has a better future through education, a right denied to him by those in authority because of his mother’s profession.

The sympathetic portrayal of a woman condemned by her position in life and social hypocrisy is testament to Ruan Lingyu’s highly sensitive performance. The actress herself was the victim of crippling double standards and was literally hounded to death by the paparazzi. In Art and in life the public/media moral compass was tipped towards mass consumption of adulterous scandal and generation of headlines, rather than any interest in justice or humanity. The director Yonggang was inspired by D.W. Griffith’s tale of a wronged woman Way Down East (1920), which starred Lillian Gish as an innocent girl tricked into a sham marriage by a wealthy seducer and having to bear the shame of an illegitimate child. Yonggang’s central character is invested with subtlety and compassion, equalled by the marvellous cinematography of Hong Weilie and the understated skill of the accompaniment. John Sweeney consistently excels in capturing the emotional tonality of what we see on screen and was the perfect interpretative match for this film. His natural, gentle lyricism as a musician communicated the intimacy and trust between mother and son at the heart of the story. The rare opportunity to see this recently restored film was enabled by the partnership between Hipp Fest and the Confucius Institute for Scotland, supported by the China Film Archive. The special focus on Chinese Cinema through talks, screenings and performance provided an outstanding opportunity for local audiences to explore films and a cinematic tradition that is largely undiscovered in the UK and not easily accessed outside the festival.

Conrad Veidt in “The Hands of Orlac / Orlacs Hände” (1924)

It was a great privilege to see two of Germany’s finest Silent Film accompanists Frank Bockius (percussion) & Günter Buchwald (piano & violin) performing Robert Weine’s fantastic 1924 psychological horror/ thriller The Hands of Orlac /Orlacs Hände. The feature was very appropriately paired with the 1908 short The Thieving Hand from the Eastman archive, featuring pioneering special effects and accompanied by the wonderful Forrester Pyke on piano. The ghoulish, seemingly supernatural subject matter of disembodied hands having a monstrous, amoral life of their own is actually a grounded concept given the time the film was made. The Hands of Orlac stars Alexandra Sorina, Fritz Strassny and Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, The Man Who Laughs, The Thief of Bagdad, Casablanca) as Paul Orlac, a renowned concert pianist who loses his hands in a terrible accident.  His devoted wife pleads for surgery so he will not lose his gift for music, but after new hands are grafted on, he learns that they belonged to an executed murderer and the nightmare begins! He starts to believe that the hands and will of the dead man possess him and that he too will become a murderer. It’s a film where belief, action, reason and the unconscious converge in unexpected ways. Having seen Frank Bockius perform for the first time at last year’s festival, I had hoped that we would again have the opportunity to experience his great talent and musical expertise. This year we were indeed fortunate to have two touring musicians from Germany with the continued support of the Goethe Institut Glasgow, expanding the possibilities for musical collaboration over several different screenings. What these performances communicated with such energy, intuition, precision and style was that Film History is resoundingly a living tradition! I hope that many more audiences in the UK will have the opportunity to experience Silent Film live as a result of this exciting and very fruitful partnership.  Post Brexit continuing to nurture collaborative relationships and cultural exchange is now more vital than ever. The audience clearly enjoyed the psychological depth of the film, courtesy of the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Archive and its adept multi-textured accompaniment.

The opening melody, from the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No1 in B flat minor, immediately established the voice of solo piano and the virtuosic stature of the central character. This grand, commanding theme supported by triumphant cymbals and drums evoked the scale of the concert hall in a highly charged, dramatic introduction. As the film progressed the sweepingly epic melody became increasingly deconstructed and fragmented as the darker aspects of the psyche started to take hold. When this melodic phrase is first introduced it is staid, classical, familiar and authoritative, but there is also a shadow present.  It’s the shimmering uncertainty we hear in the gentle swish of cymbals and the otherworldly suggestion of phantom strummed piano wires that undermines the certainty of what we think we know. Sound is our most primal sense and the introduction of this quietly subtle undercurrent operated just like the sound that you hear in the dark, lurking just beyond your peripheral vision. As the fear of what the hands are capable of grows in the mind of the central character, the theme morphs into diabolical variation and full Body Horror takes over with the stabbing down stroke of the violin and drumming used in later scenes. The scope of percussion to propel, amplify and inform our internal reading of a scene was deftly handled throughout. An early scene where Paul’s wife reads his letter and awaits her beloved husband’s return is accompanied by a progressive, heartbeat-like rhythm communicating the emotional current between them. There is something undeniably human, shared by the audience in that essential, percussive beat we know within our own bodies. That deceptively simple sound triggers memory, engages empathy and imaginatively connects the viewer to the story and its characters, no matter how fantastical they may appear.

Although it would be easy to lay obvious “Horror” music on top of a film like this, the handling was much more compelling due to the sound approach of the fear that lies beneath. The accelerated crescendo of the train wreck with its bursts of light and sound was tempered by gentler suspense. The main melodic theme is modified into a dreadful question mark as Paul’s wife searches for him- is he still alive? In the aftermath of the accident semi abstract compositions of dark and light, machinery, debris and human figures in silhouette emerging through smoke, invoke the Horror of an ordinary day and homecoming turned into a scene of devastation. The cinematography by Hans Androschin and Günter Krampf is striking, moving between the language of realism, expressionism and surreality. The Art Direction by Stefan Wessely and Hans Rouc brings elements of expressionistic angularity and unsettling ambiguities of scale into domestic settings. These small details like the oversized geometry of a drawing room rug or elongated fairy tale-like chairs combine with the lighting to enhance our sense of entering into a heightened reality, somewhere between the conscious and unconscious.

In the nightmare of Paul’s foggy bedroom we see the vulnerable human figure dwarfed by a giant fist threatening to crush him. It is a powerful example of visceral horror through sound and image which has distinct political associations. Accompanying this scene Frank Bockius used his elbow, compressing the air inside the drum to create an inner depth of sound of frightening physicality. Within that sound was the feeling of compression in the chest cavity triggered by Paul’s fear of the murderer Vasseur’s hands which have become his own. Something from the real/physical world is fighting for his soul and murderous, unconscious instinct is masquerading as the supernatural. The sounds created by the hand played strings of the open upright piano expose the psychology of the character, with the controlled, circular motion of brush on drum intensifying our felt sense of unease. There were times when this technique took on a spatial dimension, entering into a mind cave of madness. It was then brilliantly taken to a whole other level in a scene where the ghostly dead criminal instructs Paul’s maid to “seduce his hands” and the circling movement of brushes intensifies as she crawls towards him on all fours. The piano is introduced as Paul places his hands on her head, one hand of the piano pitted against the other, with the plucked tension of violin and piano strings internalising the struggle between good and evil.

The technique of using a drumstick inside the piano and hand played drum were particularly effective in creating a sense of dread, being overwhelmed by the will of Vasseur’s “cursed, damned hands!” Strangely I hadn’t really considered the piano as a percussive instrument before but it is all hammers and wired tautness, something Buchwald exploited to the full as a manifestation of the film’s moral dilemmas.  Paul symbolically hides the knife inside the piano and metaphorically inside his heart, but as the professor reminds him; head, heart and hands make a human being. “The hands don’t control the man”, the mind has ultimate control. In the context of the Weimar period this statement takes on prophetic relevance and profound irony. It is therefore not surprising that the doppelgänger emerges as a strong archetypal figure in the film. Whilst many cultures have tales of apparitions or the double of a living person associated with bad omens, the dark Romanticism of ETA Hoffman, Grimm’s fairy tales and Germanic folklore provide particularly fertile ground for exploration of the human psyche. The Hands of Orlac is a story about the power of belief which can bring damnation or redemption. When rationality usurps madness, Paul moves into the light declaring that his hands are clean.  I thoroughly enjoyed the spellbinding, imaginative scope of this film, equalled by Bockius and Buchwald’s arresting musical accompaniment.

“By the Law /Po Zakonu” (1926) Directed by Lev Kuleshov.

Whilst it is unrealistic to expect the same level of experience from a first time commissioned musician, as in all Art intention is everything. If an artist is fully engaged not just with their own performance but with the story on screen, then the audience will resoundingly feel it. This has nothing to do with musical style but the channelling of creative energy into something bigger than your own signature sound. Multi-award-winning, post-rock, Scottish composer and song-writer R.M. Hubbert (aka Hubby) is clearly a gifted guitarist and I enjoyed his acoustic sound, the problem was that often it had little to do with what was on screen. His newly commissioned score for the Soviet film By the Law /Po Zakonu (1926) relied too heavily on what I expect the artist already has in his back pocket when the imagery, themes and story demanded more. The film’s most striking sequences of human figures silhouetted against the luminous expanse of frozen landscape or the raw angularity of human faces in anguished close up, don’t chime with musical sequences of repetitive arpeggios and plodding rhythms. There’s real conflict in this film, in its moral dilemmas, its themes of man against nature and his/her own nature and the justice of law and religion, that is ripe for interpretation. Commissioned musicians have a unique opportunity to take an audience deeper into what they see on screen in new and innovative ways. The whole point is stepping out of your comfort zone and taking the audience on that journey of discovery with you-whether they’ve never seen the film before or have watched it multiple times. I felt as though I had discovered a film and a talented musician- just not together! Ultimately it was the visuals rather than the synthesis of sound and image that stayed with me. For this type of performance they have to equal each other, anything less than that is just a concert and in the context of a dedicated Silent Festival the difference is glaringly obvious.

“The Informer” (1929) Directed by Arthur Robinson.

Newly restored by the BFI, The Informer (1929) was a great example of international collaboration both in its original production and in live performance at its Hipp Fest Scottish premiere. Filmed at Elstree Studios by British International Pictures the creative production team included German/ American director Arthur Robinson, Swedish Actor Lars Hanson, British actor Carl Harbord and Hungarian actress Lya de Putti, with design and cinematography by J.Elder Wills, Werner Brandes and Theodor Sparkuhl. The artistic roots and filmic techniques of German Expressionism inform the depiction of 1920’s Dublin and the internal conflicts of the characters perfectly. It’s a Noirish world of light and shadow gripped by social, cultural and religious upheaval. Personal and political motives are pitted against each other and the smallest actions have life changing consequences. The semi improvised collaboration between British and German musicians Stephen Horne (piano & accordion) and Günter Buchwald (violin) was an excellent match for this technically and artistically sophisticated drama. Set in the newly independent Ireland of 1922, the story centres on a group of revolutionary activists and a fateful love triangle. It’s a brilliant Proto-Noir, fuelled by jealousy and betrayal where each character progressively becomes an informer, pursued by their fateful shadow selves and caught in a descending spiral of cross and double cross. In this first adaptation of Liam O’Flaherty’s novel the inescapable consequences of being a flawed human being are cinematically heightened.

As a film of the transition to sound period the decision to restore The Informer as a pure Silent, retaining the texture and visual depth of the original purple tint undoubtedly brings audience closer to the story. Developed in Silent mode without the static restrictions of sound recording, the camera is free to move and follow the characters, not just in terms of external action but getting inside their heads. Conscious and unconscious motivations are revealed without the addition of clunky explanatory dialogue. What Silent visual language and great musical accompaniment does best is to immerse us in the entire human predicament in a way that frees us to construct our own inner dialogues. This is a whole lot more fun than being told a story via talking heads or pushing emotional buttons through a predictably conventional soundtrack! It is also what human beings are hard wired for- to construct meaning and narrative through imagination. The sonic expression of that principle is found in the work of the best Silent Film accompanists who don’t just provide illustration and sound effects but lead us deeper into the moving image, the story and ourselves.

Horne and Buchwald’s live accompaniment took its cues very skilfully from the film’s central protagonists and their fatalistic trajectory. This musical foreshadowing is felt almost unconsciously in the opening theme, with the lilting spirit of a Gaelic lament. The melody immediately conveys an atmosphere of inevitable loss, setting the tone for the unfolding drama. Musically it anchors the story to place, the identity of the characters and the soul of Irish (and Scottish) Folk music, whose double face is sublime sorrow in song, coupled with life affirming dance rhythms. That fiery vitality transforms the main theme in the opening scene at party HQ, where the strong down stroke of the violin aligns with the hand on table gesture in close up, insistent on life through liberty. Here the main melodic theme inspires action rather than reflection, mirroring the nature and intentions of the gathering. Whilst theme and variations can be a vehicle for obvious dramatic effect in less experienced hands, there was a deeper emotional investment in play in direct synthesis with the projected image. In the very next moment we are subtly introduced to the dynamics of the central love triangle, quietly revealing itself in the solo piano as Gypo offers Katie a cigarette. It’s an everyday gesture transformed into a moment of recognition by what we see and hear musically, leading us to our own conclusions about the nature of the relationships between the three friends.  Sitting across the table from Katie who is arm in arm with his best friend, we share a moment of tender regard with Gypo that casts the die.  That quiet repose is shattered by a gunfight utilising the rumbling depths and high wired tension of the piano’s full expressive range. In the chaos that ensues, the ricochet of bullets in broken minor stabs of shrieking violin and tinkling ivories of broken glass underscore the violence. When the fateful shot is fired and Francis descends the staircase the melody follows him like his shadow on the wall, echoing his darkening destiny. As he takes to the hills looking back in a high sweet fade of pianistic regret, the flute then takes over as the lone voice of the fugitive in hiding. The choice of instrumentation and timbre comes to the fore in terms of the inner emotional state of the protagonist and the audience’s ability to empathise with him in that moment.

The idea that this story will not end well is an integral part of the film’s suspense. When the ultimate destination is revealed to the audience we anticipate the arrival without knowing the road that’s going to take us there, which is what makes the ride so gripping!  This progression towards the inevitable enters another interpretative level and emotional gear shift in a false scene of betrayal. The traditional melody She Moved Through the Fair is introduced on the accordion as Katie puts needle to the record to muffle the sounds of Francis’s escape. As the camera moves between action in different rooms of the apartment, variations in volume create a sense of physical space but also a haunted, distant quality in relation to the melody. The final notes that end the song lead the audience sonically and poetically into the ground/ grave. Even without ever having heard that song or having memory of the lyrics, its sound arc is ethereally fragile and resolves in loss. That sense of foreboding of death and lost love, moving in and out of time, is juxtaposed with what the character sees as proof of his sweetheart’s deceit, scratching away at his innards like the Buchwald’s violin bow. The filming of this sequence, where Gypo sees Katie helping Francis to escape in a mirror depth shot is immediately discordant, plunging us into his conclusion of guilt where in that moment there is none. The musical accompaniment informs what we see and increasingly feel, as jealousy overtakes him and the smoothly insidious sound of the violin takes over. He tests Katie and when she lies about not having seen Francis we see her shadow on the wall and from that frame onward we know that their three fates are tragically entwined. We feel it without being told or having it explained to us in words. Light, shadow and sound convey what is most essential in the scene. The artistry and understanding of Craft necessary to read and reinterpret film through sound is the accompanist’s greatest gift to the audience. The psychology of the music aligns with the inner world of the characters because of the musician’s honest, human and supremely skilled response to the film.

There are breath taking visual sequences in The Informer such as Gypo’s path to betrayal, the moment he sees the wanted/ reward poster and the violin staggers as  he does towards what he about to do to his best friend. The camera/ audience follow him close behind, into streets teeming with life, his fixed purpose harnessed by a harsher variation of melody as his flawed self emerges.  The sound moves through our consciousness as he moves through the world, on a certain path to destruction. When the deed is done and Gypo protests that he “didn’t do it for the money” the piano creeps softly into his conscience, perfectly in sync with the pace and emotional tone of his walk, carried in the body and his attendant shadow self. There are beautifully crafted visual elements of what might have been in the reflection of a smiling male mannequin in the shop window, contrasted with the actual exchange between Katie and Gypo underpinning another double cross of their hearts as she aids his escape. In conclusion the film’s cinematography and lighting together with the score transforms his sin into absolution through forgiveness. In the final frame we see the shadow of perfect sacrifice beneath the askew, prostrate body, like flawed humanity underpinned by divine grace. The BFI restore one film per year and I’m very glad they chose this one, however I’m even gladder that I saw it for the first time with such astute accompanists!

By way of introduction to The Informer the Hipp Fest tradition of accompanying features with shorts provided an opportunity for reflection on historical fictions and how archival footage can reveal our changing relationship with the past. A three minute British newsreel from 6th May 1916, filmed one week after the Easter rising in the fight for a free Irish state was accompanied very subtlety by Mike Nolan on piano. Viewing the sobering footage of British soldiers and smoking buildings conveying authority without explanation or justification was informed by the alternative voice of the piano. The accompaniment introduced emotional intelligence and powers of hindsight to the clip. The fake news on this day was the imagery of marching troops asserting colonial authority and control, deemed sufficient reportage on its own to reassure the British public. Seeing such events through an archival lens often forces us to re-examine attitudes and behaviours in the present, rather than simply assuming that now =progress. As a backdrop to the feature it was not just a historically linked news story but a timely reflective pause.

Laurel and Hardy in “The Battle of the Century”.

The ever popular Laurel and Hardy Triple Bill is an annual Hipp Fest tradition that always demands an encore. The universal appeal of Silent Film comedians such as Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin with their visual/ physical comedy setups crosses all generations, borders and potential language barriers. The entire world loves to laugh and there is nothing better or more restorative to the soul than collective laughter. Stan’s “thought free innocence” partnered with Ollie’s adult pomposity is a wondrous recipe for glee.  The selection of three 19 minute shorts from 1927-28 accompanied by the superb John Sweeney on piano provided a gloriously sunny afternoon’s entertainment, equal to the unbelievably bright Spring weather outside. In Putting Pants on Philip Stan Laurel plays the visiting Scottish cousin of J. Piedmont Mumblethunder (Oliver Hardy) who tries to convince him (unsuccessfully) to wear pants instead of his kilt and stop chasing women.  In The Finishing Touch Stan and Ollie are unleashed as unlikely house builders, falling foul of the law, the local sanatorium and causing unwitting destruction and hilarity. However the best was saved till last with the Scottish premiere of the complete two reel version of The Battle of the Century, recently restored by Lobster Films in France using newly discovered footage. It is always miraculous when missing film is discovered, because it can then be rediscovered by contemporary audiences with timeless enthusiasm and delight. What’s not to love about a progressively escalating finale featuring Stan, Ollie, a parked LA Pie Co van, the inhabitants of an entire town and 4000 custard pies?!

Phyllis Haver in “Chicago” (1927)

The closing night gala brought together Stephen Horne (piano, accordion, flute) and Frank Bockius (percussion) for a superlative performance of Chicago (1927). Sometimes in performance masterful musicianship, pure intuition, expert timing and unique rapport all combine to deliver something very special. Clearly they were having great fun accompanying this film and that invigorating energy was completely infectious. The bold, brassy tale of media darling and murderess Roxie Hart (magnificently played by Phyllis Haver) is a rich source of satirical comedy, even more strikingly relevant today than when the film was made. Directed by Frank Urson and Cecil.B.DeMille the story of Chicago is based on Maurine Dallas Watkins 1926 Broadway play, inspired by two separate real life murder cases Watkins covered as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune in 1924. The tone is glitzy and sensational but also very cynically grounded in an age of mass media where being famous, pretty or both is enough to get away with murder.

The upbeat musical introduction set the scene for a party loving atmosphere of bright lights, big city with brash cymbals, jaunty phrasing and instrumental rhythmic refrain of “Chicago!” “Chicago!” That free-spirited optimism is paired with the intertitle reference to “a little girl who was all wrong”. The child/ woman in question is Roxie Hart who we first meet while she’s still asleep, lovingly observed by her doting husband who is busy doing chores and making her breakfast. The voice of the solo piano leaves us in no doubt as to his genuine love for his wife. As she slyly opens her eyes the sassy movement of brushes on the snare drum and the tinny sound of her garter bells her husband picks up off the floor lead us to the conclusion, without a word of dialogue, that her relationship with him is entirely one of convenience. The sonic judgement is that she is both cunning and shamelessly hollow. As Roxie’s husband Amos leaves for work he meets their young cleaning lady Katie on the stairs and trembling percussion reveals what’s in her heart. This quietly subtle, unexpected instrumentation heightens our sense of the brief, awkward exchange between them. The man with Roxie’s other garter is her rich older lover who tired of receiving endless bills for perfume, clothes and lingerie decides he’s had enough and threatens to leave her. In this apartment scene a portable keyboard above the piano stands in for the fairground –like sound of the pianola (self-playing piano) imitating joviality. The period dance tune “Ain’t She Sweet” aligns with Roxie’s annoyingly persuasive baby talk, the profusion of kewpie dolls in the apartment and is revived with mocking irony when she’s throwing a tantrum, deviously trying to get her own way or trying to throttle a rival in a hilarious prison cat fight. That capacity to tap into a character’s motivation and musically comment on it, sometimes in sharp contrast to what the character is doing to convince themselves or others around them on screen is a masterful skill.

When her usual seductive tactics fail and it becomes apparent that her human wad of cash is about to walk out the door, Roxie’s eyes narrow as piano and drum plumb the depths of her vindictive outrage. She picks up the gun and shoots her lover, then turns on the melodrama to mask her adultery in phoning her husband to come and rescue her. When he finds Roxie’s garter in the dead man’s pocket the deception becomes clear, unfurling like the inner range of the piano which deepens with his expression. As he throws the garter to the floor, silence is the strongest accent of dramatic recognition in that moment and it is intuitively given. Stephen Horne’s accompaniment for Silent Film is characteristically insightful and ingenious. The human story on screen is distilled in his music with emotional investment and thoughtful restraint. Both silence and sound have value and if high drama enters the frame then it is never translated into a clumsy, illustrative musical cliché, but something far more humanely nuanced and relatable. Frank Bockius is an equally versatile and accomplished musician, achieving percussive textures that take the audience beneath Chicago’s jazzy surface to a far more interesting psychological and imaginative space. Together these two musicians were astonishing to watch, like two halves of one mind in total unision. Their semi improvised approach allowed considered reflection within the story and freedom of expression with all parts equal to the spirit of the film. It’s the energy, artistry, imagination and commitment I hope for every time I go to a live Silent, which admittedly sets a very high bar, not just in performance but interpretation.

The range, depth and versatility of both musicians is quite extraordinary. When we see one of Roxie’s fellow prison inmates Charleston Lou (“who knifed her sweetie”) reading a book of Standard Etiquette with the chapter heading “Correct use of a knife” a pressured drum stick drawn across a cymbal helps deliver the joke.  Corrupt lawyer Billy Flynn is introduced to us by the sound of the accordion adopting his seasoned, well-heeled swagger and the flute is used, not for sweet ethereal airs but as an instrument of licentious persuasion when Roxie needs to bat her eyelashes to get what she wants. When Roxie’s husband is reduced to stealing money from Flynn to pay his wife’s legal bill, breaking a vase in his night-time raid and alerting Flynn’s butler, percussive precision takes the audience to the centre of the action. Hollow wooden beats and the hand used across the breadth of the drum surface allows us to viscerally move with them in the struggle.  Flynn’s highly amusing coaching of Roxie in how to behave during her trial is wryly aided by the plotting calculation of the piano. Instructed to wear masks of bravery, innocence, virtue and “droop” when attacked by the prosecution the sound of the kazoo accompanies her act of purity in the comical farce of the courtroom. The all-male jury are way too busy eyeing Roxie’s legs to listen to the evidence and when her defence appeals to them as “men of intelligence” the piano comments to the contrary. In Flynn’s closing argument “Heavenly bells” of judgement are actually cow bells on a passing cart outside and Roxie walks out of court scot-free, continuing to milk the publicity and posing for photographs. However she soon becomes yesterday’s news when Two Gun Rosy enters the courthouse and her husband finally comes to his senses and throws her out. The Kewpie doll and porcelain clown on the mantelpiece are smashed along with Amos’s image of himself in the mirror. On the rainy street outside Roxie sees her trial headlines trodden underfoot, a sequence borrowed by Michel Hazanavicius in his 2011 Silent film The Artist. She watches as her fame and fortune is swept into the gutter and down a storm drain. But all is not lost for husband Amos when Katie comes in to tidily console him and we are assured by the rousing, instrumental refrain of “Chicago!” “Chicago!” that happiness is just around the corner. In twelve months’ time (and counting) another Hipp Fest will be too!

Hipp Fest Website:

http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/

Hipp Fest 2017 Programme:

http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/docs/Hippodrome_Silent_Film_Festival_2017.pdf

Glasgow Film Festival

15 – 26 February 2017

Lipstick Under My Burkha directed by Alankrita Shrivastava.

One of the highlights of the annual festival calendar is visiting Glasgow each February. GFF programming is always stimulating with imaginative twists in presentation in different venues across the city. The post screening Q&A’s are plentiful, the audiences are demonstrably enthusiastic and the combination of inspired retrospective screenings with the latest releases from around the world is second to none. This year there was a lot to savour including exciting new work by emerging directors, a wonderful showcase strand of Canadian Cinema and a delightfully Noirish focus on Dangerous Dames. I’m still thinking about many of the films I’ve watched or have rediscovered over the last week including Elle, Paradise, Zoology, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Hounds of Love, Angry Anuk, Werewolf, Illegitimate, The Demons, The Levelling, A Quiet Passion, Berlin Syndrome, Lady Macbeth, Out of the Past, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Gun Crazy, Secretary and Little Annie Rooney. The immersive experience of Film, place and people that is uniquely GFF is always invigorating and the perfect interior winter escape.

Winner of the GFF17 Audience Award Lipstick Under My Burkha had two sell-out screenings in Glasgow, ironically in the same week that the film was banned in India. Unjustifiably it has not been granted a certificate in writer/ director Alankrita Shrivastava’s home country on the grounds that it is too “lady orientated”. What’s shocking isn’t actually the content of the film which follows the lives, loves and desires of four women in Bhopal, India, but the regressive attitudes towards equality exposed by this blatant act of censorship. Filmmakers have a duty to address such basic issues as freedom of expression and human rights through their work, enabling voices that have been previously denied, suppressed or silenced to be heard. That this is perceived as a threat by those who benefit from maintaining patriarchal power under banner of tradition, righteousness or religious doctrine isn’t surprising but deeply regrettable. The main complaint against the film appears to be that women are doing “unspeakable” things in the film- like making essential life choices; seeking education, jobs outside the home, love outside of arranged marriage, the right to use contraception and to have satisfying sex lives.  As Shrivastava suggests; “our films and governing bodies tell us that women can be object of desires but can’t have desires of their own. That needs to change.”

Lipstick Under My Burkha brings into focus the increasing conflict between traditions of power and conformity vs accelerated economic development, media consumption and changing attitudes in a digital age. Globalisation and increased access to information technology promote the idea of freedom of choice and expression for all, however these rapid advances in communication don’t necessarily translate to political or social reform on the ground. Having to live an emotionally, intellectually or sexually secret life actively denies those freedoms. All four characters face consequences of judgement, ostracism, punishment and exile from their family / community by daring to dream, love or in refusing to accept the limiting role imposed on them. In the end as the characters are brought together, the opportunity of potentially supporting each other through shared experience brings hope and validation. This is something that festival audiences should never take for granted while there are still places in the world where assembling to watch a film or the act of screening it are a crime. Whether it is denial of film certification, representation of women on screen or opportunities working behind the camera, there isn’t a national film industry on the planet that could claim gender equality in 2017, which is why alternative independent film production is so vital in terms of advocacy. These aren’t just “lady orientated” stories but human ones that have a right to be heard.  An appeal has been lodged against the ban in India and hopefully success on the international festival circuit will bring many more people to this film, raising awareness, ensuring its wider distribution and promoting positive change where it is most needed.

Zoology Directed by Ivan I Tverdovsky.

Transformation of a different kind is the subject of writer/ director Ivan I Tverdovsky’s  Zoology, a wonderfully original take on the universal theme of the outsider. The story centres on a middle aged woman Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova) living with her devoutly religious mother in a Russian seaside town. It’s an unrelentingly bleak and confined existence. Natasha is a lonely, isolated figure, constantly mocked and bullied by colleagues at the zoo where she works. The only warmth in her life is her own compassion in caring for her mother and her interactions feeding and petting the animals at the zoo. Then she grows a tail and starts living! She experiences the liberation of being herself for the first time, attracting the loving attention of a young doctor, together with the prejudice, superstition and intolerance of her community. Whilst the story might sound bizarre it is very much a modern fable tempered by Pavlenkova‘s subtle and completely engaging central performance. The tail becomes whatever the audience projects onto it and feels pertinently real in the questions it raises about personal and political freedom in Putin’s Russia and beyond. It’s a contemporary fairy tale with heart, soul, irrepressible joy and deep sadness at its core, where difference is celebrated but ultimately suppressed. We are reminded that conformity and belonging to an established order often trumps pursuit of personal happiness. Natasha’s acceptance by her young lover is rendered as emotionally void as her mother’s rejection because the focus is on her difference rather than her whole self. Moments of intimacy as the character begins to open up to her feelings and to those around her are particularly moving, but there is also a lot of humour making the film both hugely enjoyable and critically illuminating. Zoology is a strikingly unconventional film, focusing on a middle aged female character rarely permitted to take centre stage in mainstream cinema, but I love it most for the universally radical human value of empathy at its heart.

A Quiet Passion directed by Terence Davies.

Following the screening of his latest work A Quiet Passion starring Cynthia Nixon as Nineteenth Century American poet Emily Dickinson, a Q&A with director Terence Davies (Distant Voices Still Lives, Of Time and the City, The House of Mirth, Sunset Song) also provided a focus on the outsider and the empathic role of the director. A witty, articulate, sensitive and intensely passionate interviewee, Davies talked about the essence of Dickinson’s poetry and personality in his “most autobiographical film” to date. He described the way that she “guarded her soul” with ruthless integrity, but was also subject to the same creative ambitions, longing and desire for recognition that all artists crave. Discovering Dickinson’s poetry as a young man through readings by Claire Bloom on television, Davies immediately went out and bought a book of her works. What he found within her poetry was a spiritual quest parallel to the lapsed Catholic in him, each trying to answer the question of “What do you do if you’ve got a soul and there’s no God?” What is inspirational in Davies’ creative approach is his humane spirit in the face of adversity; “Actors open their hearts to you and you must do the same” as a director. “You have to be open, then wonderful things happen”. His latest film is testament to the enduring power of imagination and the creativity that saves us. Wherever we may find ourselves in life, even within the confines of four walls “we have to have a rich inner life or the soul dies.”

Hounds of Love directed by Ben Young.

The death of the soul is one way of describing the murderous couple at the centre of Australian Writer/Director Ben Young’s debut feature Hounds of Love, the most psychologically disturbing film to come out of Australia since Rowan Woods’ The Boys (1998). Developed, filmed, produced and set in Perth, Western Australia, the blinding heat and light of Christmas 1987 fuels the oppressive atmosphere of a film which explodes the myth of suburban safety. Based on real crimes such as the infamous David and Catherine Birnie case, there is an unnerving familiarity of place and events in living memory entwined with the film’s fiction, together with a uniquely Australian masculine undercurrent of potential violence. Young’s exploration of women who kill as co-dependent partners of men able to emotionally control them is distilled in the character of Evelyn. Emma Booth delivers a performance of astonishing range, convincing cunning and innate vulnerability, reminiscent of a young Judy Davis. She is joined by Stephen Cummings who is absolutely chilling as her manipulative, predatory and sadistic boyfriend John. We learn that at the age of 13 Evelyn was simultaneously recruited and “saved” from a life of familial abuse by John for the sole purpose of satisfying his own twisted desire for control, sexual violence and murder. Physically slight and frighteningly unassuming to the outside world, we also see in a scene with local drug dealers demanding payment how emasculated he is, later distilled into fury. Evelyn’s ability to use identification with their female victims to control them is equally horrific in its mastered execution. Evelyn’s children have been removed from her care and the nature of the couple’s co-dependency is intensely driven with John’s constant promise of their return to her. Shaped by abuse, rejection and self-loathing Evelyn’s need to be loved is so strong and has become so powerfully deformed that the cost is irrelevant, whilst  John needs her to lure trusting teenage girls into their car in order to abduct, torture and kill them for his pleasure. When they kidnap schoolgirl Vicky (Ashleigh Cummings) on her way to a party she must turn her captors against each other if she’s to have any chance of escape.

Use of slow motion, cruising through suburbia past scenes of every day family life, places the audience very uncomfortably inside the killer’s car looking for victims, playing on our deepest urban fears of random violence from strangers coupled with the hard truth of premeditated calculation. The framing of scenes through doors and barred windows creates an atmosphere of increasing tension which becomes concentrated even further in the confined, claustrophobic interior spaces of the couple’s house. Sound is the perfect tool to communicate terror over and above the visual depiction of brutal acts or gore. It’s the primal sense we fall back on in the dark, hard wired for survival and here it is used with brilliance and restraint to suggest the escalation of violence and the warped nature of the killers’ relationship. Songs of love and Christmas celebration are juxtaposed with opposing scenes of suggested violence and foreboding. Young’s film may be low budget but this is not a cheap slasher flick as it attempts to unravel and understand the motivations of its disturbing central characters, demonstrating great promise in terms of the director’s evolving skill. What Young deliberately chooses not to show the audience is pivotal in how this film communicates directly, viscerally and psychologically with the audience. Although the subject is harrowing and the suspended tension in some scenes is almost unbearable, I’m sure that it will be continue its momentum on the festival circuit, having already won Best Actress for Emma Booth and Best Director at the Brussels International Film Festival and the Fedora Award at the Venice Film Festival for best actress in a debut film for Ashleigh Cummings.

Werewolf directed by Ashley McKenzie.

Another tough drama worthy of attention followed by a fascinating Q&A with writer/ director Ashley McKenzie was her debut feature Werewolf, part of the True North: New Canadian Cinema strand of the festival.  Her story of Blaise and Vanessa, two homeless junkies still in their early twenties on a methadone recovery programme will have resonance for many rural communities throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Crewed and cast locally with all non-actors bar one, McKenzie’s film highlights the lives of young people falling through the cracks, failings in government policy and the Canadian Health and Social Care system. She also addresses the void of displacement and despair experienced by so many people living with addictions, bound to each other in toxic relationships or fatally addicted to the methadone cure. The style of framing, pushing characters to the edge of the composition, amplifying their feelings of being trapped with intimate close ups or just showing their mouths speaking because that is all the person behind the counter is seeing captures their predicament beautifully. There is also the poetics of the everyday in play with improvised scenes evolving naturally, characters slotted into working shifts and the creation of spontaneous moments of reflection, like the image of the Oreo grinder in the ice-cream shop and its endless cycle of halted movement. Mckenzie commented on the Drama of addiction portrayed in films such as Trainspotting as something she wanted to avoid in terms of the mundane, deadening reality of the methadone cycle where there is a lot of waiting involved; at the pharmacist, the clinic or social security office, moving from house to house doing odd jobs to scrape together hand to mouth cash, waiting for the opportunity to leave for a better life that never comes. Although addiction comes in many forms and touches many lives in rural areas it is a subject which is not openly discussed both in Scotland and in Canada.  Werewolf is an important first step in acknowledging that struggle in many communities, asking why dependency exists and what the nature of “the void” triggering it actually is. The film doesn’t provide answers but is a very compassionate attempt to understand, opening up a dialogue based on trust and familiarity with the local community. My only criticism would be that we don’t learn the backstory of the two protagonists and what has lead them to this point in their lives. This is something which begs further exploration as projecting the substance of this local problem has global implications and also feels like the next logical step up for this promising young director.

The Demons/ Les Demons directed by Philippe Lesage.

Another talented director showcased as part of the True North: New Canadian Cinema strand was Philippe Lesage. His impressively composed examination of childhood fears real and imagined in The Demons/ Les Demons presented a different slant on a “coming of age” drama. Set in suburban Montreal the story centres on Felix, a sensitive ten year old boy (Edouard Tremblay-Grenier) grappling with friendship, guilt, love, parental conflict and the insecurities of growing up. Lesage captures beautifully the state of childhood, separate from the adult world where the smallest detail or suggestion becomes magnified, taking on its own reality. It is a pre- internet world where information and reassurance comes from overhearing adult whispers and from peers or siblings. In spite of dangerous turns of the plot in many ways Lesage’s vision of childhood through the eyes of his central protagonist is a resoundingly gentle one, founded on innocence and the doubts we all experience in the process of maturing. The comforting conclusion of the film is that all will be well. We feel that Felix has escaped childhood relatively unscathed with the support of his elder brother and sister and the image of his parents together by the lake waving to him like a living remembrance also affirms this. Clearly the experience is autobiographically close to the director which is part of the film’s authenticity and winning sentiment. It is refreshing to watch a film that quietly explores its subject in such a measured way. Even though there is a seriously deadly threat within Felix’s neighbourhood, it does not become part of his individual story nor is it introduced for tear inducing dramatic effect. These events punctuate Felix’s world but his awareness is thankfully still that of a child sitting in the sun smiling in the final frame, an image that is reassuringly ordinary and stylistically poised.

Angry Inuk directed by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril.

Director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s documentary Angry Inuk exposes the damaging impact of the global anti-sealing movement on Inuit communities. Focusing on the diminishing economy and threatened way of life in director’s homeland on Baffin Island, located in the Canadian Territory Nunavut on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, it is a film about ancient knowledge, resilience and survival. Angry Inuk  is an important film on many levels, a positive statement about ways of being in the landscape that are traditional, sustainable and respectful, lessons that must be learned if human beings are going to survive on this planet into the next century. With the Arctic region rapidly becoming the latest international battleground for natural resources (ironically opened up by global warming fuelled by unsustainable industry, mass consumption and decades of unchecked greenhouse gas emissions) the understanding of indigenous peoples on how to sustain life and thrive in challenging conditions is of paramount urgency and global significance. This is a revealing, articulate and insightful film which offers a different type of dialogue between indigenous people, environmental and animal rights groups to address the overarching threats to all life on our planet. The Inuit way of resolving conflict, expressed face to face, de-escalated through song and resolved in laughter has something to teach us all.

Dependence on seal meat and skins to simply maintain communities living in some of the harshest conditions on earth, in the face of climate change, economic uncertainty and widespread poverty is not a luxury trade. The quiet anger of a people decimated by decision making outside their territory without dialogue or consultation demands a new kind of activism to challenge misinformation and the multimillion dollar anti sealing campaigns endorsed by celebrities. It is heartening that Angry Inuk is succeeding in reaching audiences, winning the People’s Choice Award from Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival in Toronto. The screening at GFF generated a lot of discussion afterwards and it was clear from audience comments that the film was actively changing perceptions. Angry Inuk provides evidence of a different way for human beings to exist in relation to the environment whilst also being part of a global economy and providing much needed leadership. What emerges is the inspiring and enduring strength, dignity and pride of the Inuit people, together with possible solutions for sustainable hunting, management of natural resources and environmental conservation that the world and its leaders simply cannot afford to ignore any longer.

Mary Pickford as Little Annie Rooney.

The 1925 Silent Film Little Annie Rooney starring the luminous Mary Pickford was an unexpected delight in the True North Canadian Cinema strand and one of the great joys of this year’s festival.  It is easy to see why Pickford was one of the most internationally renowned and best loved stars of her day. As tomboy Little Annie Rooney, Pickford’s superb comic timing, pure pathos and innate sensitivity is conveyed in every thought, gesture and expression on screen. As a pioneer of the Motion Picture industry she understood the power of film as an empathic medium, not just in her artistry as an actor but in her understanding of film as a screenwriter, producer, director and co-founder of United Artists with Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffiths and Douglas Fairbanks. With all the debate about the lack of female representation in mainstream film both behind and in front of the camera, Pickford is an inspirational figure and a commanding presence in the history of Film in spite of the demure label of “America’s Sweetheart”. Her intelligence plays out on screen in scenes which take the audience on a journey from laughter to loss and uplifting celebration. Racial stereotyping aside, Little Annie Rooney’s heartfelt innocence and earnest sincerity may belong to an earlier and less cynical age, but it is no less relevant in terms of sentiment, Craft and cinematic storytelling. Representation of Silent Film at contemporary film festivals should never be absent or underestimated. The origins of Film and why we need it emerges in the collective memory of shadow play, illumination and entertainment. If we strip back the medium it is at base about emotional connection and audience investment in what is depicted on screen. When Annie receives news of her Father’s shooting we run the gamut of complex emotions from the child hiding under the table to adult realisation of loss and despair. It’s a deeply affecting and satisfyingly layered scene, testament to how much the audience has invested in the central characters, their relationship to each other and how we project ourselves into the frame. There’s nothing primitive about the mode of expression, nor can it be dismissed as “vintage fun” although it is that too in terms of the whole enjoyment factor.  Watching Silent Film always revives me and after watching Little Annie Rooney I think I understand why.  As a critic I come to Art to be stimulated, challenged and to understand the Craft behind it, but on a more basic level I come to it in order to feel and connect with something uniquely, perceptively human and as part of an audience I know I’m not alone. As many actors and filmmakers have suggested at recent awards ceremonies we need empathic cinema now more than ever. In that respect the Silent Era is a wellspring and I hope that the Mary Pickford Foundation www.marypickford.org will continue to make more of her extraordinary work accessible to future GFF and other festival audiences. There is so much inspiration to be found in her personal story and in what she so skilfully communicates on screen.

Isabelle Huppert in Elle.

One of the most confrontational and controversial films of the festival in its depiction of an exceptionally strong and equally unpredictable woman is Paul Verhoeven’s latest work Elle.  I must confess that Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Hollow Man, Showgirls, Black Book) isn’t on my list of favourite directors! In seeing Elle I was very much putting my faith in lead actor Isabelle Huppert who clearly doesn’t suffer fools in real life and is a formidable presence even in her most subtle performances. The words “fierce” and “fearless” are often used to describe both her personality and on screen potential. I can’t imagine anyone else capable of playing the role of Michele in this film; the character is very much a vehicle for Huppert’s undeniable mastery of her Craft. Here she plays a thoroughly uncompromising, wilfully intelligent and beguiling woman, the head of a successful gaming company living in Paris. As a creative meeting makes clear it’s an industry and market she excels in, comfortably directing whatever content is necessary for maximum audience consumption. This typically male creative/ fantasy space is an interesting setting for a female character who by the sheer force of her personality and obvious skill commands respect, although not without resentment from younger male colleagues. She’s supremely confident in body and mind, unapologetically goes after what she wants, including having what she defines as a meaningless affair with her best friend’s husband and pursuing a neighbour’s husband, without any question of loyalty being part of the scene.

When she is raped in her home by a masked assailant who then stalks her, Michele’s response is to pursue him although not for revenge as we might expect. It is an incredibly rare and complex role in which the female protagonist behaves against type, refusing outright to become a victim of what has happened to her. Given the subject matter it’s a very fine line to walk and the reactions from male and female audience members around me were quite fascinating in that respect. I have no doubt that the film will create controversy, but I hope that on its wider release it will serve a more essential function as fuel for debate on what Femininity means, who our Female role models actually are on screen, the casting of women in particular roles and how in denial or acceptance we cast ourselves as well. The problem here is that neither the character or her backstory are in any way ordinary and this places a certain distance between the main character and the audience. As we learn Michele’s extreme history of childhood trauma the inference is that her strength is ironically borne of psychological damage which is a weakness the Drama demands. So when she starts to behave in an unorthodox way towards her attacker, actively seeking him out, confronting and stopping him in his tracks at one point, but also becoming a participant in his lived fantasy, she’s arguably exerting control, but only as part of a very highly developed coping strategy. Part of what makes Michele tick is the art of detachment, the ability not to make herself vulnerable or to surrender her powers of self-preservation to anyone. In this way she’s able to turn the tables on her attacker almost treating him like a case study, but there’s a disarming understanding between them, identified by his partner who observes that Michele fulfils a role that she cannot. Michele declares both herself and her attacker as “diseased” which to some extent taints her strength, resilience and truth as a character.

I’ve been debating the film’s many conflicted ambiguities in my head ever since and Bravo to Huppert because no other actress could manage believability and conviction within the same story line. This is a film that raises more questions than it answers and this is largely due to Huppert’s totally invested performance. Like all great artist/ collaborators I think she lifts Verhoeven’s game considerably and it didn’t surprise me to read a recent interview with the director in which he stated that this production was so far outside his comfort zone it generated real fear in him, which creatively speaking is a good thing. Elle is a psycho-sexual thriller set distinctly outside the Hollywood vein and surprisingly there is a lot of genuine humour in the film. Family scenes are hilarious and beautifully comedic, particularly those between Michele, her Mother, her son Vincent and their respective manipulative, gold digging partners. Michele delivers blunt summations of what the audience is thinking and so the truth like castor oil is down the hatch whilst our mouths are still open from laughing. Huppert’s naturally wry comedic turns are as sharp as her handling of the film’s most dramatic scenes and this brings welcome relief in a film dealing with very dark and loaded subject matter.    Adapted by screenwriter David Birke from the novel “Oh…” by Philippe Djian, Elle (or She) is complicated, provocative, confrontational, iconoclastic and impossible to definitively classify- arguably all the things a satisfying work of Art should be. So why does it make me uneasy? Perhaps because one woman however feistily played by Isabelle Huppert still doesn’t feel like enough!

Paradise directed by Andrei Konchalovsky.

Another film etched into my mind is Andrei Konchalovsky’s Paradise, winner of the Silver Lion for Best Director at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival and a well-deserved accolade. Konchalovsky delivers a beautifully crafted, intensely affecting and painfully relevant human response to the Holocaust. Sadly the misappropriated extremist ideal of building a paradise on earth is still creating Horrors around the globe and the director’s strength here is in choosing to bring the audience intimately face to face with three different characters that push the boundaries of resistance, acceptance and morality.

Jules (Philippe Duquesne) is a seemingly innocuous middle aged family man who we learn is an official with the French police and a Nazi collaborator responsible for the torture and deportation of prisoners to concentration camps. He is Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” personified, a figure of pitiable mediocrity, part of the complicit Vichy administration, betraying fellow citizens for personal gain and carrying out his duties without conscience or ever getting his own hands dirty. Olga (Julia Vysotskaya) is a former Russian aristocrat accused of being part of the Resistance and helping to hide Jewish children, threatened with “interrogation” leading to inevitable confession and doing whatever she can moment by moment to survive. Helmut (Christian Clauss) is a well-educated, cultured and suitably Ayran nobleman selected by Himmler to audit the death camps. Prior to the war Helmut and Olga moved in the same privileged circles, dancing on the edge of an abyss in pristine, sunlit flooded oblivion. Whatever truths or lies each character has constructed in order to deal with the hell they find themselves in are laid bare in a way that resists simplistic readings of good or evil. Everyone is inescapably haunted by these events, even if a veil of delusion is drawn across their faces. The film brings the audience face to face with just how easy it is to reduce human beings to animals or machines in the service of a higher cause. For good or ill redemption and righteousness rest upon belief.

Hungarian director László Nemes’ Son of Saul (2015) immersed the audience as never before in the mode of survival of its main character, revealing the unhinged chaos of lives being systematically destroyed by Nazism. The emotional immersion of Paradise operates in a different way, in the confessional delivered to camera testimonials and memories of three characters whose lives are entwined by war and genocide. This quality of placing the audience in the position of counsellor, judge and witness is heightened by the use of film stock which provides seemingly time based edits. Film cuts out or dissolves into light, blurring the line between archive, documentary and fiction. Cleverly using a 4:3 ratio, 35mm and 16mm home movie type film stock Paradise recreates 1940’s historical authenticity. This isn’t just an aesthetic choice but an ethical one in terms of how the lives of the characters are experienced by the audience. Alexander Simonov’s cinematography is absolutely exquisite, fully exploiting the beauty and clarity of Black and White, weighing the soul of every frame, perfectly aligned with the film’s subject matter and mode of storytelling through disclosure. He uses the medium of photography as expanded light, creating breath taking compositions, from vivid dreams, aspirations and remembrances to the soiled sweat, filth and smoke of the concentration camp which invades every pore of your skin and stops your breath. The aesthetic is superbly poised on a knife edge, like a scene in Himmler’s office lit to perfection. It’s the blacker than black inner sanctum of the Reich with its Neo Classical sculpture consummately staged and illuminated. This atmosphere also links to the sound design. As Himmler welcomes Helmut to the SS we feel what the character feels, there’s a sickening presence in the room disguised as honourable authority. Helmut excuses himself and goes to the luxuriously appointed and spotlessly clean bathroom to vomit and hears through the ventilation system tortured voices floors below more animal than human. Although he doesn’t consciously recognise it having been blinded by Nazi doctrine, his gut response being in Himmler’s presence and to the SS brotherhood ring on his finger betrays his humanity in that moment. This is unlike any other cinematic treatment of the Holocaust I’ve seen, bringing history vividly and mindfully into the present.

Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past/ AKA Build My Gallows High.

One of the features of GFF I most enjoy most is the regular series of themed free morning screenings held in GFT1. This year’s focus on Dangerous Dames with a welcome dose of 1940’s Film Noir was outstanding and thoroughly enjoyed judging by the audience applause. Given my love of films from this particular era and even though I had seen them many times before, I timed my visit to include screenings of Out of the Past (1947) directed by the incomparable Jacques Tourneur starring Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum, Gun Crazy (1950) starring Peggy Cummins and John Dall and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) starring Lana Turner and John Garfield, looking forward to the added bonus of GFF Co-Director Alan Hunter’s magnificent introductions. How we think of the Femme Fatale and the actresses who played them, doubly framed by the studio system, is a whole other blogpost! It isn’t just the quality of retrospective films in this strand I keep coming back for. There is really nothing better that watching Vintage films with a packed house embraced by the equally vintage elliptical curvature of Glasgow Film Theatre or “The Cosmo” which opened in 1939. Waiting in line to go in or immersed in the comforting pre-screening half-light I often hear people’s reminiscences of the cinema emerging out of the chattering hum. Hearing how they met friends there- some still with them others passed away, how they courted their spouse, discovered a particular film, fell in love with a mesmerising star or simply escaped to a different reality.  For me the magic isn’t just in the story on screen but within the walls of the cinema, in all of the lives, hopes and dreams that have passed through it. It is always a privilege to be there on a weekday morning captivated by the action, romance, comedy and tragedy of what we all are. It’s the kind of connective experience that can’t be replicated on any technological device because people and place are such an integral part of the live cinema experience.  In that respect Glasgow offers something very special which is why I keep returning year upon year.

www. glasgowfilm.org/Glasgow-film-festival

La La Land

Emma Stone (Mia) and Ryan Gosling (Sebastian) in La La Land.

Stepping forwards into the global uncertainties of 2017 the world could certainly do with some light. The Hollywood Dream Factory has always excelled at manufacturing escapism of an exceptionally shiny variety. For many people “forget your troubles c’mon get happy” is what Film, particularly the Musical genre are all about. I too love an entertaining dose of dazzlement and optimistic sparkle, magnificently choreographed chorus lines, staged spectacle, toe tapping show tunes and lavish couture that momentarily convinces me that the only way all stories should end is happily. Watching The Wizard of Oz, 42nd Street, Top Hat or You Were Never Lovelier never fails to make me leave the cinema grinning from ear to ear, inwardly dancing down the street and humming melodies for days afterwards. Film musicals of the 1930’s and 40’s are an escape to a more innocent time that temporarily make me forget the world outside the cinema, entering into a kind of romanticised La La Land. Classic Hollywood musicals of the 1950’s like Singin in the Rain, Guys and Dolls or An American in Paris deliver cinematic song and dance in an understandably buoyant post war mood of technicolour brightness. Who wouldn’t be swept away by the sublime grace and athleticism of Gene Kelly dancing with every fibre of his being, or revel in the anticipation of Brando crooning “Luck be Lady” while rolling the dice? Golden Age Hollywood is full of uplifting musical distractions, Romantic, comic and delightfully entertaining. As much as I love them there is a different kind of musical I love even more. The raw energy of West Side Story that still packs a timeless punch, the poignancy and biting satire of Cabaret, the guts, vulnerability and human substance of Les Miserables or the profound truth about living a creative life that is Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece Sunday in the Park with George.

You Were Never Lovelier (1942) starring Rita Hayworth and Fred Astaire.

My love of musicals sits somewhere between staged theatrical spectacle and intimate cinematic close up. Similarly my highest expectation in watching a musical on stage or screen is grounded magic, the kind of creative vision that acknowledges the great undertow of life’s losses, doubts and regrets and chooses to dance on regardless, because at base (and in the words of Little Orphan Annie) we have to believe that “the sun will come out tomorrow” and live in hope. Following five star reviews, widespread critical acclaim, a record  seven Golden Globe Awards, 14 Academy Award nominations and 11 BAFTA nominations, the buzz around Damien Chazelle’s La la Land as the new musical for the 21st Century has been steadily building. Those accolades are well deserved. La la land is not simply a case of the Dream Factory narcissistically slapping itself on the back. Like The Artist, which captured the imagination of audiences in returning to the pure wellspring of Silent Era invention and storytelling, La La Land also holds up a mirror to Hollywood. Beneath their highly polished surfaces both films subtlety illuminate the industry; “That’s LA. They worship everything and they value nothing.” La La Land like The Artist is a love letter to the medium of Film, responding to the Zeitgeist of our digital, celebrity laden world, not just by tipping its hat nostalgically at films of the past in remembrance of a bygone era, but bringing that love, passion and understanding of Craft to bear in creating new work.

The sun drenched Cinemascope of La La land isn’t just sentimental Retro or optical gimmickry but imaginative reinvention, shooting in 35mm with custom lenses  because in the context of a story about living your dreams, the medium captures and transmits light in a way that digital never could. The richness of colour, light and performance is immediate, not generated or obscured by unconvincing additive layers of post-production. From the opening number “Another day of Sun”, where the camera roams through an LA traffic jam among the singing dancers with the same free floating emotive rhythm of possibility, Swedish Director of Photography Linus Sandgren (American Hustle, Joy) creates a feeling of seamless naturalism. To achieve this in a genre where the artificiality of bursting into song is often cinematically magnified is quite a feat, but here the visuals, music and movement create unexpected continuity, immersion and brilliance. The heightened palette of colour feels real, because it is aligned with the emotional core of the film and the aspirational nature of its characters. Justin Hurwitz’s score shifts effortlessly between and strikingly beneath exuberant joy and introspective melancholy. Similarly Mandy Moore’s choreography moves through the staged environment with unassuming ease, chiming perfectly with the emotional core of scenes like Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian’s’(Ryan Gosling) beautifully understated Pas de Deux. Whilst there’s energy in abundance this isn’t aimed at putting on a show but revealing what lies at the heart of the story.  Key moments of emotional recognition are significantly slowed down and quietly contemplative in keeping with the tone and rhythm of the whole production.

Emma Stone in La La Land

Above all Chazelle’s vision is a homage to artists of all disciplines- “the fools who dream” in creating the Art of Cinema. The irrepressible spirit of this idea is expressed by Emma Stone in an audition scene where the direction within the story is to improvise, the actress performing to camera with background piano accompaniment in real time. Like Tom Hooper’s approach to Les Miserables the close up is used to wonderful, immersive effect to the point where we forget that lines are being sung rather than said. In an earlier audition Mia is acting her heart out, inhabiting the character she’s playing to a gallery of total indifference, being halted mid flow because someone wants to do a lunch order. The camera and the viewer’s investment in the scene is inches away from her face and our hearts sink with hers at the lack of respect for her efforts. It’s the one woman show that nobody’s watching. The shared experience for the audience in that moment is of rejection in spite of giving your all to something, followed by the potentially overwhelming doubt that “maybe I’m just not good enough.” We’ve all been there.

In the Griffith Park Observatory scene, an original setting for James Dean’s  Rebel Without a Cause, the viewer’s disbelief is suspended by the feeling of stepping onto a cloud and dancing among the stars because that’s exactly what falling in love feels like, unreal in the best possible way. Whilst historic film references are peppered throughout, there’s something else at work here in gaining the inspiration of the past. “Vintage”, “Retro” and “Analogue” are all around us today, adopted as marketing terms, but the fascination with the pre-digital past reflects an increasing demand for basic connections human beings can’t live without, things we can actually touch. Chazelle’s La la Land is all about that grounded sense of reality, reaching out for something in the form of waking dreams.

Ryan Gosling in La la Land.

Although there’s familiarity in the central love story; boy meets girl and the Hollywood sunset is wasted on them as they declare their dislike for each other, there are refreshing twists in how the relationship develops. In seeing each other for who they truly are they can let go of the illusionary trappings of Romance. Within the sunshine “Someone in the crowd” could be the one who “takes you where you want to go” there is a deeper level of resonance in the universal desire to be loved. Creatively love is what brings Art to life and La la Land is all about that integrity and vital purism. Innovation is founded on understanding the traditions of your chosen discipline so that you can push them further in making new work-without knowledge of the alphabet and grammar you can’t create any kind of poetry. Sebastian’s love of unadulterated Jazz means he’ll probably never play stadiums but the music has its own life and for him it’s the only meaningful life there is. I love the fact that the film’s director loves the medium enough to create the same kind of Art and a cinematic statement all of his own in the process.

In Whiplash Chazelle gave us the darker side of being artistically driven in the musical power play between teacher and student. La La land might seem like its charmingly bright polar opposite, but along with the uplifting joy of this film there’s also sadness at the core of it. It’s in the old Rialto Cinema we see has closed down through Mia’s car window, in Sebastian’s stripped back piano solo, in the mural of fading Hollywood stars outside the bar where Sebastian plays and in the equality of saving each other’s dreams coupled with the reality of having to walk away. There are sequences that very tellingly blur the line between what is real and what we yearn for; the life we might have led, the choices we might have made and still have been true to ourselves. In many ways the film’s perfect ending feels more real than the one we might have expected based on Romantic  mainstream conventions.

There are blissfully funny moments too- anyone who grew up with the synth pop of a Flock of Seagulls in the 1980’s will love the pool side party sequence. Generation X’s and younger will also relate to an inherited world of uncertainty and the tarnished dream of opportunity that defines the so called developed world. In La La Land taking a risk, being yourself and following your dreams is rewarded, but not without personal cost. Nevertheless the film is an affirmation of creativity behind, in front and beyond the camera. La La Land is more than just a fleetingly sunny day in film land. It’s a movie that isn’t afraid to have one foot on the ground and step onto a cloud simultaneously and in the crazy world we’re living in, that’s a blessing.