ARTIST ROOMS: Self Evidence Photographs by Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe

6 APRIL – 20 OCTOBER | SCOTTISH NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY

FRANCESCA WOODMAN (1959-1981) Francesca Woodman, Untitled, 1975-80 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 15.60 x 15.60 cm (paper 25.20 x 20.30 cm) (framed: 45.80 x 40.20 x 2.00 cm) ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Courtesy of George and Betty Woodman

‘If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.’ Diane Arbus

In the 21st century, the Selfie has become an extended form of advertising and validation, increasingly in step with corporate interest. People are the app for 24hr addictive consumption of who they aspire to be, driven by market demand, or perhaps more accurately, corporate engineered desire for the next upgrade. Rapid fire clicking and scrolling is the order of today, in how photography and images of self are consumed, liked and followed. The idea of ‘self-evidence’ in this Artist Rooms exhibition is extremely compelling and timely, examining ‘three of the twentieth century’s most influential photographers’ and reactions to their work from a younger ‘Snapchat’ generation. It’s a moment to take stock of the extraordinary work of Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, what photography is in human terms and what it really means to take a shot.

2. FRANCESCA WOODMAN (1959-1981) Space 2, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1978 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 13.90 x 13.90 cm (paper 25.20 x 20.20 cm) (framed: 45.80 x 40.20 x 2.00 cm) ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Courtesy of George and Betty Woodman

The work of Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) provides a quietly subversive sucker punch opening to the show. This series of beautifully layered photographs are on an intimate scale, naturally inviting closer inspection and defying narcissistic, grandiose expectations of self-portraiture.  From the telling age of thirteen, to her untimely death by suicide aged 22, Woodman explored an ever-shifting state of being and becoming. Using long exposures and slow shutter speeds, she retains a fluid sense of movement and obscures identity, effectively blurring the fixed time and truth certainty of her chosen medium. Woodman’s work is often described as “experimental”, however there is more deliberation and thematic consistency in her work than this label suggests. The way her photographs are staged are technically adept and complex, rather than angling towards brilliance by randomly shooting at it. As a student taking part in the Snapchat element of the exhibition very accurately observed, ‘Woodman has power over her own image.’ It’s an enviable position, given the state of unrelenting judgement and self-censorship metered out via the internet / smartphone in your pocket.

Woodman illuminates in Black and White what it is to be female, the dilemma and desire of being seen, which is still so socially/ culturally loaded, with the resistance of being an enigmatic, ghostly presence. That tension at the heart of photography, between fixing the moment, (becoming immortal, documenting or memorialising the subject) and acknowledging human mortality, is particularly poignant in Woodman’s work. I’ve always felt that she was “fixing the shadows” in her own heart/ mind, dancing death and the maiden style towards photographic illumination, as a statement of self-worth. With over 10,000 negatives and 800 prints, Woodman’s output was prolific, though only a small fraction of her work has ever been seen publicly, demanding further study and exposure.  She’s a fascinating feminist, vulnerable before the camera certainly, but entirely on her own terms. Woodman resists reductive definition in fleeting glimpses, becoming one with a medium that reaches for permanence whilst standing on a cliff edge of mortality with every momentary shot. She effectively haunts her own images, using her body as a prop and vintage clothing to ambiguously alter time. Tonal shifts in her work have a psychological edge of loss, a sense of disintegration and elusiveness in striving to know who you are that is universally human.

In Space 2 Providence, Rhode Island 1976, Woodman evades identification as an individual, grappling with herself inside the frame, turning her head during a long exposure so that what remains is movement where we expect her face to be. This idea is attached to a body in relative focus, gesturing forward, hands open and semi-outstretched towards the viewer. Her work reveals how self is realised, grasping for something (and someone) just out of reach. In Woodman’s hands, photography is an act of control for the female protagonist/ artist, usually in decaying, abandoned building surroundings. An image that exemplifies this dynamic comes from the Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island 1976 series, where Woodman is seen semi crouched on the floor in a polka dot dress. One hand is raised to her mouth as if something has just happened in a gasp, the other held to her chest. A residual patch of patterned wallpaper against bare, plaster wall is echoed in her clothing, semi unzipped at the side, revealing a pale gape of flesh. Debris on the floor adds to the sense of unease, glancing sideways, somewhere between dark glam fashion shoot, personal recognition and implied violation. There’s knowing in the setup of the shot, and in Woodman’s eyes, that pose questions for the viewer about what they are seeing or witnessing. It’s a halt to the screen swipe that hits you between the eyes.

There’s nothing accidental about how Woodman simultaneously hides and reveals herself. This residual presence means that the viewer can never own or possess the subject completely. It’s a quality that feels like a psychological imperative of self-preservation and discovery in her work. Vintage dress and decrepit setting toys with youth and beauty. The gaze is self-determined and positioned ambiguously within the set. The photograph is a dialogue, not an answer, about who the subject truly is. Images taken as personal communications with her boyfriend are more fixed in terms of the designated viewer, but still float as enigmatically as Woodman’s handwriting before our eyes. She’s playing with what it means to take an image, with photography as mechanism, mirror and conscious choice.

1. FRANCESCA WOODMAN (1959-1981) From Angel Series, Roma, September 1977, 1977 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 9.30 x 9.30 cm (paper 9.80 x 9.80 cm) (framed: 45.80 x 40.20 x 2.00 cm) ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Courtesy of George and Betty Woodman

We have only begun to examine the work of Surrealist photographers such as Lee Miller, Claude Cahun, Dora Maar and Florence Henri in recent years. Woodman is an interesting inheritor of the inward facing camera in that respect. In From Angel Series, Rome 1977, we see the female protagonist, a shadow presence enveloped in large sheets of white paper, through a doorframe that reads like a proscenium arch. Another smaller door prop with a hand reaching round like a handle is as curious as Alice in Wonderland, drawing the eye further into the photograph. The overall framing is slightly skewed, like the geometric tilt of the figure, feeling to the edge of her paper costume with a bent elbow. The naked body/ self is screened by abstract form and tonality. What casts the eye across the foreground layer and deeper, through the doorway into the space beyond, is a tonal shift from left to right, from beached light to progressive darkness. This isn’t just physical or aesthetic but psychological. That emotional gravitas dances uneasily with the comic, play element of staging to create heightened, internal realism, or Surrealism. The shift in tone also evokes the passage of time inside the composition and in that moment of seeing.  It is imaginatively fluid, rather than presenting an absolute image of self. This is one of the smallest images in the show, so you are compelled to approach it closely, like seeing through the crack of a door left ajar. In historical terms the door left ajar that Woodman is stepping through is Surrealist and conceptual.

As I’ve suggested in previous posts on Lee Miller and coverage of the Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous exhibition (SNGMA, June 2016) [i], Surrealism as a concept, rather than a movement, gave women unprecedented latitude for exploring Self. Woodman’s use of the female body embraces the essential negotiation between seeing and being seen, exemplified in the work of Miller. Contrary to popular belief, Surrealism isn’t about the dreamy fantasy, but confrontation. ‘The free form craft of association, placing contradictory ideas beside each other in denial of the absolute,  asserts the political right to freedom of expression.’[ii] In the 1970’s, an era of activism, Woodman conceptually grasps the mettle and beauty of Surrealism in its purest form, which ‘brings us into confrontation with ourselves on an intensely psychological level; individually and collectively.’[iii] To photograph the self, disappearing and emerging in the same frame, celebrates that free, associative tension and also expresses an existential crisis of being.  There’s a feeling of profound liberty and isolation in Woodman’s photography, the idea that ‘You cannot see me from where I look at myself’, as she expressed it. We are confronted time and again with her essential mystery and our own as human beings.

In the popular imagination, photography is the ultimate proof of existence- that we have lived, yet it documents a singular moment of life and the loss of that moment, for the individual, generation and era. Woodman’s Untitled, Concord, New Hampshire,1977, taken after the death of her grandmother, brings us to a moment of profound silence and lengthening shadow. It’s a spectral image of the living and past generations, in the framed family photographs illuminated on the table and in the seated female presence, defined almost entirely by shadow. Light is cast on the side of the face, hands and into the corner of the room. Influenced by the sequential, emotive work of Duane Michals (b 1932), Woodman creates a self-portrait grounded in observance of loss. Although it is a deeply personal response to her grandmother passing, what we are confronted with is our own mortality. At its birth photography was described as a process of ‘fixing the shadows’, a metaphor in tune with Woodman’s singular command of the medium.

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971) The King and Queen of a Senior Citizens’ Dance, N.Y.C. 1970, 1970. Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper. 37.20 x 36.90 cm (framed: 50.80 x 40.60 cm). ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008

The work of Diane Arbus (1923-1971) is defined by her approach to portraiture, the essential relationship between artist /photographer and subject. Her congruence in making images and identification with her subjects remains compassionate and contradictory. Arbus presents alternative ways of life to the white picket fenced American dream and her eye to eye stance behind the camera continues to introduce audiences to taboo subjects. Debates still rage about whether her depiction of marginalised individuals constitutes empowerment or exploitation. The argument in this show unfolds empathically as ‘a de facto self-portrait,’ in the form of her Box of Ten Photographs (1969-1971). These images convey how Arbus saw herself and how she wished to be remembered as an artist. The self-evidence in this self-edit is significantly greater than the individual, revealing aspects of American society and humanity that still resonate very powerfully today. However you regard her images, here the box is semi opaque and articulates her signature loud and clear.

These 10 original prints are her intended legacy and proof of life. They expand her enduring statement:  ‘My photos are proof that something was there, which no longer is. You can turn away but when you come back, they’ll still be there looking at you.’

What seems to strike people, looking at the photographs she is famous (or infamous) for, those of disadvantaged people, perceived social outcasts or “freaks”[iv], is a combination of shame and pity, not coming from the subject, but as an aspect of self-projection on the part of the viewer. Photography as a medium is meant to reassure us, Arbus explodes that abject sentimentality completely. ‘I would never choose a subject for what it means to me. I choose a subject and then what I feel about it, what it means, begins to unfold.’ There is a sense of detachment in her initial approach, but also a powerful sense of connection and agency that endures in her work.

Images from Two American Families, published in the Sunday Times Magazine, Nov 1968, are a great example. It’s a revealing, uncomfortable juxtaposition that establishes where real tenderness lies. In A Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, NYC, 1966 we see the family unit dressed proudly for a day off, though it is far from being carefree. The baby in a white playsuit and bonnet, gravitates towards the photographer with a hand semi outstretched. Her mother is naturally glamourous, offset by a weary, faraway expression that extends beyond the frame to what might have been. Her dark bouffont hair, Liz Taylor style eyeliner and flash of leopard print coat lining are contrasted with the baby held in front of her and the idea of motherhood experienced aged 16. The young father’s soft, serious gaze meets Arbus’s/ the viewer’s, holding the hand of their older child. There’s a feeling of youth confronting aged responsibility in the care of a child with learning difficulties. There’s also an edge of fractured separation, in individual familial gazes that do not meet each other. The descent of stairs creates an emotional trajectory, caught in the trap of the camera. We feel the unease of being brought so close in contemplation of someone else’s family unit, because it naturally causes us to reflect upon our own. This isn’t a private family snapshot, but documentary with ethical implications. That precarious line between viewer as witness and complicity of the gaze, in appreciation or ridicule, is part of Arbus’s potency as an artist. The human subject is unapologetically left open to scrutiny. Thankfully Arbus honours the complexity of that exchange.

The companion photograph, A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, NYC, 1966 widens the social commentary in comparison. It’s a we want what they have capitalist dream turned on its head, an indictment of American values where humour and tragedy collide. The expanded view is of aspirational property and status. The Mother, father and child are depicted at leisure on a lawn so large it feels more like a swimming pool they could collectively drown in. The mother resembles a Barbie doll, lying on a banana lounge in a swimsuit. It’s impossible to tell if her eyes are closed, or watchful beneath the fake lashes. Lying on a parallel sun lounge Dad looks like he’s having a breakdown, hand raised to his brow, like the cost of this upper middle-class suburban dream is all too much. The child in the background is bent over a paddling pool, which in relation to his parents, feels like a well he’s destined to fall and disappear into entirely. As Arbus stated; ‘They are a fascinating family. I think all families are creepy in a way.’ Western consumer/ popular culture engineers the desire for this lifestyle. Looking at Arbus’s take on identity, family and success, my first thought is seriously?! If there’s an aspect of absurdity and potential ridicule here, then its wrapped around a lie, rather than the human subjects. Arbus received two John Simon Guggenhiem Fellowship grants, to examine ‘American rites, manners and customs’ which I’d say was a perennial investment.

Arbus brings us face to face with the licence a camera gives you, prompting questions about how it is used, directed towards the self and/or others. Sometimes the closeup takes us to places that mainstream culture, or the powers that be, don’t think it should go.  A Young Man in Curlers at home on W20th St, NYC, 1966, was a daring imagewhen it was taken and in many countries around the world still is. Arbus’s photograph of a Boy in a Straw Hat Waiting to March in a Pro-War Parade, 1967 with his “God Bless America” badge, could be straight out of Trump’s America if it weren’t for the period clothing. The irony being, that this face of youth, aged by forefathers’ ideals, is wearing a hat from an earlier period, popular in the 1920’s and 30’s- otherwise known as the Great Depression. Nostalgia and nationalism go hand in hand before the camera in a wholesome march towards aggressive dominance. The war in question is Vietnam, one of many invasions on foreign soil in the interest of putting “America first.” That plain belief is presented as an honest portrait, however as part of Arbus’s self-portrait it is deeply subversive. The problem with being hardwired for subversion is that you don’t achieve that level of awareness without digging the earth out from under yourself, acknowledging that you don’t belong to the status quo, even if “success” depends upon it. A photograph as Arbus described it is “like a stain.”

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971) Xmas Tree in a Living Room, in Levittown 1963, 1963. Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper. 36.80 x 37.60 cm (framed: 50.80 x 40.60 cm). ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008

I enjoyed the opportunity to revisit Arbus’s work as a self-portrait. The complete immersion of Retired Man and his wife at home one morning, NJ, 1963 (gelatine silver print) which is such a homage to normality, despite the nudity of both subjects and photographer and Xmas Tree in a Living Room, in Levittown 1963, reveal underappreciated facets of her personality. Xmas Tree never ceases to be both horrific and hilarious. It is devoid of any obvious human subjects, apart from the viewer, who is positioned in the foreground armchair, virtual reality style, with the viewer/participant’s hands resting on the edge of both arms. The discomfort is ours, seeing the celebratory, festive gaudiness of the tree, shoved into one corner of a disconcertingly clean and orderly suburban living room, which feels more like an internal void. Arbus is an artist who confronts us with belonging (or not) and this collection of self-evidence cements her legacy as a socially conscious artist, rather than a sensationalist, ghoulish collector of souls.

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE (1946-1989) Self Portrait, 1983 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 37.40 x 37.50 cm (framed: 50.80 x 40.60 cm) ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Driven by ego and craft, the work of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) presents a face to the world through role play and extreme duality. Mapplethorpe’s controversial S&M lifestyle and his death from Aids tends to draw focus away from his undeniable skill and sensitivity as an artist. Whatever attendant beliefs the viewer might bring to consideration of his work, the value of experience and the life of the photographer were of paramount importance the artist. This self-belief permeates all his work. The viewer may see it as destructive, immoral or offensive if they choose, however an image such as Self Portrait 1978 confounds notions of obscenity or moral judgement, because it asserts the individual’s right to be so powerfully. In this case, and in the context of the exhibition, the act is entirely self-directed. The photograph is an extreme confrontation and explicit provocation, in profane defiance of his Catholic roots, yet employing all the theatricality of a devotee. There’s no doubt that the play enacted between good and evil is dangerous, but for Mapplethorpe that’s the attraction- in art and in life. There’s no escaping that fact in his oeuvre. It’s woven into everything, from the delicate interplay of masculine and feminine in Self Portrait 1983 (printed 2009) to Self Portrait 1978 where the bullwhip reads like a devil’s tail. He’s a master of role play, perhaps best summed up by Self Portrait with Knife 1983, where we see him posturing with polarities- one hand raised, palm flattened in gesture of defence, while the other is extended to attack. The choreography could belong to no one else.

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE (1946-1989) Self Portrait, 1980 (printed 2009) Photograph on paper, 35.20 x 35.00 cm; framed: 68.40 x 66.20 x 3.10 cm ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 2014

There is a right to self-expression which Mapplethorpe asserts throughout his career, in all his varied personas and this is perhaps where progress has been made in the 30 years since his death. In the late 1980s, his retrospective The Perfect Moment was cancelled in one venue, while another found itself at the centre of an obscenity trial. This is the first time Mapplethorpe’s work has been displayed in the dedicated photography gallery at SNPG that bears his name, originally established with assistance by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. This is cause for celebration, as is the recent news of a patient in the UK who due to advances in Aids treatment is now free from infection. I imagine that had Mapplethorpe lived, he’d be enjoying the spoils of a culture that elevates the artist as celebrity, building his legacy and continuing to unashamedly explore every facet of himself.

Although we see his declining health in the later self-portraits, above all else it’s the sheer force of his personality/ego that remains to the last. In Self Portrait 1988 we see that self-possession in action, despite his dishevelled hair and pallor. The hand on his knee appears to grasp mortality, the other clenched purposefully by his cheek. Sitting cross legged on a black leather armchair in a silk robe and embossed slippers, he resembles an aging tycoon. A Hugh Hefner type, slightly tainted by scandal, the kind of entrepreneur so revered in American popular culture as a model of success. The ripple in his brow and questioning mouth, partially open as if about to speak, issues an underlying challenge to, and affirmation of, white middle-aged male dominance.  It’s a fascinating image of wealth, respectability and mortal decay.

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE (1946-1989) Self Portrait, 1988 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 57.70 x 48.10 cm ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

In a later Self Portrait 1988, he delivers one of his most iconic images, the head of the artist receding into a dark ground, while his hand rests steadfast on a walking cane, carved with a skull. It’s a universal memento mori, an individual confronting death and Mapplethorpe making a statement of power in composition and tonality, even as he fades. He’s become the force that’s stalking him, that stalks us all, and he does so with immense dignity. Seeing this image always makes me think of Shakespearean tragedies like King Lear, Hamlet or Macbeth. The immensity of darkness engulfing the protagonist is absolute, yet Mapplethorpe still rules the frame. Immortalised in a signature moment of brilliance, something he never doubted possessing, he sits hand in hand with God and the Devil, between the darkness and illumination of his craft.

The final ‘Snapchat’ section of the exhibition, where school students, photography and art students have responded to the exhibition with images, text and filmed interviews was incredibly moving and insightful. What struck me most was the element of shock and surprise in relation to photography as a discipline, rather than tool and the degree of artistic agency identified in the work of Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe. The concept of ‘making the image instead of taking it’ felt like a generational penny dropping. I also felt an acute sense of loss, in terms of how human creativity and expression is being indiscriminatingly shaped by technology. I was left wondering if a Woodman, Arbus or Mapplethorpe would even be possible today, whether their bold self-determination would be too easily quashed beneath an avalanche of self-censorship.

As the students described; ‘technology has made us less free.’ ‘Everyone is able to see us’ and it has become more difficult to approach life online and day to day on your own terms.’ Examining the work of Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, there’s a more audacious sense of identity in play and techniques that demand greater deliberation, in their handling of materials and negotiation with the subject. Taking the kind of portraits and self-portraits seen in this exhibition requires expanded self-awareness beyond the trigger- happy selfie.  In the case of Arbus, you have to admit something other than your carefully censored self into the equation/ workflow. Self-portraiture comes with humility and admission of the ‘other’, rather than simple self-gratification or promotion of the individual. Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, don’t just vainly declare ‘I am’ in their photography, but significantly alter our perception. They stand uniquely for themselves and for humanity in the process, in all its darkness and light. The beauty in this exhibition is self-reflexivity, realised unapologetically and with compassion through craft. Advancing technology has made photography available to more people than ever before, however it’s not the tool that creates art and critical self-reflection, but the human being standing behind the camera. I say standing, because that stance or attitude of self-awareness is so critical in framing the subject in the mind’s eye, before the image is taken. In a world awash with rapid clicks, evidence of that vital human faculty appears to be rapidly diminishing.

It’s a great pleasure to see this work brought together and to consider the responses of students to such unexpectedly radical images. This is a deeply affecting show, for the ways that Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe confront their own truths about being human and for the questions the exhibition raises about ‘self-evidence’ in the 21st Century. This is photography as a matter of survival and in the words of one student, art that ‘makes you keep looking.’

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/artist-rooms-self-evidence-photographs-woodman-arbus-and-mapplethorpe


[i] Georgina Coburn Blogpost Surreal Encounters Collecting the Marvellous, June 2016 http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/surreal-encounters-collecting-marvellous/ Georgina Coburn Collective Action, article for the Times Literary Supplement July 2016 https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/collective-action/ Georgina Coburn Blogpost Lee Miller and Picasso June 2015 http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/lee-miller-and-picasso/ Georgina Coburn Blogpost Lee Miller A Womans War IWM, London Jan 2016 http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/lee-miller-a-womans-war/
[ii] Georgina Coburn Blogpost Surreal Encounters Collecting the Marvellous June 2016 http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/surreal-encounters-collecting-marvellous/
iii] Georgina Coburn Blogpost Surreal Ensounters Collecting the Marvellous June 2016http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/surreal-encounters-collecting-marvellous/
iv] I use the word ‘freaks’ here in the context of Arbus’s statement which indicates an attitude of respect on the part of the artist; “There’s a quality of legend about freaks.Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

9th Hippodrome Silent Film Festival

20 – 24 MARCH 2019. HIPPODROME, BO’NESS

Forbidden Paradise (1924) Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

Above all else, the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema is a joyful celebration of film and music. Speaking to other audience members, who had travelled far to Bo’ness for the unique atmosphere and live experience, it’s clear that the festival and this small town, delivers something very special. Home to the oldest cinema in Scotland, it is also a centre for national and international cinema heritage. This year’s programme offered thrills, chills, laughs, unexpected discoveries and truly memorable performances from some of the world’s finest accompanists. I arrived for the third day of the festival, staying until closing night and was delighted to see many films for the first time, introduced in the best possible way.

Hippfest’s traditional fancy-dress Friday Night Gala is always great fun, inspired this year by the glamour and military moustache twirling of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1924 Romantic Comedy-Melodrama Forbidden Paradise. This new restoration from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, was vibrantly accompanied by Jane Gardner (piano), Roddy Long (violin) and Frank Bockius (percussion). The trio complimented the tone of the film brilliantly and heightened its pace, enhancing the tension of court intrigues and Lubitsch’s characteristic brand of knowing comedy. Channelling the passion of Pola Negri as vampish, authoritarian ruler Czarina Catherine, it was an enjoyable, crowd pleasing caper, well suited to the whole occasion. Pre-screening period music by The Red Hot Minute Band, accompanied by fizz and canapes, added to the party atmosphere.

The Cat and the Canary (1927) Directed by Paul Leni.

Following on the heels of last year’s riotous late-night screening Seven Footsteps to Satan, Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927) starring Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale and Forrest Stanley, set the stage for more ghoulish fun.  The story begins just before midnight, with scheming relatives of grand eccentric Cyrus West assembled for the reading of his will. Musicians Günter Buchwald (Piano, violin) and Frank Bockius (percussion) drew the audience into the eerie corridors of the West mansion with a startling variety of sound. The music mirrored the film’s high angle shadow play to great effect, in the hushed circular sweep of brushes on drumskin, the nervous tension of pizzicato strings, use of upper register violin whining like a cat and the spidery creep of piano. At one point, the reverberation of percussion, from drumsticks scraped over wooden notches, produced the most fantastic sound, like rasping, macabre human laughter. As Horror-Comedy, the tone of The Cat and the Canary ,reflected in the intertitles, is almost comic book and a relatively safe programming choice. With their range of musical expertise, I would love to see Buchwald and Bockius perform a darker psychological Horror/ Thriller in this late-night timeslot.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Hippfest Triple Bill.

Silent Comedies remain hugely popular and there’s nothing quite like watching them as part of a live audience. Visual gags hinge on anticipation and this is palpable in an auditorium, where laughter is immediately infectious. The circular architecture of the Hippodrome really brings you into the fold in that respect. This year’s Saturday morning Jeely Jar screening The Freshman starring Harold Lloyd and Jobyna Ralston was a great choice of film, appealing to the universal human desire to be liked and the imperative of being yourself. The transformation ‘from geek to cool’ is a trope which often lacks charm in more recent films. However, in Lloyd’s hands, the likeable innocence of the central character shines through, aided in this performance by John Sweeney’s adept accompaniment. Hippfest’s annual Laurel and Hardy Triple Bill is always a sell-out and this year’s audience were treated to comedic pandemonium with Wrong Again, You’re Darn Tootin and With Love and Hisses. Sadly, there was no horse on the piano (see Wrong Again), but Jane Gardner’s wonderful accompaniment more than made up for it.

Although I thoroughly enjoy events like the comedy triple bill, what I really come to Hippfest to savour is reinterpretation of film in performance and seeing cinema I’ve never seen before. Friday afternoon’s Cuppa Talk, Peace on the Western Front was one of those highlights. Dr Toby Haggith (Senior Curator of Second World War and Mid Twentieth Century from the Imperial War Museum’s Film Department) introduced the film and provided live narration, accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano. Seeing film restoration work in progress is a rare privilege and this deeply affecting film about what war really means, told father to son, stayed with me. With 2014-2018 centenary events concluded and those who lived through the conflict no longer with us, the question remains of how we continue to commemorate international conflict and warn future generations. Like many members of the audience, I was surprised to discover such a hard hitting and compassionate battlefield pilgrimage film from 1931. ‘The role of film in
memory’ is extremely significant, not just for survivors of the Great War who saw the film on its release, but in the present act of reconstruction.

In addition to seeing Peace on the Western Front for the first time and the important questions it raised, what I loved about this event was insight into decision making process, the complex negotiation of restoring film from different archival sources and re-interpretation through sound. With the original sound discs lost from this “all talking picture”, two archival copies of the film and a variety of documents were used to reconstruct the narrative. The press book for the film provided the basis of the script, together with lip syncing interpretation, identifying locations using a Michelin guide to the battlefields and contemporary press accounts. Underpinning all restoration is the immense task of remaining true to the intent of the original, in this case, a directorial collaboration between two WWI veterans, Fred Swan and Hans Nieter, drawing on experiences from both sides. Peace on the Western Front became an unofficial film for the League of Nations Union, promoting the cause of peace and disarmament, something that I’m sure will continue through the current restoration. Like all archival film it lives before an audience, which is why festivals like Hippfest are so important, doubly so when the quality of music enhances perception to such a high degree.

 Although this was a read through and the final recorded version will employ an actor for narration, the balance between the voice of the film and its soundtrack was beautifully realised. Seeing abandoned war-torn towns, the determination to rebuild and reclaim the land for living, speaks of the timeless value of film as an agent of self-reflection and growth. It’s the drive that music is made of and all the ways that human beings find to out-create destruction. Compassion is the core of this film, which enabled veterans who could not afford to return to the battlefields, a virtual experience of validation through cinema. Peace on the Western Front acknowledges their experiences, while the current restoration honours these memories. The darkened auditorium is a safe space to collectively grieve and it is also a place for audiences, then and now, to see what is possible.

The union of sound and image led the audience into a landscape of ruins and bomb blasted hollows, resting tonally on objects of horror and remembrance. A trinity of bayonets emerging from the ground marked the final resting place of three soldiers, killed where they stood. The cross fallen over them, like a figure bowed in lament, is an image held long in the mind. What we see are the dead in absence, so many never found and the rubble of civilization, like Paul Nash’s painting We are Making a New World (1918). However, Peace on the Western Front is also a hopeful vision, of people re-working the land and rebuilding their lives. The narrative explains what happened in these fields and villages, however, it’s the way that sound alights on human objects, encouraging deeper reflection on what they mean, that leaves a lasting imprint. As Stephen Horne described during the post-screening Q&A, the music enters the ‘spirit in which the film was made, rather than recreating what might have been played.’ It is ‘abstracted, serving the narrative, not focus pulling.’ This approach creates a more intimate, visceral connection with the audience, because we can’t sonically relegate what we’re seeing to a bygone era, shrouding the film in nostalgia or sentimentality to distance ourselves from uncomfortable truths.

The Blot (1921) Directed by Lois Weber

That quality of accompaniment was also present in the screening of Lois Weber’s The Blot (1921), introduced by Pamela Hutchinson and accompanied by Lillian Henley on piano. Although the hidden history of women in film is gradually coming to light, what will enable neglected cinema to enter public consciousness (and move us closer to equality) is connecting films like this one with live audiences. Weber (1879-1939) was a writer/director who made over 40 features and hundreds of shorts. In her own time, she was the highest paid director in Hollywood, placing the myth of continuous human progress and the current gender pay gap debate into perspective. Part of South West Silents’ initiative Silent Women Film Pioneers, Henley’s skilful new score for The Blot unobtrusively merges with Weber’s vison. Her live performance wove itself into the film’s closely observed domestic spaces, complimenting the unfolding drama and serving the director’s intent perfectly.

Focusing on middle class poverty, so acutely relevant today, Weber understood film as an agent of social change and brought missionary zeal to her examination of inequality in America. Her call for a living wage is articulated through the experiences of mother and daughter, normally cast in supporting roles, but here placed centre stage. We’re all too familiar with women on film portrayed as silent agents of social cohesion and ironically, here in the Silent era, they have a greater voice than in many mainstream Hollywood films circa 2019. Seeing the Griggs and Olsen families, side by side in stark contrast, is immediately resonant, reflecting the ever-increasing divide between rich and poor on a global scale. Supplanting expectations of Romance with sharp, social critique, the collapse of Middle America is ongoing. Weber’s famed ‘feminine touch’ as a filmmaker begs closer scrutiny, as her energies were directed above and beyond her gender. What she stood for was human dignity, empathy and self- determination. There’s a tendency that goes with the whole “feminine touch” label, dismissing interior details in The Blot, like decorative elements, simply belonging to a woman’s domain and aligned with the designated role of homemaker/filmmaker.  However, I’d suggest that seemingly passive imagery such as a pet cat and kitten, are more potent inclusions by Weber, suggesting eternal cycles of child bearing, linked to grinding poverty.

An image (or “blot”) that particularly struck me was that of a little girl, just learning to walk, observed by the central character Mrs Griggs (Margaret McWade). Tottering at the base of the stairs wearing one high heeled shoe, a plaything and basic item of clothing that the Griggs family cannot afford to buy, this sequence felt metaphorical rather than observational. As Pamela Hutchinson suggested in her introduction, if Weber had been a man, we’d have been having discussions about the vision of the director long ago, rather than seeing her films as reductively female. I’m quite certain, given Weber’s moral and ethical stance, that this scene in The Blot is more socially/ politically loaded than just a child playing games. Those games shape how we move through the world as adults and you can’t walk, much less climb the stairs, in one ill-fitting high heeled shoe. Although Weber delivers a strong moral message, this tempered throughout by feeling and projection, rather than grandiose sermonising. The shame of ostracism in work, the pride that tries to keep up with the Jones’s or class-based cues of dress and body language that inform how characters are made to feel, are aspects of self, shared with the audience. This is part of Weber’s life experience and congruence as a filmmaker. It’s a telling indictment that so many prominent women working in the film industry during its early years have silently disappeared from its history. Film restoration is also about reclamation, reappraisal and reinterpretation, which is why I was so glad to have seen this film as part of a live audience.

The Parson’s Widow (1920) Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr, Days of Wrath, Ordet) is best known for the profound seriousness and spiritual austerity of his work. The performance of a lesser known film, The Parson’s Widow (1920) demonstrated that there are many more layers to this deeply humane director, including a great sense of humour. It was an absolute pleasure to experience the sensitivity and understated brilliance of this film with an accompanist who equals it. John Sweeney has been accompanying Silent Film for over 25 years and I’m consistently moved by his ability to communicate the most vulnerable and subtle aspects of human behaviour in performance. In Sweeney’s hands, sound becomes a conduit for audience immersion in the emotional arc of the story and the predicament of the characters, rather than a simplistic trigger of emotive response. It’s why I love watching Silent Film live- it pares the art of film back to its most essential, universal language. As an audience we’re not reduced to manufactured cause and effect, but are presented with a pure, intuitive response to the film’s own trajectory in real time, that we can imaginatively project ourselves into. What Sweeney achieved in this performance was a revelation in terms of what makes Dreyer’s work so distinctive and timeless. Tapping into the human kindness, sparkling humour and humility at the heart of the story is his natural gift as an accompanist. As the relationships in the film become deeper and lessons are learned about the true nature of the main characters, Sweeney’s music embraced the lyricism, solemnity and richness of those connections. Dreyer’s conclusion of thanksgiving ‘for all the good days I have lived’ was expressed musically throughout. We begin with a story set in 17th Century Norway, where custom dictates that a young theologian must marry the previous parson’s widow to secure his position, finding a path back to ourselves by the end of the film. Deception, love, wisdom and human flaws are revealed as only Dreyer (and Sweeney) can. I can think of no finer introduction to this new Swedish Film Institute restoration of a Dreyer classic.

Au Bonheur Des Dames (1930) Directed by Julien Duvivier

Another of this year’s great Silent discoveries and a festival highlight was the World Premiere of Lobster Films restoration Au Bonheur Des Dames (1930). The incredible virtuosity and rapport of accompanists Stephen Horne (piano, accordion, flute) and Frank Bockius (vibraphone, percussion) continues to elevate every performance. Paired with an intensely moving film, they delivered a dazzling performance, driven by pure intuition and consummate artistry. Adapted from a story by Emil Zola and directed by Julien Duvivier, Au Bonheur Des Dames is an immediately relevant ‘modern parable’ for the 21st Century, as we now face the global, environmental and human cost of capitalist “progress.” The film is also a poignant memorial to the ‘final days of French Silent Cinema.’ The buildings we see being demolished on screen are those of the film studio, subject to the same ‘bulk buy’ attitude to branded entertainment as that of the “Ladies Paradise” department store. Small and independent gives way to retail empire in the film, something we see daily in every town and city High Street. Although the heroine Denise Baudu (Dita Parlo) eventually succumbs to this corporate vision of progress, and annoyingly for love, the film’s imagery and musical accompaniment cuts through the plot to deliver a more critical interpretation.

The mechanisation of desire and accelerating drive towards mass consumption were communicated beautifully by the accompaniment. Vibraphone and cymbals created a mesmerising sense of being seduced by glitter in a retail cathedral. The “Ladies Paradise” is certainly an ironic title given the treatment of the shop girls by their male managers. ‘Paradise’ is a dualistic idea, which regardless of belief, is associated with a fall of biblical proportions. The association between lust and shopping projects wider social concerns. In one scene, we see a woman covetously touching her throat, surveying jewellery and another stealing a fur from the department store display. Sound conveys misplaced desire, in the use of piano strings and syncopated percussion, creating an unnatural slant on all the shiny things we might own, perfectly in keeping with the subversive imagery. Sharp intercutting during a sale scene or frenetic movements along a city street, accompanied by palpitations of percussion give us a bodily sense of being in the frame.

The cinematography by André Dantan, René Guichard, Émile Pierre and Armand Thirard is frequently poetic and clever editing juxtaposes the fate of the individual with towering corporate dominance. When Denise’s cousin Genevieve collapses, the piano guides us emotionally through the doorway, accenting her vulnerability- cut to an upwards camera pan of a demolition site and we immediately feel that she (her hopes, the family business and way of life) are being literally and metaphorically crushed. The rumbling depths of the piano and percussion are abstracted- as unconscious as breathing in that moment of absolute immersion. There’s a very special circuitry of energy in play, led entirely by the film, related to what is visually inferred rather than spoken. It’s a circle, fuelled by imagination, connecting the filmmaker(s), the art object, accompanying musicians and audience across time. Horne and Bockius understand the language of film so completely (and intuitively in tandem) that the tonal qualities of a film; visual, psychological, emotional, are translated effortlessly to sound, the most immediate of all our senses. This is Silent Film accompaniment on a whole other level of craft and sophistication. Like a sublime symphony, the beauty of the composition (or improvisation) lies in us being consciously unaware of it. Ideally sound opens a channel in the hearts and minds of the audience, which is exactly what art is for.

Au Bonheur Des Dames has a beauty that has nothing to do with Romance or glamour. We experience it in moments of human recognition, like Denise’s view as she stands alone in her uncle’s shop looking out onto the street, through a line of stripped mannequins. Outside dust and paper scatter in the wind and the sun feels like twilight. Piano chords anchor us to this moment of meditation on what is passing before our eyes. This scene reminded me very much of the early documentary stills photography of Eugène Atget (1857-1927), who tried to capture the architecture and streets of Paris before they fell to modernisation. However, in Au Bonheur Des Dames, this melancholic, end of an era feel of Atget is realised with unbridled violence. As buildings are reduced to rubble by machinery, the shattering physicality of destruction was communicated in a frenzy of articulated blows from percussion. It was expression carried mindfully through the hands and body, informing the viewer’s perception not just of the action on screen but the overwhelming forces behind it. Throughout the film, imagery and music suggested a more questioning world view than the trajectory of the plot. That tension is part of what makes this film so interesting. Shots of the department store shop floor, seen from above, take a god-like view of what humanity has designed, later scattered in panic.

On many levels, Au Bonheur Des Dames is a very contemporary film and the highly sensitive accompaniment, reserving silence for moments of the greatest gravitas, played to those strengths. Most Hippfest films are prefaced by archival shorts and I love the way these can expand frames of reference inside the feature. In this case, the short film Out for Value from the National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive was the perfect companion piece, chosen by Hippfest student placement Maeve O’Brien and accompanied by Forrester Pyke on piano. Archival footage from Isaac Menzies, Aberdeen, an Emporium taken over by House of Fraser and purchased in 2018 by mega-discounter Sports Direct, brought themes in Au Bonheur Des Dames resoundingly home. Another Scottish connection made this screening possible, with sponsorship from the Falkirk District Twinning Association, paired with Creteil, outside Paris.

Moulin Rouge (1928) Directed by Ewald Andre Dupont

Building relationships with long term partners, such as the Confucius Institute for Scotland and China Film Archive, Hippfest is able to bring rare films to the UK, such as The Red Heroine / Hongxia (1929), the oldest surviving martial arts film, largely unseen outside China. International partnerships are also instrumental in commissioning new work, promoting artistic development and cultural exchange. Co-commissioned by the Goethe Institut, Glasgow, and Hippfest, the world premiere accompaniment for Moulin Rouge (1928) by Günter Buchwald (violin), Frank Bockius (percussion) and Johnny Best (piano) recieved stellar applause from the audience. The story centres on Parysia (Olga Tschechowa), an aging cabaret dancer, universally adored for her exotic onstage persona. Her daughter Margaret returns from finishing school with her fiancé Andre, who soon becomes obsessed with his future mother in law. Director Ewald Andre Dupont was one of the early pioneers of German Cinema, best known for Varieté (1925) and Piccadilly (1929), both screened at previous Hippfests. It’s gratifying to be able to explore the work of a director over several years, a rare gift of continuity, and to see the film performed live in a collaboration between German and British musicians. This was the first time the trio of Buchwald, Bockius and Best had performed together and hopefully not the last. Günter Buchwald has been accompanying Silent Film since 1978, collaborating with Frank Bockius for over 20 years and Johnny Best, who is Director of the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival and a PHD researcher, has been accompanying Silent Film since 2014. The opportunity for musicians to learn and be inspired by each other, across borders and a variety of musical styles, is essential in preserving and developing the art of Silent Film accompaniment for future generations. The lavish production and arc of impending tragedy in Moulin Rouge was handled with great panache and gusto, hurtling towards the climatic scene at a heart-stopping pace and carrying the audience with it.  

Hindle Wakes (1927) Directed by Maurice Elvey

This year’s Closing Gala Hindle Wakes (1927), accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne, provided a world class conclusion to the festival, highlighting a largely unknown and strikingly progressive British Silent. Matching the right accompanist(s) with the right film is an art in itself and this performance illustrated what a skilled musician can bring to our perception of cinema. As Briony Dixon, curator of Silent Film at the BFI, London, stated in her introduction, ‘Stephen will accompany the film as only he can.’ Based on the 1910 play by Stanley Houghton and filmed by the UK’s most prolific director, Maurice Elvey, Hindle Wakes is a surprisingly radical statement of female independence. Set in a Lancashire cotton mill town, it’s a story of industrial slavery and ‘the ecstasy of freedom’, linking self-determination with a woman’s capacity to earn her own living. Accompanying the opening sequence on piano, stately, tonal pillars of expectation were contrasted with the excitement of heroine Fanny Hawthorn (Estelle Brody) and her best friend Mary, preparing for the annual mill closure and heading for the bright lights of Blackpool on holiday. Release from the drudgery of factory work into a fairy-tale world of leisure was captured by the otherworldly sound of the thumb harp, fragile music infused with human vulnerability. This sound aligned with a poignant shot of the Blackpool ballroom seen from above, a swirling mass of couples and confetti falling, as if the entire scene were held in time, inside a souvenir snow globe. Sparks of Romance and unease punctuated the soundscape, reflecting the central character navigating her way from youth to adulthood.

Horne’s ability to express the inner life of characters on screen is exceptional. When Allan and Fanny take their turn on the dancefloor amongst thousands of couples, a lesser accompanist might have simply played appropriately rhythmic period music over the sequence. Horne takes his cues directly from the frame and its visual composition, in the way that sound melts away, out of focus, creating an emotional depth of field around the couple and making the rest of the world disappear. We enter into what the dance means in that moment, and in life, temporarily suspended in reflection. This delicacy, attention and care, is what makes Horne such a master of the art and a multi award winning accompanist. Without giving too much away, the film’s conclusion doesn’t deliver what we’re conditioned to expect. The ending left me wondering at what point did stories such as this one cease being projected on screen? How many others have been lost and how many more were waiting to be discovered? Once again, a film that would be classified as Silent, historical or vintage delivers an unanticipated roar, revealing itself as more radical than many contemporary films would dare to be. Class representation, coupled with expectations of gender, make Fanny’s ultimate decision a revolutionary act, then and now. Regardless of when a film was made, if we don’t care about the characters on screen then the film is dead. The nature of Horne’s accompaniment brought reappraisal of a forgotten film to a wider audience. Bridging this gap between film archive and public consciousness is a matter of national importance. Beyond academia and dedicated organisations, the UK is slow to recognise its cinema history and champion its immense cultural value. Performances like this make the case very powerfully from the ground up, without saying a word.

In addition to the festival screening programme, workshops, talks and commissioning of new scores, Director Alison Strauss and the Hippfest team have exported the live Silent experience from Bo’ness, touring selected shows in the UK. Over the last nine years Hippfest has emerged as a national treasure and essential resource, enabling international collaboration and consistently punching far above its weight. In 2020, Hippfest will celebrate its 10th edition and I can’t wait to see what it has in store.

Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film Website:
http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/default.aspx Hippfest 2019 Programme: hhttp://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/docs/brochure/2019%20Festival%20Brochure.pdf

Glasgow Film Festival

20 February – 3 March 2019

February means Glasgow Film Festival, the joy of connecting with the world on screen and joining some of the best audiences on the planet.  The opportunity to see retrospective classics, discover emerging filmmakers and cinematic rarities is always a draw, but there is a special buzz around Glasgow, a combination of people and programming that makes it unique. As a visitor, staff, volunteers and audiences make you feel welcome and the additional bonus of introductions and Q&As from filmmakers add considerable value to the whole experience. The Pioneer strand of films by first and second feature directors was particularly strong this year with Border, Complicity, Float Like A Butterfly, The Man Who Surprised Everyone, Woman at War and Werewolf among my overall festival highlights. Regardless of the subject matter, there was something about each one of these films that made me feel hopeful. It is always exciting to discover artists whose work you want to follow in future and seeing the ways filmmakers are responding creatively to man-made chaos, past and present, was thoroughly inspiring!

Woman at War directed by Benedikt Erlingsson.

Having loved Benedikt Erlingsson’s previous feature Of Horses and Men (2013), I was looking forward to his latest film Woman at War/ Kona fer í stríð. Erlingsson has a gift for tackling serious subjects with irreverent charm and great humour. In this case, the story of 50-year-old Halla (Halldóra Geirhardsdóttir), a seemingly ‘mild-mannered choirmaster’ secretly committing acts of eco-terrorism to save her beloved Iceland from environmental catastrophe. With a poster of Gandhi on her wall and a Nelson Mandela mask in the field, her extraordinary intelligence, practical skills and physical stamina debunk the Western myth that middle aged women are past their prime. Taking on saving the earth and motherhood by adoption, Halla is a fearless, thoroughly likeable heroine that you can’t help but root for, because her prime motivation is care. Tackling Icelandic history, ideas of democracy, mass media spin, industrial exploitation and the persecution of foreign nationals with shrewd comedy, Woman at War is an absolute delight, being both entertaining and highly conscious. The rugged Icelandic landscape is the ever-present star of the film and the way music functions as witness, chorus and emotional commentary is pure, quirky genius. Woman at War is a wonderful film from start to finish, a gentle push for individual conscience, collective responsibility and action.

Border directed by Ali Abassi.

Iranian-Swedish director Ali Abassi delivers a surprising take on human identity and our relationship with the natural world in Border / Grӓns, winner of the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes in 2018.  Eva Melander stars as Tina, an outsider and a border guard with the uncanny ability to smell fear, guilt and shame, enabling her to naturally detect illegal activity and solve crimes. When Vore (Eero Milonoff) crosses her path, she encounters someone from her own tribe for the first time, embarking on a path of self-discovery that calls into question who she was raised to be. Without giving too much away, Abassi explores boundaries of gender, animal and human characteristics, together with the nature of evil and the role of mythology in contemporary life. This supernaturalism is a brilliant way of interrogating human behaviour and finding humanity. I loved the unexpected, legendary elements of the story and the complexity of the female protagonist. The elation Tina finds in discovering who she is, is coupled with the ambiguity of that experience and a moral dilemma about how to live in the 21st century. Being cast between worlds, there is a cost in belonging which this film explores unlike any other.

Werewolf directed by Adrian Panek.

Writer/ director Adrian Panek’s Werewolf / Wilkolak delivers a new way of seeing its subject, emulating a deepening aspect of craft in contemporary Polish Cinema. Panek’s examination of the psychological effects of trauma on a group of children feels acutely relevant, not only in terms of the history of Poland and the Holocaust, but in the current climate of human displacement on a global scale. Werewolf questions the nature of Horror, liberation and instinct. It is one of the most fascinating and compelling examinations of the Holocaust I’ve seen, because it takes the view of child protagonists in a new direction, beyond sympathy or sentimentality, to a deeper level of confrontation with what makes us human. Panek asks vital questions about whether growth is possible in extreme (and every day) circumstances, transcends multiple genres and presents a story which is both culturally specific and universal. Set in the summer of 1945 in the chaotic aftermath of WWII, the advancing Russian army liberate Gross-Belsen, a site that was part of a complex of German concentration camps, then a German village and now situated in modern day Poland. This territory of conquest and fear is also the primordial forest of fairy tales in the tradition of the Germanic brothers Grimm. Aerial shots intensify that feeling of density beyond the physical, dwarfing the human figure or vehicles in a seemingly impenetrable dark canopy of trees.  Freed by fleeing SS guards, a pack of German Shepherds roam the forest, as ravenous as a group of orphaned children that have taken refuge in a derelict mansion. Held captive by the ever-present canine threat and the adult world outside, the children forge a path beyond survival.

The young cast including Nicolas Przygoda, Kamil Polnisiak, Sonia Mietielica deliver natural, nuanced performances that convey glimmers of hope as a counterfoil to terror and despair. Each character deals with their trauma in a different way, exposing the audience to degrees of empathy and the possibility of what they might become, either succumbing to the horrors they’ve experienced or eclipsing them. Wladek (Kamil Polnisiak) has survived the camp by being subservient to malevolence. Fuelled by adolescent desire, He’s a devious character willing to close the door while atrocities are being committed- equally seizing the insane routines of his captors to survive a moment of impending death. The question of whether he, and his fellow survivors, can experience liberation of a different kind is part of the underlying tension in every scene. I loved the way that seemingly small details of expression and action initiate change in the heightened confines of the mansion, a microcosm of the wider world.  Dolly is a minor character, a little girl, perhaps 5 years old and unable to speak until she initiates an act of kindness that enables the dynamic of predator and prey dominance to shift. Tellingly the dogs have been trained and rewarded by humans for brutally attacking anyone in a striped uniform. Discarding the uniform, the process of scratching away at serial numbered tattoos is a painful process of bloodletting that is significantly as real as it is symbolic. The introduction of red to what is predominantly a cool, blue palette, alludes to Red Riding Hood, a colour worn by the leader of the group, Hanke, who finds a red dress in a suitcase of belongings and becomes momentarily what she might have been without the Holocaust, simply an adolescent girl growing up. Her civilizing influence on the group, giving structure to shattered lives (including her own) and her ultimate choice to act with mercy implies redemption and deliverance from a life of mere endurance. It’s a path through the forest towards light that left me feeling hopeful- not just for the fate of Hanke and her band, but for a country and film industry that consistently delivers increasingly sophisticated confrontations with its own past. Acknowledgement of history and atrocity is necessary for a future beyond mere survival, or one in which history simply repeats itself. Werewolf is a beautiful example of cinematically out-creating destruction.

In an interview for CineEuropa (05/12/18), director Adrian Panek discusses the cultural and human resonance of the film:

‘I think that the figure of the werewolf, half-human, half-animal, is contemporary here. We as humans used to think that we were civilised and cultured, or that we had a divine origin that made us stand out from the rest of nature. After World War II and the Holocaust – the mass slaughter of one group of people by another, in the name of the battle of the species – we altered that perspective completely. Now we’re seeing that beastly, biological element of humans more and more; we perceive ourselves as animals with overgrown brains, and it’s a complete change of paradigm. Horror has always been part of our culture, but now it’s on a different scale.’

To his credit Panek deals in realism and never succumbs to making the inferred story of the title supernatural. He reminds us that Horror is, above all else, a human invention. If there is a fantastical element, it is the miracle of human survival in the face of desecration. Beautifully filmed by cinematographer Dominik Danilczyk and edited by Jaroslaw Kaminski, who worked on Pawel Pawlikowski’ Ida and Cold War, Werewolf mirrors the truth in fairy tales, as life affirming self-reflexivity, rooted in all cultures. I hope that many more audiences will have the opportunity to see this film, experience its multi-layered tensions and essential light.

The Man Who Surprised Everyone directed by Natalya Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov.

Another highlight of GFF19 was The Man Who Surprised Everyone / Chelovek kotoryy udivil vsekh by writer /directors Natalya Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov. Although it is a film about human intolerance and cruelty, it is also a story of how folklore can be an agent of healing. Tales can mask and reveal truths, especially in countries where visual traditions evolve in response to institutionalised persecution based on politics, gender, race or sexuality. As a contemporary adaptation of a Russian Folk tale, The Man Who Surprised Everyone is an important film that confronts hateful attitudes towards gender identity.

Egor, played with quiet dignity and gravitas by Yevgeny Tsyganov, is a forest guard who learns he is dying from cancer. Prompted by a local healer, he attempts to cheat death by assuming female identity, setting off a chain of events that reveal the depth of prejudice in his community. Whilst the sheer audacity, brutality and unquestioning right to judgement by his persecutors enraged me, the inescapable truth here is attainment of a state of being which shrinks the symbolic tumour, carried inside the individual in denial of who they truly are. Engagement with the fable is life, an alternative to a living death for the central character. Powerful and moving, The Man Who Surprised Everyone is a miracle of a film when one considers its origin. The director’s statement at the Venice Biennale described the film as “a parable about the resistance of the ordinary Russian man to death, which he is trying to deceive. The film is based on the personal memories of the director Natasha Merkulova, her Siberian childhood, the village in which she grew up, the people who surrounded her, the legends that were told in those places.” I think the real beauty and brilliance of this film lies in the story as a Russian doll.

Float Like a Butterfly directed by Carmel Winters.

Set in a travelling community in Ireland during the 1970’s, writer / director Carmel Winters Float Like a Butterfly is the uplifting story of a young woman finding her place in the world and defying expectations, within and outside her community. Hazel Doupe’s luminous leading performance as Frances immediately has the audience on side, rooting for a character with the odds stacked against her. The fighting spirit of the film is also collective, a meditation on prejudice and belonging that fortunately isn’t reduced to black and white morality. Though Frances identifies strongly with Muhammad Ali’s fight for his people, this is also a story about her fight for dignity and respect as a woman-ultimately to be called “the greatest” by her father. The relationships between Frances and her father, brother and extended family present comfort and conflict. Poverty, lack of access to education, the pressure to marry young, have children and serve a husband, compound the ever-present threat of misogyny. Coupled with unrelenting racial persecution from the outside world, Frances’s story could have been tragic, but it isn’t because of who she is- sensitively framed by Winters. Traditional folk music has a significant role to play in the richness of this film and in that respect, I find it interesting that it is set in the past. The vintage palette of passionate crimson and steely eyed blue defines the central character and the dynamics of her predicament. To conform to belong, against one’s own nature is to lose the fight completely. Winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at Toronto International Film Festival 2018 and Best Film Audience Award at Cork International Film Festival, I’m sure this film will win hearts wherever it screens and perhaps present an alternative view of travelling life to a wider audience.

Complicity directed by Kei Chikaura.

Human relationships and the need to belong is also the subject of Complicity, a rare Japan-China co-production and feature debut from writer / director Kei Chikaura. Like the work of Ozu and Koreeda, Complicity is a beautiful, quietly observed portrait of everyday urban life addressing familial relationships and what we need to grow as individuals. It is also an important film for crossing borders, presenting a human face to economic migration with intelligence and compassion. Unable to find work in China, Chen Liang (Lu Yulai) buys a fake identity and moves to Japan, taking an offer of employment intended for someone else. Apprenticed to an elderly soba chef (Tatsuya Fuji) he slowly becomes part of the household, gaining skills and confidence. The relationship between master and apprentice gives the young man the structure, craft and emotional support to flourish in ways that would be impossible at home. Although built on desperation and deception, the connection is real and positively life changing. I love the way Complicity shines a light on the need for safe harbours in the form of human beings, willing to give others the chance and agency to make their own way in the world. If ever there was a need for such a humane statement on screen, it is now.

Her Smell directed by Alex Ross Perry.

In contrast, director Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell from the GFF19 Sound and Vision strand hits the audience head on with the unrelenting, narcissistic chaos of addiction. Ultimately, it’s a very sobering film about the cult of personality / celebrity that turns stratospheric talent into an inevitable downward spiral. Elizabeth Moss inhabits the role of Grunge star Becky Something so completely that there’s really no option as a viewer than to go with it. There are times when like her fellow band members, the audience is driven to the edge and you really want to get off the tour bus, but that’s precisely the point. Being spun in Becky’s orbit may be an excruciating, all-consuming vortex, but that is the nature of addiction and the insecurity that feeds it. Fortunately, due to Moss’s riveting performance and the examination of female identity/creativity, it is also an interesting ride. When the film does finally shift gear away from full throttle, the cost and repercussions of this life in the spotlight are revealed and like Becky, we have to grapple with what’s left. Effective use of hand-held camera follows her twists and turns of paranoia, delusion and heartfelt brilliance, so that as much as we may dislike the character’s ego and excess, we are compelled to stay with her to the end. Agyness Deyn and Eric Stolz ably support what is essentially a star turn for Moss/ Becky in unflinching closeup. Grunge music culture of the 1990’s wore a particular brand of nihilism, rock and roll excess and heroin chic, almost as a badge of honour. Tragic star personas aside, the raw honesty and vulnerability of Nirvana’s anthem Smells like Teen Spirit or Alice in Chains’ Down in a Hole is undeniable. The channelling of energy depicted in this film is certainly dark, however, it’s also an essential aspect of femininity that’s being let loose here, something that is potentially destructive, but equally pure in terms of expression. It’s not desirable or pretty to look at- but I can think of very few films which allow the same latitude to female protagonists and for that reason it was a dark highlight of GFF19.  

Prophecy directed by Charlie Paul.

Another interesting meditation on destruction and creativity is Charlie Paul’s documentary Prophecy, part of the Local Heroes strand of the festival, focussing on well-known Glasgow figurative artist Peter Howson. As an insight into Howson’s process it’s a fascinating watch, a journey into the anatomy of a painting from blank canvas to sale, shaped by the artist’s apocalyptic vision. Whether you ‘experience the creation of a Masterpiece’ as the trailer claims is debateable. Whilst I agree with Howson that ‘the veil of civilization is very thin’, I’ve always felt that his work succumbs to the testosterone fuelled, power hungry chaos he’s raging against. This film did nothing to convince me otherwise, however I found the excavation of mark and composition emerging out of the physical/metaphorical ground compelling. The artist’s commentary, decision-making process and choice of soundtrack are revealing, not just of an individual life and vision, but how creativity is perceived. The use of classical music adds gravitas to Howson’s art- like his glazing technique adding depth, but it’s slathered on too thickly- pushing emotional buttons of scale and awe. Music cues response to creative male genius suffering a little too often, rather than allowing the work to speak, stand or fall on its own.

The end of film statement that Howson has sold over 1000 paintings valued at $60 million, most in the hands of private collectors and therefore unlikely to be seen by the public seemed like a curious justification for the production. The real justification for the Howson cause is technique and conviction, he is who he is on canvas, whether you like his paintings or not. His distortion of the human figure, evolving from early experiences of Comic book Horror, Old Masters like El Greco and Griffiths’ Silent Film depiction of Christ, engages with a potent combination of fear and beauty, as he sees it. The atmosphere and intensity of the Prophecy painting is undeniable, as is Howson’s belief that he has an ‘important role to play’ in ‘warning people’ about human decay and depravity. Although there are elements of redemption and innocence, such as his daughter Lucie, a figure in many of his paintings, ‘pointing the way’, I’m not convinced that enlightenment or illumination are to be found in this work. In the end, unrelenting brutality and macho posturing comes to celebrate the very thing he’s protesting about. His Croatian and Muslim painting is a prime example. The strength of this documentary perhaps lies in portraiture, the flawed perfectionism that simply renders the artist human and makes this is an accessible documentary. There are many unsettling elements in Howson’s work, intentional and otherwise. I found the addition of the American and Isis flags in his focus work, described by the artist as intentionally controversial, rather an empty play towards the painting’s final destination, undermining the integrity of his process and biblical-style mission to educate.  US market receptivity and celebrity collectors are part of the framing of Howson’s work and its perceived value, however it’s the psychological elements in play as the artist completes the painting that are the most interesting aspect of the film.

This Magnificent Cake directed by Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roles.

This Magnificent Cake by Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roles was an innovative delight, screened with their wonderful short Oh Willy…  as part of the GFF19 Belgian Cinema: Both Sides Now strand. A fabulous dose of stop motion Surrealism and post-colonial critique, This Magnificent Cake is a triumph of ingenuity and imagination in five parts, using fibres, textiles and skilful sound editing to create a truly unique vision. The obtusely linked tales feature a dreaming king, a pygmy working in a luxury hotel, a failed businessman, an expedition porter, an army deserter and an unfortunate clarinettist. Worthy prize winners at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival (2018), Clermont-Ferrand International Short film Festival (2019) and Toronto International Film Festival (2018), Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roles are distinctive talents in the field of animation, delivering so much more than amusing entertainment.  Their poignantly woven tales and absurd comedy examine history and human connection in ways that are strikingly fresh, crafted with exceptional skill and originality.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid directed by George Roy Hill.

The annual GFF retrospective strand is a champion of exposure to the back catalogue and accessible cinema, qualities often missing at other festivals. The GFF tradition of free morning films continued this year with the 1969: The End of Innocence Retrospective including screenings ofMidnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Medium Cool, Alice’s Restaurant, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Sweet Charity and The Wild Bunch. Festival co-director Allan Hunter’s introductions always add value, whether the film is familiar or previously undiscovered. Held in the Deco surroundings of GFT1, the thematic focus, added context and open, welcoming atmosphere of these screenings are one of GFF’s unique pleasures. Seeing Shirley MacLaine in Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity for the first time and revisiting the legendary partnership of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were thoroughly enjoyable, especially with Hunter’s lead-in commentary, exposing different layers in film-making, history and performance.

GFF19 has been a great cinematic start to the year, showcasing the many ways that filmmakers are using their craft to make us see, think and feel differently about the world around us and our place within it. Film Festivals and cinema in general has a significant role to play in making these imaginative shifts of perception visible, initiating self-reflection and positive change. The films that affected me most this year weren’t holding placards, they simply told their stories with conscience, beauty, artistry and hope. Promoted as ‘the perfect movie mix’ GFF is all that and more, intimately connected to the energy of the city, its people and the rest of the world, .https://glasgowfilm.org/glasgow-film-festival

Christian Marclay : The Clock

Tate Modern 14 September 2018 – 20 January 2019

Installation View.Tate Modern. Christian Marclay, The Clock 2010. Single-channel video installation, duration 24 hours. Tate Photography (Matt Greenwood).

Being eclipsed, suspended and enslaved by time is our real-time immersion in modern life, moving inevitably towards eternal midnight.Christian Marclay takes what it is to be human and winds it into the mechanism of TheClock so seamlessly, with such artistry and grace, that words like ‘genius’and ‘masterpiece’ are entirely justified. After experiencing three-and-a-half-hoursof this work, I was profoundly moved, elated and frustrated that watching the full 24hrs wasn’t an option during my visit. There aren’t many works of “NOW” I’d want to spend that kind of time with, but The Clock is something else. It’s a work of art you enter into and become part of, rather than passively watch. Marclay has managed to create a work as addictive as the multidimensional concept of time and existence it encapsulates, an unrelenting and strangely beautiful meditation on time running out for us all. Despite its modern materials and contemporary masterwork status, Marclay’s Clock transcends the time it was made. It speaks of universal human experience through sound and image in a compelling, urgent way. I place ‘sound’ first, because Marclay’s craft and foundation as an artist is making objects from audio. The Clock is a highly distilled example drawn from a lifetime’s exploration, which is the real source of its genius.Fortunately for the UK, one of six limited edition copies of The Clock has now entered the Tate collection, jointly purchased with the Centre Pompidou, Paris and the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Originally commissioned by The White Cube, London, where it debuted in 2010, The Clock is an incredible artistic achievement in its union of concept and craft. A montage composed of over 12,000 clips, spanning 100 years of film and television,screened over 24 hours in real time may sound like a work tailor-made for film geeks. (And I won’t lie, part of my irrepressible joy in this work stems from that.) However, the way that Marclay handles this material brings wider frames of reference and association brilliantly into play. Although it is an epic work of art, film and human history, The Clock is also a very intimate experience, where your own projections/ narratives meet those of the maker(s). I heard quite a few people on exit reminiscing with friends and family, delighted, thoughtful and wondering in awe about how it was made. Marclay was aided by six assistants in finding and sorting suitable material over three years. However, the vast amount of footage needed to construct The Clock isn’t as impressive as the skill required to create cohesion and expanded meaning in the final 24 hr edit. The most powerful sense of identification inside this work isn’t ultimately based on how many film-clips you recognise, entwined with your own viewing/ life history, but with the collective human orientation towards understanding. Wonder and curiosity are as much a part of the projection as the threat of advancing time and fear of death. In human terms The Clock is an admission and a creative act of defiance, a monument to human perception and memory that makes us who and what we are.

Film Still. Christian Marclay, The Clock 2010. Single-channel video installation, duration 24 hours. Courtesy of White Cube, London and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

As a species we’re hardwired to construct meaning and aspire to dreams, a trajectory held in tension with the fact that as time marches on, we edge closer to becoming dust, akin to celluloid ash. Human mortalityand vulnerability are part of what makes The Clock tick. The ways we are driven and shaped by time, as concept and physical reality, permeate every frame in ways that are playful, ironic and visionary. I loved the free, associative power of this work, providing triggers for the viewer’s imagination within an ever-evolving structure of interwoven narratives. Although there are human hands at work in The Clock’s construction, it’s the individual and collective minds of the audience that are the beating heart of this work. Sound and image overlap, contradict and elevate moments of recognition. Marclay’s command, not just of film language and genre, but the ways we see, is so astute, that my trust in where I was being taken was absolute. I really didn’t want to leave and would have happily gone with the flow for the full 24 hrs. Punctuated with humour, suspense and sublime poetry, The Clock is a work that illuminates beyond expectation. Many people are cynical about contemporary art, the value and spaces it occupies, but here is a work that places value on the imagination and intelligence of audiences, to do what we do naturally as human beings. Making connections and creating meaning is the elusive essence of life we’re all trying to grasp in one way or another. In The Clock, Fine Art meets mass media in ways that the internet has failed to democratise. You need Craft and contact with people to create beyond instantaneous self-gratification. This is what makes The Clock such an enriching experience, the sense of being part of something bigger, but no less powerful than an independent mind.  You know you’re not alone in the dark and the longer you stay within the span of this work, the more it reveals, somewhere between the conscious and unconscious.That emerging process of recognition feels poignant and true, part of the extended, real time experience. However long we choose (or are able) to spend inside it, Marclay has created a space we are free to bring ourselves to and actively dream in, a homage to the enduring magic of cinema. This love for form and material makes a world of difference in any made object. It’s an investment of time and energy that can transform how we see and the world around us.

Film Still. Christian Marclay, The Clock 2010. Single-channel video installation, duration 24 hours. Courtesy White Cube, London and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

At base we are watching, waiting and anticipating the mundane and extraordinary pattern of life in a perfectly synchronised 24-hrcycle. Common experiences at different times of day like waking or clocking off connect audiences, together with genres of popular entertainment. Commentary ontime takes many forms, through image, dialogue and sound. We don’t need a degree in film studies to feel the dramatic arc or emotional trajectory of that exploration. Consciously or not, we know what it is to be a hostage in cinema. Our Western Pop culture viewing is steeped in Hollywood fuelled conventions watching Westerns, Thrillers or Rom-Coms play out on screens big and small. It’s the same when we hear a symphonic piece of music. Despite the variation, the core material is deeply, culturally, known to us and it is rare that we are not reassuringly returned to the home key by the end of the performance. Marclay’s final destination may be unknown, but the journey is knowingly crafted and deeply empathic in terms of the visual creatures we are. If this sounds too intellectual, I can assure you it isn’t- while you’re watching The Clock, you may be conscious of time elapsing, but you’re not conscious of the mechanism and are free to create your own moments out of it, something barely afforded time in everyday life. It is hugely enjoyable, laugh out loud funny and deeply resonant to be confronted with images anchored in your own time, whether iconic or incidental. The Clock’s crafted stream of consciousness overlaps with the visual soundtrack of our lives and personal memories. It also contradicts that familiarity, shattering time with the suggestion that it is an invention; a ‘clock on a mantlepiece [was] a magician’s trick a few hundred years ago.’ The worlds of Art and Science merge in human ingenuity and invention, driven by our ageless desire for knowledge and control. In the late afternoon, a clip from the 1950’s presented a Marclay induced fable about apowerful Sultan with control of time, coupled with the dangerous, all-consuming need to know how time is spent. Our relationship with the technology of the day is simultaneously questioned, realised and foreshadowed for generations to come.

Film Still. Christian Marclay, The Clock 2010. Single-channel video installation, duration 24 hours. Courtesy of White Cube, London and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

In many ways The Clock is a mirror where moments of fiction and history emerge out of each other, stimulating deeper reflection. In one scene, we see a pocket watch and running medal, inanimate objects from Peter Weir’s Gallipoli reinterpreted by sound and the fluid slip into the next cut. In the original film, the human absence of soldiers gone over the top at the designated time becomes the injustice of life wilfully extinguished by man. The film once watched is also a memory, with its own unfurling narratives in the mind of theviewer. However, the beauty of this clip lies in the clarity of the edit, which presents us with objects of association, in that moment and for all time. ‘Remember time is luck’ we hear in another scene, which comes towards the clocking off end of Marclay’s momentous day in the life of humanity. The relentless drive for knowledge and progress is acknowledged by another character in our fellow cast of millions; ‘when my clock stops, I die.’  Without awareness, arguably there is no point in living, which is why we need art. Marclay appeals equally to instinct and intellect, beating seconds out with a watch on railings and percussive fingertips, bodily ticks that are part of the film’s dramatic acceleration, moving in and out of consciousness. The ease and boredom of the familiar is contained in that measure of time too, part of the realism of The Clock, potentially experienced in the gallery for a full 24hrs or for a lifetime in the world outside.

Marclay’s prescribed installation space is a womb of imagination,a submerged twilight world somewhere between cinema, gallery, sacred and domestic space, punctuated by rows of identical white Ikea couches. The light from the screen creates an otherworldly glow and the movement of people coming and going, mirrors the progression of arrivals and departures on screen. Coming from the winding, packed queue outside, you plunge into the dark, finding your way to an available seat with the 21 x 12 foot (6.4 x 3.7m) flickering screenlight to guide you. There are jostled whispers and negotiation, sometimes finding yourself uncomfortably positioned in three seated combination with pairs of visitors. It made me wonder how British I’d become and if other screenings around the globe carried their own nuanced etiquette. In joining the audience and sharing viewing space normally made more comfortable and anonymous by individually designated seats, lines between public and private domains blur.There is also the blur of time we encounter in the near dark, a meeting of generations and memories, invoking human ritual, storytelling and spirituality from prehistoric cave to modern auditorium. The audience is part of the rhythm of the work and the ingenious way it constructs moments of identification and clarity. In the same way that listening to music is direct, immersive and abstract, there’s a sense of going with the flow, being half lead by the regularity of time and entering alternate levels of awareness. That hypnotic quality feels like a comfort and release from the crazy spin of 21stCentury life outside, doubly so circa 2018. We’ve grown accustomed to anavalanche of recycled shows, images and Gifs via You Tube, Vimeo, social media and streaming services. The superlative difference here is the structural intricacy of Marclay’s work and its emotive core, led by the his chosen discipline.

Installation View. Tate Modern. Christian Marclay, The Clock 2010. Single-channel video installation, duration 24 hours. Tate Photography (Matt Greenwood).

Marclay’s clock is a great architectural and cinematic symphony that moves the viewer in unexpected ways, harnessing every moment of the metaphorical ‘flicker.’ It’s the ephemeral nature of light in cinema and the slippage between frames. The illusion of continuity, the gap between each stilled image that has us reaching and constructing the next, to continue the sequence because our lives depend on it. That imaginative, unconscious pause is something that no device outside can deliver. The hook or Hookland between frames is the substance and soul of film. Like a great composer, Marclay weaves breath-taking open variations on themes, the product of editing and sound design honed over a 35-year career. Marclay described the editing process as “the most fun…finding connecting bridges…cutaways where one action happens in one film and the reaction happens in another. Someone opens a door, enters a different world, a different film. These editing tricks are used to create this sense of continuity, this flow, and this make believe…”

When The Clockwon the Golden Lion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, Marclay thanked the jury for giving the work ‘its fifteen minutes of fame.’ Our Western consumer culture has made pursuit of that ‘15 minutes’ a way of life, in ways Warhol never envisaged. My feeling is that The Clock, in concept, execution and reception, constitutes more than a fleeting moment of recognition. Marclay’s sublime and illuminating work brings the truth of fiction resoundingly into focus. Like the observation that ‘bad things last longer than good’, my time with The Clock ended too soon. Very few people will be able to watch the whole 24 hrs, with only a handful of screenings outside normal gallery hours. Though I long to see the descent into Noir and where Marclay’s film leaves the audience in the final frame, I wouldn’t want to experience The Clock any other way but as intended, in an expansive, communal space of the artist’s making.  ‘Can you give my time back to me?’ asks Samuel L Jackson in one scene, no, you can never have it back, but for me The Clock is time well spent. Out of my life’s memories, of all the art I’ve ever seen, this moment is true. I know because I leave the darkened room with tears in my eyes and cross the threshold,awakened to the world outside seeming brighter. Where there is art like this, there is awareness and hope. 

Bringing Silent Film Home

New Silent Film restorations Little Annie Rooney (1925) and Fanchon the Cricket (1915) produced by the Mary Pickford Foundation and released by Flicker Alley.

Mary Pickford in Little Annie Rooney, DVD Image courtesy of Flicker Alley.

‘No role she can play on the screen is as great as the role she plays in the motion picture industry. Mary Pickford the actress is completely overshadowed by Mary Pickford the individual.’

Herbert Howe in Photoplay, 1924.

When I look around at the brightest, most popular female stars in Hollywood today, I can think of no one you could repeat Howe’s phrase about- at least not yet, while we are in the process of reclaiming our inheritance. The more we discover about the early history of cinema, the more it seems that successive generations have been duped into believing that female roles, behind and in front of the camera, have always been secondary. Surprisingly, when the artform was still in its infancy there were many more prominent women working in the industry at all levels, including Lois Weber, Ida May Park, Cleo Madison, Dorothy Arzner, Mabel Normand, Nell Shipman, Dorothy Davenport, Frances Marion and Mary Pickford. It shakes the contemporary view of linear progress to find examples of female stars like Pickford, with superior earning power to today, studio governance and creative control, writing, producing, acting and directing. As we grapple with the cumulative effects of gender disparity in the film industry- and the wider world, making the work of female pioneers of early cinema visible is an imperative.

Sadly, it is estimated that over 80% of all Silent Films are irretrievably lost. We can only see a mere fraction of what was created, an experience further reduced in quality by inferior online copies, which is why new restorations are so vitally important. Mary Pickford’s Silent screen career is inspirational, setting an example of what can be when women are able to shape their professions from the ground up. As a co-founder of United Artist studios with D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, Pickford ‘the individual’ was blazing a trail in the motion picture industry before the studio rule book as we know it was written. She forged a career with enviable creative control as a producer, a tide now finally turning in the world of Film and TV circa 2018.

New restorations of Pickford’s Fanchon the Cricket (1915) and Little Annie Rooney (1925) are very timely releases, not only in broadening our understanding of Pickford as an artist/producer, but as part of a wider reappraisal of women in film, integral in the history of World Cinema. These new deluxe, dual disc Blu-ray / DVD editions from the Mary Pickford Foundation, released by Flicker Alley, are ‘the first of a planned series of her films’ and what a delight it is to see them!  The care taken in both restorations has delivered clarity of vision, crisp tonal definition, exquisite colour tinting and a seamless flow of storytelling. Sensitively accompanied by new scores, there’s a fresh, exuberant spirit in how these films are presented, perfectly in keeping with the intelligence, empathy and wit we see in Pickford on screen. Big screen cinema/ live musical accompaniment experience aside, you won’t find a better introduction to Pickford’s work for contemporary audiences.

Annie Rooney and her gang. Image courtesy of Flicker Alley.

The restoration journey is a fascinating and painstaking process. The starting point for Little Annie Rooney was ‘the original tinted nitrate print from Pickford’s personal collection at the Library of Congress, preserved photochemically by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive (AMPAS). A new 35mm preservation master was scanned at 4K high definition’ to create a digital version, ‘evaluating the film frame by frame, removing dirt and other signs of deterioration to perfectly match the original nitrate tints and tones.’ Composer Andy Gladbach was commissioned by the Mary Pickford Foundation to create a new, original soundtrack. A DVD bonus feature and article in the DVD booklet explores Gladbach’s considered approach to the score. Also included in the publication are rare, ‘behind the scenes’ photographs from Little Annie Rooney in production and essays by award winning historian, documentary filmmaker and author Cari Beauchamp, enhancing appreciation of Pickford’s work.

Gladbach’s orchestration includes a variety of sound, with piano, viola, cello, bass, drums, flute, piccolo, clarinet, bass clarinet, trombone and bass trombone. It’s a suitably brassy, rhythmically driven score, bringing Broadway, TV sit-com, Comic and Irish Folk melodic elements aptly into the mix for the film’s ‘downtown’ setting. There’s aural familiarity for a contemporary audience that’s an immediate bridge to the 1925 film, rather than set painting with period music. Our heroine is ‘bold’, spirited, and as she grows up during the course of the film, the music admirably follows her lead. Gladbach successfully builds momentum in alignment with the action, enhancing comedic moments and characterisation with emotive commentary from woodwind and brass. The overall effect is youthful, upbeat and thoroughly enjoyable.

I first saw Little Annie Rooney on the big screen at Glasgow Film Festival in February 2017 and loved it.  It was by far the best feel good film I’d seen in a long time, from any century, and Pickford’s performance was a revelation. I immediately understood why she was so respected, adored and meteorically famous in her own time. I was also convinced that if people had the opportunity to see her work more widely, then she would have a Renaissance, inspiring future generations of filmmakers, women and introducing people to the joys and innovation of Silent Film. In many ways Little Annie Rooney is the perfect family entertainment, with more depth, diversity and heart than the standard fare. In the words of the Geena Davis Institute ‘if she can see it, she can be it’ applies behind and in front of the camera. Pickford wrote, produced and starred, with William Beaudine directing, to great critical acclaim and commercial success. Amazingly Pickford was 33 when she played teenager Annabel (Annie) Rooney, but you’d never guess it from her inexhaustible energy on-screen. The warmth and humanity of a performance that ranges from exuberant childhood innocence to adult understanding of loss, allows the viewer to suspend any disbelief. At base, Annie is a winning character who Pickford inhabits completely, engineered in part to satisfy fans, but also extending beyond the brand of “America’s Sweetheart” or “the girl in curls.”

Pickford’s naturalism is her star quality. That every-person appeal is expanded in the central character, a daughter of Irish immigrants living in a poor neighbourhood. Annie is a strong willed, street fighting, mischievous tomboy with a fiery temper. She’s also a smart, kind and determined young woman, who rises to what the plot throws at her in the most entertaining, endearing and heartrending ways. She’s the spirited embodiment of rising above reduced circumstances, which would have struck a particular chord with audiences during the interwar period. Annie’s neighbourhood is an environment of rival gangs, poverty and crime, seen initially in child’s play battles, with every kid in the neighbourhood out pelting each other with projectiles. At one point we see Annie manoeuvring a pram from the inside like a tank, aptly accompanied by comedic, military style percussion. Although multiculturalism is seen through the lens of the day, it is unusually present at a time when on screen characters were predominantly white. In this context, Pickford’s “mini league of nations” of the playground/ inner city waste-ground, was refreshingly inclusive.

On the domestic front, the relationships between Annie and the masculine world around her are nuanced. Her policeman widower Dad (Walter James) and amiable elder brother Tim (Gordon Griffith) take care of her and she of them, with Annie taking on the role of the absent mother in the household. Their bonds are tender and good natured, with an all-pervasive sense of fairness that doesn’t spill over into saccharine.  Altruism and unconditional love are part of the family, a source of strength and tragedy as the story unfolds. Outside the home, gang rivalries divide the community and descend into violence, with Annie’s future partner Joe Kelly (William Haines) caught up in the crossfire. As a heroine, Annie/ Pickford convincingly carries the film. She’s goodness personified, but without being a one-dimensional, saintly goody two shoes- look at her the wrong way and she’ll still sock you in the jaw! Comedy, tragedy, love and sacrifice are all there, conveyed with Pickford’s natural warmth, humour and skill, qualities that never date.

Fanchon the Cricket (1915) DVD image courtesy of Flicker Alley.

Made 10 years earlier and directed by James Kirkwood, Fanchon the Cricket, sees Pickford starring as a waif and social outcast, alongside her sister Lottie and brother Jack. Based on the 1849 novel La Petite Fadette by George Sand, this ‘adult fairy-tale’ was largely filmed outdoors on location in Pennsylvania. Fanchon lives in the woods with her unloving grandmother, labelled a witch by the local villagers. Wild and unspoiled by society, she is a child of Nature who craves human company and affection. Edward Wynard’s cinematography captures the natural setting and Fanchon’s predicament with stunning visual clarity. At one point, Fanchon’s isolation is expressed tonally in the frame, bisected by darkness and light. We see a circle of dancing villagers held aloft in the distance, while Fanchon watches them in our foreground, separated by a diagonal barrier of foliage. That evasive sense of human contact, longed for, but just out of reach, is communicated entirely by Wynard’s composition. It’s Silent, pure visual storytelling at its illuminating best. Wynard’s cinematography reminded me of the beautiful early stills work of Steichen and Stieglitz, combining the disciplines of photography and painting.

The popularity of Pickford playing a child never waivered throughout her career and this recurrent figure of the child/ woman is an interesting one in connection with the idea of the waif. Chaplin’s ‘tramp’ persona stylised this trope, almost to the point of caricature, but Pickford’s portrayal of a ‘homeless, abandoned and neglected person’ is cast in a mythic guise of childhood, affording the individual freedoms that adult society would never allow.  Until love enters the picture, Cinderella style, Fanchon may be in rags, but she is also her natural, uninhibited self, which is an essential part of her appeal as a character. Although lonely and vulnerable, she’s certainly no damsel in distress. Fearless and resourceful, she dives in to save the hapless “hero” Landry (Jack Standing) on more than one occasion.

Fanchon the Cricket 1915 production still, courtesy of Flicker Alley.

The restoration of this film is a triumph of international collaboration between the Mary Pickford Foundation, Cinémathèque Française and the British Film Institute, who each held elements of the original film in their archives, L’Immagine Laboratory, Italy, responsible for the photochemical and digital restoration of the film and Roundabout Entertainment, Los Angeles, who completed the digital mastering. ‘Colours were recreated using the original tinting notes on the nitrate print and on the dupe negative loaders’ and ‘a new negative and 35mm prints were created from the restored digital version.’ The Mary Pickford Foundation paired Julian Ducatenzeiler and Andy Gladbach to create a new score. The orchestration, for acoustic and electric guitar, flutes, violin, viola, cello, grand piano, electric piano, banjo, mandolin, upright and electric bass, drum kit, auxiliary percussion and vocals, brings a variety of textures and sounds to the interpretation.  The human voice (without lyrics) is used to good effect to invoke memory, together with the ephemeral use of percussion, suspending time in remembrance. Although the range of instruments is broad and contemporary, especially in the use of guitar and electric piano, there is clarity and depth of feeling in restraint. We feel complex emotions like longing underpinning dramatic scenes in the selective use of solo/ lone character instrumentation. Piano, strings and lower woodwind take us deeper into Fanchon’s shifting emotional states. It’s a musical partnership that feels suitably tempered by the soul of the film, something which can often be missing on Silent DVD releases and in newly commissioned live accompaniments, when contemporary musicians simply perform over the film. Thankfully the ethos of ‘serving the film’ shines through in Ducatenzeiler and Gladbachs’ musical accompaniment.

Fanchon The Cricket is a wonderful example of how digital technology, communication and international expertise can be used to put film back together again in a project of global importance. Pickford herself believed that the film had been lost, so there is something very poignant about this release as a found object, drawn from different continents, the Old World and the New. I wish she could see it and her continuing legacy in this DVD release, which includes essays by Cari Beauchamp, placing Pickford’s remarkable work in historical, professional and thematic context. These new releases are a great introduction to a largely unknown era in Film, via DVD, Blu-ray and high definition live streaming.

The late Scottish composer and multi-instrumentalist Martyn Bennett once said that in order to be pioneers, we must first acknowledge that we are heirs. This is certainly true of women working in all artistic disciplines, consistently written out of history. As we rediscover their incredible achievements, perhaps we can gain confidence in possibility, building careers from the ground up in new ways, redefining expectations, reshaping industry and the wider world in the process. Mary Pickford’s talent, imagination and business acumen were a visible leading light in her time and in our own. Yes, this is entertainment, but in the current climate, Pickford’s heroic determination and humanity steps right off the screen into our living rooms. This is an exciting start to an entire process of restoration, reappraisal and Renaissance, for Mary Pickford and for women in film.

https://marypickford.org/

flickeralley.com

16th Inverness Film Festival

7-11 November, Eden Court Theatre and Cinemas

Namme, Directed by Zaza Khalvashi

In the 21st Century entertainment industry, “On Demand” is sold as a self-gratifying concept. We’re fed the idea of how powerful we are, handed a remote control to watch what we want, when we want, in the confines of our individual homes. Armed with devices we use daily to take endless shots of ourselves, we can even shape our own content. But ‘on demand’ can also mean the desire to see alternatives, driven from the ground up, joining a collective audience and driving change. In that respect, independent cinema has never had a more vital role to play in our world.

As IFF Director Paul MacDonald- Taylor suggested in his introduction to this year’s festival, ‘some of the greatest films come from countries that don’t have English as their primary language, we just have to be open to the idea of subtitles and an entire world will open up to us.’ This year’s IFF programme was the perfect antidote to the ‘divisive’ state of current affairs, a powerful, celebratory reminder of all the ways we share experiences through film. The Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky once said that ‘relating a person to the whole world… is the meaning of cinema’ and I felt that so strongly this year, more so than any other. Standing back and reviewing what I’ve watched over the last five days, my IFF18 highlights seem to reflect an urgent need for a sea change in how we relate to Nature, the world and each other. Whilst I was thrilled by Maurice Tourneur and Clarence Browns’ 1920 Silent Film The Last of the Mohicans, laughed along with Canadian teen comedy Don’t Talk to Irene, was incredibly impressed by Paul Dano’s directorial debut Wildlife, and completely dazzled seeing Powell and Pressburgers’ The Red Shoes on the big screen, new world cinema features Capernaum/ Capharnaüm, Namme, Foxtrot, Sunset /Napszállta and Sidney and Friends had the most significant impact on me. This year’s IFF Audience Award winner Capernaum would seem to indicate that I’m not alone in taking the cinematic road less travelled and appreciating the ride.

Capernaum / Capharnaüm Directed by Nadine Labaki

Lebanese Director Nadine Labaki’s third feature Capernaum / Capharnaüm (Chaos) is a film for our century and essential viewing. It’s without doubt one of the most powerful, heart-breaking and strangely life affirming films I’ve ever seen, a reflection of undocumented lives lived by millions around the world, channelled through the eyes of a young boy living on the streets of Beirut. The premise of the film works as a contemporary fable. Zain, a 12-year-old boy, is suing his parents for the crime of giving him life, raising him in an environment devoid of any basic human rights. Although this impossible legal action calls upon the viewer to suspend their disbelief, Capernaum is completely grounded in the life experience of non-professional actors, intensive research and Labaki’s intelligent direction. The result is an extraordinary blend of ‘documentary, fiction and poetry.’ What affected me most, though I didn’t realise it fully at the time, was all the subtle ways that the main characters’ performances draw on lived experience. At her Cannes press conference in May 2018, which I watched after the screening, Labaki stated that although there was a story and a script from the start, ultimately the film was led by the ‘characters’ being themselves. Labaki and her crew filmed improvised scenes with children and in documentary mode in detention centres, resulting in ‘500 hours of rushes’ and a ‘12 hour first cut’ of the film. The care and balance achieved in the final version will emotionally floor you, almost as much as Zain Al Raffea’s enduring presence in the lead role.

The displacement of “home” and everything that word means to human beings, as the place where we ought to feel safe, sheltered and loved, lies at the heart of Capernaum. This isn’t about what has been branded “the refugee crisis”, it’s a film about failure to thrive inside one’s own family and society, fuelled by extreme poverty, the failure of governments to act and the systematic reduction of human beings to commodities. The ethical and moral position of bringing children into the world is questioned throughout. There are many times when the understanding of complex emotions, injustice and abdication of responsibility by “adults” surfaces in this film, levels of chaos which children should never have to live through but do every day. The film moves beautifully between intimate closeup on individual lives and aerial footage, giving the viewer a sense of the sheer, overwhelming scale of human beings caged by circumstances they are unable to escape without intervention. ‘Undocumented’ persons take many forms, as we see with Zain and his siblings in the “care” of their parents and in the friendship between Zain and Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian migrant worker without papers. Zain’s interactions with Rahil’s baby Yonas reveals the stark difference between a loved child raised in poverty and one which has never been exposed to care, or even kindness, from his own parents. That scarred development at an early stage of life, with the child having to assume adult responsibility in an environment where they have no agency is devastating. As an unwanted child, Zain carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. There’s not just sadness in his eyes, but incalculable loss. Despite this, we see the character develop a bond with his adopted baby brother. We see a glimpse of the young man he might become, if only given an opportunity for stability. This telling maturity, of witnessing chaos that cannot be unseen, is palpable in Al Raffea’s performance, acknowledging his experience as a Syrian refugee in real life. Fortunately, he and his family have now resettled in Norway. Literally living her story on screen, his Eritrean co-star Yordanos Shiferaw was arrested during the shoot, while the child playing her baby son has since been deported. I knew nothing about the cast or how the film was made before watching it, but after finding out more, I understood why I had such an extreme emotional reaction. Since the screening, uncontrollable sobbing has given way to anger.

Admittedly this is a hard film to watch, but the final frame of Zane’s face having his picture taken for his identification papers brings something we haven’t seen him do before into the frame and it’s a still moment of hope. The freedom of having our basic needs met and human identity acknowledged is something that most of us take entirely for granted, not even as a right- but an assumption, coming from a position of privilege. If this sounds like an unrelentingly grim watch, I can assure you that there is enough humour and compassion to not give up on life! Hopefully in years to come, this film will be a marker and a reference, so that the heartbreak we feel for these characters and their predicament, translates into anger and appropriate action in the real world. There isn’t a country on earth not affected by the widening gap between rich and poor and the mass displacement of people, within families and across borders. A mere piece of paper admits or excludes you from a system that demands proof of existence. If we do not care for our own children, how can we continue to reproduce or assume any right to do so? It’s the question of our age. Socially, economically and environmentally, this human chaos is unsustainable. As Lebaki suggested in her Cannes press conference, ‘politics need art to perceive things differently. If art doesn’t change something, then it can open the debate as the first step. What’s missing is the will, the desire to change things- we’re not effective… we feel helpless and stick our heads in the sand.’ Laws and conventions exist on paper… so adults can sleep better at night’, meanwhile ‘children are born, live and die’ invisibly, with no one taking responsibility for their basic needs are met. The anger in this film comes from the children Labaki and her film crew worked with, asking ‘Why am I here?’ Collectively we need to answer the question.

Foxtrot, Directed by Samuel Maoz

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Venice Film Festival 2018, Samuel Maoz’s Isareli/ Swiss/ German/ French co-production Foxtrot is a startlingly beautiful film, dealing with a different kind of state-imposed trauma. When a young soldier is reported dead, his family are instructed in mourning by the military, providing the catalyst for a circular chain of events involving their son, stationed at a border outpost. An absurd dance of life that keeps returning to the same position, Foxtrot is a wonderfully surreal, sharply observed drama. Giora Bejach’s cinematography is stunning, utilising the human figure in relation to abstract patterns and architecture, often shot from above, to reflect psychological states. There is also a graphic novel dimension to the film, punctuated by drawings, lighting and composition as the story unfolds. Foxtrot is a brilliant film about inheritance of trauma, halted by an embrace. In the context of an oppressive regime that controls, orchestrates and makes unfortunate events disappear, ‘Everything you see, the mud, the roadblock, is all an illusion.’ It’s a landscape of mind and an examination of the national psyche that feels ground-breaking and incredibly humane.

Sidney and Friends, Directed by Tristan Aitchison

Humanity leads creative process in Black Isle based filmmaker Tristan Aitchison’s award-winning feature documentary Sidney and Friends. Like Nadine Lebaki’s Capernaum, this is a vital film shaped by voices we don’t usually get to hear, examining identity, prejudice, ignorance and self-worth. Focussing on the lives of trans and intersex people in Kenya, it exposes the hateful, annihilating treatment they face within their own families and society. However, the resilience and strength of individuals makes this an inspiring and hopeful film to watch. The level of trust involved in making such a documentary is huge and I’m so glad to have seen this film. It really opened my eyes to the experiences of trans and intersex people, not just in Africa, but the rest of the world. As the film travels the festival circuit and beyond, I hope that many more people will see it, regardless of their identification, and have their perceptions altered as a result. It’s easy for injustice to remain invisible when those most affected by it are systematically pushed to the margins of society. Cinema is an essential bridge in that respect, a window into the lives and experiences of people all over the world who we would not ordinarily meet. Ultimately what shines through this film is how friendship and love can transform horrific experiences- it’s written all over Sidney’s face in finding acceptance, love and creating his own family. Dealing with a taboo subject and shooting guerrilla with no budget, Aitchison’s committed persistence in bringing this film to fruition is an outstanding achievement. It’s a truly international production that came about because the filmmaker saw something he couldn’t turn his back on. Because some interviewees chose to remain anonymous in fear for their lives, black screen and the voiceovers of actors are used for some of the testimonials. Like the still black and white portrait photography that punctuates the film, there’s a strong sense of the essential relationship between the director/ photographer based on congruence, dignity and respect. The style of visual communication remains open, giving deeper insights into the interviewee’s lives. Although forged by necessity, the blank black screen succeeds as a contemplative, non-judgemental space where the viewer can actively listen to these voices, make their own connections and come to terms with what they’re hearing. There is another level of empathy too, in watching the film as part of an audience. There is a greater sense of witnessing something terrible and equally transformative, gaining understanding which we carry with us into the world outside the cinema, our daily lives and interactions.

Reel to Rattling Reel: Stories and Poems about Memories of Cinema Going. Edited by Sarah Neely and Nalini Paul. (Cranachan Press) Launched at Inverness Film Festival.

There was so much to see at this year’s festival across multiple strands, including New World Cinema, Altered States, Documentary,  World War I on Screen, Highlands and Islands Film Guild, It Came to a Cinema Near You,  a centenary tribute to Margaret Tait including the world premiere of her restored feature Blue Black Permanent, Short Cuts, Cladach and the Films of Margaret Salmon, Demystifying Screen Dance, Cashback for Creativity featuring films made by young people in the Highlands and Moray, Young Critics Seminar and Young Programmers. It’s great to see the Young Programmers group develop at Eden Court with each successive festival. Their choices for IFF18 included ‘Scottish High School zombie Christmas musical’ Anna and the Apocalypse and Canadian comedy/drama Don’t Talk to Irene. Directed by Pat Mills, starring Michelle McLeod, Anastasia Phillips and Geena Davis as herself/ God, this is a smart, funny and thoroughly entertaining film about not having to fit in and defying expectations.

Don’t Talk to Irene, Directed by Pat Mills.

The It Came to a Cinema Near You strand, programmed by Film Historian Lawrence Sutcliffe, included a sell-out talk on ‘the three cinemas that once called Academy St, Inverness, home: The Empire (originally the Central Hall Picture House), Kelso’s La Scala, and The Playhouse,’ together with a selection of films that were screened there in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. There is nothing like watching historical films on a big screen as intended, and the selection of The Red Shoes (1948), Bonjour Tristesse (1957) and Hammer Horror The Devil Rides Out (1968) gave an intriguing glimpse into what local audiences were watching. I’d only ever seen Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes on television before and it was spectacular to see it projected in all its visual glory. I felt strangely connected to audiences who saw the film for the first time on its release in 1948, that sense of wonderment and possibility, fuelled by imagination. Mainstream commercial cinema boxes genres, but this film splices them together in unforgettable ways, combining different disciplines to push the boundaries of film. Based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, The Red Shoes is a dazzling merger of dance, theatre, cinema and dreams. Moira Shearer stars as ballerina Vicky Page, torn between her essential need to dance, the demands of her mentor/ director Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) for her to be the greatest dancer and her love for a young composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring). It’s a film about the cost of a creative life, reaching the professional/ artistic top of your game and what is sacrificed in the process. I think what appeals to so many artists watching this film is the pure truth of fiction, the imaginative state communicated in the dance and on film.  Although a tragic story, filmed in the aftermath of WWII, there is so much innovative magic in The Red Shoes, it is easy to see why generations of directors including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Damien Chazelle have been so influenced by it. The haunting, dreamlike clarity of Powell and Pressburgers’ vision, captured by cinematographer Jack Cardiff, (A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The African Queen) is completely captivating. This interplay of colour, light, shadow and reflection, dissolving slow motion, stage performance and live action montage is unique in cinema. That departure from traditional realism, creating a new language in the process, will never cease to be revolutionary.

The Red Shoes, Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

A quiet revolution in progress would be one way of describing Zaza Khalvashi’s, Namme a stunningly beautiful elegy for the disappearing countryside. Whilst the location is culturally specific, the story is universal, addressing the dilemma faced by younger generations in rural areas the world over; whether to follow traditional ways of life, adapt or surrender to industrial scale progress. Namme unfolds in a magnificently understated, observational style with little dialogue, following the daily life and rituals in a Georgian village. We are introduced to Ali and his family, entrusted for generations with the task of looking after the local spring, which has healing properties. Ali’s sons have abandoned the mission, so his daughter Namme (Mariska Diasamidze) assists her father in maintaining the water supply and in the pastoral care of the whole village. Namme is part of an unbroken line, keeping the well torch burning through the night, distributing the precious water, visiting and healing the sick. The water itself is an agent, not of the supernatural but of Nature and belief. Natural sound and images, composed with pure artistry by cinematographer Giorgi Shvelidze, are themselves like a cleansing, clarifying and meditative balm. Human activity and the individual figure are seen in relation to the surrounding mountains, water, mist and sky, framing our understanding of place and our collective human predicament.

Diametrically opposed but also seen in gentler parallel, a view of the valley cut in half by industrial development on one side, agricultural grazing and forest on the other, sums up the tone of the film, which is show don’t tell. Nearby a hydro power station is being built and things start to change, white toxins enter the stream, fish begin to get sick and the ancient water supply starts to dry up.The central female character is significant in finding her way through this changing landscape, in taking responsibility and symbolic action. On the cusp of sacrificing her own happiness for the good of the village, Namme is faced with the depths of her calling, the sacrifice of inherited tradition and choosing to lead her own life with a man she loves. This is a compassionate and unforgettable film, filled with breath taking images. It’s a vision that equally applies to the Highlands and Islands, as much under cultural and environmental threat as this small Georgian village.

Sunset /Napszállta Directed by by László Nemes

If there was an award for the most intriguing film of the festival, then I’d have to nominate Sunset /Napszállta by László Nemes. His directorial debut Son of Saul (IFF 2015), brought the human horror of the Holocaust into sharp focus and won the 2015 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. His second feature Sunset /Napszállta is filmed in an equally compelling way, following the character at intimate distance, living each breathless second in closeup, while fate turns on a dime and the world around them crumbles. There’s a powerful sense in Nemes’ vision, of people swept up in events beyond their control, here in Budapest in the early 1910’s, with the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsing and the impending sunset for civilization, culminating in the trenches of WWI. The ambiguous central character in this tale, Iris Leiter, returns to the fashionable department store once owned by her deceased parents and begins to uncover her family’s scandalous past. I use the word ‘tale’ because the film reads very much like a fable. Iris (Juli Jakab) appears as an ethereal character, rather than a literal one, her movement through the world, discovering her history, feels like a vehicle for examining human agency in the wider context of history. The intensity of moving through this swirling social milieu, which encompasses place, time and declining century, is enhanced by superb cinematography and exemplary sound design. I can only describe the sense of immersion like a visceral sound cloud, where the exclusion of whispers, anxiousness and panic escalate in response accelerating threat. Life’s breath and guttural sounds are sharply contrasted with the entire corseted world of propriety. I could spend an entire article unpacking this film, there are so many potential layers of interpretation. You just have to surrender to the labyrinthine nature and rhythm of this film, entering a suspended reality, bordering on a traumatic state between life and death. This obsessive, cathartic processing of collective memory is what Sunset and Son of Saul are essentially about in terms of creative process. The female central protagonist is such an interesting figure, intensely vulnerable in a male dominated environment, strangely distant from the action and yet wilfully stepping into situations that might change the outcome for individuals Iris is like an angel testing the character and resolve of those around her. She courts danger to gain understanding, side stepping the violence around her, dons her brother’s clothes and moves through a chaotic world, somehow surviving unscathed. It’s a film you are drawn into, as Iris’s backstory and the underbelly of society is slowly revealed.  Like the exquisitely crafted hats Iris makes as part of her inheritance, this is a beautiful film, punctuated by violence and a seething undercurrent of corruption. Sunset is a film about unmasking facades ‘that horrors of the world hide behind’ and unlike most period dramas, you’ll still be thinking about this one long after the credits have rolled.

I love short film screenings and wish they could become a more integral part of regular feature screenings. Festival shorts selections are a great place for exposure to different stories, realities and for spotting emerging filmmakers. In Scotland there is a significant gap between short film production and transitioning to features, which hopefully the proposed building of production facilities outside Edinburgh will help address. This year’s selection featured over 40 short films and I attended three curated screenings, including the Margaret Tait 100 centenary presentation Margaret Tait: Film Poet, a selection of her short films introduced by Peter Todd. Amongst my IFF18 Short Film highlights were Tait’s Aerial (1974), which for me best exemplifies her poetic approach to the medium,  Alex Harron’s The Racer (13 min), John McFarlane’s Tony and the Bull (16 mins), Danny Cook’s The King and I (30 mins) Eva Riley’s Diagnosis (17 mins), Isa Rao’s Crannog (15 mins), Simon P Biggs’ animated short Widdershins (11mins) and Niamh McKeown’s Good Girls (10 mins).

Margaret Tate: Film Poet, Selected short films.

Alex Harron’s 13min film The Racer was part of the Scottish Documentary Institute’s ‘Bridging the Gap’ selection from Filmmakers based in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The relationship between Fife based motorcycle racer Jodie Chalk and her Dad Garfield is inspirational, based on unconditional love and support that transcends the race track. Breaking down barriers in what is predominantly a male sport, Chalk’s talent and unwavering commitment deserves sponsorship and I hope that this film will raise the profile for equality and future investment. Isa Rao’s Crannog (15 mins) which explores the idea of sanctuary, kindness and dignity in death drew some interesting post screening responses from the audience. The film centres on a young woman, with her own terminal diagnosis, providing end of life care for rescued animals, based on the belief that regardless of the species,’ no one should die alone.’ I couldn’t help but feel that the central relationship between species was a projection of her own situation, raising interesting moral and ethical questions. John McFarlane’s Tony and the Bull (16 mins) was an absolute crowd pleaser, a portrait of ex-butcher Tony, who lives in a dilapidated farm house with Scrunch, a Highland bull he hand-raised from a calf. The need to care for something, or someone, and have a stable place to call home is highlighted by a film where the well-being of man and bull are completely dependent on each other. Funny and tender, Tony and the Bull refreshingly strips life back to essential relationships, what we need to overcome difficulty and gain contentment.

Danny Cook’s 30 min gallery work The King and I was an interesting inclusion in the IFF Shorts programme. As a form of portraiture using split widescreen, the viewer enters the world of Edinburgh resident Graham Croan Bee. Unlike many of the SDI films heavy on telling documentary through dialogue and voiceover, this is artist film meets documentary, with the storytelling evenly split between dialogue and visuals. The film successfully evokes a state with ‘no distinction between the imaginary and the real.’ Cook creates a sense of metaphorical twilight amongst the memories, dust and aging flowers. Dialogue between Graham and his friend Juliet defies the notion that ‘there’s no worse pain than an empty life’, with footage of still life objects in his home providing some of Graham’s imagined backstory in the mind of the viewer. Just as there is kindness and dignity in the subject, there’s equal empathy in the filming, visually raising a toast in the final sequence, when live footage of Graham and Juliet is spliced with a banquet scene from King and I.

What a year 2018 has been on so many levels. It’s wonderful to see filmmakers local, national and international, so engaged not just with their craft, but with the wider world. The quality of films and of range voices heard at IFF18 have been truly amazing, enlightening and humbling. This year’s audience award makes me hopeful too, that there is an appetite for ‘on demand’ in a way we haven’t seen before. This world of expanded awareness, hope and possibility we’ve watched together in the dark, flowing back into the world outside.

Inverness Film Festival Website: http://2018.invernessfilmfestival.com/welcome/

Klimt / Schiele

Drawings from the Albertina Museum, Vienna
Royal Academy of Arts, London
4 November 2018 – 3 February 2019

Egon Schiele, Seated Female Nude, Elbows Resting on Right Knee, 1914
Graphite, gouache on Japan paper, 48 x 32 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit. / To the age its art, to art its freedom. (i)

The day before the Klimt / Schiele preview, I saw a London Underground billboard advertising the exhibition. Three naked figures with a banner collectively preserving modesty declared this work too shocking for public display, even in 2018. Potential offence and outrage are ever present in contemporary life, lived mostly online, with critical discussion and reflection harder to find. Coming face to face with humanity, warts and all, is a given with this exhibition and it would be a shame to expect anything less. Unmasking the nature of provocation and social propriety is unavoidable when following the drawn line of both artists. Although the official PR images don’t come close to representing it, the viewer is consistently arrested, having to psychologically, morally and ethically grapple with where they stand, often in relation to taboo subjects.

As the first exhibition in the UK to focus on the drawing practice of both artists, Klimt / Schiele presents a rare opportunity to see over 100 delicate works on paper from the Albertina Museum, Vienna. Among these are some of the finest examples of life drawing I’ve ever had the privilege to see, sublime, assured and intensely beautiful. Equally I loved this exhibition for the disquieting, uncomfortable questions it raised and for the timeless radicalism of both artists which positively sings, howls and scratches its way off the walls. The drawings are on an intimate scale and arranged thematically to highlight each artist’s creative process, explore relationships between them and engage with the confrontational nature of their work in juxtaposition. Together with this insightful visual survey, the centenary of the deaths of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918) provide a timely focus for questions about art and censorship in our own time.

Gustav Klimt, Standing Pair of Lovers, 1907-08
Graphite, red pencil, gold paint on Japan paper, 29.6 x 28.2 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna. The Batliner Collection
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

Having been reproduced in golden decorative splendour on posters, t-shirts and greetings cards the world over, Klimt’s radicalism, his essential rejection of the academic art establishment, has almost been gift shopped out of public consciousness. However, this decorative, chocolate box status is effectively stripped away by the pioneering vision of his line, which resonated with Schiele the moment he saw the older artist’s work. Outside the German speaking world, the cultural gravity of the gesamtkunstwerk as a lived idea is often lost or misunderstood. This, together with the 21st century assumption of unrelenting human progress makes it is easy to perceive Klimt as an artist of gilded aesthetics, rather than an innovator or iconoclast. The much-celebrated ‘Golden Age’ of his work, including highly romanticised images like The Kiss, paint an insubstantial picture of the artist. Society portraits that enshrine the sitter in fashionably liberated attire, steeped in colour, symbolic pattern and ancient mythology have become merely decorative to contemporary eyes. What’s gratifying about this exhibition is returning to the bones of Klimt’s art, to drawings which are the basis of his understanding and first response to the world around him. The human figure is central to that vision, and how he renders it paves the way for large scale paintings and the work of artists like Schiele.

Klimt’s state commission of three 4.5 x 3m faculty paintings Medicine, Philosophy and Jurisprudence for the University of Vienna caused a public scandal. The preparatory drawings for Medicine, including Klimt’s Sketch for Medicine, squared for transfer (c. 1900, black chalk and pencil on paper) and Three Studies for the Oil Sketch of Medicine (Black chalk on packing paper, 1897-98) reveal his immediate concern with the drawn line as a potent flow of energy. Sculpted with line and animated shading, three female studies drawn from below, floating above the viewer with their arms outstretched, are an invitation to the entire dance of life. They are a dynamic invocation of where we are led in Klimt’s paintings, an engagement with humanity that encompasses the human cycle of procreation, birth and inevitable decay. It is a departure from the idealised perfection and austerity of 19th Century academic Neo-Classical painting. Looking at these studies there is a complete sense of abandonment and a vital, emergent rhythm that steps across all boundaries of time. In Klimt’s Sketch for Medicine, the human body is seen unflatteringly variable in form, aging and vulnerable. This expression of humanity has undeniable impetus in an era of Darwin, Freud and in the context of turn of the century Vienna, once described as ‘the research lab at the end of the world.’ Age old certainties and regimes were crumbling, giving way to modernity and the horrors of mechanised warfare. In Medicine Klimt presents the viewer with over 40 entwined figures bound by instinct to eternal cycles of growth and decay, rather than the elevation and respectability of a noble profession. At the apex of the column, the skeleton/ Death will eventually claim us all, despite the goddess of cleanliness, hygiene and healing, Hygieia at the base of the image, like a caryatid holding up the vertical procession of figures above her. Advances in science and social conventions may define our lives and try to keep us ‘safe’, however from cradle to grave natural drives, creative and destructive, are constantly shaping our trajectory. There’s a feeling of free fall in Klimt’s three female studies for Medicine that to me, sum up the context of Klimt’s time and our own. The earth beneath our feet is no longer stable.

Egon Schiele, Cellist, 1910
Black chalk, watercolour on packing paper, 44.7 x 31.2 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

There are many astonishing works in the Klimt/ Schiele exhibition that confront the viewer on multiple levels. The sheer skill of draughtsmanship and investment in the human mark is impressive throughout. These aren’t just bodies but souls on display, a quality which will probably cause some discomfort to 21st Century eyes accustomed to the clinical separation of the two. It is stunning in every sense of that word, to be confronted with work that floors you with its unapologetic rawness. As a life drawing student, recognition between sitter and artist is paramount and I was ever conscious, especially in Schiele’s work, of the complex nature of one human being beholding and documenting the living presence of another. Schiele’s Black-Haired Nude Girl (1910, Pencil and watercolour with protein-based binder and white gouache heightening on packing paper) elicited particularly strong responses. I watched people giving this piece a wide berth, mentally and physically distancing themselves from the image of a young girl meeting the gaze of the artist/ viewer. Even the catalogue reproduction triggered shocked, sharp intakes of breath. The girl’s trade is very clearly defined in black stockings, with her lips, nipples and labia accented in red. As an image of child prostitution, it is (and should be) a disturbing sight. On the streets of Vienna circa 1910, where the age of consent was 14, it would not have been uncommon for underage girls to be working due to grinding poverty, partially sanctioned by what we would now consider to be an immoral law. Over 100 years later, in an age defined by mass displacement and global human trafficking, gross economic inequality still rules. Although the depiction of the subject may be hard to look at and/or deeply upsetting, the Schiele’s image deserves closer scrutiny. Not simply because it still has the power to shock, but because the gaze of the human subject demands it.

What struck me most about this drawing wasn’t the red-light triangle labelling of the body, but the embodiment of ‘Death and the Maiden’ in this adolescent female figure. Her body is thin, angular and death grey-pale with blackened fingertips, hands drawn up beside her face, eyes which regard and consider the artist/viewer across the ages. It is a powerful portrait of an unknown girl right on the edge of burgeoning sexuality, arguably the most excruciatingly difficult of all stages of life. I had to confront and question my initial disgust, because whatever circumstances led her into this pose, there is dignity in her gaze, captured by the artist. On a human level, the projection of judgement is problematic and in any case that is not what Schiele’s treatment of the figure conveys. I don’t see this image as one of seduction or desire. Both ideas as projections of a male gaze are negated by the presence of the girl herself; naked, vulnerable and eternally questioning. She stands like a column, anchoring herself in a world of brutality, poverty and decay, with a halo of thin white gouache around her. It’s an image that is impossible to make peace with or to feel comfortable in front of, but that, I would argue, is precisely the point. I am certain that many people would regard this image as obscene and simply turn away in order to distance themselves from it. However, whether it is pornographic i.e. explicitly created for sexual arousal/ gratification by the artist is debateable. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this drawing is that Schiele doesn’t just paint the body and face of this girl, he captures something else, her uniquely perceptive expression. I agree that the idea of maturity in this image is highly contentious, complex and bound to historical perception of Schiele as a male artist. However, that this girl’s gaze is still present, questioning the viewer with mistrust, is significant and I am glad that anyone visiting the exhibition will see and bear witness to the fact that she existed. One doesn’t detect the same empathy in front of a Balthus painting or one of Hans Bellmer’s dolls, where there is absolutely no self-possession afforded to female subjects, wholly objectified by the artist. Schiele’s work may be ambiguous, but many of his images of women and girls grasp the human beings before him in ways that other male artists, historic or contemporary, could not. Schiele’s drawings Embrace (1915, Black crayon on Japan paper) and Group of Three Girls (1911, pencil, watercolour and gouache with white gouache heightening on packing paper) are good examples.

Egon Schiele
Group of Three Girls, 1911
Graphite, watercolour, white and coloured gouaches on brown packing paper, 44.7 x 30.8 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

It’s fascinating to see Schiele’s naked self-portraits subject to the same line of enquiry as his sitters, with terse dry brush marks and tensely drawn ribs, squatting, arms outstretched and excruciatingly truncated. Collectively they are interrogative rather than celebratory, not just kicking over the white marble pedestal but smashing it. Self-proclaimed artistic genius gives way to everyman/woman, subject to the same raw anxieties about one’s place in the world. The positioning of the figure in Schiele’s compositions has always fascinated me. The lone human being is consistently pitted against the negative space engulfing them, not just as a pictorial element but as an existential crisis. I get the same feeling from Klimt’s Lady with Cape and Hat (1897-98, Black and red chalk on paper) an innocuously titled drawing that engulfs the lone protagonist in finely spun darkness.

Gustav Klimt, Standing Female Nude (Study for The Three Gorgons; Beethoven Frieze), 1901
Black chalk on brown packing paper, 44.5 x 31.9 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

The figure of the femme fatale, embodied by the sinuous curves of Kilmt’s Beethoven Frieze Gorgon studies (1901, Black chalk on packing paper) is given more considered depth in Schiele’s work. Female Nude (1910, Pencil, black crayon, watercolour and gouache with white gouache heightening on packing paper) is a fine example. The female figure, crowned with deep crimson hair and narrowed eyes meets the gaze of the artist/ client/viewer, back arched, belly, breasts, vulva and the top of her blood-black stockings all unashamedly visible. There’s a feeling of the male artist being sized up by the model’s fixed gaze, rather than being submissive to any kind of ‘master’. It is an intensely powerful portrait, more a measure of a person than a life study. She’s not just draped and arranged, but pointedly takes charge of the composition. Even the focus on the torso doesn’t diminish her mindfully present, penetrating gaze. The same Female Nude, Seen from Behind (1910, Black crayon and watercolour with white gouache heightening on packing paper) is elongated and angular, we can feel the spine and hip bones protruding, surrounded by an aura of living energy. The heightening use of white gouache charges the human figure with a kind of electricity against the plain beige ground of packing paper. This everyday rough texture permeates the entire drawing. Schiele’s models were family, friends, prostitutes and street children, there is nothing glamourous or idealised about them. As an artist he appears to meet his sitters halfway as equals, regardless of age, gender or sexual orientation.

Sexuality in the work of Schiele is very permissive and surprisingly liberated in its antiquity. Unlike Rodin’s erotic drawings, simply powered by male voyeurism, Schiele’s drawings present a more expansive, self-determined view of female sexuality and present a variety of human embraces, between men, between women and between sexes. Curatorially the exhibition takes the idea of Klimt’s Embracing Couple (Study for ‘This kiss for the Entire World’, ‘Beethoven Frieze’) (1901, Blackchalk on packing paper) and expands it in a sequence of drawings in the final room. The erotic focus becomes more fluid than masculine dominance and is critically punctuated by an adjacent drawing, Man and Woman (1917, Pencil and black crayon on Japan paper). This is a work and a kind of fractured, disintegrating mark I hadn’t seen in Schiele’s work before. It struck me as an admission of inequality, starkly violent and ever present in the world. At the base of the drawing a woman lies with her back to us, clothing drawn up while the male figure kneels over her, his face and hands a series of broken, incomplete marks. The drawn detail centres on his hairy, bestial hips, legs and feet and her static head and hair, topped and tailed together, almost as a bookended comment on the male/ female relationship. She is remarkably still, drawn complete by comparison, while he goes about his business, blindly fuelled by instinct. His raised arms ambiguously flail-is he about to embrace her or exert further control by pinning her neck and head? Whilst physical male dominance is present, so is confusion on the part of the male protagonist, communicated by faceless, broken lines. It’s an extremely interesting image of power and pity, because strangely that’s how I felt towards the male figure, despite the position of the woman beneath him. ‘What is the artist’s/ viewer’s position in all of this?’ is the uncomfortable question that must be faced when confronted by this drawing, doubly so in a room of ‘Erotic’ themed work. Provocation, propriety and politics are at the heart of this valuable and very timely encounter.

There were many other aspects of both artist’s practices to be considered and I took three turns around the exhibition, revisiting connections and themes, as well as just pausing to drink in the confident line of human form held in negative space. I found insistence on life in the architectural façade of Schiele’s Old Gabled Houses in Krumau (1917, black crayon on Japan paper) and in the human presence in absence of Organic Movement of Chair and Pitcher, 21 April 1912 (Pencil and watercolour on primed Japan paper), created during the artist’s incarceration. Klimt / Schiele is an exhibition which makes the viewer grapple with where they stand in an age of uncertainty, reminding us that the relative freedoms of our age are exactly that.

In 2017, the inscription above the Vienna Succession building threshold, ‘To every time its art. To art its freedom’, was adopted by the Austrian far right nationalist government as part of their cultural policy, an ideological alignment rejected by the Association of Visual Artists Vienna Succession. Seeing the Klimt / Schiele exhibition reminded me of a statement ‘of relevance and quality’ issued by the association on 20 December 2017 in response to the government’s misappropriation of the Successionist motto:
‘Freedom of the arts is necessarily premised on internationality, pluralism, and dialogue. The notion that art’s purpose is to buttress a national collective identity presses it into a service that runs counter to its thematic diversity. We are persuaded that it is only in the horizon of this freedom that art can attain relevance and quality.

The freedom our motto demands extends far beyond the individual creative articulation: the exchange of ideas in a larger, pluralistic, international context is what endows the individual voices with cultural significance. That is why culture cannot be reduced to art objects or musical compositions. Nor can it be assessed on the quantitative scales of visitor figures, market values, or the circulation of works. An open society is the air that art needs to breathe. When a government does not champion a free society, its promise to respect the freedom of the arts is no more than a rhetorical exercise.’ (ii)

At the heart of the Klimt/ Schiele exhibition is the embrace of artistic freedom, ‘pluralism and dialogue’ which begins with both artist’s drawings, extends through the thematic hang of the show and in the collaboration between the Royal Academy and the Albertina Museum in a pre-Brexit landscape. When I look at free movement of the human body in Klimt and Schiele’s remarkable drawings, I’m inspired by what lives in those lines, the questions they raise and the fact that I can look at them in a relatively ‘free society’, despite any discomfort they may cause me. Although aged 100 years, this is the art of our time and it needs to be examined

https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/klimt-schiele 

[1] Inscription above the door of the Vienna Succession exhibition hall, Friedrichstraße 12, 1010 Vienna, Austria.

[2]Art News ‘ Austria’s Far Right Adopts the Motto of Vienna’s Artistic Avante-Garde- and They’re Not All Pleased’ by Hili Perlson, December 22, 2017.  https://news.artnet.com/art-world/vienna-museum-takes-a-stand-as-austrias-new-right-wing-government-quotes-its-motto-1187462

Revisionism and the Art of Decay

“Poetry fettered fetters the human race. Nations are destroyed or flourish in proportion as their poetry, painting and music are destroyed or flourish” William Blake

Detail J.M. Waterhouse Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) Manchester Art Gallery.

In July I attended the opening of the Emil Nolde- Colour is Life exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the subject of a previous post. It’s an exhibition that has remained in my mind ever since, for the issues it raised as much as the art. When the show first opened in Dublin, The Independent ran with the headline; “Can you enjoy great art created by a Nazi? New Emile Nolde exhibition explores this dilemma.” William Cook’s article suggested that; “the big question for our times is whether you can condemn someone’s sexual conduct, and still enjoy their art. In the case of painter Emil Nolde, can we delight in his work even though he was an enthusiastic supporter of Adolf Hitler?” This question has been compounded by reports of wider historical revisionism in the press throughout 2018. Some based on well-meaning curatorial or civic actions, all begging further investigation.

The renaming of a 1929 Emily Carr painting by the Art Gallery of Ontario, the removal of a 19th Century nude painting by J.M. Waterhouse at the Manchester Art Gallery, the recent controversy of boycotted music by Richard Wagner aired on Israeli radio and the removal of an “Early Days” racist colonial statue in San Francisco are all potent examples, worthy of their own article.  Each one is an act of historical revisionism that raises essential questions about who owns culture. Who has the right to alter or remove historical documents, artefacts or art objects from public view and under what circumstances, if at all? In my profession all art is political, whether consciously nailing its colours to the mast or not. The expression of ideas can certainly be dangerous, depending on the ideological intent of the maker and the lens of hindsight / historical context we use to examine it. However, reading a book, seeing a play, film, art exhibition or listening to music doesn’t mean you agree with the content or the opinions of the artist(s) who created it. You have free will (as long as you live in a place that hasn’t banned the means of expression) to make up your own mind. At what point did we need to be protected from that process and for whose benefit?

Cover of the exhibition programme from the Degenerate Art Exhibition. Germany 1937. Wikipedia Commons.

In 1937 Hitler staged an exhibition of Modern Art to “educate” the public on the “art of decay.” Masquerading as a righteous, moral crusade in the national interest, it was a visual statement of “otherness”, establishing that freedom of expression would not be tolerated by the ruling party. Artists were cast as “degenerate” in this political theatre, banned, exiled, imprisoned and killed. The removal and destruction of “impure” art from museums and Nazi book burnings are examples of the threat posed by independent, creative thinking to the art of control. Dictators understand the power of culture as a mirror of identity, an instrument of mass manipulation and conformity. It’s a fine line in any crusade between judging what is morally right and wrong and imposition of will at the expense of other human beings.  Depending on what uniform is being worn at any point in human history, judgement and revision of what is morally and socially acceptable can result in progressive freedom and equality or persecution and genocide. The history of art makes these human triumphs and horrors visible in high definition. Arguably the study and preservation of these objects helps us not to forget who we were, are and could be, for good or ill. Whether we like what we see is a different question.

Adolf Hitler and Adolf Ziegler inspect the installation by Willrich and Hansen of the Degenerate art Show, 1937. The wall behind them calls attention to the works of the Dada artists with depreciatory comments. Photographer not known (“anonymous”). Retrieved from Northwestern University, Illinois, 31 December 2007.Wikipedia Commons.

The implications of branding art as dangerous, offensive or immoral are complex, far reaching and in the current reactionary climate, deeply troubling. Simply expressing outrage, assigning blame and obliterating the perceived cause without wider self-reflection and ethical debate is irresponsible. Social media gives people the ability to celebrate and condemn instantly and without responsibility, a power to brand which on its own does nothing to prevent history repeating itself. Hitler was fuelled by outrage, blame and the desire to obliterate in the name of making Germany great again, installing himself as the ultimate author of truth. State sanctioned persecution deemed morally and socially acceptable by the Third Reich is derided today in the minds of the majority of people. However, we should never forget what Hannah Arendt described as the “banality of evil”. Branding something or someone as evil, as part of a morally black or white worldview, is a psychological trick of language, effectively containing that evil beyond ourselves. It might make us feel better and morally superior temporarily, but that labelling of otherness also enables abdication of responsibility. Calling evil out isn’t enough, because it is always closer to home than we want to believe or admit.

On one level, the post-Weinstein pariah effect, reappraising and potentially banning work by artists accused of sexual abuse feels like democratic justice gone viral. Like a boil being lanced, there’s relief at the outpouring of pain and exposure of toxic masculinity, both long overdue. Whether legal prosecution and punishment follows from the Whitehouse to Hollywood and beyond remains to be seen. Whilst the public expulsion of bad men from positions of power, authority and celebrity sends a message of zero tolerance, it falls short in addressing everyday lived experience. The #MeToo tsunami is profoundly positive on many levels, however the gap between being heard on social media and behavioural change in the real world requires further closure, moving towards greater human equality. The underlying nature of humanity and the use, or abuse, of power is what is demanding a re-trial here and now.

Art can and should confront us with uncomfortable truths about human behaviour and is equally the way we imagine alternative realities, out-create destruction and actively shape a brighter future. Though threatened with removal from the curriculum at every turn, Art History and the Humanities have never been more relevant or necessary to human survival. When I saw the Nolde show it made me deeply uncomfortable. Even in the positive light of many of his paintings, I stood there grappling with my moral and ethical compass. Rather than magnetically finding North, the arrow constantly quivered between the artist/human being, the work and the self-righteous comfort of historical hindsight. I accept that uneasy and sometimes disturbing process because critically it’s part of my job. I’ve always believed that challenging the viewer is an essential function of art, individually and collectively. An object or body of work that makes you own up to who you are, what you value, support, and more importantly why, is always invaluable.

Today many commemorative sculptures exist around the world from an age of colonisation that are a source of profound pain and distress to indigenous people. As monuments erected by oppressors over the oppressed, they represent enslavement, abuse and institutionalised racism. There have been numerous calls for such public sculptures to be torn down. Seeing a press image of the “Early Days” statue in San Francisco, the call for removal is understandable. The depiction of an indigenous ancestor positioned at the feet of colonisers describes a power differential that is abhorrent on multiple levels. However, does banning, burning or hiding such objects from public view extinguish the offensive ideologies that made them and create a more just society? That depends entirely on the world view and intent of the removalists. Reinterpret a monument, place context around it, but never forget what happened where you stand. Erasing history and acknowledging it are very different trajectories in terms of healing and reconciliation, in the individual and collective psyche.

Statue of the Duke of Sutherland, Ben Bhraggie, Golspie. Photo by John Halsam 2008. Wikipedia Commons.

In the North of Scotland, a 19th Century statue of the Duke of Sutherland stands on top of Ben Bhraggie surveying the town of Golspie below. Sutherland was a landowner responsible for clearances of local people for profit and the positioning of his monument speaks volumes. It is the kind of posturing still seen in the culture of vast Highland Estates as playgrounds for the elite and in the many phallic sculptural monuments to victory and conquest throughout the British Empire. The Sutherland monument immediately stands out against the surrounding landscape, declaring itself as unsympathetically alien. Visually and ideologically it hangs rather than glorifies itself which is why, as much as it offends me, I don’t think it should be torn down. The total removal of such a relic stops the conversation, not just in terms of the history of the area, but its contemporary relevance. Eradicating the possibility of pointing to the object, asking why it is there and who made it silences a necessary, ongoing debate. Future generations and visitors have a prompt to stop, remember and learn what happened here. In many ways the offensive statue is a rallying point, for examination of land ownership and management in Scotland. In recent times it has been ironically denoted, utilised as a flagpole during the campaign for Scottish independence. The meaning of an offensive object like this can be positively changed while remaining visible.

Fearless Girl  by Kirsten Visbal and Charging Bull by Arturo Di Modica. Wikipedia Commons.

Installed near Wall St, New York on the eve of International Women’s Day 2017, sculptor Kristen Visbal’s Fearless Girl is a good example of contemporary revisionism by proxy. This statue was positioned in relation to an existing work, Arturo Di Modica’s 11ft tall, 7100 pound Charging Bull. Di Modica wanted Visbal’s work removed, because it demonised his testosterone laden vision of positive market forces. The female child squaring up to a symbol of toxic masculinity, compounded by the financial crash and its global consequences, is a very interesting cultural face off. The sculptures are now entwined in the public imagination and a popular tourist attraction, with the proposal to move not just one but both to a different location in the financial district. The relationship between these works is contentious, but it is also an essential flashpoint in asking questions about who holds power in that location / market driven society and why. This kind of juxtaposition is perhaps what is needed in response to offensive monuments and artefacts in public places. We need to interrogate how these objects speak to us and the powers that erected them. That cannot be achieved by simply removing or destroying them, so that we can comfortably forget they existed.  Nor can it be achieved by simply renaming objects according to the political correctness of the day.

Indian Church / Church at Yuquot Village by Emily Carr 1929. Art Gallery of Ontario. Wikipedia Commons.

Earlier this year the Art Gallery of Ontario renamed a 1929 painting by Emily Carr from Indian Church to Church at Yuquot Village, part of a wider trend of reappraisal of colonial terminology in museum/ gallery collections around the world. I completely disagree with changing the name of a historical work named by the artist. Removing the title is merely another type of whitewash. I understand given the history of colonialism, residential schools in Canada and the negative, generic application of the word “Indian”, why it is considered hurtful and offensive. However, this language is part of the historical context Carr lived in and unfortunately the ideology that supported it isn’t dead and buried. I think it is infinitely more useful to face the title and start the conversation there. For someone coming to this painting unaware of its history calling it by the territorial place name may remove the offence, but it also removes the possibility of honest confrontation with the past. Cultural sensitivity works both ways- having read Carr’s writings and studied her work in detail I believe this work is an inappropriate target. I wrote about this painting in detail in an earlier blogpost in response to a show of Carr’s work in 2015 at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/category/emily-carr/  The presentation of that show, with indigenous art juxtaposed with Carr’s, together with examples of her writing/ thinking created context around the painting that an empty wall or patronising museum label could not.

Indian Church raises important questions of language and conflict, within the individual and society as a whole. I believe it is highly questionable to alter the artist’s language in this context. The title may be politically incorrect and offensive today, but it speaks volumes, so why silence that debate for future generations who need to understand the past in order to create equality in the future? When the Art Gallery of Ontario altered the painting’s title, an adjacent information panel was installed, describing the gallery’s reasons for changing the name. In this case the catalyst for debate should be the named work itself. The viewer should be given the opportunity to grapple with the offending word and its ramifications themselves, rather than having a curator sanitise it for them. Carr can and does speak for herself as an artist and her regard for indigenous people is rather more complicated than this simplistic historical revision suggests. In my mind the painting presents the stark white reality of Carr’s colonial upbringing against the deep green undulating life of the forest.  It isn’t the rigid 19th Century Christian missionary architecture/world view she embraced, but the spiritual core of what she called her “beloved West”. For Carr this spiritual connection was exemplified by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific North West coast, their intimate relationship with the land and cultural practices, honouring the divine in Nature. Although in many ways corseted by her time, she was above all else trying to understand rather than conquer the world around her. Applying a revised definition of language indiscriminately to her work shuts down discussion of its complexity which is a means of contemporary reconciliation. I’d argue that being “politically correct” in this case is entirely inappropriate. The work is actually bigger and more inclusive of human experience than the contemporary curator’s appraisal of it.

Hylas and the Nymphs by J. M. Waterhouse. 1896. Manchester Art Gallery. Wikipedia Commons.

Another interesting case emerged in February, when the Manchester Art Gallery removed J.M. Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) to “prompt conversation” sparking a public furore. Publicity stunt or not, this act of historical revisionism claimed to challenge female objectification and “Victorian fantasy”. It certainly generated discussion about gender equality, feminism, censorship, curatorial responsibility and the role of museums in a post #MeToo cultural landscape. As I wrote at the time;

‘I find censorship a thousand times more offensive and dangerous than a naked female body. It is how the female body has been depicted throughout history and the political, social and cultural implications of that display that should be the subject of debate. Removing artworks simply breeds ignorance. The basic principle of freedom of speech and expression is at stake. I may not agree with the viewpoint of the artist, but I would never advocate obliteration. Art History is a visual record of everything we are and are capable of as a species, the good the bad and the very ugly! That’s what makes it so valuable and instructive. May it always be visible for future generations to learn from.’

Then I saw something in the news coverage that disturbed me more than the removal of the painting. It was a comment by a teenage schoolgirl, saying that Hylas and the Nymphs made her feel ashamed. I was dismayed at this heartfelt statement. Was this historical image just another in an infinite line of images encircling her in the present? There was no awareness of context, either in her statement or in the rest of the press coverage I saw. The thematic Pre-Raphaelite “Pursuit of Beauty” in the gallery space or the underlying mythology of the painting was ignored over public outrage. Looking at Waterhouse’s image, my teenage self may also have felt shame in the way that beauty and desirability is defined in this work. However, this age old male fantasy was never destined to end well. In the very next moment, Hylas and his desire would be no more, dragged to the bottom of the pool and Waterhouse by his very nature forever defined within a school of painting, its own kind of prison. What made me feel dismay was the subservient emotion of shame, still alive in the mind of a teenage schoolgirl in 2018. The painting didn’t make her angry, ready to face off age old assumptions, but passively ashamed of this depiction of female bodies and seemingly by the proximity of her own body to it. The shame she expressed strikes me as a symptom of a greater disease. Rightly or wrongly, Waterhouse’s image exists in the world and I would hope that progressive education would equip a younger generation to square up to it, rather than feeling lesser in its outdated presence.

Too often the language of outrage, offense and victimhood indiscriminately govern responses to any point of view that does not match our own. Waterhouse’s painting, like Balthus’s highly controversial Thérèse Dreaming (1938, Metropolitan Museum, New York) is uncomfortable viewing and I agree we should be critical of the male gaze that created them. However, I am even more critical of what has been described as New Puritanism, completely hypocritical in the current climate. Waterhouse’s nymphs pale in comparison to the psychological damage inflicted on young women every day via social media, an onslaught of idealised beauty without the visual literacy to filter it.  I know the art of the past is part of that cumulative picture, however, popular culture circa 2018 plays to the dominant male gaze in ways that have become so internalised, it feels like there are no safe spaces left. The #MeToo movement has made visible the degree to which women are made to feel judged, ashamed and unsafe every day of their lives for generations. Such an environment makes art an essential tool in creating critical spaces to re-examine the nature of power, gender and equality- in our society and within ourselves. Galleries, museums, cinemas, libraries, theatres, concert halls and city streets should not be sanitised by removing what is perceived as offensive historical material. These are essential public arenas to challenge accepted ideals.

Composer Richard Wagner, Paris, 1867. Wikipedia Commons.

Earlier this month, Israeli Classical radio station Kol HaMusica broadcast Wagner’s music, despite the country’s boycott. Complaints, public outcry and apologies immediately followed, together with a pledge by the radio station not to repeat the “error” of judgement for fear of offending Holocaust survivors. It is well documented that Wagner was Hitler’s favourite composer and that Wagner himself was an anti-Semite. However, attempting to shield victims with a public ban on this music amounts to patronising censorship. In the words of Jonathan Livny, head of the Israel Wagner Society, whose father was a Holocaust survivor, “Whoever doesn’t want to hear the music can always turn the radio off.”

Art in all its forms expresses the darkness and light of humanity, enables us to bear witness and remember (or wake up) who we are. In the spirit of cultural exchange, art and music have the ability to cross all borders and boundaries, exposing us to alternative ways of seeing and initiating change. In this I would deny nothing in a public museum, gallery space or broadcast. Even objects/ ideologies of hatred and violence need to be honestly examined, with attention given to their historical context and interpretation, no matter how abhorrent they may appear to contemporary eyes. Making sense of why they were made and the consequences of those actions have implications in the present and for future generations. What objects hold in terms of human experience, identity and memory should not be underestimated. It’s the reason Hitler held the Degenerate Art Exhibition in 1937, to denounce freedom of expression in contemporary art of the time and to stamp out its practitioners as branded enemies of the state. What constituted “good art”, what would be produced, collected, publicly shown and celebrated was entirely defined by the ruling party. It’s essential to identify who the ruling parties are in the times you’re living in and not assume that human progress is linear.

Whilst I applaud revisionism that re-interprets the meaning of historical records, artefacts or art, I don’t see negationism as the answer to wrong doing. The current Zeitgeist of a “post truth” internet driven world makes distortion and denial of history so much easier to enact and publicly justify. The writing is on the gallery wall. I would rather live in a society where I am free to interpret past and present human behaviour, than one which decides what is offensive for me and only presents what the ruling party, institution or curator decides is acceptable for me to see. I have no doubt that there will be more Indian Church, Hylas and Wagnerian battles ahead and that the #MeToo watershed moment will evolve in waves of backlash and progress. I hope that progress wins and that the role the arts have to play in this war progressively realign with creative power over celebrity. The state of the arts always reveals whether we live in a fettered society or not. The question is not whether we can delight in the work of “immoral” artists, but whether we can afford not to look at it at all.

Press articles:

Can you enjoy great art created by a Nazi? New Emile Nolde exhibition explores this dilemma by William Cook, The Independent, 23 February 2018.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/emile-nolde-nazi-art-artist-exhibition-germany-edinburgh-fascist-adolf-hitler-a8221926.html

Why the Art Gallery of Ontario removed ‘Indian’ from the name of this Emily Carr painting by Sheena Goodyear. As it Happens, CBC Radio 22 May 2018.

https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-tuesday-edition-1.4672905/why-the-art-gallery-of-ontario-removed-indian-from-the-name-of-this-emily-carr-painting-1.4672934

Gallery removes naked nymphs painting to ‘prompt conversation’ by Mark Brown, The Guardian, 31 January 2018.

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/jan/31/manchester-art-gallery-removes-waterhouse-naked-nymphs-painting-prompt-conversation

Israeli public radio apologises after playing Hitler’s favourite composer Richard Wagner, The Telegraph, 3 September 2018.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/09/03/israeli-public-radio-apologises-playing-hitlers-favourite-composer/

San Francisco statue criticized as racist to Indigenous people removed, The Associated Press, CBC News, 14 September 2018 

 https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/san-francisco-racist-statue-removed-1.4824013

Emil Nolde – Colour is Life

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Old Man and Young Woman(Man with Feather in his Hat) (Alter Mann und junge Frau (Mann mit Feder am Hut)), c. 1930s-40s
Watercolour on paper, 16.2 x 15.4 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

14 July – 21 October 2018

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two)

“Colour is strength. Strength is life. Only strong harmonies are important.” Emil Nolde, Travels. Ostracism. Liberation. 1919–1946.

Colour is Life presents a rare opportunity to come to grips with the undeniable vibrancy and jarring contradictions in Emil Nolde’s art. This illuminating retrospective features 120 paintings, drawings, watercolours and prints from the Emil Nolde Foundation in Seebüll, Northern Germany. Nolde’s images reveal the journeys of his life; from rural villages, domestic gardens and highly charged religious subjects, to the bustling, industrial port of Hamburg, the cabarets of Berlin and indigenous people of Papua New Guinea. His extraordinary land and seascapes are among the highlights of the show, together with his controversial “unpainted pictures” incorporating elements of folklore and the grotesque.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Landscape (North Friesland), (Landschaft (Nordfriesland)),1920
Oil on canvas, 86.5 x 106.5 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Living on a shifting border between Germany and Denmark and with a lifetime (1867-1956) spanning two World Wars, there are inevitable conflicts in terms of how the artist saw himself and how he/his work has been perceived by successive generations. When this exhibition first opened at the National Gallery of Ireland in February 2018, The Independent ran with the headline; “Can you enjoy great art created by a Nazi? New Emile Nolde exhibition explores this dilemma.” The mistake we make too often in the age we are living in is making superior moral judgements that reinforce polarity rather than understanding, based on the assumption that the function of art is enjoyment. What I found fascinating in Colour is Life is human nature on display and how you must confront beauty and ugliness in full view of each other; in the comprehensive survey of Nolde’s work and within yourself as a viewer, or potential witness.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Martyrdom II (Martyrium II), 1921
Oil on sackcloth, 106.5 x 156.5cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

You can’t ignore the open declaration of antisemitism, distortion of human form and glowering colour in the central panel of Nolde’s Martyrdom triptych (1921, oil on sackcloth), nor can you deny the depth and emotional investment of colour in Nolde’s The Sea B (1930, oil on canvas). Nolde is all about dualism, stark juxtapositions and human impulses. His shield in the times he lived in, was to retreat into Nature and the primitive, forever pursued by the idea that the original garden itself was corrupt. The stupefied self-awareness on the face of Eve in Paradise Lost (1921, oil on sackcloth) comes from an artist mindful of human complicity in its own fall. One of the most affecting images in the exhibition is The Sea B, which is so darkly saturated with emotive colour that it becomes a twilight of the soul. This sunset seascape sees the purple density of cloud and light fading down into the horizon in an epic sweep of honesty. Green, orange, yellow and the white crest of waves contribute to an almost biblical churning of the waters. The sea takes on a kind of fearful solidity, what I can only describe as a conscious foreground of burnt ultramarine- though no such colour exists straight out of a tube. It lives in the complexity of human experience, a realisation that hits you when you get up close and see Nolde’s brush bristles, hitting the canvas like salt spray, stinging your eyes. It is as heartfelt an image as you are ever likely to see and regardless of the artist’s politics or beliefs, one worthy of attention on a variety of perceptive levels.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
The Sea B (Meer B), 1930
Oil on canvas, 73 x 100 cm
Collection: Tate, London, purchased 1966
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Nolde was an artist seeking to build upon a golden age of German Art which he recognised in the work of Matthias Grünewald, Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein. He was also keenly aware of what he described as the “great” French “ice breakers”; Manet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Signac” and the work of contemporary Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, a pioneer of Expressionism. Nolde’s brief affiliation with German Expressionist group Die Brücke (Bridge) is often cited, however his allegiances run deeper than the revolutionary world of modern art. The key to works such as his 1912 woodcut on paper Prophet, lies in a more subliminal collective of seeing. It’s is the gouge into woodgrain, the raw, fecund material of the mythic German forest and the black and white heightened truth of religion. The contradiction of human aspiration and impulse (or desire) is fervently expressed in Nolde’s individual work.


Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Prophet, 1912
Woodcut on paper, 29.8 x 22.1 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

In his 1912 painting Candle Dancers, the ecstatic revelry and trance like state of the dance equates to freedom. The “primitive” is a central preoccupation in his art and this is as much about eroticism as it is about the purity of ecstasy, entering a different state of perception or being. Nolde’s painting Ecstasy (oil on canvas, 1929) is an unholy alliance of a middle aged male gaze and immaculate conception. Although I find this painting profoundly ugly, I can have no argument with the incandescent heat of purple and orange, the emotional intensity of colour-which leaves even the attendant angel Gabriel surprised. The problem isn’t with the expression ecstasy (personal or religious), or even the female body openly thrust forward, but with the doll-like face, a mask which renders the body devoid of any self-awareness or possession, either in piety or pleasure.  Nolde was 62 when he made this work and a child of the Nineteenth century, so it isn’t surprising that he simply renders the female figure as a vessel. His overwhelming use of colour (and all it means in Nolde’s art) presents me with a dilemma and ultimately prevents me from dismissing the image. Although the painting repels me, the contradictions in Nolde’s Ecstacy, are worthy of further examination and debate.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Candle Dancers (Kerzenttänzerinnen), 1912
Oil on canvas, 100.5 x 86.5cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

There are many such vessels in Nolde’s art. His interest in indigenous people and ethnographic art is another highly charged projection of “primitive” freedom. In 1913-14 the artist and his wife Ada made the epic journey on the trans-Siberian railway to Asia and then to Papua New Guinea.  Nolde’s paintings and drawings from this trip present the idea of noble warriors, seen in the form of head and shoulder studies with gravitas and stark simplicity. They may be naïve, in the way that many white travellers view other cultures as an escape hatch to an idealised, primordial paradise, however they also represent a more open and respectful view than one might expect, given Nolde’s later membership of the National Socialist party.

What Nolde hoped for, as a man/ artist in his 60’s by the time Hitler came to power. was a golden harvest, a new age of “let’s make [Germany] great again”!  Millions of people believed that twisted promise, not knowing, or perhaps not caring, consumed by self-interested Nationalism, what the cost of that iron melded vision would be. Misappropriation of ideals is the collective lesson here, not the mistaken belief or demonisation of an individual. Seeing this exhibition, I was reminded that historical hindsight is a privileged position, founded on human survival. At base Nolde’s use of colour as strength ensured his survival. Whilst I may be able to sit back and judge his politics /morality through 21st century eyes, what I also see in this work is an important confrontation with the extreme dynamics of his art and the prevailing Zeitgeist. You can’t neatly relegate this to the pages of history, because his art is so alive today. I’m glad of the discomfort Nolde’s work brings me, cast between the sun-drenched, vivid affirmation of blooming life in Blonde Girls (1918, oil on canvas) and the tormented purple skin of Soldiers (1913, oil on sackcloth) in uniform compliance, ready for war.

Emil NOLDE (1857-1956)
Self-portrait (Selbstbild), 1917
Oil on plywood, 83.5 x 65cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

In his autobiography, Nolde wrote about the “key role” of “Dualism” in his paintings and prints; “Both together and in opposition: man and woman, pleasure and pain, god and the devil. Colours were also placed in opposition to each other: cold and warm, light and dark, dull and strong.”

Dualism ultimately defines his life. On the one hand as a “victim” of The Third Reich’s cultural policies; branded a” degenerate artist”, banned from exhibiting, selling or publishing his work and on the other, an avid supporter of the party.  Nolde had over 1000 works confiscated in Hitler’s purge of Modern Art from Museums and Galleries. Nolde featured prominently in the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition, held in Munich in 1937, which toured Germany and Austria. The aim was to ridicule and denounce Modern Art, but more than that- to clamp down on freedom of expression or any form of communication that did not further the party’s aims. The role of propaganda or controlling the visual should never be underestimated in bringing entire populations to heel. Anyone thinking that art is just entertainment are twice as primed to be duped. The head of Hitler’s Propaganda Ministry, Dr Joseph Goebbels would have loved the knee jerk control of Twitter. Although speaking entirely about his own work, Nolde’s statement in a 1905 letter to Hans Fehr that “harmless pictures are seldom worth anything” is chillingly prophetic.

Essentially Nolde saw himself as a good German. The idea of “Heimat” or deep-rooted identity, which has no direct translation outside of the German language, is forever tainted by Nazi bastardisation. It becomes the rhetoric of “blood and soil”, just as the idea of “Volk”, people and lore, become contorted into cultural and biological superiority under the regime. Contemporary German artists such as Anselm Kiefer have been instrumental in unpacking these ideas, returning to raw materials of the earth and forest, to find the truth behind the lies. The idea of Volk informs works such as Nolde’s Market (1908, oil on sackcloth) with its circular huddle of farmers or Milkmaids I (1903, oil on canvas) reminiscent of Van Gogh’s many studies of labourers in the fields. Nolde’s turn of the century images speak of social cohesion and living close to the land in harmony with Nature and God. They represent the validation and virtue of honest, hard work according to the Protestant work ethic. When Nolde, born Emil Hansen, marries his Danish wife and changes his name to that of the village of Nolde in North Schleswig, it is a statement of identity, not just with place, but in terms of cultural belief.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Canal (Copenhagen) (Kanal (Kopenhagen)), 1902
Oil on sackcloth, 65.5 x 83 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

It is fascinating to witness the transformation of light and colour from Nolde’s Canal (Copenhagen) (1902, Oil on sackcloth) onwards and see the evolution of his mark.  The way that bold, beautifully observed human marks in the artist’s ink and wash drawings translate into colour is one of the highlights of the show. Tugboat (1910 Brush, ink and wash on paper) and Smoking Steamboats (1910 Oil on sackcloth) are particularly fine examples. The impact of smoke and heavy industry on the environment isn’t lost on the artist. Nature is rendered with energetic brushwork in yellow, green, blue and deep purple, fighting back to engulf the human presence on an eternally vital sea.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Tugboat (Schlepper), 1910
Brush, ink and wash on paper, 35 x 42.5 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Smoking Steamboats (Qualmende Dampfer), 1910
Oil on sackcloth, 57.5 x 71.5 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Solo Female Dancer (Solotänzerin), 1910–11
Brush, ink and wash on paper, 32.1 x 27 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Nolde’s drawings in Berlin cafes and cabarets display his immediate responses to the parade of humanity before him in eloquent, ink shorthand. Dancing Couples (1910-11 pen and ink and wash on paper) with its smitten body language and highly animated rhythmic marks of the crowd, present a self-absorbed microcosm of urban life.  The group of 1930’s and 1940’s watercolours on paper, known as the “unpainted pictures” carry their own mythological narrative. Rendered in technicolour washes and linear drawing this is a curious group of images populated by human grotesques, giants and hobgoblins. Yet the fantastical elements are anchored. There’s hints of satire and allegory in Three Fools, Two Animals or folklore and ethnography in Dance Around the Rock. The sublime elegance of movement in the Skater is stunningly precarious humanity on a blade edge. The “unpainted pictures” are those made whilst Nolde was banned from being a professional artist. We don’t know to what extent he was monitored as a branded artist by the Gestapo, but it is sobering to consider the climate of paranoia, at a time when the mere smell of dissenting oil paint could condemn and obliterate the maker. I imagine only three options for a branded artist; defiantly continue to work and face imprisonment or death, flee the country forever or be compliant with the regime and do what you’re told. Given Nolde’s generation and strong identification with the idea of a second golden age for Germany, I’ve no doubt that the easiest path for him,  ideologically and practically, was the latter.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Skater (Schlittschuhläufer), 1938-1945
Watercolour on paper, 25.8 x 18cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

He could still immerse himself in colour as life, even if the high German culture he revered and European civilization were progressively collapsing all around him. He still had “the painter’s basic materials: colours that have a life [and soul] of their own, crying and laughing, dream and joy, hot and holy, like love songs and sex, like hymns and chorales! Colours vibrating, with the sound of silver bells and the ringing of bronze, heralding happiness, passion and love, blood and death.”

I think it is too easy to judge Nolde’s work in terms of black and white morality and we do ourselves no favours as critics by dismissively waving the Nazi card, therefore distancing ourselves from the tough questions raised by his work. Demonising anything simply places it outside ourselves, abdicating responsibility and denying the possibility of change. Go and see this show, be elated and/or deeply troubled by it, whilst acknowledging that the world still needs such art. Whether it is in radiantly joyful blooms or in blackened caricatures that mirror our own prejudices, Nolde expresses what we are holistically capable of. There is no immunity. We too can get lost in the ecstasy of the dance. Nolde’s intense, contradictory work, together with the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition catalogue on display, demand that we face what beauty, ugliness and complicity truly mean, right here and now.  The question is not whether we can enjoy the art of a Nazi, but whether we can afford not to see it.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/

Rembrandt- Britain’s Discovery of the Master

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
A Woman in Bed, about 1645 – 1646
Oil on canvas, 81.1 x 67.8 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, presented by William McEwan 1892
Photo: Antonia Reeve

7 July – 14 October

Scottish National Gallery

“Britain’s love affair with one of history’s greatest artists” is the celebratory focus of the Scottish National Gallery’s latest summer blockbuster. Rembrandt: Britain’s Discovery of the Master features 140 works: oil paintings, drawings and etchings by Rembrandt Van Rijin, works from his workshop and those by British artists he inspired from the 18th Century to the present day. Seeing Rembrandt’s impact on the art of William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds, Henry Raeburn, David Wilkie, Thomas Duncan, Augustus John, James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Jacob Epstein, Leon Kossoff, William Strang, Henryk Gotlib, Eduardo Paolozzi, Frank Auerbach, John Bellany, Ken Currie and Glen Brown is one of the fascinations of the show. It is also an exhibition about historical acquisition and how an artist’s legacy is enabled. Works on loan from the National Gallery, British Museum, Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Tate, London, the National Gallery of Ireland, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C bring together familiar images, new discoveries and reflections on why Rembrandt is so revered.

Outside the Netherlands, the UK holds the largest collection of Rembrandt works, a trend that began during the reign of Charles I and reached fever pitch in the 18th Century, when prints, drawings and paintings were highly sought after by private collectors. Cataloguing the artist’s work also began at this time, an indicator of Rembrandt as currency and a practical response to market driven climate of forgers and respectful copyists. The desirability of Rembrandt’s work among collectors in the British Isles has resulted in much wider awareness of his work and most importantly, the opportunity to experience it live, having found its way into public collections. Coming eyeball to eyeball with a Rembrandt seems to level all arguments about what good or bad art is. At base he shows us what art is, what it is for and why it matters.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
Two Studies of Old Men’s Heads, c.1639
Pen and brown ink, 8.1 x 9.4 cm
Collection: British Museum, London

The appetite for Rembrandt’s work has grown exponentially over the last 400 years, however his authenticity doesn’t lie with a stamp of approval from royalty, the aristocracy, learned experts or the validation of monumental prices at auction. The claim that his “imagery” is now “ubiquitous” and he is now a “global brand” is only true in terms of all the things his art embodies that cannot be bought, sold or even put into words. However you frame Rembrandt’s work, his emotional intelligence trumps every other narrative you attempt to overlay.  Therefore, I find it doubly fascinating that he has such a following in Britain. The most essential part of this equation isn’t the Master on the manor house wall or fashion, but the level of self-awareness communicated in his work, the thing that makes us what we are. In many ways the light in Rembrandt’s art hits a nerve of the great unsaid in British culture. Above all, his work is about intimacy and connection- something human beings will always crave and what makes him an eternally contemporary artist. Long before theories of Humanism, Existentialism or the apex of Maslow’s pyramid, there is Rembrandt.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69) Self-portrait aged 51, about 1657 Oil on canvas, 53 x 43 cm Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, Bridgewater Collection Loan Photo: Antonia Reeve.

His Self Portrait aged 51 (c.1657 oil on canvas, part of the Bridgewater Collection loan to the NGS, Edinburgh) exemplifies the artist’s timeless appeal. It isn’t the image of a Master, but that of a man, in whom we see our own anxieties, aging and mortality. Rembrandt doesn’t elevate himself above the progressive march of years. He renders himself with self-respecting care and humility, equally surrounded by shadow. To encounter such an honest soul in Art is profoundly moving and deeply comforting. I’ve returned to this work many times and experience it in waves, emotion which emanates from the lines of his brow and deep-set eyes. It’s confrontation with the ground of the painting, behind his eyes and to sorrow, which connects to your own- regardless of what century you happen to be standing in. His face emerges from the darkest earth brown umber, the fertile ground inside us,  the clay beneath our feet and the dust we will become. We all know what age will make us and there he is, facing that inevitability, sharing it with us with unflinching dignity. In psychological terms Rembrandt’s self-portraits are the personification of congruence because they aren’t just about the artist, they are about an essential exchange with the viewer. His humanity is his genius. He affirms what art is for every time we meet his gaze-and not just directly in self-portraiture, figurative or biblical works, but in his landscapes too.

The Mill (1645 -48, oil on canvas, The National Gallery, Washington D.C) was a revelation to me in that respect. I can see why it has been described as “the greatest painting in the world”.  Although the human figures in the foreground are small and largely in shadow, it is an image of absolute benevolence and empathy. This surprising painting of a mill in the landscape has the presence and authority of his portraits, rooted in how we see ourselves. It isn’t a scene of a landscape but a register of light and human consciousness. Certainly the cruciform sails of the mill read as a Christ-like guardian over Rembrandt’s homeland of Leiden, but what hit me between the eyes standing in front of this unexpected masterwork is the dawning of light- for the artist and viewer. J.M.W. Turner described how, in this particular painting, Rembrandt had “thrown that veil of matchless colour: that lucid interval of morning down and dewy light on which the eye dwells so completely enthralled.” The way that Northern Romantic artists such as J.M.W. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich or the contemporary Scottish landscape artist Allan MacDonald make that connection between Nature, the Divine and human consciousness aligns with the function of light in Rembrandt’s Mill. The presence of light is the entire crux of the image; as a sensuous reality and a prism through which a myriad of metaphorical colours can be seen. It’s the way, the truth and the life of painting. It even reverberates in the unusual geometry and patinated curves of the dark frame surrounding it, rippling outwards, beyond the pictureplane. Whether you believe in a God is irrelevant- this is as close to what moves, motivates and saves us as you are ever likely to get.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
A Woman Bathing in a Stream, 1654
Oil on panel, 61.8 x 47 cm
Collection: The National Gallery, London

Rembrandt explodes expectations of historical genre by being himself. A Woman Bathing in a Stream -Calisto in the Wilderness (1654, oil on oak panel) is an absolute affirmation that art is life. There is no imitation of anything. We can see Rembrandt’s hand, not just stylistically but experientially, in the intimate shorthand of abstracted marks that form her hand. This isn’t a typical male gaze, or that of a Master, directed at a generic woman. Her shift conceals and reveals her body, but that isn’t the focus of the image either. There’s preservation of the self, seeking of the self, in this work that resides with the female subject. She’s looking down into the dark water at her reflection, which we cannot see, and about to step into it, to immerse herself. The wilderness of self-awareness and knowledge of what we are as human beings is open to her, perhaps not in the historical confines of her actual life, but here she stands as Rembrandt envisaged her, reimagined in the 21st Century. Her action in seeing is unaided and there is tenderness and honest regard in how Rembrandt models the figure. He doesn’t deny her sensuality or her capacity as a conscious being. The adjacent label suggests life imitating art in an image of the artist’s lover, exiled in real life by bearing him a child.  The mythological subtitle is something Rembrandt is well versed in, but he’s not playing a literary card here. In fact, he’s not playing at anything in this painting. What I love about this work and so many others by him, is the peerless, heightened privacy of the moment, fixed for all time. I’ve seen people gasp in admiration, incline their heads in contemplation, breathe out in relief and smile in recognition, each in their own way understanding what this image holds. Their body language and emotional responses tell me why Rembrandt’s art is a universal touchstone, rather than a “ubiquitous” “brand” described by PR speak.  For me the joy of this exhibition isn’t simply as a survey of the taste for Rembrandt, which is what art is often reduced to as part of an enduring British class system. It is the way that Rembrandt’s work speaks for itself across all borders, boundaries and time- and very particularly to the British psyche, adverse to intimacy. I can say this because I’m from one of its colonies.

Frank Auerbach (b. 1931)
Drawing after Rembrandt’s ‘A Woman Bathing in a Stream’, 1988
Felt-tip pen on paper, 38.9 x 29.4 cm
Collection: The National Gallery, London
© Frank Auerbach

As much as Rembrandt is a publicly acclaimed, popular artist, he has always been an artist’s artist too. It’s interesting that he appeals particularly to male artists- or at least that’s the message delivered by the final room in the exhibition. I think this has to do with the holy grail of creative immortality, the “Master” validation, consciously or unconsciously sought. Alignment with that vision of greatness can be driven by ego, or the homage can be to the inner nature of Rembrandt’s work. He communicates very powerfully what it is to be human and that self-awareness is synonymous with making, casting him the patron saint of artists. In the history of Art Rembrandt has wholly succeeded in transcending himself.

Frank Auerbach (b.1931)
Tree at Tretire, 1975
Chalk, charcoal and gouache on two sheets of paper, 77 x 72.5 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, presented by Miss Dorothy Claire Weicker, 1984
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art
Photo: John McKenzie

Henryk Gotlib’s Rembrandt in Heaven (c1948-58, oil on canvas, Tate Gallery) made me smile in it’s reverent homage to the ruddy faced, aged man, flanked by angels and being presented to a melancholy Christ, with Mary standing supportively behind her troubled child. The earthy palette and gaze of the angel on the far left, which meets our own, tips its hat to the substance of Rembrandt’s art. The hand of the angel gestures simultaneously towards the Master and his Master, pointing toward heaven. The high esteem of the artist is clear, but so is his naked, everyman appearance. The interest in Rembrandt by artists during the post WWII period is a natural gravitational pull. Post collapse of civilization, it is a time when the world is trying to rebuild itself, when individuals are grappling with the rubble they are, or are standing in. Rembrandt’s essential humanity is a focus of light in that darkness. That innate sensitivity, manifests in Frank Auerbach’s abstract work, Tree at Tretire (1975, chalk, charcoal and gouache, NGS, Edinburgh) in direct response to Rembrandt’s The Three Trees (1643, Etching, drypoint and engraving, British Museum, London)

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
The Three Trees, 1643
Etching, drypoint and engraving, 21.3 x 27.9 cm
Collection: British Museum, London

Rembrandt’s arboreal trinity has a figurative presence, tempered by the delicacy of drypoint. He is as close to the etching plate as he is to the soul of the subject, a quality to be found in contemporary master printmaker Ian Westacott’s etchings of trees, which are essentially figurative.  This is also the energy Auerbach taps into with the velvety boldness of charcoal in his Tree at Tretire. It has nothing to do with being influenced by Rembrandt the Master and is much more about human connection beneath the subject. The force of Auerbach’s conviction, applied to his chosen media on paper, creates a visceral sense of disintegration, coupled with restoration. Auerbach translates the figurative power of Rembrandt’s The Three Trees into an abstract vision, rooted in the human need of his own time. Rembrandt is primarily known as a painter, however his work as a printmaker equally sees him at the height of his powers. One of my favourite works in the show is only slightly larger than a postage stamp, the exquisite etching Self-portrait in a Heavy Fur Cap; Bust, 1631 (The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.) The hand-held size, direct gaze and vulnerability of finely etched marks create an image of the artist grounded in intimacy and his lifelong commitment to understand.

Rembrandt Van Rijn- Self Portrait in a heavy fur cap: Bust, 1631. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2018

Ken Currie Rembrandt’s Carcass (1991, etching, NGS, Edinburgh) after the painting Slaughtered Ox, portrays the artist as a flayed bag of flesh, richly illuminated in black and white. Laced with Currie’s characteristic brand of irony, it is a memorial, a homage, and as with so many of his works, a hymn to human consciousness and mortality. As Currie has stated, “being haunted by paintings” is the mark of Great Art.

For me, the image that best sums up the exhibition is An Old Woman Reading, 1655 (Oil on canvas, Buccleuch Collection), believed to be an image of the artist’s mother. It is the presence of light, emanating from the open book, concentrated on her face and chest in warm russet and golden hues that equally fills the heart and mind of the viewer. Her face is bent in concentration beneath the black hood, her mouth slightly open, completely absorbed in self-determination, seeking enlightenment. Perhaps it’s the bible she’s contemplating, but standing here in front of this painting the chapter and verse does not seem to matter. What is communicated is compassion, love and empathy; Rembrandt’s shining, inextinguishable legacy and the ultimate value of art.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/

Special thanks to Harris Brine, The National Galleries of Scotland Press Office, The Bridgewater Collection and Graham Nisbet at The Hunterian, University of Glasgow for their assistance with images.