Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude

The Courtauld Gallery, London. 23 October 2014- 18 January 2015.

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Featuring some of the “most radical and unflinching depictions of the naked human form in modern times” this current exhibition of thirty eight drawings and watercolours by Egon Schiele at the Courtauld Gallery is a fascinating, explicit and contentious show.

Turn of the century Vienna was an epicenter of societal collapse and cultural rebirth; the city of Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser and Joseph Hoffman. New languages; musical, visual, architectural and psychoanalytical were being developed in a climate of traditional world order conservatism colliding with revolutionary Modernist ideas. Human sexuality, desire and morality were being examined as never before. Instinctual, unconscious drives as the central motivation for human behavior and as a wellspring of creativity demanded a new framework of philosophy, morality and aesthetics. The young artist Egon Schiele actively sought out his mentor Gustav Klimt, a founding member of the Vienna Secessionists and from 1910 began to develop his own response to this milieu.  Radical times provoked radical Art; for Schiele a new language of the human body that is no less challenging and confrontational today.

Although we like to tell ourselves that there are no taboos left to be broken in the contemporary world and that freedom of expression is a cornerstone of Western democracy, the prolific growth of the Dark Net as a repository of desire and fear in our technological age would seem to suggest otherwise. Moving around the exhibition I was conscious of the reverential space of the gallery and a certain lack of context around Schiele’s images.  That Egon Schiele was a gifted artist and draughtsman is indisputable, however his work casts up a host of ethical questions, not least of which is his depiction of underage female models and the doll-like passivity seen in many of his images of women. If he were alive today he’d be the subject of screaming tabloid headlines and now as in 1912, when he was arrested and served a two month sentence for “contravening public decency”, the man and his art would no doubt be attracting scrutiny from the authorities. There were times when viewing this exhibition that I started to question the artist’s justification for his work:

I still believe that the greatest painters painted the figure…I paint the light that emanates from all bodies. Erotic works of art are also sacred. Egon Schiele, 1911.

What is so fascinating about this exhibition is the way that it confronts the viewer head on with their own beliefs and assumptions about Art, the role of the artist, gender, sexuality, maternity, death and desire. Schiele’s drawings and watercolours of male and female models, including self-portraits, are beautiful and disturbing in equal measure.  Often explicitly raw, sitting on an uncomfortable edge between eroticism, Art and pornography, they also provide valuable insight into the human condition; our fears, desires and vulnerabilities.

Male Nude (1909, Watercolour, ink, pencil) presents the viewer with the back view of a male body concentrated on the torso turned away from the viewer, the face entirely hidden in a dark, flattened recess of the picture plane. The sitter’s hand is positioned over his shoulder as if cradling himself. It is an anti-heroic image of masculinity and humanity, a young but ravaged body, intensely vulnerable;  the antithesis of muscular, beauty seen  in the sculptures of Ancient Greece and defining ideal human form throughout the History of Western Art. Made in the year he dropped out of Vienna’s Academy of Fine Art Schiele visually smashes the plaster casts of antiquity, turning his back on the traditional framework of reference for the nude in Western Art and embracing the Zeitgeist of Fin de siècle Vienna.

Reclining Male Nude (1910, Watercolour and charcoal) presents the figure pushed to the top of the composition, cropped and perched aloft in negative space. As in many of these early works the choice of palette is expressive rather than naturalistic; the model’s flanks in orange and green, his feet defined in blue and purple. The placement of the figure, together with use of colour creates a psychological edge to the image and a pervading atmosphere of unease. Male Nude With Legs Spread, Back View (1910, Gouache, watercolour, pencil) pares the body down to raw flesh and visible vertebrae pushed through the skin, our attention drawn to the stark mortality of bare bone. In Male Nude (1910, Watercolour and charcoal) the green/grey emaciated body on flesh coloured ground is severe and impersonal, face cropped, extending the study beyond the individual to the fragility of all human life.

This idea is also explored in Sick Girl (1910, gouache and black chalk) a subject that extends back to Medieval Dance of Death images and the recurrent theme of Death and the Maiden in Austro-Germanic Art. The actual figure of Death is absent, however the expression in the child’s eyes, wells of all consuming blackness, leave the viewer in no doubt that she is waiting for death. Her naked body is reduced to lines that articulate the tension held in her angular shoulders, her hands raised expectantly over her mouth. It is a particularly disturbing image due to the way that Schiele adorns her pubic area with a halo of heightened white. Her nakedness immediately suggests innocence without this mark. The inference is that Death as the ultimate and final human experience is about to take her ,destroying life and innocence. The Norwegian Symbolist Edvard Munch who was a great influence on German Expressionism also explored the subject of the Sick Child, together with the psychological state of puberty and its attendant anxieties. Schiele’s Sick Girl hovers uneasily between innocence and experience, disease and death.

Schiele’s Mother and Child (Woman with Homunculus) (1910, Gouache, watercolour and pencil) is a highly ambiguous exploration of maternity and desire which subverts the traditional subject of Madonna and Child. The female figure is turned away from the viewer, her rump exposed, a  sideways glance to the client, black stockings and a crimson nipple suggestive of her trade. The child is twisted behind her back turning towards her as she is turning away, her attention focused on the male gaze beholding her. “Homunculus” meaning “small human being” or “little man” could apply to the child she is physically rejecting or ironically to the “little man” she perceives looking at her. Her gaze like the display of her body is both seductive and calculated. She is, over and above any maternal instinct, depicted as a sexual being.

Nude Pregnant Reclining Woman (1910, Gouache and black chalk) is another fascinating image of maternity and gender. Dr Erwin Von Graff a gynecologist at the Vienna University Women’s clinic granted permission for Schiele to draw pregnant women and newborns at the hospital. Here the artist depicts a heavily pregnant woman, legs parted, her coloration of her skin painted raw and her face a featureless mask as if her entire identity has been subsumed by the growth inside her belly. The positioning of the pregnant female body is unexpectedly exposed and intimately claustrophobic.

Schiele consistently challenged societal norms throughout his work. Seated Female Nude with Raised Arm (Gertrude Schiele) (1910, gouache, watercolour and black crayon) depicts the artist’s sister, her face shielded and turned away, torso exposed; a study of female form, every line beautifully poised in hues of green, pink and blue.  His portrait Sneering Woman (Gertrude Schiele) (1910, Gouache, watercolour and charcoal, white heightening) presents an image of sociability inverted by the hostility of his sister’s expression. The large fashionable hat that would have been worn in public is at odds with the intimacy of her bare breasts and body language; arms folded as a barrier, lips pursed and eyes narrowed to an aggressive sneer.

Squatting Female Nude (1910, Gouache, black chalk, white heightening) reduces the female body to a head and limbless torso reminiscent of ancient Venus figures, but with hands twisted uncomfortably behind the back and rouged nipples grounding the body as an earthly object of desire. Standing Nude in Red Jacket (1913, Gouache, watercolour and pencil) extends the erotic charge of colour further with the limbless torso framed by an open red jacket, red nipples and genitals. The economy of line in this drawing is extraordinary, however it is a beautiful sum of erogenous parts rather than a whole body, a self-possessed individual or an attempt to explore the complexities of female sexuality.

d1ccd554-c028-450a-bd39-b4f4ec365c9e-275x420 Woman with Black Stockings (1913)

Shiele’s portrait of his lover Wally Neuzil Woman with Black Stockings (1913, Gouache, watercolour and pencil) in spite of having freed limbs is no less passive, the model raising her skirt, lifeless and doll-like. Although this is a supremely balanced and highly skilled drawing, there is no vitality or erotic sense of the sacred present. None of Schiele’s self-justifying “light” emanates from her body. However well executed, it is merely an emotionally vacant image of a woman in sexual servitude of male desire.

Standing nude with stockingsStanding Nude with Stockings (1914)

In contrast Standing Nude with Stockings (1914, Gouache and black crayon) places the female figure at the centre of the composition; hand on her thigh, poised, angular and assured rather than submissively posed. Schiele’s lines are muscular and supremely elegant, displaying incredible fluency of draftsmanship and arguably a greater degree of equality between female model, male artist and the viewer. Another 1914 work Side View of a Semi –Nude  (Watercolour and pencil) displays a more monumental and semi abstract treatment of the body, the folds of fabric ,model’s exposed flesh and the curvature of her stockings rendered with care and precision. Like the adjacent work Friends (1914 Pencil and gouache) where the bodies of two women are melded together in a structural framework of lines Schiele achieves an enviably balanced composition. The two female figures command three quarters of the picture plane, without the psychological imbalance of being shoved into a high corner or severely cropped.

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Kneeling Nude with Raised Hand (1910)

The effect of the whole exhibition is much like Schiele’s Kneeling Nude With Raised Hand (Self Portrait) (1910, Black chalk and gouache) where the gaze is turned upon the self and the artist steps directly into the viewer’s foreground, hand raised to stop us in our tracks, his semi abstracted body in red, green and orange sensitively bleak and timelessly confrontational. Between 1910 and his death at the age of 28 from the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic Schiele created an intense and uncompromising body of work.  This first major UK museum exhibition devoted to his work for over twenty years and the ethical questions it raises about the role and responsibility of the artist, gender and sexuality are still strikingly relevant.

www.courtauld.ac.uk

Anselm Kiefer

Royal Academy of Arts, London. 27 September – 14 December 2014.

The language of birds

The Language of Birds (2013) Anselm Kiefer

The first major retrospective of Anselm Kiefer’s work in the UK is in a word, overwhelming.  Since first seeing his work in the flesh as part of the You Dig the Tunnel I’ll Hide the Soil exhibition held jointly at the White Cube, Hoxton Square and the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall in 2008, I have been in awe of this artist’s ever expanding capacity to confront the complexity of being human. I will never forget stumbling over uneven ground through a darkened space beneath Shoreditch Town Hall and into Kiefer’s installation of lead beds, ashes on photographic film reels and water inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. The potency of malleable, poisonous lead and reels of human memory entwined in that decaying, labyrinthine space left an enduring imprint; a dark core of the imagination, pregnant with possibility. Whenever the opportunity presented itself to see his work I have followed; to Karfunkelfee, (White Cube, Mason’s Yard) and The Fertile Crescent, (White Cube, Hoxton Square) in 2009 and Il Mistero delle Cattedrali (White Cube, Bermondsey) in 2011 which occupied the entire 11,000 square feet of gallery space.  It takes a special kind of artist to command such a space and Il Mistero delle Cattedrali was one of the finest exhibitions I’ve ever seen, a revelation in terms of just how complete an artist’s vision can be when technique and ideas resoundingly equal each other.

Since the 1980’s Kiefer has created work on an industrial scale in a steel wool plant in Buchen and brickworks in Höpfingen, Germany, before moving to Barjac in the South of France in 1992 to create La Ribaute, a 200 acre studio complex on the site of an abandoned silk factory. Large scale greenhouses, barns containing house sized paintings, underground spaces, tunnels, towers and pavilions are laboratories, installation spaces and sites for what the artist describes as “reverse architecture” placing works back in the landscape. His other creative laboratory at Croissy-Beaubourg outside Paris, a 36,000 square metre former department store warehouse, is now his main studio/production space. Compared to these monumental spaces the RA does feel restrictive in addressing the sheer scale of Kiefer’s prolific oeuvre. However the exhibition provides a fantastic opportunity to view work of a more intimate scale such as Artist Books and Watercolors in relation to larger scale paintings, mixed media, sculptural and installation work, including new pieces created specifically for the exhibition space.

The effect of each successive room in this retrospective is cumulative and increasingly expansive; we can see the evolution of the artist’s work and iconography, his profound literacy and ability to transcend the self. The ego or artistic persona which defines so many contemporary artists and their work is absent. Kiefer has always understood that he, like the rest of us, are merely a blip in cosmic time and this context enables him to strip away creative practice to its most essential elements.  1000 years into the future if the human race still exists, his work will still speak as powerfully.  Its genius and true material is questioning and struggling towards meaning, a constant state of flux with creation and destruction as equal partners. It’s an Art which celebrates the connections a human mind can make, the mystery of life, death and its cyclical nature. It is ash and diamonds, immediately visceral, beautifully poetic and alive with contradictions.

Kiefer’s belief in Art as alchemy; placing “the phenomena of the world in another context” and in human “potential to achieve a higher state” are remarkably consistent throughout his work. “The real alchemist [Kiefer insists] is not interested in material things but in transubstantiation, in transforming the spirit”, a statement which relates directly to artistic intent. Born into the rubble of post war Germany Kiefer first dared to ask the question of himself; of what he would have done when confronted by the collapse of civilization and the contradiction of a culture that produced Dürer, Goethe and Beethoven being equally responsible for Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald. Although his early imagery is clearly self-referential and culturally specific, the progressive distillation of the artist’s visual language powerfully communicates universal human concerns independent of time and place. The art critic and writer Robert Hughes described Kiefer’s work as testing “the moral imagination”, a quality which has been invested in its creation from the very beginning. Kiefer’s creative practice acknowledges that every age must come to terms with mythology and that “history is like clay”, it can be moulded, appropriated or wilfully distorted.

In his early work we see him grappling with what it is to be an artist, specifically a German Artist; a poisoned chalice after the appropriation of high Art and Culture in the service of Hitler’s Third Reich. In his Occupations and Heroic Symbols series Kiefer confronts what fellow German artist Joseph Beuys described as post war “visual amnesia” developing his own personal iconography of transformation, often depicted wearing his Father’s uniform.  In Heroic Symbol I 1969-70 (Oil and charcoal on linen, 260.5 x 150cm) the image is consciously bisected, presenting a duality of creativity and destruction. In the lower half of the painting the artist stands in the midst of a fire, smoke rising from an element of immolation into the white cloud above. The act of making a Nazi salute (banned in Germany in 1945) grounds the painting as an action of not forgetting the past. In the upper section of the painting, positioned in open blue sky is the sketched figure of the artist, a second self, hovering above the barren grey landscape with the true linen ground showing through, hands on hips, determined and resolute. Immediately reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog which positions the lone figure on a precipice, the figure of the artist, framed by cloud in a clarity of blue, rises physically and metaphorically above the salute. His nightshirt/smock suggests an aspirational dream space; however this isn’t a lofty expression of Romanticism but an artist standing on an ideological knife edge, deeply grounded in his cultural history and materials. Although some accused Kiefer of being a Neo Nazi when his Occupations and Heroic Symbols series were first exhibited, the painted surface of Heroic Symbol I is cracked and the composition actively dualistic. We are not presented with Fascistic certainty or a visual language of Neo-Classical absolutes and ideals. Kiefer’s methodology, like his imagery is intensely fluid and reflects the timeless human drive of trying to make sense of ourselves in relation to the world around us. His choice and handling of materials in later large scale paintings, sculptural and installation work, transformed by natural forces of sun, rain and seasons or by violent human action; a flamethrower, axe, hose pipe or acid, reflect this endless creative drive towards meaning.

Kiefer addresses the mythological and psychological associations of fire and forest, a wellspring of Germanic identity and storytelling in Man in the Forest (1971, Acrylic on Muslin, 174 x 189 cm). Here the artist stands in a nightshirt, holding a burning branch, the upright density of slender trees of the background bled into the foreground of the painting. The branch may be a torch or equally a cleansing fire to set the whole forest alight and burn it to the ground. Aglow with light washes of red and green a profound, surreal stillness pervades the work, casting the artist as protagonist and the viewer as witness. The human figure is positioned in a clearing, dwarfed by the forest of trees, becoming an everyman.

Nothung

Nothung (1973)

The textural and symbolic grain of the forest is explored further in Kiefer’s Attic Series of the early 1970’s. In Nothung (1973, Charcoal and oil on burlap with inserted cardboard drawing) we see an interior forest transformed into architecture, with heavy beams overhead suggestive of a Great Hall and an upright bloodied sword thrust into the floorboards. Kiefer uses linear perspective to draw the viewer into the space, a wooden bar across the altar like central panel of wall and two windows bled with rain to the left. This stain of blue extends into the roof around a banner of hand drawn text; “Ein schwert verhieß mir the Vater (Literally translated as “a sword promised me the Father”). Text is often used by Kiefer as a provocation, supporting or contradicting how an image is read. The reference to Nothung Siegfried’s sword from Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle; Der Ring des Nibelungen has its origins in ancient Norse mythology. However the idea of Siegfried as a pure Aryan hero of the German Fatherland and Hitler as self-proclaimed Father of the German people is inescapable and creates an image of the artist’s studio as a distinctly confrontational space. Kiefer’s exploration of his own identity in relation to the past is beginning to transcend the personal to reflect on the culture we chose to create and what it nurtures within us all.

In the triptych Parsifal I, II, III (1973 Oil and blood on paper and canvas) we are drawn deeper into the bare studio/attic space in a Grail-like quest. Blood stained joins of vertical panels echo trees in the forest, cast between order and chaos. The first panel depicts a white cot beneath a window with a single bar of shimmering light extending over the floor, dissipating into the foreground. The language of spears driven into the floorboards of the mid-section, broken swords and handwritten text creates a complex web of personal and collective associations. The viewer is effectively led into a space which like The Painter’s Studio (1980, Chalk, graphite pencil, acrylic and oil on photograph (1971) 58.5 x 68cm) and The Painter’s Studio (1980, Oil, acrylic and emulsion on photograph 58.5 x79cm) is transformational. In both images of The Painter’s Studio the architecture is seen engulfed in flames; there are no certainties or artistic props. We see steps leading upward to the closed door, marked with the recurrent symbol of an artist’s palette drawn onto the photograph in black like a cipher. No answers are presented but profound questions are asked both of the artist and the viewer about who we are, we’re we’ve been and where we are going, individually and as a species. Although the Attic Series is heavily laden, steeped in the cultural construction its own architecture, it also presents a dynamic testing ground of ideas and aspirations. The ordered timber structure links back to a forest of the collective mind, a place of refuge, rebirth, memories and nightmares.

The fertile imaginative ground of the forest becomes embedded and transformed in Ways of Worldly Wisdom: The Battle of Hermann (1980, Ink, acrylic paint and collage on paper, 290 x 500cm). A legendary and heroic figure tainted by Hitler’s cult of militant Nationalism, Arminius/Armin or Hermann defeated the Romans at the battle of Teutoburg Forest and was popularised through theatre and public sculpture in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. In Kiefer’s Ways of Worldly Wisdom woodcut portraits of German writers and thinkers are cast within a darkly gestural web or inferred framework of propagandist deceit. The forest is present in the background and in the grain of collaged woodcuts. This visual tradition of image making in Germany extending back to Dürer’s Northern Renaissance and the work of German Expressionists such as Nolde, Pechstien, Kirchner and Schmidt-Rottluff ,whose work was branded ”Degenerate” by the Nazi’s, is referenced in all its ambiguity. Woodcuts of the Die Brücke German Expressionist artists embraced the integrity and physicality of the image making process, of marks gouged from a raw block of wood and stark truths in black and white. Equally there can be no greater expression of High Culture or Fine Art than Dürer’s encoded and superbly executed woodcuts. However this cultural inheritance is also charged with knowledge of appropriation and the language of cultural supremacy.

The artist’s book; The Burning of the Rural District of Buchen IV (1975, Illustrated 56 page book with ferrous oxide and linseed oil on fragments of former paintings (oil on burlap) linen bound, 65 x 45 x 8cm) reduces the learned/Art object or repository of knowledge to an open page of blackened pigment, like charcoal remains of an ancient text saved from a great fire. Although such a work has specific historical associations, later sculptural works expand the frame of reference to a cosmic scale, introducing monumental stacks of lead books invested with the entire weight of human history, stacks of canvases, metal, rubble, pigment and ash like funeral pyres, the accumulation of millennia.

ages of the world

Ages of the World (2014)

Ages of the World (2014, Mixed media) a sculptural installation created for the domed Wohl Central Hall of the RA’s main galleries, is a superb example and a highlight of the exhibition.  Referencing “our planet’s evolution, the Romantic aspiration of Art, the poetry of ruins and the relationship of the individual [with] the deep time of the cosmos” the central structure is a vision of ordered chaos which the viewer orbits, following the curvature of the room. What immediately strikes the senses and draws the viewer intimately close are the smell of earth, oil and pigment and the bent heads of giant dead sunflowers laden with seeds protruding into the viewer’s space from lower evolutionary layers of time. Rocks and debris the ashen colour of comets, rolls of canvas and stacked paintings we cannot see, like closed books retaining their secrets, create an overwhelming sense that all humanity’s profound ignorance, knowledge and aspiration is contained in this single work. Kiefer creates an ironic dialogue with the surrounding architecture of white marble busts housed in gold leafed niches and the spherical vault of ceiling above. Two large scale photographs/ mixed media works hung like banners flank the main structure which from every angle appears as random composition perfected. The two dimensional images of accumulation and layered time  inform our reading of the work, but it is the towering sculpture itself which creates an overwhelming sense of what we are in human and cosmic terms. The effect is breath taking, laden with emotion and strangely uplifting, finding comfort of the mind in the mysterious enormity of the universe. Kiefer powerfully reminds us that “Art is an attempt to get to the very centre of truth. It never can, but it can get quite close”. Ages of the World is about as close as any artist or audience can get.

One of the surprises of the exhibition is a series of intimate, erotic watercolours on a ground of plaster, smooth as ivory skin. Cathedrals of France (2013, 18 page book with watercolour and pencil on plaster on cardboard, 75 x 58 x10cm) combines the ecstasies of the saints and exalted gothic architecture with a more earthly male gaze. Kiefer’s treatment of the female figure, bent back upon itself, surrendering to a cloud of blue or legs apart, juxtaposed with a vaulted doorway are obviously sexual. However this blatancy is tempered by the playfulness of a woman with a tiny cathedral in the palm of her hand or a reclining nude, contemplating a phallic tower on her lap, a curious prop rather than an object of male power. There is undeniable energy in these watercolours that reflects the mythology of Pre-Christian Roman Goddesses, transcending their holy and repressive architectural setting. Like the writings of Georges Bataille and Rodin’s intimate drawings of the female body Cathedrals of France could be viewed as pornography, however Kiefer’s fluid medium and invocation of Dionysian physicality resists this interpretation. These paintings present the duality of human desire and sexuality, both sacred and profane.

The extraordinary layering of materials in Kiefer’s monumental paintings incorporating straw, earth, flowers, ash, plaster, ceramic, metal, paint, charcoal and photographs are excavations of concentrated energy and precision, formal construction and accident. Photographs embed the moment within a painting and are often a starting point, gradually worked over with thick impasto pigments and found materials, cycles of time and natural elements. The sharp, heightened vanishing point perspective coupled with caked semi abstract surfaces in many of Kiefer’s early paintings encompass Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of the human condition described in Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, having its origins in the Athenian theatre and philosophy of ancient Greece. Human drives towards reason, order versus restraint and instinct, irrationality and passion are always in a state of flux determining governance of an individual or an entire society. When Kiefer depicts the Interior of Speer’s Reich’s building (1981, Oil, acrylic, paper on canvas, 287.5 x 311cm) he inverts the idea of Neoclassical pillars, shining white marble and geometric order appropriated by the Nazis for their own ends in the decaying, blackened interior. How we see, our ethics, are our aesthetics and vice versa. Imagination, visual language and morality are inevitably entwined. Architecture is our physical built environment but it is also a construction of how we see ourselves.

Interior

Interior (1981)

In The Stairs (1982-83, Emulsion, shellac, straw and scorch marks on photographs (on document paper) on canvas, 330 x 185cm) the heightened perspective of the colonnade symbolically dwarfs the human aspiration of the ascending staircase. This idea is extended in To The Unknown Painter (1983, Oil, acrylic, emulsion, aquatic latex, straw and shellac on canvas, 208 x381cm) to the stalk-like figure of a lone individual/ artist seen in relation to the surrounding architecture beneath an oppressive ceiling of black sky. The full emotional weight of history can be felt in these paintings, however there is always light and transformation present in Kiefer’s work, methodology and in his use of impermanent materials.

Ash Flower (1983-1997, Oil, emulsion, acrylic paint, clay, ash, earth and dried sunflower on canvas, 382.3 x 761.4cm) presents a more linear, ethereal vision of human architecture in the central towering stalk rising above the dimensions of the canvas and extending into the cracked curvature of earth in the foreground of the painting. Here at the base we see the ambiguous structure of the flower merged in circular form with the man-made rectilinear ceiling space receding to infinity. Bloom and roots stand tall in three dimensions against the two dimensional ashen surface, extraordinarily delicate and resilient, naturally following the movement of the sun and the cyclical nature of the seasons. In spite of devastation the figurative sunflower, a recurrent object and symbol in Kiefer’s work, remains central to the composition and the artist’s existential world view. Even the dead head of the flower contains the possibility of new growth.

Ash Flower

Ash Flower (1983-1997)

The three dimensional/ sculptural element of Kiefer’s paintings is immediately striking, tactile and invites closer inspection.  In his homage to the poet  For Paul Celan, Ash Flower (2006, Oil, emulsion, acrylic, shellac and burnt books on canvas, 300 x 760 x 40cm) the high horizon line and perspective of ploughed furrows creates an immensity of space, punctuated by three dimensional burnt books which protrude from the surface of the painting and into the viewer’s consciousness. Blackened twigs stick out of the earth like the broken remnants of a human forest. The artist actively challenges perception of the painting as a two dimensional art object and rallies against the passivity of received images.  In the same way that poetry distils language, creating spaces for the reader’s imagination to wander into and timelessly remain; Kiefer’s visual language is similarly refined.

In the artist’s mixed media work For Ingeborg Bachmann: The Renowned Orders of the Night. (1987/2014, 240 x 500cm) lead becomes the canvas and we are presented with a densely caked, glittering surface that feels like an excavated slab of earth glinting with diamonds like a vast salt plain in the sun. What is precious and everyday are bound together in the light emanating from this predominantly grey work, rich with association. Kiefer moves beyond personal, literary references to encompass a more universal, poetically distilled sense of meaning in creativity. The sparkling surface could be interpreted as salt, a precious material for ritual purification, preservation of organic material and essential for human life. We may see in the pock marked surface a lunar/celestial association with stars, of looking to the heavens for navigation, spiritual guidance or poetic points of recognition and brilliance in an otherwise grey world. We may also see scattered diamonds; carbon atoms arranged in a face centred cubic structure or one of the most highly prized and valuable objects known to man.  The felt sense here is of precious objects of precision whose true value can only be seen in the context of deep time; a truth of diamonds, poetry and painting.

Kiefer’s The Secret Life of Plants For Robert Fludd I, II, III (1987/2014,Triptych, Mixed media, each panel, 190 x 140cm) creates a cosmic expanse of cracked earth, dark matter, glowing diamonds and the tracery of constellations; of what we are and what we aspire to be, expanded out of ruins and into the realms of possibility. Like Robert Fludd’s Utriusque Cosmi  (1617-1621) a volume split between human life on earth and the divine realm of the universe, Kiefer’s Art is a bridge between the two, sharing the English Physician’s spirit of enquiry. Fludd produced vast encyclopaedias including writings on alchemy, Kabbalism and astronomy, subjects traditionally considered unscientific and aligned with universal mysteries. Like all great artists Kiefer assimilates cultural, societal and mythological codes that reach back to the origins of Art in Shamanism.

osisrus and IsisOsiris and Isis (1985-87)

Kiefer’s monumental painting Osiris and Isis (1985-87, Acrylic and oil emulsion with additional three dimensional media, 381 x 560.1 x 16.5cm) displays his enduring fascination with ancient civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, Egypt and South America.  Here we see a vast pyramid with a circuitry board at the summit displayed as another artefact, linked by conductive copper wires to shards of pottery numbered as in an archaeological dig. It is the image of a ruin but also of potential rebirth, linked to the story of Isis gathering together the parts of her husband’s body strewn across the ancient Egyptian landscape in order to raise him from the dead. The presence of the moon invokes natural cycles of light, dark and tides of history. The human belief in progress and permanence is laid bare by the passage of time and the presence of earth, clay and dust into which we will all return. The gradations of the stepped architecture, realised in drips and rhythmic impasto are extraordinary and like its companion piece in the space For Ingeborg Bachmann: The Sand From the Urns (1998-2009, Acrylic, oil, shellac and sand on canvas, 290 x 560 x 7cm) it commands the entire room.

One of the most beautiful rooms in the exhibition is devoted to Kiefer in colour. Undoubtedly living and working in France has provided the light, distance and perspective necessary for the artist to transform frozen fields of “Blut and Boden” (Blood and Soil) into fertile fields of wheat, moving in enormous swathes of decaying yellow, green and ultramarine, reminiscent of the vitality and fatality Van Gogh. In the Morgenthau Series Kiefer references the 1944 plan by the US Treasury Secretary to convert a defeated Germany back to a pre-industrial agricultural country. There is joy and melancholy in these works, a yearning for the sublime in nature and within our own nature.  Kiefer reveals “creation and destruction [as] one and the same”, death and resurrection mixed in with the palette. L’Origine du monde(The Origin of the World, 2013, Acrylic, emulsion, oil, shellac, metal, plaster, gold leaf, volcanic stone and sediment of electrolysis on photograph mounted on canvas, 280 x 380 x 30cm.) references Courbet’s 1866 painting of a woman’s genitals seen in the rusted steel trap with a volcanic rock suspended inside. The terror and fecundity of Mother Earth, combine with Vincent’s colours of gold and ultramarine bisecting the sky and uniting the History of Western Art with our most basic human drives. Stalks of real wheat flail, part and fall, but the all-pervasive feeling is of life and vitality in the choice and handling of materials and in the ideological trajectory of the work. Kiefer is without doubt one of the most important and insightful artists alive today and this retrospective is a rare opportunity to be overwhelmed by a Contemporary Art exhibition.

www.royalacademy.org.uk

The 12th Inverness Film Festival

5th – 9th November, Eden Court Cinemas.

PA

The Inverness Film Festival is an event I look forward to every November because it always reveals unexpected discoveries and emerging new voices. Unlike larger festivals such as EIFF, it doesn’t have an army of staff, a massive budget or stars arranging themselves on a red carpet. The vision is vital and creative, at times wonderfully left field and incredibly focused on quality. Each successive year I find myself being challenged, excited and changed by what I see on screen and IFF 2014 was no exception. Record audience numbers show that I wasn’t alone in enjoying a truly international and exceptional programme selected by Festival Director and Eden Court Cinema Programmer Paul Taylor. The 12th Inverness Film Festival featured 34 films from 21 countries, 5 UK premieres and 17 Scottish premieres and the top three films voted for by the audience demonstrate a very healthy appetite for independent world cinema. Designed by Harris based artist Steve Dilworth, the 2014 IFF Audience Award went to Norwegian film Kon-Tiki directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, closely followed by New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows by Jamaine Clement and Taika Waititi and Difret by Ethiopian director Zeresenay Mehari, exploring the plight of women abducted into forced marriages in sub-Saharan Africa.

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There were many highlights both in the short and feature film categories and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan screened on opening night was certainly one of them. Winner of best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, this absorbing multi-layered drama set on the edge of the Barents Sea in Northern Russia is defined by breath taking imagery, rich characterisation and fine performances. Leviathan is the story of Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) who lives with his wife IIya (Elena Lyadova) and teenage son on ancestral land that is illegally seized by the local mayor, supported by an equally corrupt court system. Kolya’s old friend Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) travels from Moscow to defend him, fracturing the already failing relationship between Kolya and his wife. The opening sequence sets the tone of the film with the swell of the sea, the illumination of a distant lighthouse and music by Phillip Glass which expands and contracts in mesmerising waves. Michail Krichman’s magnificent camerawork lingers on a serpentine curve of wreckage, the ribs of marooned boats and a profound stillness of place. We immediately feel that this is a psychologically charged, inner landscape and throughout the film the natural environment mirrors the psychological and emotional state of the characters.

Interwoven with this human drama is a critique of Russian society; the corruption of church and state, together with the Old Testament story of Job who is tested by God and Satan. In one scene the camera focuses on a statue of Christ with the Latin inscription “Ecce Homo”, “Behold the Man”, the words uttered by Pontius Pilate before the crucifixion and are left in no doubt that Kolya is fated to suffer. We see from the initial hearing in the unfaltering recital of a court official an outcome preordained. A portrait of Putin in the mayor’s office, the priest’s complicit counsel and the way that the camera moves through the congregation during a righteous sermon all reveal the dominance of self-interest, greed and a society visibly in decay.

On a more personal level Kolya is tested with the loss of his home, family and declining health through drinking. He stands in the ruin of a church staring up into the hollow of the steeple, weathered, decaying icons around him and an overwhelming question of faith and truth rises from the depths to confront the audience. The sea monster or whale of the title is physically present when it surfaces before Ilya as she stands on a cliff and when Kolya’s son Roma sits perched on a rock beside a gigantic whale skeleton, we feel the enormity of his loss. Each character is contained within themselves and the camera brings the audience close to Kolya’s blue despair as the sea swirls beneath him. There is however light and humour in all this human misery; a succession of Russian presidential portraits used for target practice, the compassion of neighbours who adopt Roma and the exquisite natural light on land, sea and human faces. Leviathan is a superbly crafted, brilliantly perceptive and rewarding film and Zvyagintsev whose previous films include The Banishment and The Return is undeniably a major talent.

Mystery Movie La Distancia (The Distance) by Catalan Director Sergio Caballero visibly draws inspiration from Andrei Tarvoksky’s 1979 Sci Fi film Stalker, the films of David Lynch and the artist Joseph Beuys. Set in Siberia a trio of telepathic dwarves; Volkov, Baronsky and Schumeck are hired by an Austrian performance artist locked inside an abandoned power station to steal “The Distance” inside. Surreal, absurd and featuring a love story between a Japanese speaking, poetry reciting smoking bucket and a chimney, The Distance is an enjoyably different heist film which you feel compelled to keep watching because you’ve no idea what’s coming next. The incredible setting, placement of figures in the landscape and central figure of the performance artist provide the most intriguing aspects of the film. There are also more disturbing Lynch-like elements in the mix; the repeated playing of a cassette by the dwarves that sounds like a woman being raped and murdered simultaneously, the visceral dissection of a hare and some distinctly male humour that misses the mark. One gets the feeling that Caballero is trying too hard to be cryptically “out there”. Direct references to the action pieces of Joseph Beuys including his 1974 performance work I Like America and America Likes Me where he spent three days in a gallery interacting with a coyote and wrapped in felt and How To Explain Pictures to A Dead Hare (1965) where he coated his head in honey and gold leaf, whispering to the dead hare cradled in his arms and moving from image to image are consciously appropriated. Some details are altered, like the head of the artist covered in earth or mud instead of gold, but for anyone familiar with Beuys it is hard not to read him as a central character in the film- perhaps not as a person but as an action. Even the machine that the dwarves construct to break into the power station resembles Beuys’s sculptural work. For Beuys the hare, which he used repeatedly in his work, symbolised incarnation “which the hare really enacts-something a human can only do in the imagination. It burrows, building itself a home in the earth”. When Beuys used fluid or unstable materials such as honey which like human thought can become a living substance he also alluded to the potentially  “stale and morbid nature of thought” and the human tendency to over intellectualise. (An irony not lost on me as I write this paragraph.) What the dwarves discover hidden within the vault and the artist’s somewhat insidious comment as he says goodbye to the hare; “They’ve got ‘The Distance’, I’ll get inside today” feels like an action. In the spirit of Beuys this to me would seem to be the point of The Distance (if there is one). Cabellero’s style in all its absurdity presents a stream of fluid ideas and was certainly one of the most talked about films of the festival, completely polarising the audience. A boldly perfect choice for a Mystery Movie -if there was a Marmite film award it would definitely win.

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Moving from the ridiculous to the sublime Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep is a quietly assured and stylistically mature drama by the director of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Climates and Uzak. The story centres on Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a former actor who runs a small hotel in Anatolia, living with his young, estranged wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and his sister Necla (Demet Akbag), all of their paths “parted under one roof”. Like all of Ceylan’s films it unfolds at its own pace, gradually laying bare the tangled web of relationships between the three central characters and the wider community, their dependencies, resentments and flawed intentions. It is characterisation that drives the film and the three leads deliver superb performances. The landscape itself is also a dominant presence, a starkly beautiful expanse with human dwellings set inside mountains of earth. Ceylan cleverly frames the central character of Aydin in this place of retreat and revelation, his black coat set in isolation against the landscape. The opening sequence with Aydin’s silhouette seen against outside light through a window frame is telling and masterful. The camera slowly pans into the character’s dark headspace and during the next 196 mins we see his masks of intellectual and social superiority and his manipulations, particularly of his tenants and his wife. In many ways the relationship between Aydin and his recently divorced sister Necla is closest; “I wish my threshold of self-deception was as low as yours” she says wryly to her brother, although they too are entwined in their own power play.

Each of the characters is imprisoned in emotional confinement of their own making. Aydin uses his high ideals and morals as “virtues to crush and humiliate people”, however each relationship in its own way is dependent and neither of them are able to leave. His wife Nihal who has by her own admission wasted her best years withering away in fear is painfully attached to the idolisation of her husband and has bitterly grown to hate the person she has become. When revelations do come for Aydin they are in isolation, we hear through voiceover his self-satisfied thoughts that are never shared with his wife; they remain like the setup of an earlier scene, sitting on the opposite sides of the room beholding each other via a mirror which is both a truth and a lie. Ironically it is at this point that Aydin begins to write the book he has been unable to start. Ceylan is beautifully aware of the compositional power of the frame and often uses it as a window of the self, fractured, searching and illuminated. In one scene where Aydin enters a cave-like stable space, it is as if horse and man share the same frozen breath with reversals of positive/ negative space; Aydin in black, the horse which he eventually sets free in white. Part of Ceylan’s skill as a director is the investment in the psychological evolution of his characters on a purely visual level. There is extended dialogue between characters trapped within their own words but the most telling moments are largely silent, allowing the actors to fully inhabit their roles. There are big themes explored but in a characteristically quiet way; the nature of forgiveness, love, good and evil are played out in contemplative detail. As Necla suggests; “the product will match its maker”. Winter Sleep is a perfectly poised, complex drama and a worthy winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

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The UK premiere of Australian Director Craig Monahan’s third feature Healing was one of the feel good highlights of the programme; a sensitive exploration of the human capacity for rehabilitation and forgiveness set in a minimum security prison farm in rural Victoria. Matt Perry (Hugo Weaving), a prison guard and case worker, comes to the aid of an Iranian prisoner Viktor Khadem (Don Hany) who is reaching the end of his sentence for murder. Inspired by a raptor rehabilitation programme run by Victoria’s state prison authority and Healesville Sanctuary, Monahan and co-writer Allison Nisselle deliver a moving story of loss and redemption. Although the emotive symbolism of broken wings and flight is laboured at times, the film is a unique prison drama in its refreshing, compassionate treatment of both inmates and prison guards. The performances by veteran stage and screen actor Hugo Weaving and Don Hany (best known for his roles in Australian TV series Underbelly and White Collar Blue) are outstanding.  Oscar winning Australian cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (Bran Nue Day, The Lovely Bones, The Lord of the Rings trilogy) is perfectly attuned to the natural light and wide open spaces of the Victorian countryside which is another star of the film along with the rescued owls, falcons and eagles.

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A Sunday afternoon Silent Film Double Bill with live music by Forrester Pyke was another great pleasure of the festival. Based on stories from the Arabian Nights Lotte Reinigers 1926 The Adventures of Prince Achmed was an utterly enchanting and joyful experience. Reinigers early animation in bold colour and black silhouette is brilliant example of pure simplicity and sophisticated, elegant design. This enthralling shadow play taps directly into the ancient origins of storytelling in flickering firelight and on cave walls. The characters are sublimely drawn, morphing before our eyes into demons, witches and fantastical creatures. In many ways magic lantern shows and early moving images were acts of conjuring; combining theatre, magic and illumination. The silent era is a wellspring of inspiration and innovation from a time when cinematic techniques were still being invented. There is no better way of experiencing this type of film than on a big screen with live music. The immediacy of improvisation, the building of tension and the enhancement of the emotional arc of the story and its characters are all qualities which came to the fore in Forrester Pyke’s  performance. The darkened space we enter into collectively allows imagination to take flight. Although no complete copy of the film survives, The Adventures of Prince Achmed clearly demonstrates the creative potency and pure visual storytelling of the silent era which continues to inspire contemporary audiences and filmmakers alike. This would have been the perfect opportunity to explore the craft of shadow play and animation through workshops as part of a cinema education programme.

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Reinigers magical tale was followed by Tod Browning’s equally engrossing feature The Unknown (1927)starring the great Lon Chaney as Alonzo the Armless, a circus knife thrower and shooter who falls in love with Nanon (Joan Crawford), the daughter of the circus Ringmaster who despises him. Nanon, who cannot stand to be touched or held by any man, is pursued by Malabar the Strongman but Alonzo is determined to keep her himself with murderous consequences. It is one of cinema’s most bizarre love triangles due to Alonzo’s secret and how he ultimately tries to win her love. There are elements of fetishism, burlesque and a whole lot of Freudian symbolism going on which will no doubt continue to fascinate, making The Unknown an enduring cult classic. What remains above all else is the genius of Chaney “the man of a thousand faces” as a master of human expression. As the only 35mm film screened at the festival and with live piano accompaniment it was an absolute privilege to see and discover this film for the first time, presented in the best possible way. It is rare to see a 35mm print in most independent/ Arthouse cinemas and non-existent at multiplexes, but whenever I have the chance of seeing a film in this format it affirms the quality of light and depth of field that makes it truly unique and largely unequalled in the digital age. The marks on a print become part of its history and part of the collective storytelling. The film was thought lost until it was rediscovered at the Cinematheque Francaise in the late 1960’s, found in one of hundreds of cans of film in their collection marked l’inconnu ,French for “unknown”. It is an example of the enduring qualities of celluloid which is still the most stable cinematic medium we have.

IFF has a strong tradition of showcasing Scottish short films and those with a local connection, highlighting the need for increased national support to facilitate the transition from shorts to feature filmmaking. It was gratifying to see increased audiences for all three selected short film screenings. Some of the highlights from the shorts programme included; Monkey Love Experiments directed by Ainslie Henderson and Will Anderson, Ian Waugh’s As He Lay Falling, Cara Connolly and Martin Clark’s Exchange and Mart, Douglas McDowall’s A Time For Freedom, Adam Stafford’s No Hope For Men Below, Rosie Reed Hillman’s Caileach, Jamie Magnus Stone’s Orbit Ever After and A Film Is A Film Is A Film by Eva Von Schweinitz.

Director Adam Stafford’s No Hope for Men Below (UK, 2013, 11mins) is a stunningly composed short with poetry in Scots dialect by Janet Paisley commemorating the 1923 Redding Pit disaster.  The opening black screen and anguished female voice is immediately compelling and as the story unfolds the imagery is superbly edited with sound in a way that sharpens our senses and flows with the rhythm of the spoken word. Shot in heightened black and white, we see pit black water sparkling with light, then turbulent and threatening as we move underground to claustrophobic chambers; a group of men illuminated eating their last bread, the face of a man who has written his final words to his family and bodies compacted together in a last embrace. The sound of breath in the dark brings the audience closer to the reality of the pit and the grief of those left behind. Stafford’s film is an incredibly muscular and compact 11 mins where poetry is created verbally and visually in perfect synthesis.

Rosie Reed Hillman’s Caileach (UK, 2014, 13 mins) is a wonderful and inspiring portrait of 86 year old Morag and her life in Licksto on the Isle of Harris. Hillman’s sensitive direction conveys the spirit and character of her subject, together with an acute sense of place.  “I can’t describe myself” Morag says, “I am me”, however the camera succeeds in capturing her spirited approach to life; through her everyday routines, interactions with her beloved sheep and contemplation of family photographs in the house she was born in, belonging to five previous generations. Whatever fears we hold about aging and death, in Morag we see not a Caileach (Old Woman) in decline, but a strong, independent and fearless individual facing her remaining years and mortality with assurance, grace and dignity. “It is a privilege to grow old” she says. “Many are denied it”. “I’m not afraid, perfect love casts out fear.” A single shot of a winding Harris road meeting a rainbow conveys visually, in perfect symmetry, that eternal optimism and an acceptance of being part of an essential cycle of life and death.

In Jamie Magnus Stone’s delightful and imaginative Orbit Ever After (Ireland/UK, 2013, 20 mins) Nigel, who lives with his quirky family on a ramshackle spaceship, sees a girl spinning round the earth the wrong way through his telescope and is instantly smitten. Trapped in different orbits they must find a way to communicate and reach each other. Stone’s inventive, whimsical and ultimately Romantic mediation on the need to leap into moments of connection and happiness to be truly alive (even if there’s a chance that you will burn up on re-entry) is positively brimming with warmth and humour.

Directed by screenwriter and filmmaker Douglas McDowall A Time of Freedom (UK, 2014, 20 mins) examines the tradition of the Boujloud, a pagan festival held in the Souss Valley in Southern Morocco. The three day ritual celebration of dancing, singing and masquerading has ancient roots in the Berker tradition and the central figure of the goat man or Bilmawm. Participants wear sheep or goat skins to invoke the power of the sacrificial animal, touching or hitting members of the crowd to impart good omens.  Although the role of the festival has changed over time, coexisting with Islam and becoming an economic driver in the area as a carnival, what is communicated in interviews with participants is the enduring need for ritual in contemporary life. Masks allow people to be and do what they wouldn’t ordinarily as part of a highly regulated society. McDowall’s editing, cinematography by Mike Webster and original music by Omar Afif and Joost Oud are skilfully interwoven as we follow individual stories, then move through the crowd as spectators and participants. What is fascinating and encouraging is the passionate, joyful embracing of this tradition by the younger generation as a connection to the ancestors, an affirmation of identity, social cohesion and perhaps most importantly in a modern context, the individual and collective release of suppressed emotion. The felt sense of participation in the Boujloud is very much linked to the health of the individual and society, with several of the interviewees commenting that if they didn’t wear the skins they just didn’t feel right or had physical symptoms.  Although the festival is culturally specific, it has global implications in terms of what we chose to embrace and what keeps us whole, individually and collectively. There are moments when Webster’s camera lingers on groups and individuals in the crowd, where time is slowed and we see glimpses of the Bilmawn as something deep within us. Since McDowall’s first short film The Wishing Well, screened at the Inverness Film Festival in 2008, there has clearly been significant development in the filmmaker’s style and process, resulting in this very promising short.

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Directed by Eva Von Schweinitz A Film Is A Film Is A Film (USA, 2013, 16mins) is a thoughtful meditation on the disappearance of celluloid film and the takeover of digital projection worldwide. Drawn to becoming a projectionist by the “Romantic notion” of “making magic” as a “backstage performer”, “secret agent” and “master of the booth”, Von Schweinitz gently and playfully considers the link between how we watch films and how we see. A decade of experience as a projectionist and her work as a filmmaker; experimenting with bleaching, scratching, burying and painting onto film reveals the nature and true value of celluloid.  The “precision”, “attentiveness” and skill of the projectionist which is so dependent on a tactile relationship and understanding of film has been largely replaced by the push of a button. With DCP initiated by the major studios forcing the abandonment of making and watching 35mm film the “Death of Film” has been proclaimed by many. In New York City there are about 40 film projectors left in cinemas. Von Schweinitz doesn’t offer a didactic case for the preservation of film as a medium; however her own creative approach as a filmmaker succeeds as a powerful argument for why we need it. Inspired by experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage (1933-2003) who placed the wings of moths and files between film, explored handheld camera techniques, painted directly onto film, used collage , multiple exposures and in camera editing Von Schweinitz asks a pertinent question; “how could you put the wings of a fly on an SD card?” The physicality of film, the way it ages, the way every print is scarred during its life, speaks to who and what we are as human beings. The flickering light of the projector, what Von Schweinitz describes as “moments of unknowingness” in the dark, like the natural process of a human eye blinking takes us  into the unknown, “embracing the unfamiliar and the now”. This isn’t simply nostalgia for a vanishing Art; Film, like digital media is a choice and to lose it completely would be an incalculable loss. It’s like not making oil paint anymore, simply because watercolours are cheaper and earn the warehouse a higher profit. There is sadness in this film visiting old mausoleum-like theatres, the camera focusing on what feels like a human stain on the floor where an old projector has been ripped out to make way for the latest digital model, but this is equalled by love and passion for the medium which is the best possible argument for why we still need it as part of contemporary culture.

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“Is there anything greater than to do the things you are passionate about until the end of your life?” asks Director Binder Jigjid in Byamba Sakhya’s wonderfully uplifting and thoughtful documentary Passion, following Jigjid across the vastness of Mongolia as he tries to distribute and screen his latest film Human Traffic.  The challenging, magnificent landscapes of Mongolia aren’t simply a backdrop but a vital element in the expansive creative vision of both directors and the dialogue between them provides a window on the world. As we travel with them from village to village the fascinating history of Mongolian cinema is revealed including the work of Jigjid’s Father, a pioneering director. We visit the abandoned film studios that once employed hundreds of people during a time of national film production and distribution through state run cinemas under Soviet control and censorship. Jigjid reflects on contemporary society overwhelmed by the increasingly global free market to the point where it “cannot distinguish between what is art and what is business” and where “Success {is} dependent on promotion not quality”.  The beauty of this film lies in Sakhya’s gentle insistence that “this film is about you” and in the sparkling eyes, humility and profound understanding of Binder Jigjid as a director and as a human being. “Where is the boundary between passion and greed? he asks of himself as a filmmaker and of the audience as consumers. “Creating good Art means you have to be truthful with yourself”. This beautiful documentary brings that core question of human intention and aspiration brilliantly into focus.

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IFF continued its strong tradition of showcasing the work of the world’s most promising first feature directors and this year’s selection presented some significant highlights. Director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s debut feature The Tribe is a powerfully arresting and thoroughly immersive experience set in a boarding school for the deaf. Performed in sign language without any subtitles, voiceover or music, the film completely subverts the default position of mainstream cinematic storytelling; namely to tell the audience everything. Typically dialogue and musical cues tell us how to read and feel about the characters and their story. Here Slaboshpytskiy makes us watch film differently; denying sound (apart from naturally occurring actions like footsteps) and heightening our visual/ gestural readings of tension, tenderness and violence. For the majority of the audience who don’t use or understand sign language, what we are left with is something purer in terms of human expression through cinema, but also something harsher; a cold and uncompromising vision of an alienated world where you either exploit others or be exploited yourself. Like all gang cultures the code is silence and the need to belong, especially amongst adolescents, is painfully universal. The Tribe transcends its own subcultural language by making the viewer feel as viscerally raw and isolated as its characters. Editor and cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych first keeps the audience at a distance, then moves to handheld immediacy as we follow a new pupil’s induction into an underground world of prostitution and organised crime. Often our view is that of another student sitting at the back of a class or following behind with the pack like a new recruit. The untrained acting is intensely physical and there are scenes that are unflinchingly honest and emotionally alienating in their depiction of sex, prostitution, violence and abortion. But that’s exactly the point. By far the most unsettling element is the world that Slaboshpytskiy’s depicts; the institutional microcosm and its decaying walls reflect a wider reality. Although there are glimmers of innocence and intimacy in the main character Sergeu (Grigoriy Fesenko) this soon turns to possessive, explosive rage. Winner of the Critics Week Grand Prize, the France 4 Visionary Award, the Gan Foundation Support for Distribution and the Golden Camera award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival this is a bleak but intensely promising first film for both the director and cinematographer.

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Maya Vitkova’s strikingly accomplished first feature Viktoria was another extraordinary highlight of the festival. The whole question of nurturing, the central relationships between mothers and daughters over three generations and the rise and fall of communism in Bulgaria are examined in a complex story which is as epic as it is personal. Dedicated to the director’s Mother and semi-autobiographical, Vitkova’s story is infused with political satire, absurdist humour and a deep sense of loss – not just for the individual but for an entire country. Librarian Boryana (Irmena Chichikova) is determined not to have children and dreams of escaping to America. Despite all her efforts at thwarting pregnancy she gives birth to a baby girl (Viktoria) without a belly button or umbilical cord, a symbolic lack of any real connection between mother and child. This medical miracle on Victory Day draws unrelenting attention from the authorities. She becomes the Socialist regime’s “Baby of the Decade”, with a direct line to the Party leader making it impossible for her mother to flee the country. Played at age 9 by Daria Vitkova, then later by Kalina Vitkova, Viktoria grows up spoilt by Party indulgence, universally applauded by those in power and those who have none, her entire self-worth determined by the state. With the collapse of Communism in 1989 the child’s entire world comes crashing down, she is no longer special or adored, remaining unwanted and resented by her mother and increasingly isolated. The lack of a belly button that once singled her out for special treatment only serves to alienate her further. As she matures as a young woman in a new post-communist state Viktoria becomes a nurturing influence on her grandmother Dima (Mariana Krumova), a Party faithful who is presented initially as a judgemental, draconian force in the home, destroying her daughter Boryana’s contraband Coke bottles and statue of liberty cigarette lighter with a mallet. In Dima we see that freedom is relative and exacts a price; loss of certainty, purpose, meaning and identity result in her mental breakdown. It is only after Dima’s death that the tortured figure of her daughter Boryana, so distant and painfully unfulfilled, finds some point of connection as she tends her mother’s lifeless body. There is hope however amongst all the sorrow communicated by a new dawn and in the postcard Boryana receives from her daughter. It seems that for Viktoria the future holds more promise of human fulfilment than was possible for preceding generations.

Vitkova’s treatment of her subject is political and poetic. The director cleverly utilises news footage, juxtaposing world events; acts of revolution, conflict and resistance for historical context and to suggest an ever expanding field of reference. But the most significant stylistic development is the director’s ability to explore her characters’ psychological and emotional states through eloquent, dreamlike imagery. It is in this visual language that the Vitkova really finds her voice. The most beautiful, insightful and memorable images in the film are universally the most poignant. Trapped by a child she never wanted Boryana is unable to produce milk, a recurrent source of symbolic imagery throughout the film; a nipple exploding with milk she can’t express, unwanted rations of milk from Dima spilt on the ground and bubbling in the soil like acid, milk flowing from the body and finally a torrent like tears in cleansing rain. One of the most affecting sequences in the film is a dream of the child and her mother in a swimming pool, Boryana cradles Viktoria in her arms and for the first time they really see each other. The look they exchange is of unconditional love and acceptance, a state denied in waking life. Cinematographer Krum Rodriguez works from a subdued, clinical palette to convey a sterile environment, punctuated by red with all its political, cultural and emotional associations. A display of drawings and photographs in Viktoria’s bedroom reads as a red tree collage of party allegiance rather than a display of familial connections or imaginative play. In another sequence an umbilical cord grows like a tree root out of the sleeping Viktoria, becoming the line to the Party leader’s telephone. Elements of the surreal in these sequences achieve a heightened sense of reality and emotional truth. High crane shots are used to great effect in relation to the human figure, particularly to delineate the relationship between the individual and the collective. But the camera is equally attuned to the intimacy of relationships and their powerful estrangement in close-up. At the time of writing Viktoria does not have UK distribution, an example of the important role film festivals have in bringing the work of emerging artists/directors wider attention and attracting future investment in their evolving work.

www.invernessfilmfestival.com