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