Revisionism and the Art of Decay

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

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

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

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 Who has the right to alter or remove historical documents, artefacts or art objects from public view and under what circumstances, if at all?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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Composer Richard Wagner, Paris, 1867. Wikipedia Commons.

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

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

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

Press articles:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AGES OF WONDER

SCOTLAND’S ART 1540 TO NOW

Collected by the Royal Scottish Academy

4 November – 7 January 2018, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh.

Mary Bourne RSA (b 1946) Dava Targe, Kilmartin Slate, 1994., RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 2009.

“Only when we recognise that we are heirs can we truly be pioneers” Martyn Bennett, Musician and Composer (1971-2005)

The visual language of Neoclassical columns, white marble, gilt and pediments adorned with statues usually infers learned authority, or the political need to project it. Architectural revivals of Golden Ages past are always about the power of knowledge and how it is used, for good or ill.  When visitors enter many Western public art spaces a powerful statement is communicated by the built environment and the institutions that occupy them, as arbiters of collective aspiration, education and good taste. On the surface the National Gallery of Scotland and Royal Scottish Academy buildings also display these loaded facades.  The underground link between the two is not immediately visible to the visitor, nor is the history of artist led advocacy that binds them and created a National Collection for Scotland. The 1910 accord which brought the RSA collection under the umbrella of the NGS is echoed in Ages of Wonder, an extensive exhibition occupying all seven upper galleries, sculpture court and four lower galleries in the prominent RSA building. Effectively reclaiming the whole space for Scottish Art past and present makes a powerful statement of its own.

Self Portrait (Oil on canvas, 1844) by Thomas Duncan RSA (1807-1845)

History and tradition are richly in evidence, reflecting centuries of masculine leadership and disciplinary hierarchies, but thankfully there is significantly more on display than the pomp of the Edinburgh Arts establishment. The guts of this show are the practice of Art and the necessity of making the work of Scottish Artists visible. On entering Gallery 7 Portraiture and Presidents for example, paintings of RSA presidents and their projected status are certainly part of the display, but equally so is the human Art of portraiture. It is an immense pleasure to discover works such as James Cowie’s quietly understated portrait of Miss Barbara Graham Cowie (Oil on plywood, 1938, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1946) or the intriguing man behind the presidency in Thomas Duncan’s RSA Self Portrait (Oil on canvas, 1844, Presented to the RSA by fifty Scottish artists, 1845, transferred and presented by the RSA to the NGS, 1910.) Emerging out of a pitch dark umber ground, channelling the introspective spirit of Rembrandt, we see the face of a man who we feel is not entirely without privilege, but also not without care. His prematurely receding hairline, high forehead and deep-set eyes are at one with the space he occupies. With his hand resting pensively below his chin, it’s an intellectual, charismatic vision of the self, dwarfed by the mysterious, ever-expanding depth of the canvas. His mouth contains the vaguest hint of a smile, concentrated in circular tension at either side of a mouth which is simultaneously straight and curvaceous. We feel there’s wit in that feint glimmer of a smile and that he might speak at any moment, having first greeted the viewer and met our gaze (and his mirrored self) with equal regard. The entire portrait suggests, independent of his white cuffs, signature ring and the century inhabited, that there is infinitely more to this man that what is illuminated by the posed three-quarter focus lighting. Being in the presence of this ageless 19th Century gentleman rendered in oils by his own hand, we see that we are not simply in the company of an office bearer, but an artist, demonstrating through his own crafted image that there is infinitely more to see. Like all great portraits Duncan’s conceals and reveals in unexpected ways.

There are many more gems in this show that bring Art practice centre stage and assert the value of making as an imperative. Curated by current Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) President Arthur Watson, RSA Collections Curator Sandy Wood and Honorary Academician Tom Normand, Ages of Wonder is a collaborative project of unprecedented scale. Arranged thematically by subject and discipline, the exhibition is also defined by live events, touring elements, a collecting symposium, an exhibition catalogue and book of essays. Created in partnership with the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA), National Galleries of Scotland (NGS), Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Dundee, it’s an exhibition brimming with possibilities in terms of how we might perceive and celebrate Scottish Art differently. At the heart of the show is the question of how our national collections are valued, conserved, expanded, utilised and shared, locally, nationally and internationally. The question of how we value artists as a society and the nature of what we choose to build also underpin that potential.

Thomas Hamilton RSA (1754-1858) Design for the Royal High School , (Watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper, about 1825-30, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1831)

The “two temples of Art” on The Mound were both designed by William Henry Playfair RSA (1789-1857) at a time when the city was reimagining itself. Between ancient “Civilization” and the progressively Modern, it’s an architectural vision of the “Athens of the North” with Edinburgh at the centre of European Enlightenment. Playfair’s contemporary, Thomas Hamilton RSA (1754-1858) also reflects this idea in his Greek Revival design for The Royal High School, Edinburgh, (Watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper, about 1825-30, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1831). Hamilton’s delicate watercolour imagines a seat of learning, defined by Neoclassical sureties and a warm Mediterranean palette of forward thinking optimism. This vision of the city has its roots in the glories and mythologies of an ancient past. Taking Gallery 6 of Ages of Wonder as an example; Architecture: Hamilton, Playfair and the Making of Edinburgh certainly makes an aspirational statement about how we reimagine our collective selves within a built environment. Although firmly anchored to where the viewer stands, among the drawings, paintings, models, photographs and other archival material on display there is also a less site specific, universal and transcendent creative drive at work. In the same gallery, William H Kinnloch’s 1978 design for a house at 46 Dick Place is a fine example of a very beautifully drafted, fluidly executed watercolour, unlikely to be part of an architect’s working process today. There’s essential tension between practical, ideological and institutional elements of the show which are ripe for debate. My hope is that rather than alignment with the colonnade, the creative core of the show will be a catalyst for future collaborative events and new ways of seeing Scottish Art. There is a golden opportunity, particularly within the live elements of the exhibition, to redefine the relevance of cultural institutions, their function and the value of Art practice in the 21st Century.

Beth L Fisher RSA Burial II (Conte and charcoal on paper, 2006. RSA Diploma Collection Deposit. 2006).

Ironically the traditional techniques, training and sensitivity found in The Life School: Drawing, Anatomy and the Figure in Gallery 1, are principles that popular culture and art colleges throughout the country have largely abandoned. In this wonderous, “connected” age of technology, you would be hard pressed to find a more moving, empathic expression of grief than the rendering of human figures in Beth L Fisher’s RSA Burial II (Conte and charcoal on paper, 2006. RSA Diploma Collection Deposit. 2006). On the opposite wall Samuel John Peploe’s RSA Female Nude with Pitcher (Oil on canvas, 1895, RSA Life School Award Deposit 1895) is an equally illuminating realisation of the Feminine. Standing in the Life School Gallery seeing works like these, the Laing Bequest of Old Master drawings, the spirit of enquiry in Andrea Vesalius’s etched plates and a live Life Class taking place, it is easy to see why what is not being taught is in such increasing high demand. The RSA has always been a teaching institution and this live element is a very promising initiative. Selected students will be working directly from the model, under the guidance of tutors John Byrne, George Donald, Jennifer McRae and Robert Rivers, weekly for the duration of the show. Contemporary innovation, in terms of making and seeing, is dependent on deeper understanding of artistic discipline. Imaginative freedom, individually and collectively, is impossible without it.

Elements like the live Life School and Professor Dame Sue Black’s DBE, FRSE, HRSA lecture on Art and Anatomy give valuable insight into the practice of Art and Science that many visitors (unless they are practitioners themselves) will be unfamiliar with. The focus on Original Print and the Art of Etching in the Finlay Room also features live events with artists Frances Walker, Stuart Duffin, Paul Furneaux, Delia Baille, Marion Smith and Jessica Harrison creating work on “ES Lumsden’s historic star wheel printing press (the first piece of machinery to enter the Academy’s collections)”. Leading into The Art of Etching section, the supreme skill and artistry of John Martin’s (HRSA) apocalyptic mezzotints, with the hand of the artist present from conception to completion is another unexpected highlight. The printmaking and Life School elements of the exhibition will tour in 2018/19, extending the reach of the show beyond the capital. Hopefully this will also stimulate revival of the radical practice, established between 1840 -1932 when academicians, or “visitors”, taught in an RSA operated Life School. Although the idea of “an independent post graduate facility for elite art students” requires examination of the qualifiers, recognising and utilising the knowledge, skills and expertise of professional artists as a national asset is long overdue. Established in 1829, the RSA remains the longest established artist-run society in the country. In terms of political leadership, Art Education, training and investment in creative process it is a vital resource and a foundation of advocacy.

Image of RSA Ages of Wonder Exhibition ,Sculpture Court, The Keith Rand Gift: A Depth of Practice, Photograph courtesy of RSA Press Office.

Viewers may be diverted or overwhelmed by elements such as the 19th Century Academy: A Victorian Eye Salon hanging of works in Gallery 3. Stepping into this space with its sumptuous walls of deep claret and green velvet adjoining couches for cultivated conversation in the centre, there was also the very humorous touch at the press view of 21st Century dandy/ artist/ practitioner John Byrne being interviewed amidst the loaded hierarchy of Masters hung from floor to ceiling.  However, being temporarily dazzled by the sheer weight and density of tradition or artist as celebrity still doesn’t trump the grounded practice and connectivity of Art, driven by our innate curiosity as a species and our profound need to understand. In the Sculpture Court, The Keith Rand Gift: A Depth of Practice displays some of the contents of his studio gifted to the RSA, including drawings, inspirational organic objects, handmade tools, macquettes and full-scale works, giving insight into Rand’s thought process and crafting of objects. Part of this display is a leaf, an object from the natural world that is instantly relatable regardless of the viewer’s education or background. The visitor free associates between these man-made objects and those from the natural world, rather than receiving explanation via a label about a designated Art object. In this way we are brought into direct contact with creative process, the individual artist’s and our own.

Detail of Richard Murphy’s Wunderkammer – “a new cabinet of curiosities”. Photograph courtesy of RSA Press Office.

Richard Murphy’s Wunderkammer “a new cabinet of curiosities” featuring rare books, sculpture, objects, photographs and digital Turning the Pages software is a brilliant manifestation of this principle of creative connectivity and sense of ownership. The RSA library may seem like a scholarly and remote repository but here a contemporary commission transforms what we think such a collection can be. Beautifully sleek, designed to be viewed from every angle and lit for illumination of each unique piece, the alluring three-dimensional framing invites you to come closer and be curious. Exploring the contents and the imaginative connectivity of objects across time presents a less linear view of collections /collecting and for the viewer there is freedom in that fluidity. Drawing inspiration from architect Sir John Soane’s (HRSA) donation to the RSA library in 1829 and his extraordinary London home (now a museum and itself a cabinet of wonders, well worth visiting) the juxtaposition of objects is a constant source of surprise as you move around the 21st Century cabinet. Jewel-like enamels by Phoebe Anna Traquair, an elemental watercolour on parchment From the Red Cabinet (2001) by Kate Whiteford, Hew Martin Lorimer’s small bronze Our Lady of the Isles (about 1954-1972) and a printed book bound in the publisher’s original paper (1826) of William Blake’s Illustrations for the Book of Job are just some of the treasures within and thankfully out of storage.

Sir James Guthrie PRSA Midsummer (Oil on canvas, 1892) RSA Diploma Collection Deposit 1893,

Other contemporary commissions also lead into historical works on display in surprising ways. Adjacent to Kenny Hunter’s four part bust of Sir James Guthrie PRSA is the artist’s glorious celebration of light in Midsummer (Oil on canvas, 1890) in bold, dappled impasto and a living palette of vivid green and purple. Seated beneath a low canopy of trees, three women are drinking tea, each inhabiting their own world despite the appearance of society. The combination of light and shadow brings unexpected emphasis on the inner world of each sitter, beyond the aesthetic comfort of an Impressionistic style. Hunter picks up Guthrie’s inner palette in the split sections of the portrait bust, suggesting various aspects of personality beyond the public persona.

Frances Walker RSA RSW DLitt. (b1930) Foreshore at Footdee (Oil on board, 1980)

Strangely, Gallery 4 The 21st Century: A Contemporary Academy left me feeling rather cold and dispassionate in comparison to the works of living artists relegated to the 20th Century A Nationwide Gallery (Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, The Highlands and Northern Isles) in Gallery 5. Frances Walker’s Foreshore at Footdee (Oil on board, 1980) is a fine example, a supremely balanced composition of subtle greys, accented with orange, pink and green. It’s a potent statement, 37 years ahead of its time with large boulders, lumps of concrete and smoothed pebbles, punctuated by manmade detritus. The eye is drawn to human interventions and signs of industrialisation, a plastic bottle and white traces of rope or wire. The scale of transformation along the eroding shoreline dwarfs the only visible human figure silhouette in the distance, whilst the high horizon line is populated with industrial buildings. Walker’s work is informed by the tracery of human marks upon the Northern landscape. The sea is rendered as a rhythmic pattern of white lines on mid grey, drawing the viewer into the detail of a place lived and observed. The organic erosion of wind and waves is tempered with industrial paint colours in a complex dynamic of realism. This is the very altered land and seascape of the Highlands, Islands and North East of Scotland, striking in its immediacy and contemporary relevance.

Joyce W Cairns RSA RSW Hon RBA MA(RCA), Polish Journey (Oil on board, about 1998-99, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1999)

Also featured in the same room is a work by Joyce W Cairns RSA RSW Hon RBA MA(RCA), Polish Journey (Oil on board, about 1998-99, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1999), linked to one of the most important bodies of work ever created by any Scottish or UK Artist, War Tourist. Over a decade in the making, this extraordinary body of work was exhibited at the Aberdeen Art Gallery from 10th February to 8th April 2006 and has yet to be shown elsewhere. It is a response to war that began with the artist retracing her Father’s experiences in WWII through Europe and North Africa, leading her to Nazi concentration camps in Germany and Poland and to the contemporary experience of televised warfare seen during the Bosnian War (1992-1995), where ethnic and religious conflicts again resulted in genocide. Her meditations on major international conflicts and experience of wartime on the home front often incorporate everyday objects of remembrance. There is no other artist in the country who paints large scale figurative compositions with such skill, power and compassion. Inspired by German artists such as Dix and Beckmann whilst still a student, equalling their precision and emotional gravitas, her work is richly expressive and dreamlike in its evocation of human memory.

In Polish Journey we see a semi-autobiographical female protagonist wearing an image of the artist’s father around her neck. Her sallow skin appears stained by the knowledge leaching out of yellow cloth printed with the Star of David, used to mark and condemn Jewish victims of Hitler’s “Final Solution”. This bundle of industrially printed cloth is a chilling indicator of scale and over it is a wreath of poppies “In Remembrance”. The psychological stain on the soul in seeing sites of starvation, misery and mass murder is coupled with the solemnity of her expression and a tellingly composite uniform. The stitching of HMS Ark Royal, a modern invincible class navy flagship, grey military coat with black and red trim, German belt bearing a swastika and striped skirt aligned with the material draped like a proscenium arch above the scene, brings together the human fabric of all wars. The oppressors, the oppressed and liberating forces can transform into each other during wartime with astonishing speed and righteous self-justification. There is often a sense of the Feminine protagonist or witness in Cairns’ paintings, taking on this mantle of human shame, atrocity and bravery, enabling successive generations to see and acknowledge what we are and what we are capable of. In Cairns’ work human creation and destruction are equally present. The arrangement of other objects in the composition are an interrogation of commercial and domestic complicity hidden in plain sight. Cairn’s flips the idea of the benign, traditionally feminine still life genre completely on its head by combining it with the traditionally masculine dominance and authority of History Painting. The presence of a Zyklon B Tesch & Stabenov canister, a company who produced pest control chemicals and were implicated as suppliers to Nazi Death camps at the Nuremberg trials, is a powerful reminder of how ordinary people actively participate in persecution and genocide. Around the central figure three dolls are suspended as if hung, one in striped camp uniform is labelled with a number, another with a suitcase resembling a child arriving off a train with her name “Klara Sarah Goldstein” chalked onto her luggage. Broken dolls are part of the trajectory that projects into the viewer’s foreground. We can’t comfortably relegate this image to history or as a distant memorial, because in human terms it is ever present, absorbed into the steely blue and cadmium red palette of conflicted Nature that we are as human beings. Cairn’s deconstructs this with the passionate impetus of Expressionism and the pure compositional order of Abstraction. She is yet another artist, based predominantly in the North of Scotland for much of her career, long overdue for a major national retrospective. In contrast to the exposure afforded her male contemporaries its an oversight that needs to be rectified and perhaps the collaborative nature of this exhibition will enable that to happen. The positioning of some artists in the show, or their absence from the national collection altogether, is worthy cause for further debate. From the display of a single painting to wider acknowledgement, placing the work of our greatest living artists on a global stage is entirely possible. In Cairns’ case, I can think of no better time for an international collaboration exploring her connections with the confrontational Neue Sachlichkeit/ New Objectivity of Weimar Germany and the contemporary relevance of her practice in a “Post Truth” world.

What I took away from this exhibition was excitement in seeing human “curiosity and practice” in action, a positive statement of value in relation to Scottish Art made visible and the possibility of future investment and collaboration. Although there is more work to be done before our National Collections adequately reflect important work by Scottish Artists throughout the country, this exhibition is a significant step forwards in terms of Scottish Visual Culture entering public consciousness. The decision to make the exhibition free, therefore accessible and able to be visited multiple times is exactly as it should be, both for residents and visitors. Perhaps Ages of Wonder will also pave the way for a more balanced permanent display of Scottish Art in the capital and wider circulation of works from the National Collection around the country. People cannot discover, champion, love or be inspired by what is hidden.

www.royalscottishacademy.org

www.nationalgalleries.org

#AgesofWonder

Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919 – 1933

TATE LIVERPOOL 

23 June – 15 October 2017

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Self-Portrait with Easel 1926
(Selbstbildnis mit Staffelei) 1926
800 x 550 mm
Leopold-Hoesch-Museum & Papiermuseum, Düren
© DACS 2017. Leopold-Hoesch-Museum & Papiermuseum Düren. Photo: Peter Hinschläger.

“Photography has presented us with new possibilities and new tasks. It can depict things in magnificent beauty but also in terrible truth, and can also deceive enormously. We must be able to bear seeing the truth, but above all we should hand down the truth to our fellow human beings and to posterity, be it favourable to us or unfavourable.” August Sander

Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919 – 1933 is an overwhelming experience and a profoundly relevant exhibition in a “post truth” world. It combines two extraordinary shows Artist Rooms: August Sander and Otto Dix: The Evil Eye, each giving context, insight and new perspectives to the other. With over 300 works on display there is a lot to take in, including Dix’s devastating War etchings. Visitors are directed first to the Sander exhibition which is completely absorbing, so allow yourself ample time to spend with Dix’s compelling work in part two. (You may well need a break inbetween!)  Entwined with a historical timeline in handwritten script, August Sander’s black and white photography brings humanity and compassion into focus, in perfect counterpoint with the psychological extremities of Dix’s paintings, drawings and prints. Curated by Dr Susanne Mayer-Büser, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Francesco Manacorda, Artistic Director and Lauren Barnes, Assistant Curator, Tate Liverpool in collaboration with Artist Rooms (a collection jointly owned by the National Galleries of Scotland and the Tate) and the German Historical Institute, the exhibition is an inspiring collaboration, moving beyond words and essential viewing.

August Sander, 1876-1964
Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne 1931, printed 1992
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
260 x 149 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

The Weimar period in Germany between the first and second World Wars has always fascinated me, because the outpouring of Art it produced illuminates the best and the very worst that human beings are universally capable of. Art has a pivotal role to play in acknowledging, understanding and potentially altering human perception. It can confront us with uncomfortable truths and with the timeless necessity for ongoing ethical, social and cultural reappraisal. Weimar Germany produced astonishing, disturbing and visionary work in film, literature and visual art, dancing on the edge of an abyss, or peering courageously into it as Germany descended into Nazi radicalisation. Sander and Dix were witnesses to the monumental collapse of civilization around them. Their work is testament to “magnificent beauty” and “terrible truth” of the human condition, encompassing our propensity for creation and destruction as a species. To have lived through such a time is something of an abstract to 21st Century eyes, which is why this work needs to be seen, doubly so in the times we’re now living in. This history lived visually displays how chillingly easy it is to deceive ourselves, individually and collectively.  In terms of freedom of expression and tolerance, Art is a matter of life and death, something totalitarian regimes have always understood and that we forget at our peril.

The effect of seeing this exhibition may be jolting, shocking and highly confrontational to some viewers, especially in relation to the savagery of Dix’s work, but grinding poverty, dispossession and the depravity of war exist all over the world today and that should shock everyone.   Sander’s epic photographic project People of the 20th Century, which began in 1910 and was still unfinished when he died in 1964, endures as a creative act of responsibility, reconnaissance and remembrance. The exhibition presents 144 photographs from the series, mixing the various categories and portfolios: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City and The Last People. Sander sought to create “a social atlas of Germany”. His categorisations responded to the descent into fascism with the addition of The Persecuted and Political Prisoners portfolios, the latter made by his son Erich Sander in prison before his death in 1944. Significantly August Sander doesn’t preach or denounce, but allows the character and dignity of each sitter to speak for itself. These aren’t portraits taken for aesthetic reasons or commission, but with the objectivity demanded by the political, social, cultural conditions and constraints of the time. Sander’s lens, like his mind  and heart, were egalitarian by nature. He was leftist, antifascist, aligned with the Cologne Progressives and worker’s movement, politics that made him a target for the National Socialist party. In 1936 stocks of his first book Face of our Time (German: Antlitz der Zeit), published in 1929, were confiscated by the Nazis and the photographic plates destroyed. His work was considered “un German “by the Third Reich in its essential connectivity. What speaks to the viewer across time are the faces of individuals and the humanity at the heart of Sander’s life- long project. Photographing German society according to hierarchical occupations and class was entirely in keeping with his worldview. To contemporary eyes, categorising human beings may seem extremely clinical and ironic given the systematic application of that methodology to the Holocaust. We may also perceive categories such as The Last People; idiots, the sick, the insane, and the dying or The City; Travelling People, Gypsies and Transients as dispassionate and potentially inflammatory, however Sander’s intent was inclusion, highlighting marginalisation in German society.

August Sander, 1876-1964
Disabled ex-serviceman c.1928, printed 1990
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
260 x 190 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

In Disabled Ex-Serviceman (1928, gelatin silver print on paper) for example, we see the human cost of industrialised warfare in his image of an amputee at the bottom of the stairs, literally and metaphorically, unable to rise. After the disastrous First World War, the pointed gaze of the soldier confronts us with the pariah status of an entire nation and our own complicity or resistance in the world. There is no glory or heroism, just damaged, desperate lives in a climate of inflation, unemployment and poverty.  Sander’s portraits affirm the relationship between photographer and sitter as one human being beholding another, appealing directly to the emotional intelligence of the viewer. Whether fixing his gaze upon a Mousetrap Salesman, Proletarian Intellectuals, Blacksmiths, Bricklayers, Mothers, Artists, Circus Performers, Industrialists, Philosophers or SS Officers, Sander’s grasp of humanity allows him to craft an image of everyone without judgement, a quality that should never be mistaken for neutrality. The eyes of his sitters meet ours in moments of recognition that are immensely powerful, poignant and prophetic. We see in Sander’s photographs so many people who would have been reclassified by the Third Reich as less than human. We will never know how many of these people were tortured, starved and murdered as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution”. Political activists, so called “degenerate” artists, disabled people, homosexuals or anyone of non-Aryan descent were all marked for extermination by the regime. Thankfully in Sander’s work we can still see some of their faces, long after the generation who survived WWII have passed.

One of my favourite Sander images is Girl in A Fairground Caravan (1926-32, silver gelatin print on paper). Framed by a small window with just her head and shoulders visible, her hand extends to the outside lock on the door, within a stain-like pattern on the side of the caravan. On the cusp of adulthood her face is solemnly fixed on the viewer, poised, wary, with eyes far older than her years. Far from a youthful, carefree existence, we feel her confinement and the edge of trust in the camera as witness. It is an intensely psychological portrait of a threshold stage of life and its attendant fears, together with a burgeoning climate of isolation and persecution. With the hindsight of history, the caravan resembles a railway carriage. Whenever I look at this photograph I wonder what became of this young woman, how her story unfolded in the gathering storm and whether she survived, existed or eventually prospered. Sander’s images are timelessly potent in that respect. Even though many of his sitters are nameless, they are real, relatable and hauntingly empathic, as fragile as we all are in the midst of events we cannot control. The girl looks as though in the next moment she could turn the key in the lock and step outside, but here she remains, held in a single breath of hesitation, suspended forever in the photograph between childhood and adulthood, life and death.

There’s unexpected beauty and grace in Sander’s image of two Blacksmiths (1926, silver gelatin print on paper), part of the Skilled Tradesman / The Worker- His life and work portfolio. The older man, hammer in hand is so positively strong, proud and confident in his skill, gained through years of experience. We feel that he is at a stage of life where he is comfortable in his own skin, whilst his younger apprentice, with a heavily defined and doubtful, creased brow, hasn’t matured into his profession or himself yet. Side by side with the anvil between them they are level, part of an endless cycle. Humanity is Sander’s baseline in every shot.

August Sander, 1876-1964
Turkish Mousetrap Salesman 1924-30, printed 1990
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
260 x 191 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

In the photograph Turkish Mousetrap Salesman (1924-30, gelatin silver print on paper) from the portfolio The City/ Travelling People, Gypsies and Transients, we see strength, resilience, weariness, fear and sadness in the face of a man, perhaps in his late 40’s or early 50’s. His intense eyes convey vulnerability and stature, transcending his position in society. Economic hardship and uncertainty are etched across his face. Sander’s choice of a large format camera, glass negatives and long exposure times, capture with care every detail of the person. We feel the rough texture of the salesman’s worn jacket, delicate wisps of aged hair and patches of loss, his scars, beautifully defined mouth and soulful eyes. Rejecting the latest photographic equipment, Sander favoured the daguerreotype, declaring that it; “cannot be surpassed in the delicacy of delineation, it is objectivity in the best sense of the word and has a contemporary relevance.”  The choice of analogue in our own time and what it signifies in terms of Craft and human values, equally so.


August Sander, 1876-1964
The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha 1925-6, printed 1991
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
205 x 241 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

Sander’s double portrait of The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha (1925-6, silver gelatin print on paper) presents an interesting dynamic of equality. Martha, a fashionable socialite, faces the camera in a frontal pose, whilst her husband with his unmistakable profile is positioned behind her, blonde hair slicked back in an “American style”. We are left in no doubt that the primary subject is Martha and she’s confident in the role. The image is from Sander’s portfolio The Woman and the Man’, classified in the group ‘The Woman’, part of his ‘People of the 20th Century’ project. In spite of the classification of “wife” Martha is in no way subordinate and in her direct gaze we see a person in her own right with a strong, intellectual presence. It is a fascinating partnership which reveals itself further in Dix’s paintings and drawings of his wife, clearly in a different league to many of his other depictions of women. Referred to affectionately as Mutzli, we see her dignified profile in Woman in Gold (Mutzli) (1923, watercolour, gold paint and pencil on paper), her face partially concealed by a sophisticated, decadent hat. In Dix’s beautiful drawing Portrait of Mutzli Koch (1921, pencil on paper) we see only her face and neck, draped in the suggestion of a luxurious fur, hair pulled back into a bun with arched eyebrows framing her gaze. Dix draws the curve of her cheekbones, nose and cat -like almond eyes with the strength and delicacy of a caress, every mark declares his love for her, a quality more frequently absent from his Art.  The tenderness and sensuality in this drawing is equally met by Mutzli’s direct gaze at Dix. The artist’s picture books for Hana, his wife’s child from her first marriage, are fantastic and delightful, with scenes from Fairytales, the Bible and hybrid creatures rendered in watercolour and pencil. Although they are not without a Dixian edge, fused with the dark spirit of the brothers Grimm! Dix’s Bremmen Town Musicians, part of his Cornucopia for Hana (1925) are rather demonic looking in contrast with scenes such as Knight Hans at Hoher Randen and His Family on Horseback with its bright, buoyant palette. This aspect of the artist’s work, combined with domestic family life is a recent discovery, bringing a surprising dimension to an artist famed for his acute lack of empathy.

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Assault Troops Advance under Gas (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor) 1924
Etching on paper
196 x 291 mm
Otto Dix Stiftung
© DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung

Serving as a machine gunner in WWI, Dix was exposed to unspeakable violence and killing on an unprecedented scale. We cannot begin to imagine the horror of trench warfare, the loss of life or the social disintegration which followed the annihilation of an entire generation, but in his series of 50 etchings War/ Der Krieg (1924) Dix gives insight to his experiences on the front line, attempting to purge himself

“All art is exorcism. I paint dreams and visions too; the dreams and visions of my time. Painting is the effort to produce order; order in yourself. There is much chaos in me, much chaos in our time.

Like Goyas cycle of over 80 etchings and aquatints The Disasters of War (1810-1820) which he consciously studied, Dix’s War etchings are among the most powerful, visceral and damning images ever created in response to human atrocities. The process of etching was intensely physical for Dix, like scratching his wounds, a cathartic bloodletting, burning away the surface metal with acid to banish his nightmares. It is hard to describe the way that these monochrome images of a modest scale conjure the smell of death and rotting flesh, the terror of men driven mad by fear, hollowed out by exhaustion and the relentless shelling, reducing the earth to a pitted, desolate landscape of body parts. Dix leads us into his memories of the Western Front, battlefields where the horizon is ruptured, disappearing into broken lines like lost hope. Human bodies are caught on barbed wire, impaled, mutilated by machine gun fire or dismembered by bombs. Surprisingly one of the most disturbing images is the most still, completely uninhabited by the human figure. Shell Holes near Dontrien Illuminated by Flares (1924, etching on paper, 195 x 260 mm, Otto Dix Foundation, Vaduz), conveys a moment of profound, out of body stillness, when the world slows in the face of severe shock and trauma. This is a print that you can actually hear, held in the breath of the artist/witness and the viewer beholding it. It is an image etched in my mind forever.

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Dying Soldier (Sterbender Soldat) 1924
Etching on paper
198 x 148 mm
Otto Dix Stiftung
© DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung

In Soldier and Nun (1924, etching on paper, 200 x 145mm Otto Dix Foundation, Veduz) the artist depicts the desecration of rape, placing the viewer behind the soldier in the composition. This voyeuristic positioning on the threshold mirrors the scene before us, amplifying the horror of bearing witness. There is also, in the context of Dix’s oeuvre, a very uncomfortable edge of complicity in how the image is composed. The print was withheld from the original cycle, deemed too shocking to be shown, but like all of Dix’s war etchings it is a document of modern warfare that needs to be seen and acknowledged. Dix’s Sex Murder (Lustmord) (1922, Etching on paper, 275 x 346mm, private collection, courtesy of Richard Magy Ltd, London) displays a bloody crime scene, clotted in black with two dogs copulating in a corner like a cartoon. There is no empathy in Psychopathy and none here either in the rendering of the female figure as a mutilated, discarded doll. The misogynist violence in early pulp fiction, the plotlines of contemporary thrillers, TV cop shows and interactive games like Grand Theft Auto aren’t so far removed from Dix’s Sex Murder as a recurrent obsession in 20th and 21st century popular culture.  Dix often depicted himself as a predatory, lurid and monstrous figure in his work. He projects severity and power in his self-portraits, a veneer of fashionable respectability that is prone to disintegration in the fluid immediacy of his watercolours and hard-edged drawings. Dix displays his own morality and logic in chaotic and highly disturbing scenes which would be confessional if they weren’t so entirely without remorse.

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Corpse Entangled in Barbed Wire (Leiche im Drahtverhau) 1924
Etching on paper
300 x 243 mm
Otto Dix Stiftung
© DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung

There is undeniable madness, depravity, societal decay and death in Dix’s Neue Sachlichkeit /New Objectivity, elements shared with fellow artists George Grosz and Max Beckmann. Satirical and abhorrent depictions of the human figure were weapons Dix and Grosz used to attack middle class complacency, the military, church and state. The unflinching reality of their work is grounded in human behavior and experience, their rejection of Romantic idealism and expressionism. In the aftermath of WWI and the “Golden Age” of the roaring 20’s, Dix declared that;

“People were already beginning to forget, what horrible suffering the war had brought them. I did not want to cause fear and panic, but to let people know how dreadful war is and so to stimulate people’s powers of resistance.

Whilst I don’t doubt the artist’s intention of resistance, there is also an aspect of his personality, arguably unleashed by his war time experiences, which revels in the adrenalin fueled excitement of killing and sexual violence. It is a source of masculine power for Dix, coupled with personal revulsion and disgust. The artist’s commitment to depicting “life undiluted”, to “experience all the darkest recesses of life in order to represent them” is a double-edged credo. He admitted that “the war was a horrible thing, but also something powerful. I was not about to miss it. You have to have seen people in this untethered state to know something about humans”. Dix’s response to what he saw around him, later manifested in immersion and participation in the underworld of Weimar Germany’s streets, nightclubs and brothels, a search for truth devoid of nobility or redemption. His works on paper explore a nocturnal world distorted by fear, loathing and collective psychosis.

Otto Dix, 1891–1969
Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin 1927
(Liegende auf Leopardenfell) 1927
Oil paint on panel
680 x 980 mm
© DACS 2017. Collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University. Gift of Samuel A. Berger; 55.031.

Dix’s grotesque, almost hallucinogenic depiction of prostitutes and their clients, including sailors and soldiers (including  himself), achieve a heightened state of animalistic abandon and debauchery. Even his society portraits, rendered with the finest technical precision, amplify the prevailing sense of Nietzschean annihilation, a philosopher Dix was drawn to at an early stage of his development. The artist’s extremism is centred on the body, in the coupling of sex and death, the dominance of instinctual drives and inevitable decay, which he projects onto the human figure as Germany personified. His iconic portrait of nightclub dancer Anita Berber (1925) in garish, pursed lip red is a parody of glamour. Reclining Woman on a leopard Skin (1927, Oil paint on panel, 680 x 980mm, Collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Gift of Samuel A. Berger, 55.031) is a superb example of the dangerously mesmerising spirit of the age. The woman in the painting with her cat-like eyes and claw-like hands holds the mask of her pale, made up face temporarily in place, coiled like a caged animal about to strike. The red folds of fabric and leopard skin feel strangely alive, with the figure positioned in the draped, though spartan, recess of a boudoir/ lair.  The acidic green gossamer dress garishly clashes with opposing red, while the woman’s glazed eyes are remarkably cold and fixed, seeing right through to the flesh and blood that you are. In the background a Hyena-like creature lurks in the darkness, teeth bared, a manifestation of raw instinct and animus/anima depending on your point of view. The arrangement of the body is a series of highly articulate serpentine curves, painted with consummate skill. The calculation in this image is frighteningly compelling, concealed and revealed by the artist’s technique. We sense that we are only a second away from the mask of the subject or artist being torn away and that anticipatory tension permeates much of Dix’s work.

In Vanitas (Youth and Old Age) (1932, tempera and oil paint on canvas) the subject is at once a rendering of Death and the Maiden, derived from the medieval Dance of Death and a visual statement of Dix’s contemporary Germany. The proudly smiling, golden haired nude, every inch a beamingly healthy Aryan maiden, could easily be a poster girl for the Nazi propaganda machine. However, Dix places her on a distinctive edge of shadow, framed in judgement within an allegorical tradition. We feel immediately that she would not be out of place in a tableau of the Seven Deadly Sins. Her expression is so righteous and sure of itself that it is faintly ridiculous, whist a skeletal crone hovers in the background. It’s a reminder that the girl in the foreground is just food for worms as we all are and that her idealised beauty is preposterously shallow. It’s an ugly, repulsive image in the association between ethics and aesthetics, but that is precisely the point. The artist’s rendering of the figure is sharp as a blade in his exposure of the subject as part of a cultural tradition of seeing.

Dix was acutely aware of his German artistic heritage like a Faustian pact. His use of tempera techniques, oils and the woodcut reflect the influence of German Renaissance masters such as Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Crannach the Elder and Hans Holbein. The fastidious delicacy of his paint handling meets the savagely critical depiction of the rich, privileged and famous. Even at this level, flattery is exceedingly rare in a Dix painting and sentimentality categorically dead. Then as now, the gap between rich and poor was ever widening and Dix captures the outrage and repugnance of those conditions, whilst denying political motives in his art. His searing body of work remains anti-war, in spite of the revelry he conveys in minute details of violence. The objective recognition and striking calm of a prostitute meeting the gaze of the artist in Dedicated Sadists (1922, Watercolour, graphite and ink on paper, 498 x 375mm), suggests that although Dix defended his art as a moral imperative, on a deeper, personal level he is confronting aspects of himself with the same brutal honesty. Dix’s humanity ultimately resides in his complexity as a man and an artist, holding up a mirror to the ugliness every human being is capable of. Dix doesn’t just paint, etch and draw death as the great human leveller, he strips it naked and makes no apologies.

There is a profound sense of darkness, light and the internal struggle between the two present at the beginning of his practice, when Dix was experimenting and finding his voice. Birth (Hour of Birth) (1919, Woodcut print on paper, 180 x 156mm, Galerie Remmert und Barth, Düsseldorf) in starkly, chiselled monochrome is a fine example. The sun and moon are attendants, the nipples and belly button are stars in a body bisected by the absolute values of black and white. The child’s path into the world is, at least initially, an angular projection of light from its mother’s open thigh. There is a trajectory of fate in this black and white vision of the world that feels inescapable. Dix’s painting Longing (Self Portrait) (1918-19, Oil on Canvas, 535 x 520mm, Galerie Neue Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden) is a fractured face in deep blue/ black with red mouth agape, a man divided between a quartet of dualistic elements. Between sun and moon, the impulse of life in the pink embryonic form in the top right-hand corner and a red devilish goat in opposition. A green star and branch springing from the artist’s head implies creativity and intellect as the anguished man’s only means of survival and integration.

Dix had eight works in the infamous “Degenerate Art Exhibition” held in Munich in 1937. He lost his teaching position and 260 of his works were confiscated by the Nazi’s between 1937 and 1938, some of them destroyed. Looking around this phenomenal exhibition, it is a miracle that the works we see today survived. Like Dix, August Sander created a prolific body of work and whilst their images may confront us with uncomfortable truths, their New Objectivity is pertinent to unfolding events on the contemporary world stage. We are witnessing the largest displacement of people ever seen since WWII, growing inequality, economic turmoil, modern slavery, increasing radicalisation of politics and the threat of environmental catastrophe. In viewing this exhibition, we cannot hide from the powers of creation and destruction wrought by human hands and are forced to examine our own resistance, complicity and responsibility for the history we are making today.

Tate Liverpool, Portraying a Nation Germany 1919 – 1933 exhibition trailer:

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Glasgow Film Festival

15 – 26 February 2017

Lipstick Under My Burkha directed by Alankrita Shrivastava.

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

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

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

Zoology Directed by Ivan I Tverdovsky.

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

A Quiet Passion directed by Terence Davies.

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

Hounds of Love directed by Ben Young.

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

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

Werewolf directed by Ashley McKenzie.

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

The Demons/ Les Demons directed by Philippe Lesage.

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

Angry Inuk directed by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril.

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

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

Mary Pickford as Little Annie Rooney.

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

Isabelle Huppert in Elle.

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

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

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

Paradise directed by Andrei Konchalovsky.

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

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

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

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

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

www. glasgowfilm.org/Glasgow-film-festival