15th Inverness Film Festival

November Directed by Rainer Sarnet

8-12 November, Eden Court Cinemas

“Film was born of an explosive.” Bill Morrison, Dawson City: Frozen Time

Over the last decade Inverness Film Festival has become a primary source of inspiration and discovery in the UK cultural calendar. It’s a festival that shows me the world within worlds, where the curation is exceptional and my only regret in taking time off to be there is not being able to watch all of it!  This year’s IFF Audience Award went to The Disaster Artist, directed and starring James Franco. In second place was Nicolas Vanier’s School of Life, screened in association with the French Film Festival UK, and in third place Just Charlie, one of the debut selection of films chosen by the Eden Court Young Programmer’s group. I saw none of the above, but with over 60 screenings and events over 4 days and 5 nights, tough choices had to be made! As usual I gravitated towards the more obscure, because for me that’s what film festivals are for- exposure to World Cinema of all ages that you’re unlikely see anywhere else. This year’s highlights were many and varied, but they all had their own spark of ignition in altering my perception. Each of them in their own way reminded me of what I value most in cinema as a medium for expanded awareness and potential change. I very much hope that all of these remarkable films will be picked up by other festivals and distributors, so that many more people in the UK and beyond will have the chance to see them.

Dede Directed by Mariam Khatchvani

The Scottish premiere of Director Mariam Khatchvani’s Dede brought the audience face to face with the question of cultural traditions, “those we need to carry forward and others which need to be left behind”. The story on one level is deeply personal and intimately connected to the filmmaker’s family history, but it is also universal in its themes of gender equality, personal freedom, self-determination and human rights.  The film is set in a truly breath-taking landscape of cultural and historical convergence, filmed in the UNESCO heritage site of Svaneti, Georgia, within the southern Greater Caucasus mountain range, bordering with Russia. There’s a powerful sense that the “Mother” of the translated title is present in these mountains. Images of human scale in relation to Nature suggest alternative ways of perceiving and honouring power, contrary to traditional, patriarchal structures of dominance and control. The film follows the story of Dina, a young woman who courageously resists a forced marriage and the will of her male elders to elope with the man she loves. However, her rightful pursuit of happiness comes at enormous personal cost, in a community governed by masculine pride and entitlement, played out in vengeful blood feuds.  As the audience discovered during the post-screening Q&A with Assistant Director and Casting Director Tamar Khatchvani, although bride kidnapping is no longer practised, the film is based on a true story from the not so distant past. As result there is a real sense of experience within living memory, translated in the very natural performances of the entire cast of non-actors. Everyone on screen is from the same village and as the region has opened to tourism, there have been cultural gains and losses for everyone involved.

The Scottish premiere of EXLIBRIS: New York City Public Library, provides an extensive view of this community orientated organisation and its wide-ranging activities. Directed by honorary Oscar winner and documentarian Frederick Wiseman, the film highlights inequality in contemporary America and the wider world. Rather than being a repository for books, it is a network of learning centres providing after school support, free access to the internet for thousands of citizens who cannot afford it, literacy and maths classes, English classes for immigrants, public discussions with authors, music concerts and performance poetry readings. The range and scope of activity is staggering. In many ways the library is spearheading the city’s response to social problems created by people falling through the cracks of government policy, or being left behind by an ever changing technologically driven world. At 197 mins long, it is an epic by mainstream feature documentary standards, but the wider implications of the link between knowledge, power and politics justify the exploration. Exposing universal social problems and working towards solutions through educational empowerment, both the library and the film are a means advocacy for the most vulnerable in society. Within the NYCPL collections are the words, actions and images of ancestors, leaders and artists, providing inspiration for new creative work and a space for reflection, thought and connection. It is a shame that many libraries in the UK that have been closed or are threatened with closure could not be perceived and utilised in such a vital way- as invaluable, enriching and ultimately money saving community resources.

Happy End Directed by Michael Haneke

Michael Haneke’s new film Happy End, nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and starring Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz and Toby Jones, places a self-absorbed bourgeois family under the microscope. In typical Haneke fashion there’s gallows humour, the disquieting exposure of uncomfortable truths and familial disfunction, run through with the family’s total blindness to the refugee crisis unfolding in their home city of Calais. It’s a film revealing respectable middle-class indifference to the suffering of others and the luxury of pursing a Happy End in life and death. An even more extreme vision of family life came in the form of IFF’s preview screening of The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth 2009, Alps 2011 and The Lobster 2015) has made a career out of eviscerating the traditional family unit, middle class respectability, aspirations and patriarchal power. Lanthimos excels in cinematic immersion, creating highly critical microcosms aided by his regular collaborator, cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis. The opening scene in close up of open heart surgery, with its bloody exposure of flesh juxtaposed with swathes of cold blue, sets the emotional and intellectual tone of this powerful revenge thriller. The cast including Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Barry Keoghan are excellent, ably communicating the horror, absurdity and hypocrisy of a contemporary, upwardly mobile family, with its roots firmly planted in Greek tragedy. The visuals and sound design, from the classical exposition to increasingly visceral, blended sound effects, is highly effective in placing the viewer in a progressive state of unease. As we discover what lies at the heart of the characters, the veneer of the perfect family unit starts to dissolve. Notions of professional success, wealth and power are scraped at like bone until it shatters, transforming the story into a parable of the human soul. Teenage boy Martin’s (Koeghan) eye for an eye demand for justice from Farrell’s passionless, negligent surgeon gathers the momentum of a pact. True to form Lanthimos puts the morality, ethics, loyalty, family bonds of his characters and the very fabric of society to the test. In many ways Martin is a willful agent of chaos, much like the Devil himself in banal, seemingly innocuous contemporary dress. Whether you like or loathe Lanthimos’s vision, I guarantee you will be thinking about The Killing of a Sacred Deer long after you’ve seen it.

Dark River by Director Clio Bernard

The alternative opening night double bill of Dark River and Loveless (Nelyubov) delivered an incredibly strong first night. In Dark River UK director Clio Bernard (The Arbor, The Selfish Giant) creates a world where human emotion and the natural world are essentially entwined.  Ruth Wilson’s central performance carries the film, bringing tremendous strength, vulnerability and subtlety to a character she inhabits completely. Following a 15-year absence and the death of her Father (Sean Bean), Alice’s return to the failing family farm triggers confrontation with an undertow of memory and with her volatile brother Joe (Mark Stanley). Bernard brings a real physicality to the experience of memory, carried in the body, effectively using sound design, elements of the countryside and flashbacks to humanely lay the familial backstory bare. She submerges the viewer in Alice’s lived experience, suspended in the cold, dark water of the swimming hole, buried in the deep, layered earth of the rain cleansed Yorkshire Moors and in knife-edged moments of conflict inside the emotional rabbit warren of the family home. As a filmmaker she’s a Master of the great unsaid, handling the most insidious of emotions, guilt and shame, with empathy, skill and compassion. It’s a film about betrayal of the worst kind, the pure bond between siblings and the fragility of rural life in decline. Although the plot does become a little stretched by the end of the film, it’s an impressive addition to Bernard’s work, cementing her status as an emerging voice in British Cinema.

Loveless (Nelyubov) Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan was one of my favourite films at IFF 2014, so I had very high hopes for the director’s latest release Loveless (Nelyubov). The film has won several awards on the European festival circuit already, including the 2017 Jury Prize at Cannes, Best Film at the London Film Festival and Best International Film at the Munich Film Festival. The global scope, sheer artistry and potent relevance of this film exceeded all my expectations. Loveless is an eloquent, gut wrenching and highly observant film, examining the microcosm of a family splitting apart. It is also a reflection of increasing political, social and class divisions within Ukraine, a history of conflict and invasion from “Mother” Russia and indicative of a wider global crisis. Entrenched in the territorial battleground of a bitter divorce, Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) are instantly unlikeable characters, narcissistic, petty, spiteful and utterly indifferent to the child they have together. Their primary concern is injuring each other and tending their own needs. Still cohabiting while they try to sell their apartment, the tension and fighting escalate, with their 13-year-old son Alyosha caught between his parents, neither of whom want him. Despite their relatively comfortable lives and upwardly mobile status, their cruel behavior immediately calls into question the idea of advantage and their ability to nurture anything. Although they have seemingly moved on with different partners, whenever we see scenes of intimacy they are driven to negation by selfishness, insecurity, neediness and immaturity. This is visibly compounded by the reliance on self-validation through technology as part of the whole, relentless drive of getting ahead. During the film our sympathy shifts as we are shown that this isn’t because they are inherently bad people. As we see when we meet Zhenya’s annihilating Mother, generations of enforced conformity, the rigidity of church and dictatorial state control have also had a significant role to play in creating a collective state of misery, unrealised and unrecognized human potential.  The infiltration of Western capitalist values, widening economic divide between rich and poor and pitching the false dream of democracy as the freedom to buy things is just as emotionally hollow. Both Boris and Zheyna resent their life choices and blame each other for them, but having never learnt to love or be loved they remain in a childlike, reactive state, unable to grow.

However, the most urgent casualty in this disintegrating marriage is their son and the upcoming generation he represents. As his parents abdicate responsibility in earshot, loudly negating his existence as nothing but an inconvenient mistake, he seeks refuge in a woodland near their apartment block. There is a real sense in these natural images, becoming progressively colder and emotively snowbound, of Nature bearing witness to the unfolding human drama. The camera lingers in the hollows of trees and the earth like it is searching for an answer, not just to the boy’s disappearance but to the loss of self, identity and purpose in life.  Although he has little screen time, Matvey Novikov’s performance as Alyosha is heartbreaking, exemplified in his physical and mental anguish in a brief scene where his mother storms into the bathroom following an argument, not even registering that he’s been right there, the whole time, absorbing every poisonous, self-depreciating word. Although it is a bleak vision of human relationships, diminished capacity and 21st Century empathy deficit, the ambiguity of Alyosha’s disappearance and the small army of dedicated volunteers, who have no self interest in trying to find him, is a definite ray of hope. There is a sense of mobilisation in this group of people, who witnessing the all too common occurrence of children running away or going missing, step in when the police/ state fails to find them. We see compassionate, practical action as a counterfoil to the useless blind cult of “What about ME?!” in a crisis, seen in Boris’s pregnant girlfriend’s reaction to him prioritising finding his missing child above spending time with her. She’s yet another adult nowhere near being emotionally developed enough to support the child she’s carrying. We sense that seeking love and self-worth through vanity, shopping, social status and endless selfies will be what is passed on to the next generation, together with an empty hole in the heart that all those things, including having a child, are attempting to fill. I loved the honesty, tenacity and vision of this film in acknowledging what is a global/ psychological crisis of lovelessness. The film may be set in Kiev and center on a single family, but the dynamics of care and its absence are everywhere. This film is a brilliant touchstone to begin to examine and challenge the soul-destroying dominance of the latter. Loveless is a thoughtful, essential film scheduled for wider release in the UK early in 2018.

The Woman He Scorned (1929) Directed by Paul Czinner

Another festival favourite was the little known British Silent Film The Woman He Scorned (1929), also known as The Way of Lost Souls, with a live improvised score by one of the world’s finest Silent Film accompanists, Stephen Horne.  Channelling the film through piano, accordion, flute, Bereney thumb piano and imaginative silence, this was the best possible introduction to a film that I suspect none of the audience (including myself) had seen. What separates Horne from other accompanists is his emotional intelligence, understanding of film as a medium and great skill as a musician. The ability to faithfully serve the story and interpret its characters with care and sensitivity is comparably rare and the audience were treated to a unique performance of the highest calibre. Directed by Paul Czinner and starring Pola Negri, Warwick Ward and Hans Rehmann, the story of a prostitute in a small coastal town and her relationship with a lighthouse keeper was reinterpreted for a contemporary audience in beautifully nuanced and unexpected ways. Although the title and brochure description alluded to puritanical morality and high melodrama, what Horne brought to the film was infinitely subtler, resisting cliché, drawing out the inner psychology of characters and illuminating the complexity, joy and anguish of what it is to be human. At the heart of the film is Pola Negri’s central performance which defies the stereotypical Vamp/ Femme Fatale in its range, a quality amplified with depth and feeling by the accompaniment. The ballsy bravado of Dance Hall solo piano, sharp, sassy Tango on accordion and its descent into chaotic dissonance, articulated beautifully that “the Vamp” is a performance. What we discover as the story unfolds is the heroine’s real vulnerability, due in no small part to how sound informs what we see in the moment. This musical elevation of character, above the narrow moral codes and judgements of the day, enhances our perception that this is a fallible human being we can all relate to. Horne excels at this kind of musical insight, exemplified in his score / live performance of Stella Dallas (1925), commissioned by the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film in 2016.

In The Woman He Scorned we see a female protagonist trying to take control of her life and rise above dismal circumstances, triggered by a single act of kindness. At base Louise (Negri) is a working girl under the violent control of her pimp and the ever-present threat of destitution, a pariah in the eyes of society. Although John (Rehmann) first judges and rejects her, he later intervenes on her behalf and then takes her in, in an act framed in his mind as Christian charity. Louise’s attempts to navigate care and kindness she’s never been shown before and escape her past are incredibly poignant, heightened by the instrumentation. As she starts to take her place in village life, these first fragile steps of acceptance are communicated in all their delicacy by the ethereal sound of the flute. She metaphorically removes her makeup, beholds herself in the mirror and begins to see herself differently. The musical interpretation of the scene articulates how vulnerable she is in that tentative, blossoming sound, created with life’s breath. Horne’s accompaniment succeeds in portraying the character rising above societal/ biblical branding of a “whore”, which the character herself has taken on board and musically frees her soul before our eyes. This audience investment in the central character intensifies the drama and emotional impact of what follows. We are not just watching, but feeling the character’s predicament, internalised through the immediacy of sound. We want John to believe Louise because we have come to believe in her, with no persuasion through spoken dialogue at all. What we experience as a contemporary audience isn’t Silent Film as a historical relic, but as a living, breathing, universal artform that crosses all borders of culture and language. In establishing that timeless connection with such consummate skill, you really could not ask for more from a live cinema experience.

The variety of sound and pairing of instruments in Horne’s performances are always a source of surprise and discovery. Instruments are often played simultaneously, one in each hand, and in this performance the isolated use of human voice, a sampled element introduced from the original film soundtrack, brought past and present together.  Fully embracing the cut to a mesmerising sequence of suspended time in the wedding scene, the strange, percussive echo of the thumb harp created a hollow for the audience’s imagination to fill. The full sonic range of instruments from the interior strings of the piano to the otherworldly sound of the thumb harp, half way between dreaming and waking have a spatial quality, together with a sense of fluidity and movement. This is both physical and psychological, from the deep undertow of ocean waves, to the intimacy of John soothing Louise by stroking her hair, the accompaniment brought the audience closer to emotional core of each scene. The beauty of the Silent Film accompanist’s Art ultimately lies in being faithful to every compositional frame experienced in real time and achieving a state altered perception in the half light of the flicker, energy which translates directly to the audience’s live experience. It’s the difference between performing music on top a film and living it, both for the artist and the audience. As John stands on the shore in the final frames, sound divides like shards, mirrored by the accompanist’s hands physically divided between the upper and lower register of the piano. In that building temple of sound and consciousness we understand what has been lost, not just in terms of the individual character, but in the context of human judgement. Like the folkloric suggestion of drowned human souls, seen in the flock of gulls hovering over the sea in the very last frame, The Way of Lost Souls is collectively ours. The level of communication achieved with music and moving images as equal partners, created something truly magical and transformative, as only a live cinema experience in the hands of a master accompanist can.

78 / 52 Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe

Following his illustrated talk, the Last Silent Picture Show, Geoff Brown introduced The Woman He Scorned in the context of the British film industry circa 1929, during the changeover from Silent Film to Sound. Brown’s talk also gave valuable insight into Alfred Hitchcock’s development as a director in his discussion of the Silent and early sound versions of Blackmail (1929).  As an important precursor to the director’s mature work, Brown’s talk also had relevance to the screening of Director Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78 / 52.  This fantastic documentary explores one of the most revolutionary scenes in cinema history on multitude of levels. Breaking down the set ups and cuts in Hitchcock’s shower scene from Psycho (1960) might sound like the preserve of film students and cinema nerds, but there is infinitely more at work in Hitchcock’s films than just technique. 78/ 52 honors and celebrates that genre defining richness. At the heart of it all is Hitchcock the flawed human being, shaped by Victorian values, Catholic morality and his vision of a cruelly indifferent God, becoming the hand of the director. Today we take the crafting of suspense on film totally for granted as part of mainstream Popular Culture, so much so that it has become parody. What I loved about this film were the different perspectives on this watershed moment in cinema, the profound effect it had on audiences at the time and how it still affects and inspires filmmaking today. Even more than that, it made me want to watch the original film again, igniting the hope that post Scream franchise generations will perhaps find their way back to the original “master of suspense.”

Significantly Hitchcock cut his directorial teeth in the Silent Era and who he was is expressed in interesting ways through his films. 78/52 touches on his personal obsessions, the critical and competitive nature of his work and the wider political, social and cultural landscape of 1950’s and early 60’s America. Whilst it is an analytical film and we hear from many professional filmmakers, it is also a film about the psychology of fear, which in an age of the Trump administration feels particularly ripe for exploration. Psycho is a deeply subversive film on multiple levels and this documentary is a timely reminder of the value of artistic subversion. Made “in defiance of Hollywood” and its code of censorship, Hitchcock kills off the box office gold leading lady early, invades the sanctity and safety domesticity and transforms the concept of “Mother” into something truly monstrous, reflecting that which is carried within. Psycho also represents, as Director/ Interviewee Peter Bogdonovich points out, “the first time” that the naked “female body comes under attack” likening the effect of watching the film to an act of rape. It’s debatable whether a contemporary audience, saturated with images of violence to the point of anesthesia, can really appreciate the true Horror the film engendered, lessening the revolutionary nature of that moment. At the time of release people were viscerally screaming in shock, something I have yet to see in a contemporary cinema. Like Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” analogy, we should never confuse a simple cinematic explosion wired for entertainment with the heightened anticipation of being told a bomb is going to go off, effectively placing the audience in the position of waiting for the inevitable. Hitchcock sets the audience up for confrontation with their own sense of death or punishment. His refined craft of suspense is a devilish, manipulative art and the “order and chaos” of that “magic act” is something Hitchcock understood completely. As an agent of the darker sides of human nature he is an extremely interesting director whose work will always have primal resonance. As the documentary commentary points out, he plays with audience expectation and makes us work, imagination infilling what we think we see projected on screen. The genius of the shower scene in Psycho in breaking rules, aligning natural sound, music, image and point of view remains breathtaking, affirming what a beautiful, terrible thing the human mind can be.

Dawson City: Frozen Time Directed by Bill Morrison

Director Bill Morrison has a gift for transforming fragmentary archival material into visual poetry. In Decasia (2002) Morrison created a celebratory Memento Mori, crafting decaying film stock into a mesmerising, meditative vision of humanity attempting to outlive itself through Art. The purity of moving images and a symphonic score, with viewers free to make their own associations, was not only refreshing in its use of raw material, but created a sense of sublime beauty in physical decay. Our essential connection to highly fragile, combustible celluloid nitrate is explored on multiple levels in his extraordinarily moving latest film Dawson City: Frozen Time which had its Scottish premiere screening at IFF. Here Morrison moves into more mainstream documentary territory, with commentary delivered entirely in text form rather than voiceover. As in all great Silent storytelling, he creates connective space between the lines for the viewer’s mind to inhabit, exploring different thematic threads on their own terms. This is a film about the memory, history and dreams held in each precious frame of film as lived experience, memorial and portal. This documentary feels very timely in an age where technological progress increasingly urges us as a society to shed the old and embrace the new via the latest upgrade. The question of what we conserve, what we lose, who makes that decision (if it is even conscious) and why, in relation to the back catalogue of World Cinema, has barely been considered. The fact remains that film is still the most tangible, stable material we have, nobody has invented a means of digital storage that equals it in terms of conservation. Morrison subtly reflects that truth in a world that urgently needs to take stock of itself and reveals that film is the very stuff we are made of in the process.

The story of 533 nitrate film prints dating from the 1910s – 1920s discovered in 1978, buried as landfill beneath an ice hockey rink, encompasses forces at work in the wider world today that have never been more urgently relevant. The history of Dawson city as a Klondike Gold Rush town is about human displacement, the decimation and endurance of First Nations cultures, the rise of capitalism becoming corporate rule by the few, the destruction of the environment for profit and the perpetual lie that Film is, like everything else in 21st Century life is simply disposable, consumable entertainment. As the last stop on the distribution circuit and with distributors avoiding the expense of transporting out of date films back to their place of origin, films in Dawson were first stock piled under the administration of bankers. When storage ran out they were then destroyed, thrown into the Yukon River, burnt or buried, painfully echoing the wider estimate that of all the Silent Films ever created, Humanity has lost 75% of them. However, this isn’t a film that preaches, the intention and craft behind it is seeing the bigger picture and extracting the metal. Morrison is all about seeing the debris and the entire landscape from above, within and below the winter permafrost we’re currently living through.  As such he is an important documentarian of our age. Dawson City: Frozen Time achieves universality in the crafting of images, the spark and substance of what it means to make things, to out create destruction.

Dawson City: Frozen Time Directed by Bill Morrison

The origins of film as an explosive material is a powerful metaphor and like the emotional aesthetic of Decasia, it is a double-edged sword as the truth often is. Significantly, film’s most profoundly moving and overwhelming moments are pure Silent sound and image. The morphing of Chief Issac’s face from that of an intensely proud, self-possessed young man, to an aged figure, eroded by exploitation expands into conscious awareness. Morrison is telling us nothing and showing us everything in that moment. In tantalising fragments of films we will never see in their entirety, countless archive photographs, faces and lives, many stories are woven together. The haunting closeup of Mary MacLaren in Bread (1918) directed by Ida May Park is a glimpse into many hidden histories. Through cinema Dawsonites saw the world, in a place that today appears as a last stop before wilderness and oblivion. The fortunes of a town which was born at the same time as the new media of photography and cinema, heralding the start of a modern age, is an excellent place to dig for what sustains and allows us to endure.

Although there were sequences when Alex Somers’ score felt repetitive and overbearing, the music connects emotionally with the imagery, evoking ghostly presences and the physicality of decay. The slowed tempo of human voices and strings operate like something holding on in the present tense of sound hitting the ear and not wanting to let go. The use of organ as an underpinning lament fading into recorded time and distant, echoing piano feel half submerged in the subconscious. There’s real pain in the ebb and flow of human fortunes and in the fate of discarded, abandoned material Culture. This is found footage filmmaking at a whole new level, over and above simple appropriation. As Writer, Editor and Director, Morrison brilliantly combines fragments of rare silent films, newsreels, archival footage, interviews and photographs, including Eric Hegg’s glass plate images which are a survival story in and of themselves. The final sequence of Dawson City: Frozen Time will be etched in my mind forever. Like “the salamander of the ancients [that] lived through fire unscathed”, everything which burns is not extinguished. We see a hand reaching out of the fluttering erasure of emulsion and a dancer, her head and eyes covered, unfurling her scarf in the flicker of free movement, hands raised, claiming and claimed by light. It’s a gesture that feels miraculous and far reaching in terms of human aspiration. It reflects the light, dreams and dust we are as human beings. Kinolorber’s description of the film as a “meditation on cinema’s past” really feels like an inadequate summation because like a lot of other Silent Film publicity it ignores the film’s universal thematic content. Like the image of Mae Marsh in Polly of the Circus (1917) in Morrison’s final sequence, this film is an awakening. Taking its cues and inspiration from original film stock, marked by human actions, neglected and resurrected in a different form, personal and collective loss is acknowledged in a film which is conclusively hopeful. I felt overwhelmed and enriched by watching it and as soon as the credits rolled, I wanted to watch it again.

November Directed by Rainer Sarnet

Another film of extraordinary beauty, artistry and substance is Rainer Sarnet’s November, based on the bestselling Estonian novel Rehepapp by Andrus Kivirähk, starring Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik and Arvo Kukumägi. Films like this one are the reason I go to film festivals! I hope that this Scottish premiere at IFF will be picked up by other film festivals and distributors so that many more people will have the opportunity to see it. Dredging the collective unconscious, Pagan and Christian mythologies are entwined with Estonian Folklore in this creatively striking, thoroughly immersive film. November is possessed of its own fluid logic and this dreamlike narrative is so visually stunning that you cannot help but surrender to it. Director Rainer Sarnet has created something captivatingly strange and magical. It’s a world cast between the physical and metaphysical, where the fantastical and irrational exist side by side with the hard, everyday grind of life, the reality of political oppression and centuries of class rule. True to Eastern European cinematic traditions of escape into fiction and fairy tale, masking social criticism, political and religious dissent, November is all about the human truth in fiction. At base it is a story of human yearning and unrequited love. Laced with black humour, national pride, observance of superstition, ignorance, greed and betrayal, this is a different kind of fantasy, grounded with roots that run deep within the human psyche.  In many ways it reclaims the primal forest from which all storytelling springs- some of the richest creative soil there is! Although I’m certain that there are many specific Estonian references lost on me and UK audiences in general, there are enough archetypal elements in this black and white vision of the living and the dead, found in cultures all over the world, which translate visually. In that respect November’s Director of photography, Mart Taniel was a very worthy winner of Best Cinematography in an International Narrative Feature Film at the Tribeca Film Festival. The Jury comment about their decision that “one film was particularly audacious and showed supreme command of its visual language” is a very accurate assessment of the film.

November depicts “an ancient land” “where spirits roam”, a world frozen in solarised light and the deepest of shadows.  Villagers create creatures called Kratts out of discarded wood, farm machinery and domestic debris, who serve them in exchange for souls. A young woman Lina is in love with village boy Hans, but he is obsessed with the baron’s beautiful daughter. In the emotional context of unrequited love Lina turning into a wolf, metaphorically consumed by her emotions, inner drives, needs and desires, isn’t nearly as crazy as it sounds. On the contrary, it’s a very apt manifestation of what the character is feeling and part of her journey, albeit in canine form. That felt sense, grounding what might appear at first glance as fantasy, is one of the most powerful elements of the film and there are many moments of human recognition throughout. The sequence where the cart and funeral procession cross and pass each other in the stark clarity of black and white is absolute poetry and devastation, as fate separates the living from the dead and a soul is paid for. Beneath its exquisitely crafted, labyrinthine world November suggests, “there is the soul we sell, the soul we long for and the soul we cannot live without”. The question of what human life is worth in alignment with these ideas goes beyond fantastical entertainment. Part of reclaiming our souls is reconnection with this ancient mode of storytelling and the masked wisdom the world has forgotten how to read.

Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat Directed by Fritz Lang

Aligned with the festival screening of new release biopic Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool starring Annette Benning and Jamie Bell, IFF’s superb three film tribute to Gloria Grahame was a definite retrospective highlight. The selection featured her Academy Award winning Best Supporting Actress performance in Vincente Minelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), her starring role as a sharp, sincere and sassy gangster’s dame in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) and with Humphrey Bogart in the tragic anti-Romance In a Lonely Place (1950). Throughout Grahame demonstrates her stage experience, range and why she deserves to be better known. Hopefully the release of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool will encourage people to seek her out her early film work. There is no device on the planet that can replace or simulate the beauty of black and white restorations on a big screen. IFF, together with the Eden Court Cinema programme generally, is committed to showing as many 35mm format films as it can. In the world of 21st Century cinemas this is a rarity and an absolute pleasure.

It is always exciting to see the work of emerging filmmakers and this year’s selection of short films were incredibly strong, diverse, refreshingly original and brimming with possibility. IFF has consistently championed the work of Scottish filmmakers and this year there were six collections of Short Films including two screenings of international shorts specifically for children. Two films in particular shone as part of the Bridging the Gap showcase in association with the Scottish Documentary Institute. Thomas Hogben’s Teeth (11 mins) cleverly combines archival footage, interviews with the director’s parents, Orthodontist and Dental Anthropologist Dr. Daniel Antoine, in a humorous and revealing story of how teeth express our fears, aspirations and ideals. It also poses important questions about the lengths we go to to try and achieve ideal Beauty. It’s an absorbing and entertaining film, charting the development of child to adult and tapping into the universal human need to belong. Hogben probes insecurities shared by the audience, exposing the horrors and unexpected healing powers of dentistry, with teeth as the mirror of Self.

Directed by Sean Mullen Inhale (15 mins) is an accomplished and sensitive story of family bereavement, grief and transformation from Northern Ireland. Working with horses provides the catalyst for transforming pain and outdoor drone photography is used very eloquently to express the interior life of the subject. Poignant and confessional, this is a film about enduring the loss of those we love and having the courage to let go, knowing that life will never be the same again. Faith is an important aspect of the film, conveyed in the voice of the central protagonist and the belief that “the infinite momentum of life via an energy never destroyed, only transformed.” Whatever your spiritual identity, it is a powerful and moving film. Other Scottish Shorts highlights included Flow Country (10 mins) by Jasper Coppes, beautifully shot using black & white 35mm and winner of Best Scottish Short at the Glasgow Short Film Festival, A Tail of Two Sisters (4 mins) by Lindsay McKee, part of the Edinburgh 48hr Film Project 2017, Selina Wagner’s captivating animation Spindrift (12 mins), Alison Piper’s timely political statement Free Period (6 mins) and Gordon Napier’s 1745 (19 mins) a story which highlights the largely hidden history of Highland slavery.

1745 Directed by Gordon Napier

It’s a great pleasure and a privilege to witness the creative development of local filmmakers over successive years and to see individuals making creative leaps, honing their craft and finding their unique voice. Director Mike Webster screened two films this year Eathie (9mins) and Coire Eilde (11 mins), both following gorge scrambles by Adventure and Wildlife Photographer James Roddie in largely unknown sites in the Highlands.  In the traditionally high-octane field of masculine/ mountain adventure films and festivals, it is refreshing and enlightening to see the process and care taken in approaching each pitch. The expectation of “adventure” is often in the spirit of man conquering the landscape, rather than “venturing into the unknown”. Finding your foothold and being fully conscious of your surroundings, to experience something beyond the everyday in the presence of Nature, is more akin to the idea of Slow Adventure. The idea of Nature as Culture in relation to how we experience the environment is only starting to be explored and there are some seeds of that ethos in Robbie’s descent of the Eathie Gorge on the Black Isle and Coire Eilde (the Pass of the Hinds) in Glencoe. As Roddie and Webster navigate their way into the natural environment, the path created by experience, skill and instinct is inspiring. Drone photography is used very effectively to broaden the viewer’s experience of this territory. It would be great to see more of the interior, psychological aspect of the adventurer in future films, enriching not only the conception of the landscape, but perception of what a masculine point of view in this genre can be. As Roddie states during interview what you really want from an adventure is “obscure” and “intimidating”, heading into an environment where you’re not too sure what you will encounter, equipped with the  tools and self-awareness to find your way through.

Eathie Directed by Mike Webster

The pairing of Webster’s films with those by another local filmmaker, Katrina Brown, were very complimentary in challenging preconceptions and prejudice. It is wonderful to see such a progressive leap in the space between IFF 16 and 17 in the screening of Brown’s two most recent projects, Woman Up (3 mins) and Riding Through the Dark (23 mins). Her natural ability to tackle difficult subjects, based on the trust established with interviewees and participants is a great strength for any documentarian. Making the voice of the subject the primary focus of the film and being led by it clearly drives her vision as a filmmaker. This authenticity aligned with stories that need to be told is a very promising and valuable combination. In Woman Up the stereotype of the “sporty woman” is challenged, following Eilidh, who discovered her passion for mountain biking, together with skills and confidence she didn’t believe she had. That sense of positive empowerment is further developed in Riding Through the Dark. It’s a film that juxtaposes the experiences of two groups of women, “one held in awe” and “the other in stigma”, asking the question of just how different they (and we the audience) really are. The individual stories of a group of elite female cyclists/ athletes and women taking part in a cycling to health and wellbeing programme are woven together and they are extremely honest, courageous and moving. Although the film tackles the issue of mental health and depression head on, it is ultimately hopeful and uplifting.  In revealing the insecurities, loneliness, pain and loss we all share as human beings, Brown and her interviewees shine a light on the possibility of regaining oneself when a safe space can be created, grounded in mutual respect and shared experience. In many ways the film creates that safe space for the audience, doing what cinema does best with the road and the world opening up, gaining understanding and projecting ourselves into the frame as viewers. Riding Through the Dark is also very realistic about the concept of recovery rather than cure. I’m sure that many people seeing the film will strongly identify with it, either in relation to their own experience or that of friends and family. Depression is the absence of hope and in telling their stories these brave women are a shining example of grasping that little bit of something in acute darkness, finding the strength to get back up and to keep going. Using cycling as a coping strategy and a means of being absolutely present in the moment is hugely inspiring, as both groups of women and individuals “create impetus” and “momentum” to move out of darkness, “ignit[ing] [that] passion into everyday life.”

As IFF 2017 drew to a close and I emerged out of the dark, the world appeared a good deal brighter. Outside the cinema it was pitch black and autumn chills, but I was carrying the sparks of everything I’d seen with me. In the cross fertilisation of fiction and documentary there is fire, hope and the possibility of positive change. The world needs imagination and the voices of independent filmmakers as never before, to find the truth, set things alight and make us see the world anew.

http://2017.invernessfilmfestival.com/welcome/

Dreamers Awake

White Cube Bermondsey, London

28 June – 17 September 2017

Jo Anne Callis Untitled (Woman with a Black Line) Archival Pigment Print. ‘From Early Color Portfolio’ Circa 1976 Credit: © Jo Anne Callis, Courtesy of the artist, Rose Gallery and White Cube.

“I warn you- I am not an object” Dorothea Tanning

The prospect of exploring “the enduring influence of Surrealism through the work of more than 50 women artists” filled me with high hopes in terms of repossession of the Feminine and reappraisal of Surrealism in the popular imagination. Art historians have only begun to scratch the surface of female artists written out of the original movement, relegated to roles of lover, wife or muse in the biographies of male artists.  Dreamers Awake features “sculpture, painting, collage, photography and drawing from the 1930’s to the present day” including works by Eileen Agar, Leonora Carrington, Lee Miller, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Claude Cahun, Edith Rimmington, Helen Chadwick, Louise Bourgoise, Alina Szapocznikow, Tracy Emin, Sarah Lucas, Carina Brandes, Hayv Kahraman, Eva Kot’átková, Nevine Mahmoud, Penelope Slinger, Shannon Pool, Jo Anne Callis and Julia Phillips. Whilst I welcome and applaud exhibitions bringing marginalised and neglected work by women artists into greater public awareness, this show left me feeling conflicted about the nature of Feminine reclamation, particularly in relation to contemporary art/ life.

Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph: George Darrell courtesy of White Cube

One of the problems I had with the exhibition was the overbearing emphasis on the female body, or rather the persistent disconnect between body, mind and the Feminine. On the one hand there’s a challenge to the image of women as objects of “masculine desire and fantasy”, often “decapitated, distorted, trussed up,” “fearsome and fetishized” as “other” in the hands of male Surrealists from the birth of the movement.  Although this “fragmented, headless body of Surrealism” is a “vehicle for irony, resistance, humour” and freedom of expression in the hands of female artists in the exhibition, there is a tendency, particularly in the work of contemporary artists, to simply offer derivative nods to the body politic whilst continuing the patriarchal tradition of the headless woman. Whilst the show ranges well “beyond those who might identify themselves as surrealists”, the superficial nature of the influence (or curatorial connection) in some work left me questioning the universal ground-breaking media exclamations surrounding the show. Fortunately, there’s enough complex, intelligent and beautifully executed work connected to the body to compensate for the weaker, more obvious and mediocre elements of the show. Caitlin Keogh’s clumsy, derivative acrylics on canvas, Berlinde de Bruyckere’s basic assemblage sculptures or Gillian Wearing’s masked photographic portrait of model Lily Cole laden with illustrative symbolism are examples of work which didn’t engender critical changes in perception.

Rosemarie Trockel’s black and white digital print, reimagining Courbet’s 1866 painting L’Origine du monde /The Origin of the World, is an example of an appropriated work which became interesting in spite of itself for the questions it raised. My initial gut reaction was to sigh and roll my eyes at the projection of fear onto an image of female genitalia. Placing an enormous black spider where the model’s pubic hair should be, even to reclaim one’s own body, sex or gender struck me as perilously dull. Effectively it’s a reduction of Feminine power to B-Movie Body Horror by depicting the female body as something dangerous or deadly. This associative trope has been used since the Book of Genesis as an instrument of shame, self-loathing and control, turning desire into the fallen or demonic Feminine other. If Trockel’s intention is irony, turning the male gaze and traditions of seeing back in on themselves, then this image doesn’t really succeed, because like the disembodied woman, the work is missing its head. Perhaps what it does do, (though only if the original image is known to the viewer) is point to a canonical image of the Feminine by a male artist to generate debate in the present. Or if the historical reference is unknown to the viewer (masculine or feminine), the print could also be seen as a positive confrontation with individual or collective fears.  The curious irony is that Courbet’s title acknowledges timeless feminine creative/ biological and sexual power in a way that Trockel’s tarantulan image does not.  Strangely his full-frontal honesty is more convincing in its rejection of idealism for realism and/ or masculine eroticism. It was and is an image that in 2017 still wouldn’t be reproduced in mainstream media on the grounds of obscenity. That the female body is still regarded as shameful, scandalous, shocking or dangerous is cause for debate in itself. If Trockel’s intent is humour and absurdity in her juxtaposition of the hairy spider, then it simply comes across as a laddish joke, especially in the context of her surrounding work which is equally unconvincing in its vision.

North Gallery, Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph by George Darrell, courtesy of White Cube

The claim that “by focussing on the work of women artists, Dreamers Awake shows how, through art foregrounding bodily experience, the symbolic woman of Surrealism is refigured as a creative, sentient, thinking being” just didn’t ring true to me in relation to some of the celebrated contemporary artists in the show.  Sarah Lucas’s entwined chairs, The Kiss (2003, Wooden Chairs, varnish, cigarettes, wire, papier-mâché, acid free glue, leather cord) with a pair of breasts on the back rest and a cock and balls protruding from under the seat made from cigarettes is just a clumsy secondary school gag in comparison to a work such as Lee Miller’s Untitled photograph (Severed breast from radical surgery in a place setting 1 & 2, Paris, c.1929, modern gelatin silver prints) which shares the same gallery space. Then and now, Miller was way ahead of the times. Arguably her bodily experience though invisible in the shot is resoundingly present in the composition, with the raw meat/ severed breast served up on a plate with cutlery laid out for the viewer’s consumption. Many of her images cut through to the truth of lived experience, as a survivor of childhood trauma, former model and a war correspondent, Miller found liberation in the Art and life of photography. The juxtaposition of a domestic dinner setting with the disembodied breast is deeply subversive on a multitude of levels. The breast is disembodied, not as an erotic, maternal or biological focus but in the service of psychological, social and cultural interrogation. The two images served up side by side on a relatively intimate scale have tremendous power, in the equality of ideas and execution. Miller’s bloodied amputation is about as far removed from the neoclassical ideal of womanhood seen in the paintings of artists such as Magritte, Dali, De Chirico, Man Ray or projected in Cocteau’s 1932 film Blood of a Poet in which Miller appears in marble whiteout as an armless Neoclassical Goddess. Whilst narrowly fixated male artists of her generation were placing womanhood on a pedestal of passive desire, Miller fearlessly confronts us with an object which is anti-Beauty and savagely confrontational. Of the same generation, Dorothea Tanning’s statement “I warn you- I am not an object” immediately springs to mind. It’s a warning that like Miller’s photographic statement will never diminish in terms of power or relevance. Her emergence as a Surrealist artist equal to those who subjugated her to the role of muse is only just beginning. A pair of breasts, cock and balls made from cigarettes combined with a domestic chair is a lame and underdeveloped contemporary statement by comparison.

Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph by George Darrell courtesy of White Cube

As I wrote in a previous post about the Surreal Encounters/ Collecting the Marvellous exhibition (SNGMA, June 2016) the real power and contemporary relevance of Surrealist Art lies in “reconnect[ing] the viewer with underlying passions, obsessions and political activism”, “a collective sense” “beyond dreamy, escapist fantasies and self-promotion”. Despite the easy conversion of the movement’s famous poster boys into merchandise, Surrealism is “rooted in the reality of global conflict, persecution, economic uncertainty, the rise of totalitarianism and coming to grips with who and what we are as human beings.” The premise of the exhibition does pick up on these undercurrents to some extent; “In a world preoccupied with the politics of identity, in which the advances of previous generations must be continually defended, we see the continued- even renewed- relevance of surrealist ideas and strategies.” I couldn’t agree more. What disappointed me were the misguided allegiances to a revolutionary movement playing in the shadows of the contemporary art market.  I looked forward to seeing more evolved attitudes and refined visual language, taking a lead from female Surrealists of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s and running with it. I certainly don’t mean “refined” in terms of gentility, but in terms of awareness and the propensity to fight (savagely if necessary) for a way of seeing based on the artist’s identity. The marginalisation of women artists as a homogenous group persists today, therefore this isn’t an exhibition of female Surrealists as much as it is a wakeup call in terms of what we bring to this work as viewers- individually and collectively. It is far too easy (literally and metaphorically) to buy into the “surreal” as a word/idea misappropriated and devalued by consumerist popular culture, creating dreamily vacuous or supremely self-indulgent Art in which the disembodied woman prevails. The best work in the show subverts what we have come to believe (or have been taught) about feminine power, Surrealism and the nature of creativity. In terms of Western society, embracing the unconscious goes hand in hand with acknowledging, confronting and liberating what is held in check beneath the surface for political or patriarchal reasons, which has less to do with sex and more to do with the balance (or inequity) of power.

Eileen Agar Butterfly Bride (1938, Gouache and collage, 17 15/16 x 15 3/16 in)

In Eileen Agar’s Butterfly Bride (1938, Gouache and collage, 17 15/16 x 15 3/16 in) the blue Renaissance silhouette of a woman collaged on a ground of text, essentially the cut out of one age informing the reading of another, operates in a self-reflexive way. The encyclopaedic/ historical text, with reference to British colonies, historical rule and exploration works in counterpoint with the beauty and implied fragility of two exotic looking butterflies and the figure of the “bride”, anonymously blue and as collectable as a specimen in an age of discovery. Agar’s collages are frequently not just about the absurdity of images out of their elements, juxtaposed for 30 second amusement or shock value, but are far more texturally layered and sophisticated in terms of ideas and technique. Here the use of collage doesn’t feel random or automatic but considered in terms of dialogue between elements and the wider context of the work, transcending the time it was made. We may well question the freedoms afforded the Butterfly Bride in our own times.

Louise Bourgeois Breasts and Blade (1991, bronze, silver nitrate and polished patina, 11 x 32 x 16 in.) Reverse View. Photograph: G.Coburn, Dreamers Awake exhibition, White Cube.

There is also more than meets the eye in Breasts and Blade (1991, bronze, silver nitrate and polished patina, 11 x 32 x 16 in.) by Louise Bourgeois. What we see from the front is a sculpture composed of folds of flesh and five breasts like cushions with the pronounced geometry and provocation of protruding nipples.  As you move to the side and back of the structure the overall form comes into view. The associations of comfort and domesticity in an everyday piece of furniture and the couch as a repository of the traditional female nude in art comes into play. Then you come to the switchblade behind, the threat of violence where you’d least expect it, a warning against stereotypes and reductive visions of femininity, maternity and eroticism. The artist’s sculpture is like a surreal beast not in an aesthetic but a revolutionary sense. It defies and changes your perception as you move around and find yourself in relation to it. It’s a tangible presence that nourishes, intrigues, seduces, challenges and menaces the viewer from the plinth. It isn’t fantastical but potently real, infinitely more complex than simple dualism or juxtaposition of opposing elements. The inference of soft comfort is rendered in the solidity of polished metal, the couch accommodating the whole family and its needs, equally a source of feminine disquiet. It lives and grows in the imagination as you experience it resoundingly in three (or more) dimensions, as one would expect from a Master of her own Art. The femininity here has multiple layers, views, identities and hidden capabilities against type- it’s a work which refuses to be boxed, with its own distinct voice. I never cease to be amazed, elated and inspired by the penetrating honesty of this artist’s work. Bourgeois brings much that is held beneath the surface into the light with immense courage, consummate skill, tenacity and feeling.

Hayv KahramanT25 and T26 (2017, Oil on Linen 80 x 60 in) © Hayv Kahraman. Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery and White Cube.

Shannon Bool’s exquisite monochrome tapestry The Five Wives of Lajos Bìrò (Wool tapestry, 98 1/16 x 156 11/16 in), Carina Brandes’ Untitled (2012, black and white photograph on baryta) a triangular, mythical inversion of Leda and the Swan and Hayv Kahraman’s T25 and T26 (2017, Oil on Linen 80 x 60 in) rooted in contemporary war on terror were similarly multifaceted engagements with the highly active nature of Surrealism, rather than giving passive aesthetic nods to it. Jo Ann Callis’s Untitled (Woman with Black Line) c.1976, archival pigment print, 22 1/8 x 19 7/16 in) further articulates this idea. It is an image of a woman photographed from above, with just her head and neck visible, face down in a pillow. There’s a drawn line like a seamed stocking along her back and forming the part of her hair, as if she could come apart, be peeled or shed her skin. Is she alive or dead in this sheath of image making? It’s a very intelligent image in terms of where the framing places the camera/eye/ viewer. We are placed in the uncomfortable position of being complicit in this bloodless, internalised crime scene, rendered with a deceptively soft palette of muted colour.

Alina Szapocznikow Autoportrait II (1966, Bronze, 8 1/16 x 10 ¼ x 4 5/16 in). Front View Photograph G.Coburn, Dreamers Awake exhibition,  White Cube

A work which perhaps summed up the exhibition for me was Alina Szapocznikow’s Autoportrait II (1966, Bronze, 8 1/16 x 10 ¼ x 4 5/16 in). On one side, there is a bird-like creature, composed of cast toes for the two feet, a mouth and chin and what look like outstretched wings, a playful, ingenious, hybrid fusion of a human/ bird free spirit that immediately made me smile. Then on the reverse, a different projection of Self, composed of just the cast mouth and upper breast, defining the “automatic” portrait of a woman. When viewed from this position the potentially shapeshifting woman is invisible. One seeing, the other being seen, one free, the other defined by her body, the living contradiction of what it is to be female in a world that hasn’t progressed far enough. Perhaps it was exactly that which disturbed and disillusioned me considering the exhibition as a whole. As I walked around Dreamers Awake I experienced the hope and exhilarating liberation of Art in terms of human expression, bringing what is hidden into awareness. Equally I saw the retrograde dictation of art by market values and a tendency to adopt traditionally masculine tactics to gain attention. I left this exhibition with faith in the tangible power of imagination and the extraordinary vision of female artists as an agent of positive change. I also saw what Surrealism and Feminism is not. That polarity reflects the wider world of Art/ life and the hard reality of creative work as ever more vital, resistant to or complicit with the political, economic and social extremities of the 21st Century.

www.whitecube.com

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

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

24 June to 1 October 2017

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern Scottish Women / Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965

7 November 2015 – 26 June 2016

Modern Two -Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Anne Finlay by Dorothy Johnstone Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection

Anne Finlay by Dorothy Johnstone
Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection

Dorothy Johnstone (1892-1980). Anne Finlay, 1920. Oil on canvas, 145.3 x 100.5. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections: Purchased with the assistance of the National Fund for Acquisitions 1983.

“…there is no such thing as a woman artist. There are only two kinds of artist-bad and good.” Ethel Walker, 1938.

I headed to Edinburgh recently to see the Modern Scottish Women exhibition and to attend a study day organised by the Scottish Society of Art Historians (SSAH), examining the lives and work of artists included in the show and exploring some of the issues raised by this ground breaking exhibition.

I began with the show itself and found many brilliant, inspiring examples of self-possessed creativity: women whose paintings, drawings and sculptures resoundingly announced their undeniable status as professional artists in their own right. Out of an original shortlist of over 200 artists, this survey of 45 female painters and sculptors (1885-1965) with Scottish connections curated by Alice Strang, is an exciting expose of largely unknown work. Framed in terms of developments in Art Education (primarily in Glasgow and Edinburgh) and the impact of gender on how female artists were trained, perceived and received by the art establishment as mediators of taste for the general public, this is a challenging show in its continuing relevance. Often named as symbolically and politically subordinate to husbands or male relatives, gender has relegated many of these artists to obscurity, with acquisition of their work largely in the private domain and contemporary writing about their work often patronising or derogatory. Commentary from male critics, such as the criticism of Joan Eardley’s male Sleeping Nude (1955, Oil on canvas), dismissed as the work of a “girl artist” and an affront to the Western figurative tradition, is treatment that we sadly cannot just relegate to history. In an era of Twitter, where uninformed populist opinion is king, women being taken seriously in any profession remains a lifelong struggle.

All too often “women’s” work is written about in terms of its aesthetic appeal –adjectives like “charming”, “pretty”, or the surprise of accomplishment accompanies so-called critiques of female artist’s work. This trend persists in the media today in the discussion of female contemporary artists defined by good or bad girl status, their  sexuality, capacity for child bearing/ childlessness or the appraisal of their physical appeal and dress, rather like the limited reportage on female politicians over and above what they actually stand for. Female creativity has had to overcome significant obstacles to even begin to be seen on the same playing field as male colleagues of the same generation. It was interesting to hear the shocked amazement of visitors, discovering some of the historical obstacles to female creativity found in the battleground of the life class; an essential foundation for the practice of painting or sculpture which was deemed unsuitable for ladies or the marriage bar that prevented married women from taking up or keeping fulltime teaching positions. There is always a danger when we narrow the historical lens, of thinking ourselves to be so much more progressive than previous generations. Hierarchies of gender, culture, genre and region still prevent female artists from being shown and acknowledged more widely, even in more recent times.

Compare art writing and media coverage of the nationally celebrated GSA New Glasgow Boys of the 1980’s: Peter Howson, Ken Currie, Adrian Wiszniewski and Steven Campbell with commentary on Joyce W Cairns, one of the finest living artists in the UK today, whose large scale figurative compositions surpass them all. Major solo exhibitions held outside the central belt at the Aberdeen Art Gallery such as Joyce W. Cairns War Tourist (2006) and Frances Walker: Place Observed in Solitude (2010) are contemporary examples of artists defined by the strength of their work, rather than their gender, which is why a second and even third exhibition of Modern Scottish Women is an imperative in terms of Scotland’s capital art institutions. As part of the SSAH study day, Matthew Jarron’s talk “Placed Under no disqualification”- Women Artists in She-Town, highlighted the work of women artists championed through art education, industry and politics in Dundee, revealing alternative histories of Art outside recognised centres of cultural gravity. This “first major exhibition of work by women artists to be mounted by the National Galleries of Scotland” is an important first step in recognising the contribution of women to Visual Culture, their rightful place in Art History and in the popular imagination. Perhaps it is my impatience for equality speaking when I say that in some ways the exhibition scratches the surface with a pin, but it is also immensely valuable in generating the impetus and momentum for further study and deeper consideration of this work, based on individual merit and the equality between ideas and technique.

Although I found the contextual framing of this exhibition problematic, I must also acknowledge it as a necessity: after all, to appreciate the qualities of anything you first have to know it exists, or in the case of Art be given the opportunity to see/experience it first-hand. I am sure that the general public and art historians alike will find works in this exhibition revelatory on many different levels. That a segregated show highlighting the achievements of women artist’s remains necessary in 2015/16 filled me initially with sad resignation- is this really the only means we have of shedding light on this work- to frame it in the inequality that it grew in spite of? But as I moved through the exhibition, new voices made themselves known and the framing of the show in relation to dominant institutions seemed less important that the fact that here they were- finally being discovered. Acknowledged in a National Gallery space, these works declared themselves in their own language, revealing strength, boundless talent and human insight.

Margaret Campbell Macpherson (1860-1931) was one of a number of female artists who in the latter 19th century moved to Paris for a more progressive art education at the Académie Colarossi. Working in relative freedom en plein air in the Fountainbleu Forest and in Brittany, the artist’s palette and paint handling evolved in response to the natural environment and as part of the Concarneau artist colony. Head of a Breton Girl (c 1894. Oil on canvas) is an arresting work, rather more profound emotionally and symbolically than suggested by a contemporary critic in 1895 who praised the “admirable tint” and “sweet simplicity” of the face.  The 2015 catalogue entry describing the sunlit scene and the girl in costume, “lost in idle contemplation” misses the mark for me as well. What struck me immediately was the conscious presence of both the artist and sitter. The girl, on the cusp of adulthood completely inhabits her own thoughts, her eyes linked to the deep blue palette of foliage and to Nature. Her white cap, accented with cool tones of blue and green seems caught in winds of change, through the dappled sunlight. She holds a staff which points inwards towards her abdomen, accents of striped cadmium red in her skirt flowing downward into the foreground of the painting. In her left eye is the watery mark of a tear and she stares fixedly downwards, perhaps in contemplation of burgeoning maturity. This doesn’t strike me as an idle girl with a sweet face, but something more consciously heightened by Margaret Campbell Macpherson’s palette and composition; a sense of illumination- in light used not in the service of impressionistic prettiness or optical distraction, but to say something; about feminine experience, adolescence and the sadness that always accompanies the loss of one stage of life in exchange for growth in another. It is a painting as strong and as subtle as its cobalt and emerald shadows, conscious of Nature and demanding to be written about officially in less decorative terms.

Sleeping Mother and Child (1903-05. Bronze) by Gertrude Alice Meredith Williams (1877-1934) reveals the gaunt, high cheek boned figure of woman and her baby emerging from a hewn block of raw material and biblical association. The woman’s hands are clasped before her, around the child in a protectively unconscious state and the child’s mouth turns downward in an expression of uncertainty and consternation rather than peaceful, contented sleep. This exhausted and impoverished Parisian Madonna, a sitter who the artist paid with food and shelter, feels akin to the work of Käthe Kollewitz (1867-1945), although without the gravitas of human brutality and war. It is the protective bond of motherhood that the artist explores here and the recognition of one human being by another, tangibly in three dimensions. It is a work of great sensitivity, vulnerability, intimacy and one of the most emotionally affecting works in the show. Studying at the Liverpool School of Architecture and Applied Art and in Paris 1901-05, including the Académie Colarossi, the artist’s modelling of the figure in this and her painted plaster macquette for the Paisley War Memorial: The Spirit of the Crusaders (c 1922), was no doubt influenced by a progressive education and her scholarship abroad. The subject of a wonderful talk by Phyllida Shaw, who is bringing William’s work to light after discovering her extensive wartime correspondence, there is much more to be discovered about this remarkable sculptor.

Self-portrait (Mrs Grahame Johstone), c.1929

Doris Zinkeisen Self -Portrait (Mrs Grahame Johnstone), c 1929, Oil on canvas, 107.2 x 86.6. National Portrait Gallery, London: Purchased 1999.

Another trailblazing artist represented in the show is Doris Zinkeisen (1897-1991) who’s Self Portrait (Mrs Grahame Johnstone) (c1929, Oil on canvas) is one of several resiliently present statements of femininity and power in the genre of portraiture, characteristic of this exhibition. Trained at the Harrow School of Art and the RA School in London, Zinkeisen’s work as a theatrical and film designer finds expression in her dramatic image of Self. Draped in a Chinese shawl, her pale white shoulders, red lips and rouged cheeks take on a symbolic rather than a seductive stance. The artist’s gaze extends above and beyond the viewer, her hand on a white curtain, about to step into the dark space beyond the set. Like Dorothy Johnstone’s portrait of Anne Finlay (1920), the contentious poster image for the show, it is an image that resists feminine display for a predominantly male gaze. Zinkeisen is resoundingly sure of herself in beholding who she is- her sexuality is part of that certainly, but it isn’t the only aspect being acknowledged by the image.  In Johnstone’s portrait of Anne Finlay, the sitter meets the artist’s gaze as an equal, finding expression for the strength and dynamism of her personality, beheld and captured by another woman/ artist.

Belsen April 1945, 1945

Doris Zinkeisen Belsen: April 1945: 1945. Oil on canvas, 62.2 x 69.8cm. IWM (Imperial War Museums): War Artists Advisory Committee commission 1947 .

Although much admired in the press as a well-groomed socialite and model of femininity, Doris Zinkeisen’s tenacity extends well beyond her self-portrait to documenting the horrors of World War II. Tasked with documenting the St John Ambulance Brigade’s work in war torn Europe and therefore slipping under the radar of official war Art, Zinkeisen was one of the first to enter the Belsen concentration camp with the ambulance service post liberation. In her painting Belsen. April 1945 (Oil on canvas) she depicts a suspended, otherworldly, hellish space; blackened by death and smoke, with the glimmer of a furnace and unnatural clouds compressed into the high left of the composition. The splayed limbs of ghostly pale, emaciated bodies piled up in the centre of the painting align with the feeling in the floored pit of the viewer’s stomach – the foreground tonally falling away as if the ground beneath the viewer’s feet is collapsing. Zinkeisen’s direct response as a witness is an important, emotionally centred document of inhumanity and humanity perceiving it. Everything else including the gender of the artist is stripped away the scene before her, (and before us) heightened in shadow and universal in meaning.

Another memorable discovery was Margot Sandeman’s (1922-2009) painting 3 Bathers, one of the most beautiful and richly contemplative in the exhibition. From left to right we see three stages of life; childhood/ innocence, adulthood/ knowledge gained, and old age/death aligned with cycles of Nature. Sandeman’s symbolic treatment of her subject is reminiscent of Munch and Redon, with a dappled progression of luminous colour underpinned by a timeless progression of ages. In the figure of the child the torso is illuminated in sunlit yellow and orange, the head of the girl contrasted in cool blue, becoming one with the sky. The middle bather is in a crouched position, her face hidden sorrowfully in a towel and in the final section of the triptych-like composition we see the body of a woman, lain in a grave of deep ultramarine. Sandeman’s palette links the girl with natural cycles of life, death, decay and renewal with dominant blue defining the realm of her intellect and the flowing spring at her feet. The child’s steadfast gaze doesn’t portray a carefree state of youth but knowledge of what will come to pass, naturally in time to us all. There is a strong sense of the Feminine in Nature in Sandeman’s work which transcends her identification as a female artist.

Mabel Pryde Nicholson’s (1871-1918) The Grange, Rottingdean (1912, Oil on canvas) contains a different kind of knowing in her complex interior double portrait of her children Nancy and Kit. Her daughter is seated in profile in the foreground, staring fixedly through a window we cannot see but which illuminates both her and her brother, who we see through an open doorway to another room. Framing the space the girl occupies, and also the male child like a proscenium arch, is a wall dividing the domestic space; decorated with a series of six 18th century military costume engravings on the wall. On top of a rounded corner cupboard to the left, a statue of a blue and red coated gentleman with a cane seems to mirror the attitude of Kit, the artist’s son, looking directly at us through the open door. Wearing a Glengarry cap, his hands are steadfast in his pockets, feet apart in an assured, rightful stance. It is a Vermeer –like space in terms of its intimacy and perspective, but intensely psychological in the accents of colour and mark, drawing the viewer’s attention to status and gender, the relativity of one child to another, established in the light hitting them both. This sense of illumination invites interpretation; in the display of masculinity in the home and in the foreground space occupied by the female child, pensive, self-contained and absorbed in her own thoughts. One feels looking at this image that the boy’s experience of life has an established historical precedent of position, of the man he will become and the traditional space he will occupy within the family home. His sister’s foreground position within the composition brings her closer to the artist’s own space, feminine experience and in relation to her male sibling. Curiously in spite of the boy’s age, size and  distant position, his presence is expanded within the painting by masculine objects to the point where the artist renders him and his older sister equal human presences in the work. It is of course a mother beholding her children and one could argue an interior life/ figurative study, but the tension in this work suggests more than that; a more potent sense of psychology and a subtle, powerful comment on gender.

Born in Canada and resident in Scotland from 1928 until her death, Margaret Watkins (1884- 1969) is has been acknowledged far more widely in the New World. A pioneer Fine Art photographer working in the world of advertising, Watkins exquisite monochrome compositions are beautifully poised, her juxtaposition of objects full of associative narratives. Domestic Symphony is a photographic statement of tonal rhythm using everyday objects; eggs and the scroll of a bathtub, elegant as any treble clef. Seemingly mundane objects become elevated through Watkins’ eye and lens and in the arrangement of her still life compositions. Head and Hand (1925, Palladium print) is an elegant, though sharply ironic, image of the hand of dancer/ author Marguerite Agniel holding a carved, stylised head- a portrait of herself by the American artist Jo Davidson. It’s an image of idealised Beauty, display and possession, with the woman holding an appropriated image of Self in three dimensions, there in the palm of her hand where the gaze of others assumes its proper proportion. The hand itself adopts a pose of attention, a powerful positive surrounded by negative space.

I was delighted to see the work of Hannah Frank (1908-2008) included in the Modern Scottish Women exhibition. I had the great pleasure of meeting and interviewing her, a few years before her centenary. She was, and still is through her Art, an irrepressible spirit and I think her sculpture Woman with Bird (1955, Bronze) sums up my thoughts about this exhibition. A female figure sits cross legged, holding aloft a bird with care and aspiration, about to extend its wings to fly. Frank renders the figure with characteristic delicacy and strength of spirit. It’s an image of freedom, imagination and Hope- a work which only she could have created.

Lee Miller: A Woman’s War

Imperial War Museum, London, until 24 April, 2016.

leemiller-largeLee Miller in steel helmet specially designed for using a camera, Normandy,      Unknown Photographer, 1944. Images © Lee Miller Archives.

After the Lee Miller & Picasso Exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery last year, which left me angry and wanting, I had been looking forward to a more comprehensive and insightful presentation of Miller’s work in her own right at the Imperial War Museum. The unique context of this museum I thought, would perhaps allow greater latitude, exploring the complexities of a woman cast between Beauty and her own mastery through the medium of photography.

I left this exhibition feeling inspired by Miller’s Art of seeing; in the many superb examples of her work before, during and in the aftermath of World War II, but felt equally conflicted by her projected image. Not in what was present by virtue of her images, but in what was notably absent; for example Miller’s confrontational, documentary photographs of piles of bodies or of captured prison guards taken during the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau. The curatorial choice in this section, covering the liberation of the Nazi death camps is a more modest collection of images; of balletic feet in prison uniform, a doctor and her patient in Dachau hospital and a room of women forced to work as camp prostitutes awaiting transportation as a summation of her “feminine” experience. Nearby Miller’s photograph of Regina Lisso ( daughter of Dr Kurt Lisso, city treasurer of Leipzig, after committing suicide with her parents in the town hall on 18 April 1945)is a disarming image of youth, cowardice and perfected beauty of a different kind in the context of Nazism. Lisso appears as if asleep, a less confrontational image than others Miller took of Nazis, who took their own lives rather than face defeat and capture. These curatorial choices don’t adequately represent the outrage of Miller’s words or the scope of her images, which bring the viewer face to face with humanity’s suffering and with the banality and complicity of evil. The testimonial of her dispatches, communicating her direct response to world and life changing events demanded a space of its own. If you can’t display the Horror of what Miller saw, wanted the world to see and “believe”, in the context of the IWM then where or when will it ever be publicly shown?

Whilst there is truth in the Feminine narrative presented in Lee Miller: A Woman’s War, there is also an enduring persistence of limitation present. This is perhaps best expressed in former British Vogue editor Audrey Withers’ observation that Miller: “was reluctant to abandon the adventurous life which she found her true vocation and sensed rightly that she would never again have the opportunities it had given her”. I felt in viewing this show that similar lines of experience had been drawn around the chosen images- in accordance with the overarching theme of the exhibition and with Miller’s sensitivity in relation to the experiences of women in wartime certainly –but limiting exposure to an Artist in her own right. The selection and release of only four press images from the Lee Miller Archive also present glamour and beauty over experience, a tendency which is also reflected in the gift shop. “A Woman’s War” is fought on many fronts and although Miller’s images give active voice to this complexity within the exhibition, this feels in spite of the thematic trajectory rather than because of it.

The trappings of exhibition framing and accompanying texts aside, this is a wonderful show and an opportunity for reappraisal of Miller’s remarkable work in terms of who she was and what she represents on multiple levels. Like George Hoyningen-Huene’s photograph; Lee Miller with Crystal Ball, Paris, France, 1932 where the model’s face and hands emerge from darkness, illuminated from below, Miller’s head and hands/ intellect and actions are resoundingly present in the composition and guts of her photographs. As a metaphorical overview there is self -determination in this God/ Creator-like pose, with Miller grasping either side of the glass sphere or prism containing Vogue model Agneta Fischer in miniature. It is a surreal image of poised high fashion reflecting Miller’s own designated role of model and muse- beautiful, idealised and goddess-like, a desirable object trapped in a fishbowl.  However it is the powerful portrait of Miller that dominates the image, looming over the confinement of Feminine beauty, gazing into the crystal ball, into how others would perceive her.

Because how others- often leading male artists or photographers of the day, saw and projected Miller and because those images are such an influential part of how we are exposed to her work, I’m going to deal with them early! There are telling examples of how Miller was perceived and defined throughout the exhibition, that when stacked up against her own oeuvre, make her toweringly enduring images all the more remarkable in resistance. Photography behind the lens freed her, from the past and from how her own image/sense of self was appropriated by those around her. From early childhood Miller was subjected to invasive photographs taken by her father Theodore. The Stereoscopic nude study of Lee Miller by her father, Poughkeepsie, NY, USA 1928 visually and sexually holds her prisoner in a disturbing display; daughter as subject/object and the father behind the lens. Her arms are folded behind her back, her full frontal torso displayed in a format used at the time for pornography. Her head is turned away in an emotionally detached, downcast gaze, there’s nothing liberated or liberating about this image of the female body or the implied relationship between subject /object and photographer. Man Ray’s Shadow patterns cast by a net curtain on Lee Millers torso, Paris, France, c.1930 which crops off her head entirely has a similar effect, artfully draped in avant-garde eroticism typical of the well documented male Surrealist movement. Similarly her husband Roland Penrose’s portrait of Miller; Good Shooting (Bien visé), London, England 1939, positions her with hands raised above her head in the repose of a classical nude, headless, chained to a bullet marked wall and clad waist down in metal, another example of appropriated, idealised Beauty .

However Miller’s insistence and circumstance carved out a different path than that of a passive victim, muse or an object of obsessively held desire. War transformed her, giving her the opportunity, like many women during the 1940’s, to step outside and beyond what was expected of them in everyday life. Miller seized her opportunity as a war photographer and correspondent with both hands. The contrast between pre-war photographs of Miller the model and David E.Sherman’s image of Lee Miller at the entrance to the fortress of St Malo, Brittany, France, August 1944, starkly convey how fully she embraced life with the troops, finding purpose and meaning through the lens.

When the war ended and expectation of women’s roles assumed pre-war expectations, it is not surprising that Miller lost her vitality and sense of purpose, spiralling into depression and alcoholism in later life. Much of who she was and what she had experienced remained unseen until the discovery of Miller’s work by her son, Anthony Penrose, following her death in 1977. Miller kept the best of herself compartmentalised in an attic; 60,000 negatives, 20,000 prints, contact sheets and thousands of documents and manuscripts. The inspiration throughout this exhibition resides in knowing what she overcame to be who she truly was as a photographer. The evidence is in her images.

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Lee Miller self portrait with Sphinxes, London, England 1940 by Lee Miller (2995-5) Images © Lee Miller Archives.

 To see Miller’s development in the exhibition; from early studio self-portraiture, high fashion shoots, her observations of the relationships between men and women as part of an inner circle of artists in pre-war Paris, folk customs in Romania, studies of people, architecture and landscape in Egypt, to her work documenting the lives of soldiers, Resistance fighters, prisoners, evacuees and civilians; many women and children, during and after WWII is a breath-taking journey through “many lives”.

Prior to WWII we can see Miller evolving as an artist in her own right; in her supremely dignified portrait of Eva Jessye, Choir Mistress, New York, NY, USA, 1933 (the first black American woman to receive international recognition as a choral director and conductor) which speaks of equality way ahead of its time. Her portrait of Mafy Miller, sister -in-law of Lee Miller in the Bazaar district, Cairo, Egypt, 1937, displays her mastery of lighting and composition. Her portraits of Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst, Lambe Creek, Cornwall, England 1937 and Ady Fidelin and Man Ray, Mougins, France, 1937 capture Miller’s understanding of the psychology and dynamics of power in male /female relationships.  Her Portrait of a local woman, possibly in Siwa, Egypt, c. 1938 and her portrait of Argentinian artist Leonor Fini, Saint- Martin- d’Ardéche near Avignon, France, 1939, are also particularly fine examples of Miller’s ability, insight and technique which applied equally to named, famous or unknown subjects during this pre-war period.  Miller rightfully identified early in her career that a photographer’s “approach” rather than their “technical genius” was paramount.

Miller’s mastery of photographic technique and intent prior to WWII finds heightened expression in her wartime photographs of American Nurses 2nd US Army taken in Oxfordshire, January 1943 and female ATS Searchlight Operators, London, England, March 1943; perfect compositions of tone and form, bringing a sense of radiant illumination to the work of women as part of the war effort.  Lesser known images of found objects taken during the Blitz including Remington Silent and Piano by Broadwood seen in the publication Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain Under Fire by Ernestine Carter and Lee Miller (1941), reflect civilization in surreal, molten destruction.  Miller’s intellect and humour can be seen in her images of Vogue models wearing protective masks at the entrance to the photographer’s air raid shelter in Hampstead, London (May 1941) and in the defiant image of a model wearing a Digby Morton suit posed in front of a bombsite (June 1941). The framing of the archway is still intact, the model’s head turned in acknowledgement of the destruction immediately behind her but adopting an upright stance, one foot turned- the other pointing toward the viewer as though she could turn and stride forward into our foreground. Miller’s photographs of ATA pilot Anne Douglas, Flight Lieutenant Anna Leska, Life magazine photo journalist Margaret Bourke-White, Director Jill Craigie and unnamed women in uniform working in factories, as radio mechanics and technicians, darkroom assistants, nurses, ambulance drivers, interpreters, land girls, women filling in trenches and clearing rubble in human chains, provide a window on the trailblazing expansion of women’s many and varied roles in wartime, beyond domesticity and simply keeping “the home fires burning”.  I hope that many young women will have the opportunity to see this exhibition and be inspired by it, due to Miller’s undeniable sensitivity and audacity behind the lens rather than her undeniable beauty in front of the camera.  Can she not be both? Apparently not yet, would be my answer, as A Woman’s War is sadly still being fought in the way that female artists continue to be described and defined in terms of their gender, their clothes , physical appearance or their relationships with men, rather than their talents.

Anna%20Leska,%20Air%20Transport%20Auxilliary,%20Polish%20pilot%20flying%20a%20spitfire,%20England%201942%20by%20Lee%20Miller%20(4327-45)_jpg

Anna Leska, Air Transport Auxilliary, Polish pilot flying a spitfire, England, 1942 by Lee Miller (4327-45) Images © Lee Miller Archives.

Miller’s images of women in war torn Europe are among her most arresting and moving in the way that they transcend time and place to express universal human behaviour and emotions. Woman accused of collaborating with the Germans, Rennes, Brittany, France 1944 is a scene bisected by light and darkness from left to right; the woman being interrogated in foreground close up, her head shaven in retribution. Rather than the spectacle of public shaming or the judgment of the interrogator who is out of shot, she depicts an inward moment of recognition in the face of a young woman with her head pensively bowed, another woman in a dark cardigan standing behind her in shadow like another self or an unholy guardian angel. She could be anyone and any one of us. In a photograph taken during the liberation of St Malo, Brittany, France in August 1944, we see the French family of a German soldier hiding their faces in a huddled group, painfully aware of being seen, hair hung limp masking their faces. Only the face of a frightened child grasped tightly by its mother turns to face the viewer/ photographer, aligned with the lighter wall in contrast with the dark clothing and foreground, horizontally bisecting the photograph. This tonality has moral resonance in terms of the shaming consciousness of the three young women in the family group and the eye behind the lens. It is a powerful image of a standard unit of society and of collaboration with the enemy. However it is not without empathy. The body language of everyone in the shot, especially the young child, renders them vulnerable in capture and therefore judgement hangs in suspension in the open lit space above them.

Miller’s image of liberation on multiple levels, of Ghislane Schlesser, a French ambulance driver, with her father, Brigadier General Guy Schlesser, commander of a French armoured division taken in Alsace, February 1945, is one of the most beautiful in the show. Ghislane stands in the viewer’s foreground as if we are party to the conversation. The positioning of the young woman is at the forefront of the composition and on the same level as her father who stands behind her, hand on her shoulder, smiling and smoking a cigarette in a moment of pride, victory and relief. The sense of equality and camaraderie in uniform, shared resistance and the bond between father and daughter makes this such a beautiful image. Miller’s wartime photographs contain darkness, dispossession and despair, but also moments of profound beauty and hope.

Another example is Miller’s image of homeless girls on a Budapest Street, taken in January 1946. They stand together, bare footed- one gazing directly at the woman behind the lens, the other smiling at something or someone out of shot to the left. Behind them is a poster of an elderly woman’s face and beside it a Soviet-style poster of a woman, her fist raised triumphantly. It is an image of poverty, deprivation and displacement certainly, but it is also an image of resilience and trust between the two young girls and photographer. To capture such a moment amongst the rubble and chaos of post –war Europe speaks of Miller’s compassion and intent. She spent the first winter after the war in Hungary and Romania and like millions who were displaced by the conflict, faced the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding their lives. Listening to the painfully scripted interview with Ona Munson on CBS Radio’s Town Tonight show in 1946 and seeing the final image of Miller in her kitchen at Farely Farm, Sussex, part of a feature in House and Garden in 1973, it is easy to feel her discomfort and unease with civilian life. There are so many images in the Lee Miller archive, yet to be seen, with many more stories to tell.

One of the most famous images of Miller taken by David Sherman during the allied advance through Germany is Lee Miller in Hitler’s bath, Munich, Bavaria, Germany, April 1945, showing Miller caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Beside the tub are her combat boots, caked with the mud of Dachau; on one side is a portrait of Hitler – use of personal space within his apartment, a symbol of allied victory. On the right is a female nude statue, an example of idealised Neo Classical beauty; an aesthetic of racial purity actively utilised in Nazi propaganda. Many of Miller’s friends were branded “Degenerate” artists and fled persecution by the Nazis. Between the defeated Fascist leader and the statue of idealised feminine Beauty sits Miller, washing the dirt and stench of Dachau from her naked body. For me the positioning of the female statue at the side of the tub has always held a sense of irony specific to Miller’s personal story. Like many women actively in service during WWII she was part of the fight against Fascism, but also caught between this new found freedom of duty and the restrictions re- imposed by victory. Projections of Beauty have continued to plague reception and access to Miller’s work – the statue by the tub is a powerful reminder, together with her life experiences, which she could never wash away.

“What is liberty? It is the little things, added up to equal freedom instead of despair. It is the columns of evacuees leaving the front, sad to leave their land, but willing; it’s the cinema for no purpose; it’s the group in the street, laughing; It’s trusting your friends and your family; or a newcomer because he has an honest face; it’s the opportunity to offer or refuse yourself for something you understand.” Lee Miller.

www.iwm.org.uk

http://www.iwm.org.uk/exhibitions/iwm-london/lee-miller-a-woman-s-war

www.leemiller.co.uk

Beka Globe- Between Land, Sea and Sky.

Chapaval

Chapaval by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.

Recently I had the great pleasure of visiting the Isle of Harris where I recorded this interview at The Mission House Studio with one of the UK’s leading artists/photographers, Beka Globe. 

GC: What were your first impressions of Harris when you moved here?

BG: We came up on holiday first, when I was about 10. We stayed at the Harris hotel, then at a self-catering place down the Golden Road. I remember the house being really tiny –V lined and it was right by the water. Mum putting the washing on the line, blowing a hoolie! I was delighted to be on holiday in Harris in November because we were off school for two weeks. I just remember sandy beaches, the wild landscape, being in the back of Dad’s old DS Citroen – its suspension was quite bad so it was a bit sickening to be on the road! When we moved up here it was a lovely hot summer in 1983. We had the freedom to play around which was great. When we lived in Gloucestershire we had freedom too, I used to play in the fields and copses, where there were trees in the middle of fields, I’d make dens. So I carried on with that type of thing. I would make my dens on the rocks, I used to make my little play house. Then there was an island where we were staying at the nurse’s cottage. When the tide was out, I made a little bridge of rocks going to it- that was my little island. I made that into a little house as well. I remember it being really friendly, the old folk- all of that.

GC: When did you first pick up a camera and what drew you into photography? 

BG: My Dad had a camera and I remember when I was very little, he would develop prints in the dark. ‘Can I come in Daddy, can I come in?’ ‘Well, you can come in, but once you’re in you have to stay in- you can’t just open the door and go!’ ‘No, I’ll stay in!’ I remember watching Dad developing a picture, and it could just be my imagination I don’t know, of old Jim next door with a pumpkin. I remember the image coming through in the red tray in the red light and I thought Wow!

GC: There’s something magical about that process.

BG: It really is magical.

GC: It’s still magical, even as an adult.

BG: Yes it is. I do miss it in a lot of ways, but in a lot of other practical ways I don’t miss the darkroom. I must have been about five or six at the time, my sister would have been around too. When we moved up there wasn’t much to do on Harris. I picked up my Dad’s camera at the age of twelve and made my darkroom in the airing cupboard upstairs. I don’t know why I got into it, but my Dad had a camera and I could go out, it was a grown up thing. I went out with the camera and it gave a purpose for going for a walk.

GC: Did it change the way you looked at things, perceived things?

BG: Yes, it does, straight away- the moment you have a camera in your hand. Even if there’s a camera in your pocket you look at the world in a different way. Even if you don’t have a camera with you, or when I have the camera with me and I don’t take it out, you do look at the world in a different way. It’s nice really.

GC: How does that change?

BG: Without being romantic about it or anything, when I go out on my own and take a picture, you’re just aware of everything around you. The purpose is to produce a picture- it might take a little while to get into the groove of it. It heightens the senses, your hearing. I don’t have a sense of smell. I kind of wonder if one sense is taken away you get better at another one.

GC: I was looking at the prints in the gallery and they’re incredibly tactile. There are points where cloud and water meet each other, where earth is meeting water -there’s lines of force, a dynamic within the composition. Is it those kinds of elements that are heightened with the camera?

BG: I think it’s where the tide comes in on the shore; it’s an ever changing strip of land, there’s so much going on in that area all the time. That’s what really interests me. Maybe it’s the fact that I live on an island. I love the sea, I couldn’t imagine living far away from it. It does have this pull, this magical quality about it. Even when you’re on a beach looking at the sea, there’s nothing there but the ocean- over there is America, there’s such a massive body of water between and it’s always changing. From gales to flat calm, to the light that shines on the water, I just love the texture and patterns that it makes.

GC: For me your photographs are really painterly, the way that you print them. It gives depth, real depth and texture. There’s something so tangible, like the one downstairs (Shelibost Sky) with the smaller cloud patterns and elements disintegrating at the edges.

BG: Yes. It’s what this place is. I’m really lucky to have such an amazing landscape on my doorstep.

GC: Your upbringing here- how did that affect your way of seeing when you went overseas, to America and New Zealand? Did it affect what you were drawn to?

BG: I think I was looking for something totally different out there. I will look out the Maori portraits for you. I wanted to get out into the world and see what was going on in other places. These are back in 1999, of hunting wild boar. These are all films I developed myself. I’ve always loved big whites and big blacks. I remember at college; ‘You’ve got to have blacks, you’ve got to have whites and all the tonal range in-between.’ Like the dog there, it should be darker, so that you can see the hairs on it. They were so technically orientated.

GC: Having that foundation of technical knowledge allows you to have your own voice. You can choose what techniques to use.

BG: Yes, I think so. These are of the pig hunt. It was a great experience that has stayed with me. It’s an activity that brings the whole community together for a shared purpose.

GC: Have you shown any of the New Zealand images before?

BG: No, the Maori portraits I photographed, I said it wouldn’t publish them. My idea was to do a whole lot of Maori portraits. It was almost a documentary of the tribal markings but through a portrait, that’s what I intended to do. Everyone I photographed I gave a picture to as a thank you. True to my word, I haven’t used them for anything. I think some photographers have gone out there and used people. Then these tattoos have appeared in tattoo magazines, completely out of context. These tattoos are part of the spirituality of the people and that was where I was coming from…I think there’s nothing like going to the other side of the world and putting some distance between, to make you look at your life back here in a different way…

Roddy

Roddy, Hebridean Portraits by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.

GC: People will be familiar with your land and seascapes but not with your work as a portrait photographer. Can you tell me about your Hebridean Portraits series?

BG: There are about 120 taken over about 20 years, 80 or so are good. They were photographed using medium format, so you’re looking down, people aren’t noticing what you’re doing so much and you’ve got to get it right because its film. I’d like to make a book of them to complete the project.

Nellie

Nellie, Hebridean Portraits by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.

GC: Do you have particular favourites?

BG: One I took of Roddy my neighbour 20 years ago, he’s in a home now. One of the guys doing peats, it’s time disappearing, a lot of the people I photographed are dead now.

GC: Your St Kilda photographs also have that sense of a way of life disappearing.

BG: The ones I took of St Kilda- I wanted to have the zone quality to them, like Adams. I wanted them to look as though they had been taken with a plate camera, back in the 1880’s, like they were disappearing into the past.

GC: For me the birds also feel like that, departing from the rock. You’ve got this ancient, solid, immovable mass and all of that energy of birds in flight above.

BG: It’s an awe inspiring, beautiful place. I would love to do a series of all lighthouses in the UK. I remember listening to the Shipping news-following that voice around the Hebrides and the UK, to photograph all those areas would be a fantastic thing to do. I used to hear ‘the Hebrides’ -that’s us! Where is everything else? Where’s German Bight? North Utsire, south Utsire, where are they, what are they like? A lot of these places are inaccessible; you would have to go to them by helicopter.  It would be great to do a photographic exhibition of them.

GC: The scope of your photographic work is quite amazing. What was your initial training at Napier University in Edinburgh like?

BG: I went straight from school. It was old school developing and printing. The teachers were really good, I was pretty happy there. There was no digital then, it was hard work, but I enjoyed it. I was the youngest in the class. Some were in their 30’s. It was a board spectrum of people who’d been around the block and come back. I think I could have taken a year off, travelled around the world and had a bit of life experience- it may have done me some good.

GC: Do you feel it was a good grounding in photography, in crafting images?

BG: Yes. I wouldn’t know what college to go to now. It was like a little family, it was a separate building, like an old church. There was 25-30 in our class. There were 40-50 people in the building at one time, a nice atmosphere, I enjoyed it.

GC: When did you feel you’d found your feet as a photographer?

BG: I don’t know. I did the Acts of Faith exhibition photographs for Dad in my final year at college.

GC: Which are incredible by the way.

BG: Thank you. I didn’t tell the college I was doing them.

GC: Why not?

BG: The photos were part of my graded portfolio, but I didn’t tell them that it was an actual, proper catalogue.

GC: Can you remember what your thoughts were about making the catalogue- what were your thoughts about capturing certain aspects of the work?

BG: In different areas. I wanted it to document this is where Dad is, this is the making of the work, these are the final pieces. It just seemed normal to do it that way.

GC: It’s a fantastic document of his work of that period.

BG: Sometimes I think you can be so close to something that you don’t really see it for what it is…People say you’ve spent such a long time in one area. The reality is that with a family I haven’t time to sit in one place. All I’m trying to do is to create, not just a well composed picture, but a feeling, the feeling you get from it. I don’t know if I’m succeeding. I feel I am a little bit.

Campion 2

Campion 2 by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.

GC: Do you have a sense of what you’d like to explore in the future? The Hebridean flowers felt like a shift.

BG: With the Hebridean flowers, I wanted to photograph them all in natural light. All back lit, I wanted the feeling of being a fairy in the bottom of the garden, underneath the flowers, photographing it almost from below looking up, like an insect eye view. You know when you have a tooth, you either put it under your pillow or make a fairy house, put it in the fairy house, make a present for the fairy and then there’s a little coin waiting for you. I would love to have them all on a large scale- just the feeling of them, of being amongst the flowers.

GC: There’s a feeling of the wonder of early photography in them, of illumination. There’s something eternal in them, they transcend their place. Do you have any favourites?

BG: My favourite is this one. (Campion 2) Plants are such sexual things, this is so prickly and spikey and this is soft, it’s almost like a womb, so opposite- but together.

GC: You’ve got that delicacy and detail, and then the diffuse light in the petals which shift out of focus. It’s elevated and ethereal – it makes me think of the Divine in Nature, in a flower or a blade of grass. Not in a religious sense, but a spiritual sense. What are some of the other key works in the gallery for you?

South ScarastaSouth Scarasta by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.

BG: This one of South Scarasta because it’s so quiet. Someone said that it looks quite Japanese. I love it because it feels otherworldly somehow, like you’re not here. You’ve got all the texture in the foreground and the mountains in the background- so black. I really like this one too- the Pebble there.

Pebble Pebble by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.

GC: There’s something primordial about it.

BG: It feels like you’re enclosed in there. It’s almost like a primeval land, the mist coming over it- this could be the egg about to hatch. It’s not a nest as such but…

GC: There’s something elemental and protective about the stone.

BG: When you’re down in there, it was blowing a gale at the time and the waves were pretty horrendous. When you’re doing such a long exposure you have to find a spot that’s safe and not too windy- the practicalities of taking the shot. It was quite scary, I was hedging my bets, you’ve got to watch, I wanted to be close in, but wide. You’ve got to be there rather than zoom in. This one here – this is my Mount Fuji, Chapaval. There’s so much going on there, the sea coming in, it’s always changing, this bit is calm, the sky, the way it sweeps you into the middle.

GC: And into the depth of it tonally, it pulls you right in.

BG: They’re very dark, my pictures. A lot of photographer’s wouldn’t want to go this dark.

GC: That depth is part of their quality I think.

BG: This one, very simply- it’s a windy beach. There’s so much going on.

GC: It’s an image that the viewer can step into. You’re part of the foreground. You can touch it.

BG: I was literally right there. I want to be right there, rather than just zoom into it and use the wide angle. Maybe I do that without thinking about it too much. A tutor once said to me, ‘the best zoom lens you’ll ever have is your feet’ and that’s one thing I’ve always done. Don’t be afraid to get too close to the subject.

GC: I think that translates to the viewer being able to put themselves into the image imaginatively. I think the viewer is naturally drawn into your work; part of it is the composition and the investment of the blacks, investment in the marks. They’re incredibly rich texturally and heightened tonally. This one over here (Sheilibost Sky) is really interesting because it is almost disintegrating at the edges, like something elusive that you can’t quite grasp. I think human beings are always drawn to that in nature, it’s the fleeting moment, fleeting movement, fleeting life. Which is what the shoreline is, it’s a bridge between worlds.

BG: I guess photos are just a moment in time and that moment is always changing.

GC: I think they’re more than that-more than just a moment. In terms of human experience and timelessness, the way that curve draws you into it, such a strong line. The tangibility of texture in it, everything is moving, its alive not a dead still. They’re living elements, when you having them hitting each other- wave hitting sky, hitting earth, simultaneously. (Borve Break) It’s like an eruption- very powerful. This is a quieter image, but still a meeting of elements. The shoreline is a loaded place spiritually.

BG: A lot of people come to the sea to grieve, to have their ashes thrown in the sea, to play in the sea. The sea looms large for humans everywhere. It’s a very spiritual place to be.

GC: It’s also very humbling, the enormity of it.

BG: Especially when you’re in the sea.

GC: How vulnerable you are.

BG: You have to respect it.

GC: This one is like a meditation. (Looking at Seilibost Dune)

BG: In here is black but I wanted there to be subtlety in it too.

Seilibost Dune

Seilibost Dune by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.

GC: Can you tell me about some of your influences, you mentioned Sugimoto and Ansel Adams…

BG: With Adams it’s the zone system, a tonal range. A master printer, beautiful print quality, that’s what I admire in him. Sugimoto, his seascapes- totally sea and sky, so simple – to have that guts to photograph- that’s it, water and sky. Some of the exposures he left longer than others, some of them feel like you’re flying over them, just amazing! I admire the fact that they’re so simple. I would like to be as simple of that. If I was to own a photograph it would be one of his.

GC: When you look at an Adams or a Sugimoto they are unmistakably that artist. What would you say makes a Beka Globe?

BG: I think there will always be a lead in with my pictures, the blacks and the whites, how I print them. That would probably be my trademark. I don’t know. They are my individual pictures. It’s a feeling. Ansel Adams, I don’t get a feeling from his pictures- like a longing, even though I admire his images and technique. But with Sugimoto’s pictures I can look at them for a long time and be drawn into them emotionally.

GC: So the technical aspect and the heart of the image combined is something to strive for?

BG: Yes, I appreciate the heart in Sugimoto’s seascapes. That’s what I aspire to.

GC: The feeling of place, the moment?

BG: Yes and hopefully I’ll get better and better. I’ll just keep going. You have to keep experimenting and playing. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than take photographs

www.missionhousestudio.blogspot.co.uk

Lee Miller and Picasso

 23 May – 6 September 2015, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

NC0002 1, Lee Miller and Picasso after the liberation of Paris, by Lee Miller, Paris, France, 1944

There are no women artists. Women cannot create. So said the oracles and we thought it must be true. Alice Hubbard, Photography Comes Into the Kitchen, Vanity Fair, October 1921. [1]

I have always admired Lee Miller’s definitive work as an artist, photographer and war correspondent, so I was naturally drawn to this latest exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The relationship between Miller and Picasso is a fascinating one in terms of the visual connection between artist and subject and how male and female creativity are perceived. However the celebrity status of Picasso billed in the press release as “the greatest artist of the twentieth century” is followed by reference to “the beautiful model, who became a skilled and highly influential photographer.” I can think of no reference to a male artist/ photographer or war correspondent in the history of Art or journalism that begins by telling us he was handsome, as if this were his primary attribute. When I visited the exhibition a high school group was introduced to Miller by a guide as “one of the first supermodels” defined by her relationships rather than her work and again my hackles were raised. That she began her career on the other side of the camera is as indisputable as her physical beauty, but in the context of an exhibition in the Robert Mapplethorpe Photography Gallery, in the National Portrait Gallery and as part of the Institute for Photography in Scotland (IPS) 2015 Season, that really isn’t the point. In spite of the problematic framing of the show and its attendant labelling, Miller’s work resoundingly speaks for itself, a perfect counterfoil to the dumb language of celebrity which persistently surrounds it.

As author Ali Smith rightly described in her article The Look of the Moment in The Guardian, Sept 8th 2007; “Much of [Lee Miller’s] life would be a negotiation between the act of seeing and the act of being seen.” In a similar way the viewer of the exhibition must also negotiate these contradictory attributions of value. During the late 20’s and early 30’s Miller was adopted as a muse by the male Surrealist circle; appearing as Cocteau’s painted goddess, a statue brought to life in his 1932 film The Blood of a Poet. When she apprenticed herself to Man Ray, she became his lifelong obsession. The central curatorial conceit of this exhibition is Miller’s relativity to famous men, one Spanish artist in particular, yet in these early years she clearly established herself as an artist in her own right; producing Self Portraits and works such as Nude Bent Forward, Paris, 1930 and Solarised Portrait of an Unknown Woman (Meret Oppenheim), Paris, 1932. Miller also created highly provocative and challenging works;  Untitled, 1930 (Severed Breast from a radical mastectomy) arranged for consumption on a white dinner service and her portrait Tanja Ramm under a Bell Jar, Paris 1931, an apt metaphor for the suffocating ideals of Beauty and the Feminine that still persist today. Miller’s capacity to confront the viewer with uncomfortable truths found real expression and purpose in her work as one of the few female war correspondents and the only one to have seen combat during the second World War. She was present at the liberation of concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald, getting so close to her subjects that it is impossible for the viewer to turn away from them. This is the real platform upon which to begin examining her relationships with fellow artists. Unless the general public walk in with prior knowledge or are curious enough to explore Miller’s life and work for themselves the starting point is a step backwards.

The exhibition celebrates the life and work of Pablo Picasso as documented by Lee Miller from their first meeting in 1937 to a final photograph taken in 1970, three years before Picasso’s death. It was a long and enduring friendship, Miller photographing Picasso over a thousand times and Picasso painting Miller six times. The presentation of artefacts, photographs and artworks drawn from the Lee Miller Archives and The Penrose Collection, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, create a sense of the great male artist and those in his orbit. However what is infinitely more satisfying is the opportunity to see up close Miller’s insight into the relationships between men and women within a close artistic and literary circle during a tumultuous time in human history. What shines throughout the exhibition is the eye and mind of Miller behind the camera and her connection to Picasso as fellow artist/ seer, rather than a muse.

Picasso, Hotel Vaste Horizon, Mougins, France, 1937, P0110 (1)

In one of Miller’s earliest portraits of Picasso (Hotel Vaste Horizon, Mougins, France, 1937) we see the intensity of his penetrating gaze held at the centre of the composition, an open doorway in the background positioned immediately behind his head, the artist turning to face the photographer. It is a moment of recognition, one of many throughout their 36 year friendship which feels like an acknowledgement, rather than the gaze the viewer is accustomed to seeing in Picasso’s Art- that of an older man beholding a younger woman in desire and ultimately in fear. Miller captured the many facets of Picasso’s personality, his childlike playfulness, his intensity and creative energy. What is clear in both the images of Miller and Picasso taken on 25th August 1944 during the liberation of Paris and in their final embrace in Notre Dame de Vie, Mougins, France in 1970 is their mutual admiration and respect. It is the equality of their gaze and the warmth of their smiles in regarding each other that is most striking. There is a strong feeling of Miller seeing him for who he was, also expressed in Picasso’s gift of Homme et Femme (Man & Woman, Pastel, coloured pencil and wash on paper, 1967) to Miller. The caricature-like depiction of the 86 year old Picasso sitting on a chamber pot with a naked female model (his wife Jacqueline Roque) legs open, face violently distorted, cuts through the myth of male virility and cultural dominance. The drawing acknowledges the vulnerability of age and masculinity in relation to the raw creative power of the Feminine, knowing that Miller would understand the joke.

P0895, Picasso with La Coiffure, Villa La Californie, France, 1956

Miller’s portrait; Picasso with La Coffure, Villa La Californie, Cannes, France 1956 significantly positions the artist in relation to his work rather than his legend. Here Picasso is squatting low on the studio floor flanked by three of his paintings, taller in stature than the artist himself. Miller’s composition positions the artist in front of the fluid lines of a backlit Nouveau window/ doorway, mirrored in the painting on the lower right. Two artists and their ways of seeing are brought into focus in her insightful photograph. Similarly Miller’s son Anthony Penrose, Director of the Lee Miller Archives, framed the love between Miller and Picasso as a creative partnership; “My parent’s friendship with Picasso was a central part of their lives. Beginning from the camaraderie and ideals shared on the beaches of Côte d’Azur it developed rapidly into a love and creative collaboration. Roland Penrose became Picasso’s biographer, the curator of key exhibitions and regarded as ‘The Picasso Man’. Lee Miller lovingly chronicled the men and their achievements. It is fortunate she loved them both as much as she did. A lesser devotion would not have allowed her to tolerate Penrose’s obsessive passion for Picasso.”

One of the most compelling images in the show; Pablo Picasso and Roland Penrose, Mougins, France, 1937 explores this triangle. Here we see a dual portrait of both men, starkly framed by an open car door and bisected diagonally by heightened dark and light. We can see Miller reflected in the psychological barrier of glass and lens in this beautifully composed shot; the light diagonal behind Penrose’s head as he leans, hand behind head in supported admiration of Picasso, a dark diagonal framing Picasso’s head in the lower left, his eyes aligned with the black of the car door frame. The stiff white collar of convention and British reserve are evoked by this dual portrait, together with a darker creative presence. The composition of the photograph and its tonal associations are a powerful part of the three way dialogue. Penrose is elevated, aligned with a higher purpose, whilst the dominant personality of Picasso equally inhabits and grounds the frame. Many years later Miller described herself as a “Picasso widow”, a reference to her husband’s commitment to Picasso and her own.

The way that historical documents interact with images in the exhibition inform the viewer not of Miller’s Dispatches and photographs of the WW2 and its aftermath, but telegrams informing her husband of her safety or a letter from Man Ray to Roland Penrose dated September 24th 1942 enquiring “and what is our little Lee doing?” Although the exhibition press release refers to her important work during this period, the public face of the exhibition and text labels are more concerned with domestic arrangements and personal relationships. Fair play you might say, as this is at base an exhibition primarily about Picasso using Miller’s photographs to document his life. However in 2015 I would argue that the curatorial and educational responsibility is greater than that. Miller is a wonderful example of a woman challenging the conventions of her time and perceptions of the Feminine in her images, writings and actions. The presentation of the exhibition unconsciously puts her back in the “Beauty”, wife and mother box, rather than actively exploring the complexities and contradictions of her life’s work.

In a small photograph of Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub, Munich 1945, we see her head and shoulders as she sits washing away the dirt, grime and experience of war, muddy boots and uniform by the tub. On her right is a white goddess-like statue, in this context the Neo-Classical aesthetic of Aryan propaganda, timelessly ironic in its idealisation of Beauty. Miller glances sideways at this nude, seemingly in distrust, aligned with her own nakedness. It is as if the statue is a reminder of how others perceived her in this private moment, publicly staged. It’s an image of multiple narratives and “many lives” lived by an extraordinary woman that begs further exploration. Whilst I can see the appeal to a public undoubtedly more familiar with the name Picasso than that of Miller, I would expect that this exhibition, which seemingly places her name first, would follow through by example.

Whilst in Edinburgh I also had the opportunity to see an exhibition of cyanotypes by early photographic pioneer Anna Atkins (1799-1871), responsible for the first book to be illustrated with photographs and works from the 1920’s by Modernist photographer Margaret Watkins (1884-1969) at the Stills Gallery/ Centre for Photography (25 April- 12July 2015). Also part of the IPS Season of Photography the information in this show focused attention on each artist/photographer in their own right and the volunteer who introduced me as a visitor to the exhibition was knowledgeable, passionate and the best possible ambassador for wider appreciation of two relatively overlooked photographers. In stark contrast when I visited the National Museum of Scotland’s exhibition Photography: A Victorian Sensation (19 June- 22 November 2015) “meet[ing] the pioneers of photography” didn’t visibly include Atkins or signpost the exhibition at the Stills Gallery for visitors to discover her work. Focusing on the lowest common denominator of the commercial development of photography, its equipment and Fathers of the medium, again the curatorial focus for a public institution was disappointingly narrow. In the UK especially, where historically photography is not regarded highly in the hierarchy of Fine Art, public galleries have a role to play in widening awareness and appreciation of the Art form and promoting equality of representation.

www.nationalgalleries.org

www.leemiller.co.uk

www.stills.org

* All images by kind permission of the National Galleries of Scotland.

[1] Alice Hubbard, Photography Comes Into the Kitchen, Vanity Fair, October 1921 (p60). Cited in Seduced by Modernity, The Photography of Margaret Watkins by Mary O’Connor and Katherine Tweedie. McGill-Queens University Press. 2007.

Silence is a Virtue- The Artist

Ahead of Inverness Film Fans (InFiFa) Modern Monochrome Season screening at Eden Court Cinema in February/ March 2015 I revisited Michel Hazanavicius’ multi award winning film The Artist.

The artist 1

The first time I saw The Artist it instantly became one of my favourite films. I’ve watched it many times since both in the cinema and on DVD and it never fails to lift my spirits. I have always believed that when an artist of any discipline is fully invested in their work, the audience will feel that energy and connect with it. In the Visual Arts this communication is predominantly silent and although mainstream cinema makes us forget, telling the audience the story through dialogue, Film is at its heart a visual medium. Its power lies in the audience’s felt sense of the unspoken narrative within the frame. All great Artists/ Directors regardless of the age understand this as an intuitive part of their creative vision. Perhaps what struck audiences and critics between the eyes with The Artist on its release was a language or visual literacy we intuitively know as human beings, but that mainstream TV, Advertising, Gaming and Studio Film product largely fail to awaken within us. There is a division in Cinema, mostly in the heads of film financiers, producers and studios, between Mainstream Film and Art House; a belief that you either have to make something “entertaining” for the masses, appealing to the lowest common denominator in order to generate as much profit as possible, or something “intellectual” and aesthetically driven that relatively few people will see and even fewer will appreciate. The Artist explodes this myth in its making and its global reception by both audiences and critics.

The success of The Artist doesn’t just lie in over 150 international film awards it has won including those at Cannes, the Golden Globes, BAFTAS and Academy Awards, or in its box office takings. Almost single handed it has been responsible for a resurgence of public interest in Silent Film. Following its award season success in 2012 LOVEFiLM, Europe’s largest subscription service, streaming films over the internet and sending DVDs by post, showed that “viewing of the 66 films in its Silent Film Collection significantly increased with as much as a 300 percent increase on some individual titles. Of the ten movies in LOVEFiLM’s collection that enjoyed the highest growth, four starred Buston Keaton- one of the greatest silent movie actor-directors of all time.”[1] From Roaring Twenties chic Fashion Design to DVD rentals and the growth of Silent Film screenings with live accompaniment, The Artist has raised awareness about a tradition of seeing the rise of digital technology had almost made us forget. It isn’t about nostalgia for an era of cinema long past, but a living Art, tapping into a wellspring of pure visual storytelling.

The late great American Film Critic Roger Ebert wrote;

“Is it possible to forget that ‘The Artist’ is a silent film in black and white, and simply focus on it as a movie? No? That’s what people seem to zero in on. They cannot imagine themselves seeing such a thing. I’ve seen ‘The Artist’ three times, and each time it was applauded, perhaps because the audience was surprised at itself for liking it so much…” [It speaks] “to all ages in a universal language. Silent films can weave a unique enchantment. During a good one, I fall into a reverie, an encompassing absorption that drops me out of time. I also love black and white, which some people assume they don’t like. For me, it’s more stylized and less realistic than color, more dreamlike, more concerned with essences than details.”[2]

That sense of “reverie” and “enchantment”, the feeling of “dropping out of time” that Ebert describes is the essence of visual storytelling. We imaginatively project ourselves into the flickering illumination between each frame and The Artist consciously invokes that experience being shot at 22 frames per second. Before The Artist many considered Silent Film an obsolete Art Form; however the ability of filmmakers to silently communicate narrative is the foundation of cinema, originating in ancient shadow play on cave walls. Our need to make sense of ourselves and the world around us in visual terms is timelessly necessary and why we need Art in the first place. I first discovered the world of Silent Film in my childhood pouring over stills in my Father’s movie books. What immediately struck me, even aged 10, was the heightened clarity of black and white, the faces of actors and actresses alive with human expression, every tantalising image with a story to tell. That sense of wonder and immersion has never left me; it’s what I hope for every time I go to the cinema and what I found in The Artist the first time I saw it.

It’s true that it’s a charming and highly entertaining film, a winning combination of Comedy, Drama, Romance and a performing dog, but more significant (for me at least) is the Artist/ Director’s intention. Above all else it is a film crafted with love- a film it was thought nobody would want to watch. By the Director’s own admission, The Artist is a love letter to his wife and leading lady Bérénice Bejo and to a Golden Age of Hollywood founded on European artistry. For me it is a film resoundingly about the Art of filmmaking and what it is to be an Artist. There is love invested in every frame, in the meticulous crafting and sensuous attention to detail of Director Michel Hazanavcius’ entire creative team. It is seen and felt in the rich textures and tonal qualities of Mark Bridges’ costume design, the emotional layers of Ludovic Bource’s original musical score, in the extraordinary cinematography of Guillaume Schiffman and  the beautifully nuanced performances of actors; Jean Dujardin, as suave, charismatic antihero George Valentin, Bérénice Bejo as the young, effervescent rising star Peppy Miller, James Cromwell  as Valentin’s loyal chauffeur Clifton and Penelope Ann Miller as Doris, Valentin’s long suffering wife.

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Modelled on Douglas Fairbanks Dujardin’s George Valentin is both masked, swashbuckling super star and fallible human being, marked by his own pride. Dujardin is an intensely physical actor who conveys all of George’s confidence, bravado and vulnerabilities, like Keaton and Chaplin before him. One of the most beautiful and immersive sequences in the film is a series of five takes where we see Valentin fall in love with studio extra Miller set to Bource’s theme music “Peppy’s Waltz”. We see the character evolve from playing his dashing on screen persona with intensely focused Silent eyebrow acting to the immense subtlety of expression which mirrors his awakening love for Miller. In cinematic and emotional terms it is a seamless fusion of historic and contemporary sensibilities.

In Dujardin’s acting and Bource’s music there is growing consciousness, bewilderment, intoxication and desire, evaporating quizzically in the moment. It’s an emotionally complex scene, a far cry from a clichéd swooning embrace or consummate screen kiss, which in The Artist we never see. Its Romanticism lies in creative possibility, expressed rapturously in the final dance sequence as the real beginning of the relationship between Valentin and Miller. Although this scene signifies the end of Silent Film it remains optimistic in tone, recalling the joy and glamour of big 1930’s Hollywood production dance numbers. The visual storytelling allows us to imagine a bright future as our two stars reinvent themselves; Valentin grounded in his craft from his days in Vaudeville and Miller the “It” girl of the moment with boundless energy, enthusiasm and good natured ambition. Miller’s rise as America’s Sweetheart, Valentin’s fall and their reinvention are a wry comment on the nature of fame in a media dominated age; “Out with the old, in with the new-make way for the young- that’s life!” declares a Miller in an interview with two eager newshounds.

The Artist isn’t just a homage or clever imitation of Silent Era moviemaking but a film very much of Now in its reinvention of the genre. I love the way it visually tips its hat to all the artists of European origin who created Hollywood’s Golden Age. Hazanavcius’ vision is informed by his understanding of the visual grammar of Silent Directors like Lang, Murnau, Vidor and Chaplin, but he is also very much his own man. The Artist was conceived visually and storyboarded in intricate detail by its Director, who went to Art School before working in advertising and then progressing to feature film. When long-time collaborator Ludovic Bource came to compose the music, although he listened extensively to the work of film composers of the era; Steiner, Hermann, Korngold and Waxman, what he achieves isn’t an imitation of those film composers, but a new voice grounded in their source material from Strauss to Stravinsky. The subtlety of the five take sequence is achieved because, as Hazanavcius has described in interview; “The script is the right hand and the music is the left.” Interestingly there have been screenings all over the world of The Artist since its initial release accompanied by a full orchestra, an aspect of live performance that was common during the Silent Era. Wonderfully this is becoming more commonplace at contemporary screenings and festivals worldwide as audiences rediscover the excitement of pure visual storytelling with the immediacy of live music.

At the end of The Artist George Valentin reveals his French accent and it is a telling moment on multiple levels. The advent of the Talkies extinguished the careers of many actors from abroad and behind the scenes advancement was often hindered by being an immigrant. As a Hollywood outsider, Hazanavicius takes the visual language of Tinseltown’s Golden Age and entirely makes it his own. It is ironic that Hollywood has accepted the film with open arms, most notably at the Oscars, perhaps not realising that its own visual inheritance is actually European in origin and that Hazanavcius is in fact reclaiming his cultural roots. In The Artist he takes us back to the early years of Hollywood with its origins in European cinema as a baseline of authenticity. Hazanavicius isn’t saluting the American Dream Factory in empty admiration but taking back language. He’s a visually literate Director and the fact that the film’s most dramatic moment is entirely silent speaks volumes.

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The Artist is a film made with love, respect and recognition of the Silent Era and the artists who defined it. Rapid technological change is upon the industry as a whole and the digitalisation of cinema puts us in danger of forgetting the history and crafting of moving images to our collective detriment. The Artist asserts the importance of acknowledging that (in the words of the late Scottish composer Martyn Bennett) “to be pioneers we first have to acknowledge that we are heirs”. The visual grammar referenced by The Artist is also a rallying point for film conservation and restoration. Of the films that we know of produced during the Silent Era it is estimated that 80% have already been lost. The Artist is the story of the rise of young starlet Peppy Miller, the “fresh meat” of a new age of moviemaking and the fall of aging Silent star George Valentin, who cannot accept the technological change sweeping the industry he helped to create. It isn’t hard to draw a parallel between this and the transition from film to digital in contemporary Cinema.

It is perhaps for this reason that for me the most moving image in the film is the moment when Valentin is standing in the ruins of his apartment; the windows are smashed and the room has been ravaged by fire, the only movement is a slight breeze coming through the window, the light muted but illuminating- it feels very much like a fragment of very early film. He is literally and metaphorically standing in the celluloid ashes of his career. Everything seems hopeless and the grain of the image suggests that like nitrate, the film could burst into flames any second and be extinguished- much like the life of the central character. In that moment the personal becomes the universal, the mark of a true Artist/ Director and in a single frame it says everything about the vulnerability of film as a medium. The texture of the image reminded me very much of the work of photographers like Steichen and Stieglitz who in the early days of photography were a bridge between painting and the new technology. At the time photography was thought to herald the death of painting. Similarly many have proclaimed the death of film in recent years. The Artist is a film about film making in a time of great change and upheaval- that is what elevates it above and beyond mere entertainment. It speaks powerfully and resoundingly of Now and of the choices made by both Artists and audiences. In years to come it will become source material of our age.

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What I love about this film is the breath taking eloquence of its visual communication; the fanciful mime of the empty suit, the Surrealist cloud screen and dancing legs, the studio staircase sequence where Schiffman balances tone, movement and architecture in a composition that feels like pure music, the shadows of rain that fall down George’s face as he’s inwardly crying, George’s heightened dream sequence infiltrated by sound, his confrontation with his own shadow self and his world reduced to a pile of burning celluloid. I love The Artist it for its intelligence, humour and unashamed Romance, for the exquisite camerawork and its impeccable performances. I love that it has a brain and a heart- it makes me think, laugh and cry. But above all it makes me value those Artists who are told their film is one that nobody will want to watch, but toil to make it anyway  and change the way we see as a result. It’s the reason I feel renewed and invigorated every time I watch it.

Inverness Film Fans (InFiFa) Modern Monochrome Season

The Artist Wednesday 25th February 7.15pm

Ed Wood – Tuesday 10th March at 7.15pm

The Man Who Wasn’t ThereTuesday 24th March at 7.15pm

All films will be followed by a post-screening discussion, all welcome.

www.invernessfilmfans.org

www.eden-court.co.uk

[1]  6th March 2012, www.Film-News.co.uk

[2] Roger Ebert, The Artist, December 21, 2011.  www.rogerebert.com

Finding Vivian Maier

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In an era of the selfie and social mass media where every moment of daily personal life is on public display in an endless, narcissistic parade of mediocrity, the photography of Vivian Maier is a dazzling discovery. The fascination with a woman who by reputation led a life closed to others, did not seek to share her work with the world and had no interest in courting fame isn’t how we expect a Great Artist , or even the average Joe with a Smartphone to behave. The story of John Maloof Finding Vivian Maier in this documentary is an unfolding puzzle; a detective story and journey of fortune we would all like to project ourselves into. The chance find of a box filled with negatives at an auction, the global platform of Flickr and the democracy of Google searches made finding Maier possible and seemingly within the reach of everyone. Maloof’s tenacity and obsession to uncover the artist’s life and work is the driving force of the film, working through storage lockers of her life, chasing leads through receipts and images, trying to piece together the woman and the artist. Establishing the Maloof Collection which now contains 90% of her archive, touring exhibitions, producing publications, prints, and sharing her remarkable images with the world online has no doubt saved the artist’s work from obscurity and potential destruction. The commercial aspect of sharing the work is also essential in revealing the vast collection of undeveloped film Maier left behind. A letter to a French film developer found in her possessions reveals that she did want to print the vast “pile” of material and that she recognised her work was “good”. Maier was intensely prolific, leaving behind 2000 undeveloped Black & White films, 700 undeveloped colour films, 100,000 negatives, 8mm and 16mm films, audio recordings and collectibles. The reluctance of major museums to acknowledge the artist as part of a canon of Great Artists/Photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Atget, Lisette Model, Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus and Robert Frank or become involved in the archiving process is perhaps due( as Maloof suggests) to the vast amount of undeveloped material that she never had the chance to see and edit herself. Even though many photographers don’t print their own work the choice of what to print usually lies with the creator of the image and is part of the authenticity of the edition. It is thrilling to contemplate the scanning of negatives and development of film that will one day reveal the full breadth and depth of Maier’s oeuvre. Whether she intended it or not, her work is now in the public domain on a scale that in the 20th Century would have been unfathomable.

The enigma of the artist is a central preoccupation in John Maloof and Charlie Siskels’ documentary and in the public imagination. The testimonies of former employers and childhood recollections of Maier as a nanny are frequently contradictory, as memories often are; a complex and fluid narrative of perceived facts, remembrance, imagination and embellishment, becoming legend. By the end of the film I was craving more of the insight offered by the beautifully perceptive Joel Meyerowitz (the only Artist/Photographer interviewed in the film) and a return to the primary source of Maier’s images. This insistence on Maier as an unknowable enigma is something of a red herring when we return to her original work. Like all Great Artists/Photographers and unlike the average Joe with a Smartphone she didn’t just take photos. She needed to make images and was compelled to do so, honing her grasp of the frame, time, herself and the outside world in the process, grappling with what it is to be human. What makes her work so extraordinary isn’t the visible absence of human connection but the abundance of connections within it. Maier’s compositions demonstrate acute awareness of self and human relationships; she made people on the margins of society resoundingly visible, had a conscience in relation to social inequality and the courage to confront her own shadow self. As Joel Meyerowitz suggests, she was seeing how close she could get with every shot. In her work there is beauty, deprivation, humour, irony, delight, moments of trust, genuine exchange and always a wellspring of curiosity.

The universal human need to document, commemorate, celebrate and memorialise moments of recognition in our lives has always been entwined with the transience of human life and mortality in the Art of Photography. Describing herself as “sort of a spy” Maier recorded off guard moments; people with all their artifice and vulnerabilities, including her own. Her image of Audrey Hepburn at the Chicago premiere of My Fair Lady at the Palace Theatre, October 23, 1964 (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 3, VM19XXW02129-11-MC) reduces the world around the star to a blur, her expression wishing herself away from the limelight and capturing a universal human experience of levelling loneliness. Maier was a master of composition and her self-portraits are amongst the most complex and revealing of the genre. Self Portrait, 1954 (Maloof Collection, Self Portraits Portfolio, VM1954W00130-07-MC) is an image of multiple reflections and framed layers of association. At first we are drawn to the gaunt reflection of Maier’s face and torso in a silver tray, part of a store window display; the cold heightened tone of metal and held gaze, like a prisoner behind bars, immediately drawing the eye to the centre of the image. The security mesh across the window presents a psychological dimension, the certainty of the foreground out of focus and the core of the image/self in sharp reflection. Her expression is blankly penetrating and melancholic; a hint of resignation in the downturned corner of the mouth, aiming for steadfastness but plainly vulnerable. Maier’s Rolleiflex camera held at chest height is just visible; a lens, within a reflection, within a window within the still frame. Another reflection of her torso in the store window with her head cropped off presents a disembodied and dispossessed, but arrestingly calculated image; a line of closed black curtain providing the evasive ground for the exploration. The image is uneasily direct, the polished silver at odds with the thin face we see contemplating herself and fortune’s wheel in reflection. In framing this shot, Maier also simultaneously holds the gaze of the viewer, caught in a moment and for all time. In this moment the artist records and transcends herself. In the act of seeing the viewer becomes aware of the universality and the intricate layers of intimacy and defence that make us human.

Self Portrait May 5th, 1955 (Maloof Collection, Self Portraits Portfolio) is an image of incredible depth which lays bare the act of seeing through the eye/lens. The artist stands confidently, hands on hips, directly meeting the viewer’s gaze with the piercing precision of mirrored perspective, extending the reach of the shot to a heightened state of awareness. The alignment of mirrors creates a scene which is brilliantly focused and simultaneously flooded with expansive, illuminating light. The tonality in Maier is the light and dark of the human soul. The presence of the shadow self as observer perhaps reflects Maier’s occupation on the edge of family life and the isolation pursuit of seeing can bring. It reminds me of a lyric from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George where the painter Seurat reflects on the emotional state of creativity, watching the rest of the world through a window as “the only way to see”. In Self Portrait 1955 (The Maloof Collection, Self Portraits Portfolio, VM1955W02784-03-MC) Maier’s distinctive silhouette in a dated hat and oversized coat are part of the shadow bisecting the composition, part of the city largely unseen. Human presence in absence or in psychologically framed objects is a fascinating element in Maier’s work. In New York, NY (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 2, VM19XXW04205-09-MC) the artist captures still drifting smoke from an abandoned chair blackened by fire, charred but standing defiantly on the street corner beside a neighbouring trash can. It’s a moment of truth and unexpected beauty in discarded found material, the detritus of people’s physical, emotional and psychological lives.

In Self Portrait, 1954 (Maloof Collection, Self Portraits Portfolio, VM1954W00106-05-MC) a horseshoe crab is positioned at the centre of the artist’s shadow torso, a carapace of hardened protection where the heart should be. In Undated (Maloof Collection, Self Portraits Portfolio, VM19XXW03470-06-MG) we see a pile of fallen leaves occupying the same position, an acknowledgement of cycles of growth and decay which affect us all. Maier’s reputed aversion to physical contact, insistence on padlocked rooms where she stayed and hoarding behaviour; accumulating boxes and boxes of material, creating rooms stacked with newspapers like padding with narrow walkways between, suggests Obsessive Compulsive and lifelong coping behaviours in response to loss and trauma. Although much is spoken of Maier’s aversion to human society and relationships, she is described as “a loner”, “a spinster”, “childless”, a distinctly feminine figure of loneliness; her images reveal many points of connection between the artist and the human subjects she photographed. The absence of marriage, children and romantic relationships is a fixation unique to discussion of female artists and obscures consideration of the true value and depth of their work. Examining Maier’s original work in detail is infinitely more insightful and revealing than the multiple testimonies of people who thought they knew her. Maier was a defiant survivor, fiercely intelligent and visually literate; this is abundantly clear in her work. She managed to carve out an existence through an occupation that gave her a roof over her head and the relative freedom to continue to take photographs. The relationship with her employers was always precarious, dependent on the benevolence and understanding of the families she worked for; her contribution to family life, largely invisible and poorly paid. Her identification with people on the margins of society and in poverty is incredibly articulate and true. Typically shot from chest height the human figure in the Street Portfolios of the Maloof Collection elevate the human figure from a position of disadvantage and dispossession to a position of dignity, self-possession and power. There is the sense of the artist meeting the gaze of the subject and acknowledging the presence of the other that is immediately tangible. In those moments Maier wasn’t hiding behind her camera, there is an openness and warmth communicated in her work that is absolutely invested in life and human empathy. The Street Portfolios are filled with examples of the artist meeting the gaze of her human subjects with equality; acknowledging the unique qualities of the individual, regardless of class, age, race or circumstance. Undated (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 2, VM19XXWO3160-03-MC), an image of a young woman leaning out of a car window is illuminated by the warmth of her smile in exchange with the artist and the viewer. May 1953, New York, NY (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 1, VM1953W03398-08-MC) communicates a moment of intimacy, poignancy and exposure, an elderly man’s life experience written in his eyes meeting the photographer’s. Composed with arresting grace and radiating inner dignity Maier’s image of an elderly woman; May 16 1957, Chicago, IL (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 3, VM1957TW03435-10-MC) is another beautiful example of the connection made primarily through the eye and then the lens. Her image of a young girl Undated (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 2, VMPIXXW03160-05-MC) standing with her arms folded in a defensive stance; dirty face, tousled hair and tears in her eyes is an image of youth, age and streetwise experience reflecting the human subject and the photographer. In the background a store window full of lifeless adult sized gloves are juxtaposed with the stature of the young girl, her expression and demeanour strikingly assured beyond her years, defiantly strong yet emotionally fragile.

Maier had a highly observant and ironic eye for framing the relationships between human beings in all their complexity. There are moments of tenderness such as April 7, 1960 (Maloof Collection, Street 1 Portfolio, M196W03443-04-MC) where she captures an elderly couple who have fallen asleep on a bus; his hat sheltering her face which is nestled in the hollow of his shoulder, an image of habitual comfort and unconscious affection. In July 27 1954, New York, NY (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 3,VM1954W03415-04-MC) we see only the patterns and textures of clothing and the entwined hands of a couple from behind, the contrasting skin of their forearms revealing their relativity to each other. In terms of a public display of affection caught on camera the image subverts expectations. Another image of a couple in what is presumably a Central Park horse drawn carriage; March 27, 1953, New York, NY (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 1, VM1953W00564-03-MC) is ironically pristine in its framing. In close up it could easily be a fairytale scene from a Vogue photo shoot, an immaculately dressed young woman inclines her head towards her handsome companion, listening intently to what he is saying. The view however is at a distance, Maier pulls back so that we see the confines of the black carriage and the company sign on the door that reads; “Safety”, “Comfort” and “Service”. In December21, 1961, Chicago, IL. (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 1, VM1961W00847-03-WC) we see a group of bystanders gathered around a woman who has collapsed on the street, being tended to by police officers. Within this group one woman puts her hand to her face in shock, her brow furrowed with concern, another looks down and seems to see herself in the fallen figure. Two others look away into the distance, thinking of something else. The emotional trajectories in this work are fascinating, complex and contradictory. Maier was drawn to such scenes on the street like a journalist or war photographer. Like all great Street Photographers she simultaneously achieves necessary distance and human connection.

Maier captured human tragedy, accidents, violence, abject poverty and people, especially children in states of emotional distress; visual headlines for all that human beings are capable of. But there is also undeniable humour, delight and joy in her images. In Jan 1956 (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 1,VM1956W03408-10-MC) a pair of shoes amongst a line of canned sliced peaches peek out from beneath the curtain of a shop window, 1960. Chicago,IL (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 1, VM1968-9W03408-10-MC) captures the expression of an expectant poodle seemingly waiting for a call beneath a payphone and the colour shot Undated (Maloof Collection, Colour Portfolio, VM19XXZ06928-20-MC) of someone half disappeared into a hedge is comically surreal. The wonderful Self Portrait, New York, February 3 ,1955 (Maloof Collection, Self Portraits Portfolio, VM1955W03420-50-MC)of Maier smiling in the reflection of a tilted mirror being placed onto a removal truck is another shining example of her imagination, playfulness and wit. Even with the human subject removed Maier’s compositions are filled with beauty, light and dark. 1963. Chicago, IL (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 3, VM1963W00765-11-MC) is a supremely balanced composition; a central elongated puddle reflecting neon signage in the distance, drawing the eye into its depth and luminosity. Framing the image at the top of photograph is a sign that invites the viewer to “Come Fly With Me”. Maier’s compositional skills are richly evidenced in more abstract works such as September 1956 (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 3, VM1956W03430-06-MC) where her eye framing the side of a building with its exposed brickwork delivers a perfect composition of line, tone and texture that would be the envy of any painter. There can be no doubt when looking at her work that she deserves a place alongside the world’s greatest Artists/Photographers. When we return to her images we see not a closed person or a crazed personality, but someone who understood her medium and human beings equally with conscience and awareness. Unfortunately ownership of Maier’s estate is currently being contested by a long lost relative in France and the question of who owns copyright could mean years of litigation, preventing her work from being reproduced or shown in galleries. Whoever gains possession of Maier’s estate, the preservation and restoration of her work must continue. Although the story of Finding Vivian Maier began as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” as more of Maier’s undeveloped film is revealed we must begin to reassess its value, quality and depth in the context of world Art History rather than the limitations of fame and fortune that the define the Contemporary Art World.

www.findingvivianmaier.com