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/

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