Painting Style – The Visual Impact of Painting on Film
The River, in the light of Impressionism
The Sanctuary of Souls
Film Painting — Director with Painter's Heart Using Film as Canvas
The Dutch painting list: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover
Eraserhead: The Anxiety of Existence
Painter and Creation — The Truth and Fabrication of Painter's Biographies
The Self-Portrait of a Painter
A Representation of Modern Civilization
The River, in the light of Impressionism
Impressionism is one of the revolutionary waves in Western art development; it gave birth to a new documentation of light and colors. Instead of drawing in studios, Impressionist artists sketch the environment outdoor with natural lighting. Their painted images are no longer seen as soundstages of stories. What they saw is transformed into themes of their painting and the vibrant world becomes a window for understanding reality. The River was released in early 50s, and director Jean Renoir filled up his first color film with Impressionist concepts.
In the course of pre-production, Renoir made a trip to India to observe the daily lives of West-Bengal, and was captivated by the local music and dance styles. Thrilled by the beautiful colors of nature, Renoir and his cinematographer carefully captured light and shadow with precision, so that color grading in post-production stage would not be needed. The River artistically documented the livelihoods of Indians, which centered around the Ganges River, the sacred embodiment of Mother Nature. A hint of Impression, Sunrise drawn by the founder of Impressionism, Claude Monet, can be seen from the film: Indians riding boats on the peaceful Ganges, and sunshine sparkling over the water surface. The film has also illustrated Bengal after sunset. In a scene of Diwali, the vivid depiction of lively and joyous Indians could associate itself to Impressionist paintings of Paris in the evening, which brought out leisureness and imagination through the freestyle brushstrokes.
Jean Renoir definitely inherited the bloodline of his father Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Not only his home was filled by Paul Cézanne’s paintings, his own films were flooded with traces of Impressionist concepts, influential to his film direction and cinematography. In the past, characters and objects on classical paintings were carefully positioned to reflect a staged reality, such as The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronationof Empress Josephine by Jacques-Louis David. However, upon arriving the era of Impressionism, artists such as Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas started to draw with a more freestyle brushstroke. They drew directly from what they saw; on one hand giving the paintings a livelier mood, while on the other enabled the artists to express differences in understanding reality, with different experiments on techniques.
In the film when Bogey was bitten by a cobra, the scene opened with a track shot depicting the characters taking afternoon naps. Backed by the soothing tunes of flute, the mise-en-scene artistically resembled an Impressionist painting. While making the audience worry about Bogey, the tragedy could come as quietly as a nap that Harriet could only wake up to find her younger brother Bogey dying from the bite. With Impressionist style of shooting, the frame was a window that reflected the fragmented reality, instead of acting as an omniscient stage for all the happenings.
Impressionist paintings first demonstrated the boundlessness of natural lights on canvas; while films first showed us specific light and shadow under a unique space. The River was an experiment of combining the two. It gave the world a new and significant perspective of life. Jean Renoir once said that it is a film creator’s job to open a window for his audience, and the images inside will make people say “it’s true, I had never thought of it that way.”
David Chan, film critic, founding member of Cantonese Cinema Study Association.
Dunet Chan, Master of Arts Programme in Fine Arts of The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The Sanctuary of Souls
Film director Carl Theodor Dreyer is the maestro in film, highly regarded even by Robert Bresson and Theo Angelopoulos, who were masters themselves. Dreyer’s is so great that even the name of “Master of Transcendentalism” would have undermined his artistic achievements. Dreyer’s early work The Passion of Joanof Arc (1928) was regarded as the landmark of cinema, and has never dropped out of Top 10 in film history; while Ordet (1955) was Angelopoulos’s Top 10 all-time favorite, and the only Dreyer film on the list. Many film critics see Ordet as a consolidation of Dreyer’s styles. In fact, the theme of judgment in Ordet was extended from The Passion of Joan of Arc, with an even more elaborate statement. Its question about one’s Faith on Faith is absolutely enlightening.
Dreyer’s films can be watched as paintings. Since his first feature film The President (1919), Dreyer was down to every single detail of each scene. He even once said “I let the actors do what they liked – I was more interested in the composition of the image.” Ordet is worth watching over and over again. Some of the furniture and props in Ordet were purchased personally by Dreyer himself. Everything was designed with extreme precision: the setting, framing, lighting, actors’ blocking… such obsessive-compulsive perfection was documented in his director’s notes.
Dreyer learned and was nurtured through paintings. As he insisted being an artist who paid close attention to interior space, inside a family: where a film was shot, where the story happened. Researches told, the early Dreyer style originated from the Denmark painter Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916), who was celebrated for his interiors. “Bredgade 25” was the most important painting motif in Hammershoi’s paintings. Doors and windows, young woman from behind, deserted passageways and living rooms were painted on the canvas, as calm and muted in tone as always in his paintings. Ordet inherited Hammershoi’s painting style: rays of light that pierced through air, reflections of shadows on the white walls, contrasts of under-toned portraits and solid objects. The interior setting of the film was the most “clean” ever since The Passion of Joan of Arc, nothing redundant was seen, and the all-white interior had paintings, decorations and furniture emphasized from the screen. As film scholar Amédée Ayfre put it, “This space is porous, like a sponge which, according to the moment absorbs or squeezes out a mysterious fluid… Hence the space has been clarified and simplified only to make its magnetic forces more apparent.”
Besides the interiors, there were also portraits. At an interview, Dreyer once stated that “Everything human expressed is in the face… The face is the mirror of the soul.” Dreyer inherited Hammershoi’s interiors through still camera shots, while his portraits through close-ups of the characters. In The Passion of Joan of Arc, details on each character’s face were so vividly depicted with the pale white background that, as if they stood alone from the story and its space. The characters’ facial expressions were so strong that became soul shaking. While shooting Ordet, Dreyer was obviously more controlled. Refrained from using plenty of close-ups as he used to, he adopted more mid-range shots. Close-up shots in Ordet were infrequent touches of inspiration.
Dreyer in the period of The Passion of Joan of Arc was a creator of soul shattering images; but when came to Ordet, he created more calm and distant images. He even adopted the long-range view in theatre into his film, which could be called an experiment of “anti-cinema”. Ordet was too aesthetically revolutionary to be illustrated just by painting; yet, it could be taken as a start, to study Dreyer’s precise mise-en-scene, or his renowned shooting technique of long, curved track-shots. All of these would guide the audience through Ordet, the sanctuary of quiet souls.
Joyce Yang, member of Hong Kong Film Critics Society, reviews published in City Magazine, Hkinema, curator of film programmes and tutor of film workshops at times.
The Dutch painting list: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover: the title itself is a list; a list of characters and their relations. TheCook and The Thief represent independent societal statuses, while The Thief (again), His Wife, and Her Loverillustrate the inclination of gender power relations and the imagery of departure. The intertwining strings of incidences detonate inside a restaurant, owned by The Thief. The sequences of happenings occur according to the daily menus. Perceptions and conflicts of characters are distinguished by lighting and colored spaces - The Cook’s kitchen of green; The Thief’s main hall of bloody red; the white lady’s room of His Wife; the car park of bluish shades, and Her Lover’s golden yellow library that extends beyond the restaurant. This may reminds audience of the Campbell's Soup Cans painting series by Andy Warhol: the cans are painted side by side, with different names or different colored labels - resembling various color lights spotted onto multiple window frames. But Peter Greenaway is never a follower of Pop Art; instead he is fond of Dutch artists as known by his fans. Red color pours in when Her Lover sneaks into the ladies’ room of white for His Wife; and the orange-yellowish flesh of the pair generates a contrast when they make love in the green kitchen. The careful listing of art in the film came from the baroque style.
In chapter 8 “Exchanges between List and Form” of The Infinity of Lists, Umberto Eco uses The Spring (human portraits composed of plants), painted by Arcimboldo, to explain how lists change into forms: “...you can artfully pass from a list to a form. The form that emerges is different, deformed, and what prevails is the combination of diverse elements - which would have been considered licit on the plates of a table set for dinner and seem incongruous in a human face, but this was Baroque poetics...” Before we enter into the deformed forms in TheCook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, we need to explore the list of Dutch paintings referenced in the film (including the Flanders and the Nederlands regions in the 16-17th century).
Le Hollandais is the name of the restaurant in the film; while hanging eye-catchingly inside the main hall is Frans Hal's painting Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard (1616). Even though cinematographer Sacha Vierny has only given a restaurant set in red for the characters, but not specific introduction shots to the art pieces, it is still an obvious juxtaposition of the painting and the performance. On the other hand, Greenaway successfully validates the making of authority in different time and space: the self-qualifying, complacent Thiefdresses like a Dutch military officer as in the painting, uglily waves his wealth and power at his subordinates with verbal and physical violence, forcing his subordinates to dress like him. By doing so, the painting is actually transferred onto the set; the endless verbal and physical violence is pressing in and out of the painting frames. Observations compared.
His Wife, The Thief’s major victim, then “appears” like Vermeer’s Girl with a Red Hat (1665). This is probably the most “sociable” and “fashionable” painting by Vermeer. The expression on the lady’s face is somewhat an uneasy response of exposure, or reaction of reluctance to speak. His Wife, choicelessly wears outfits of camp style, however fit to her body, she chooses to resist. Running away from the camera with her naked body, it is a step outside the painting frame.
If Greenaway puts The Thief into a portrait, and His Wife into a tronie, then The Cook is surely a still life, or even more, a painting of food. We can imagine the painting to be in green, just like the kitchen in the film; while the plateful of food might be fresh, or rotten. Greenaway purposefully illustrates a world of civilization, yet also of excessive consumerism, in the stage of post-industrial revolution. With a click on my browser, I am able to search the larger worldview in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. From the list of artwork to the forms, we can compare its utmost visual constructions to an art piece by early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Chang Wai-hung, the former president of Hong Kong Film Critics Society, also a scriptwriter and an independent film director.
Eraserhead: The Anxiety of Existence
The conversation between David Lynch and Chris Rodney is known to be first-hand important information for studying Lynch’s films. However, when it comes to Eraserhead, Lynch only talks about his personal experience, rather than giving an interpretation of the story. The chapter was named “I see myself”, because it was personal to Lynch, that any interpretation would become pointless. What a brilliant title it is. (But regarding Miss Radiator, Lynch once said "But inside is where the happiness in her comes from. Her outward appearance is not the thing." — a direct analysis which is somewhat rare.)
That is good, because in addition to the abstractness and nightmarish storyline of the film, the missing authoritative explanation by the creator actually encourages a vast diversity of views. Among which, psychoanalysis of sexuality and desire are the more popular critique angles; while Greg Olson associated the film with Gnosticism, making his view remarkably unique.
Written by Kenneth C. Kaleta was an early study on Lynch’s films. It discussed numerous Lynch’s works, including Eraserhead. He raised out three focuses of the film: 1. Questions without answers being given (as so often in life); 2. Unreasonable horror; and 3. Images of extraordinary impact.
Ideological discussion includes doubts and anxiety, while in terms of arts, there is the visual. Eraserhead is a multi-themed story; it is about destiny, opportunities, and even the deity. It represents the post-industrial society in late capitalism period, where isolation of people and of oneself is serious. Anxiety exists in everything, in families, in marriages, even in giving birth. Spencer the protagonist is later seen becoming a manufactured eraserhead, emphasizing the meaninglessness of existence; hence alienation and dehumanization.
David Lynch not only wrote and directed Eraserhead, he also was the art direction, special effects and music departments of this 6-year film project. Previously studied for a career as a painting artist, Lynch had created several short films before making his first feature-length film Eraserhead. Upon finish watching the film, audiences may become curious of what influenced the then 30-year-old Lynch. The answer is, according to research, they are artists Oskar Kokoschka, Edward Hopper and Francis Bacon; novelists Franz Kafka and Nikolai Gogol; and film noir Sunset Boulevard (1950) by Billy Wilder. Traces of An Andalusian Dog (1929) by Luis Bunuel were seen in Eraserhead, but David Lynch has yet to have watched this surrealism classic when he made the film.
Eraserhead is an embodiment of surrealism, expressionism, black humor, theatre of absurd, and many more trends of contemporary art and literature. The film became a cult classic which was praised by many, including the director Stanley Kubrick.
Lynch has established a style of his own ever since Eraserhead, and it has carried on to develop throughout his filmography: The Elephant Man (1980), Blue Velvet (1986), Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001)…these works share Lynch’s visual signature, so apparent that audience can recognize by first glance. In literature we have “Kafkaesque”, a term inspired by Kafka’s writings; and in film, we have “Lynchian”.
Kenneth C. Kaleta, David Lynch, New York : Twayne Pub. , 1993
Chris Rodley, Lynch on Lynch, London: Faber and Faber, 2005
Greg Olson, David Lynch: Beautiful Dark, Lanham, Md. : Scarecrow Press, 2008
Matthew Cheng, a movie columnist for the Hong Kong Economic Times
and the recipient of the 2013 Hong Kong Arts Development Award (Art Criticism). He has been a judge at the Hong Kong Film Awards, FIPRESCI Prize, Chinese Film Media Awards and Golden Horse Awards.
The Self-Portrait of a Painter
While the old King of Spain just abdicated from his throne, and succeeded by the Prince, the news reminds me of an arts tidbit on The Guardian homepage from last year: famous realism artist Antonio López was ordered to stay in the royal palace and complete his portrait of the Spanish royal family, that had started 18 years ago. The reportage also satirically stated that he has been known for his time-consuming perfectionism, that a film was made in 1992 illustrated his “struggles to depict a quince”. That film is The Quince Tree Sun.
In the late 19th century, a twist was caused in the western painting scene: photography. The invention of photography has hindered the quest of the realistic paintings, leading to artists’ abandoning the tradition of representing the real world on a two-dimensional canvas. Arriving the 20th century, abstract styles such as expressionism, surrealism and cubism began to popularize. Names such as Picasso and Dalí rose to fame. Yet, this hurricane of abstract style has also been interrupted when some artists returned to the tradition of realistic paintings. One of them included Antonio López. Some asked him the meaning to draw such realistically when photos, films, and television were in commonplace, he answered: “There’s always a need for people to know how things are captured through others’ eyes. Media such as television and photography can serve the purpose, but only paintings can have such intimate feeling, and the sense of unpredictability that no other medium can show.” (loose quotation) Bearing this idea of López’s when I rewatched The Quince Tree Sun, I can finally bring my understanding about the emphasis on intimacy with the quince tree to a deeper level.
The Quince Tree Sun is a film of realism. The subtitles not only state the exact dates, but also divide the film into chapters. A camera was placed at López’s home, as if shooting a documentary. It silently recorded his painting process, conversations with his visiting friends, and everyday lives of his family and even the construction workers. It was like a streetscape painting of Madrid by López himself. It seems that beneath his calm canvas is the compressed time he used, and then The Quince Tree Sun reconstructs the process of compression of time. Co-written and starring in the film, López was asked by a visiting Chinese lady: “A lot of painters feel more comfortable working from a picture.” which on the subsurface means “What is the reason that your works are drawn from real things?” He then answered what was mentioned previously: “Intimacy”.
The Quince Tree Sun to a certain extent is a self-portrait of Antonio López. Through the lenses, he introduces to us his daily working on painting, sometimes even becomes his wife’s model; a recurrence of drawing and being drawn. In fact, the cameos of his wife and daughter are actually the themes of his past paintings. But what is more interesting than the contrasting visuals, is the conversations among his wife, his friends and him: this painting is hopeless, we should abandon it; I should continue to paint that undone portrait; the arm should go this way and the leg should go like this, the model should be holding this photo, etc. Artists’ struggles behind their easels, stacks of undone paintings; as lengthy and trivial as the painting process may seem, the creative storm occurs inside the artists’ brains. The film is calm, as calm as the landscape paintings by López, yet underneath the everyday peace are multilayered unpredictable psycho-activities. This film is a self-portrait of creation itself.
Cheng Chuen-wai, a cinephile and freelance writer, reviews published in Hong Kong Economic Journal
, Tai Kung Pao
, or on the website of Hong Kong Film Critics Society etc.
A Representation of Modern Civilization
Watching Edvard Munch (1976) is a chance to learn about the achievements of renowned Norwegian painter Edvard Munch; maybe his characters too, or even a sneak peek into his private life. As a biographical film, obviously, the actor who played Munch was a perfect cast; but instead of the life chronicles of Munch, the thoughtful observation illustrated in the film was way more enthralling. The essence of a biographical film is "film" itself, and it is the most crucial. That said, Edvard Munch is a film which by nature it is a creative work that has influence over the biography. The subject of the biography is undoubtedly essential, so as the director of the biography film. Director Peter Watkins (1935-) is a filmmaker of unique creative thoughts and individual stand-point. Through his camera lens, Edvard Munch has become much more than a portrait. The film has not only images of Munch, but also the era, the people, the then art scene, and the unpredictable history and ideologies.
In mid 1960s, Director Watkins rose to fame in Britain with his docudramas, such as The War Game (1965) and The Gladiators (1969). The former looks at the possible effect of nuclear war on England, while the latter views a futuristic war between the East and the West in a television broadcast programme. These difficult topics of international politics, anti-government and authority were illustrated with combined forms of images and art. The radical elements and methods alerted the government and mass media that left Watkins a tough circumstance for his creative works. At that time, Watkins came across Munch’s works in Norway, and was attracted by the paintings, mainly its use of space, forms and leaping of time. (Munch usually drew the characters with appearances of the present time when past events happen.) Watkins was moved by Munch’s jolting life, and even found the painting character’s direct stares symbolically evocative; he started to incorporate such method into his films. Watkins believes that most films have “the fourth wall” that makes films an enclosed fantasy for the audience. However, the fourth wall in fact is a barrier between the performers and audience, hence between the filmmakers and audience. It causes filmmakers to overlook the fact that audience is also a participant of the communication process in the film. As time went by, the ever-changing trends of arts gradually became more accepting to the aesthetics of breaking the fourth wall. It even materialized the “collaboration” of Watkins and Munch on screen, and the portraying of Edvard Munch himself.
And so, Watkins carefully designed the Osio and Berlin art district of the late 19th century where Munch was in. The art direction was so fine, that Watkins even found Munch’s childhood home for on-location shooting; casting of nonprofessional performers was done with reference to Munch and his family photos, narrations and monologues were written based on Munch’s diary and articles. The then political and social circumstances, as well as the transitions of arts and ideologies were all clearly depicted in the film - that includes depiction of romance between Munch and the romance of him and his peers, especially one which was always omitted by scholars. All these elements are uncommon in the mainstream biography films.
These elements, though appear in Edvard Munch, yet fragmented, short, and random; we don’t even know whether they are realistic depictions or critiques. Even so, they become a unique tempo to the unpredictable storytelling. Characters often speak directly to camera, as if being interviewed about their opinions on Munch, on art, and on relationship between the sexes. Voice-over narration done in English by Watkins, shows that Munch’s life has broken through time and space. From a Norwegian story becoming a representation of the world and of modern souls. The film not only is a reading of Munch’s painting by Watkins in late 1960s, we as audience of the modern-day can still be evoked by Munch’s life and sentiments.
In the three hours of film watching, we do not see much reference of Munch’s famous painting The Scream. That is only a piece of modern civilization which cannot be omitted, a piece that shares statuses with dreams, isolation, advancement and distress. Just as the red sky painted by Munch, Watkins commented, “It could only have been painted by a madman.”
Lau Yam, former project researcher of the Hong Kong Film Archive.
The contents of the programme do not represent the views of the presenter.
The presenter reserves the right to change the programme should unavoidable circumstances make it necessary.