Art and film and Belgium

6th December 2013

A low morning sun and vapour trails in a blue, blue sky provide a spectacular backdrop as an early Eurostar pulls out of St Pancras. I’m on the way to Ghent for a symposium on Saturday about the early history of documentaries about the arts (a .pdf of the full programme is here). Needless to say, I also want to see – for the first time – the Van Eycks’ Adoration of the Mystic Lamb altarpiece in Saint Bavo Cathedral, a detail of which is above. My symposium contribution is to be about the films that the BBC producer John Read made between 1951 and 1979 with Henry Moore (about which I have often posted, including here, here, here and here). The event has been organised by Steven Jacobs, a scholar at the KASK/School of Arts in Ghent, who earlier this year edited the wonderful DVD collection Art & Cinema of Belgian arts documentaries (available here).

John Read started making films for the BBC in 1951 and he was certainly aware of earlier documentaries about painting that had been made in Belgium, Italy and France. One of the most significant of these is André Cauvin’s The Mystic Lamb (1939), which is a visual celebration and analysis of the famed Ghent altarpiece. The film was produced by the Belgian government to be shown in the country’s pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, and it is included on the DVD set along with Cauvin’s later The Return of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1946), about the restoration of the artwork in Brussels after the Second World War.

Also included among the three discs of the box set is Charles Dekeukelaire’s Themes of Inspiration (1938) and a group of post-war films by Paul Haesaerts, including his well-known Visit to Picasso (1950). There are also six films by the great Belgian documentary maker Henri Storck and five by a later filmmaker Luc de Heusch. Many of these have a sensibility that is distinct from the manner developed as approach to the visual arts by British television. There is less concern for explanation and more preparedness to trust the artworks, to allow them to occupy the screening their own terms and for analysis to be suggested through images and their juxtaposition.

Steven Jacobs’ introductory essay in the substantial booklet included with the DVDs points out that

What is striking about this period [from the late 1930s to the 1950s] when arts documentaries flourished is that it occurred just before the big breakthrough of the medium of television which would then usurp the art documentary and, to a large extent, standardise it. For Belgian film-makers like Henru Storck and Paul Haesaerts, for Luciano Emmer in Italy and Alain Resnais in France the art documentary was the height of the experimental short film. The cinematic examination of the visual arts provided the opportunity to confidently explore the boundaries between movement and stasis, two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality, reality and artificiality.

John Read at the BBC in the 1950s can be seen as a transitional figure, responding to these continental experiments and accommodating them within a developing television tradition that is grounded in reportage and the text of the voice-over. Yet Read’s films with Henry Moore and with other English modernists like Graham Sutherland and John Piper also feature  extended sequences in which finely photographed images of artwork are dominant and dissociated from meaning imposed by a narrator.

I am fascinated to see how Read’s work appears when seen in the context of films by Emmer, Storck and others – and I will offer some thoughts about this and other aspects of the symposium in at least one further post in the next few days.

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