Art film and filmed art in Ghent

12th December 2013

Nearly a week has passed since my visit to Ghent for the hugely stimulating symposium Art & Cinema: On the aesthetics, history and theory of the art documentary. I think that the last time I was in the city was for the opening of Chambres d’amis exhibition back in June 1986 when the curator Jan Hoet arranged for more than forty artists to make works in the homes of ‘friends’ of the art museum. The visitor wandered through the town with a map and during pre-arranged hours rang doorbells to be admitted to a bedroom decorated by Daniel Buren or a patio with a wall painting by Sol LeWitt. On the first Saturday of the show filmmaker Jef Cornelis choreographed a full day of live coverage for Belgian television, and I went over to observe. At the symposium I was reminded of Cornelis’s centrality to the art documentary (he made films for BRT from 1964 to 1998) and I was delighted to learn that there is a major research project underway about his work. This was among the many ‘finds’ of the day, which as a whole was one of discovery and delight.

The symposium organiser was Steven Jacobs, an art historian with the University of Ghent, and his new book, The Dark Galleries, co-written with Lisa Colpaert, was launched at an opening on Friday evening. The Dark Galleries is a kind of museum guide to painted portraits that feature in Hollywood film noir and melodramas of the 1940s and ’50s. We watched a finely edited compilation of extracts from the feature films and also saw a work-in-progress by Nicolas Provost created as a response to the uncanny presence of paintings in the likes of Laura (1944), The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). (I’ll return to the book in a future post.)

The next morning we were back at the KASK Cinema with Steven introducing Belgian art films from the mid-twentieth century. As I mentioned in my preview post, he has edited an essential DVD collection of these documentaries, Art & Cinema: the Belgian art documentary, which has a really good essay detailing why they are significant beyond the immediate interest of their individual subjects. Several of the films included in that collection were screened, including Thèmes d’inspiration, directed by Charles De Keukeleire in 1939, and Paul Haesaerts’ Visite à Picasso (1950, above), from which this is a well-known sequence:

The great pleasure of the day was viewing a wide selection of classic art films in decent prints projected on a large screen. On the rare occasions when we watch these documentaries we see them on small monitors in in cramped viewing rooms or we call them up on a laptop in front of us. It hardly needs saying but there is a world of difference when you watch them as they were meant to be seen, and with an audience. The symposium had also worked hard to secure good prints, which were shown as 16mm and 35mm projections as well as from newly-struck DCPs (digital cinema packages).

Among the highlights was Calligraphie japonaise (1956), made by painter Pierre Alechinsky, long associated with the group COBRA. Doctoral student Leen Vanderschueren described this as ‘a filmic poem about painted language’, and indeed it is a beautiful short shot in Japan with master calligraphers seen in the context of everyday street signs.

Film curator Paola Scremin introduced three remarkable Italian documentaries from the 1940s: Luciano Emmer’s Racconto da un affresco (1941), which develops the narrative of Christ’s life from Giotto’s murals in the Scrovegni Chapel; Carpaccio (1947), by Umberto Barbaro and Roberto Longhi; and most remarkable of all L’esperienza del cubismo (1949), a kind of primer about cubism made by Glauco Pellegrini with the assistance of painter Renato Guttuso. Three years ago Paola Scremin compiled a DVD box set of Emmer’s work, Parole dipinte, available from the Cineteca Bologna (and also via Amazon), which is another essential resource for anyone interested in this history.

At the end of the day we saw three shorts from the series Schaffende Hande made by the German filmmaker Hans Curlis in the 1920s. These near-artless, silent documents of painters and sculptors at work are among the earliest moving images showing major creative figures at work, although they are rarely screened, at least in prints as good as those supplied to the symposium by the EYE Film Institut in Amsterdam. We watched Die Maler (1926), which has sequences with painters Lovis Corinth, Max Lieberman, Max Slevgot and Emil Orlik; Die Bildhauer (1927), about sculptor Ernesto de Fioro; and Drahtplastiken (1929), which documents Alexander Calder shaping a circus figure in wire.

The screenings were complemented by richly interesting presentations by scholars including Angela Dalle Vacche, from the University of Georgia, who spoke about André Bazin, Henri Bergson and Henri-George Clouzot’s 1956 film Le Mystère Picasso, and Brigitte Peucker, from Yale University, who unpacked the film Rembrandt’s J’accuse, made by Peter Greenaway in Holland in 2008.

Susan Felleman, from the University of South Carolina, introduced a screening of Bruce Conner’s delicate, elegiac and rarely-screened The White Rose (1967). This seven-minute film documents the removal from the apartment where it was created of artist Jay DeFeo’s extraordinary painting-cum-sculpture The White Rose (1958-66). There is a good piece about the artwork in John Perreault’s online diary, and Felleman outlined some of its astonishing history and the manner in which avant-garde filmmaker Conner responded to it. Also online is this short slide-show from SFMoMA with Conner reminiscing engagingly about the shoot.

My contribution was a paper about the BBC films that John Read made between 1951 and 1979 with Henry Moore, and especially the second of these, A Sculptor’s Landscape (1957). These remarks set up a showing of the film, which apparently existed as a 35mm print in the Belgian Film Archive. A new DCP had been made for the occasion, and Walter Lassally’s pin-sharp and gloriously toned images looked exquisite thrown onto the screen.

Strangely, however, the print had no narration, which in the original is read in a slightly distracted voice by Ralph Richardson. Humphrey Searle’s score, combining modernist threat with more lyrical fairground themes, was very present (and sounded very fine), as were all of the sound effects, such as the wind cutting across the Glenkiln Estate where John Read and his team filmed Moore’s King and Queen (1952-53).

The print appears to be a version of the film made with a ‘music and effects’ track for sale to foreign broadcasters – with the idea that Belgian television, or whoever, would add a reading of the narration in the local language. In some ways, seeing the film without its script is more pleasurable than the conventional viewing experience. I appreciated more than ever the camerawork and the skilful editing, and I felt that much of the story-telling was still strikingly clear.

By the evening, when contributors and helpers went off for a meal, it was clear that the day had provided a welcome focus for art historians, those interested in twentieth-century media, and film studies people to talk across the traditional lines between their disciplines – and that the exchanges that resulted were productive and exciting.

I know of no regular focus for such discussions in a historical context, yet it is clear that, as we see more from the past and think more about future possibilities, the conjunction of art and film is ever more fascinating. There were murmurings as we made out farewells that another such symposium will follow, and that it might even become a event held every two years. I’ll be first in line for a place at the next one.

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