Schalcken the Painter: a review from Christmas past

23rd December 2013

Half a lifetime ago (for those who are counting, it is thirty-four years) I wrote a feature for Time Out about the 1979 BBC television film Schalcken the Painter (above). Leslie Megahey’s ghost story is now newly released on DVD and Blu-ray from the BFI.  A glory from a period of richly imaginative arts filmmaking, the hour-plus film fully deserves this fine new release. Thirty-four years ago, when Margaret Thatcher had been in Downing Street for just six months and Jimmy Carter was President of the United States, this is what I wrote about it in the Christmas edition of London’s favourite listings magazine…

Schalcken the Painter article in Time Out

Godfried Schalcken, so the history books will tell you, was a minor Dutch painter of the 17th century, a pupil of the Amsterdam master Gerrit Dou, and specialist in minutely detailed night scenes. Godfried Schalcken, so Sheridan Le Fanu will tell you, in a 19th century ghost story, ‘has faded into obscurity, under the shadow of his more famous master, but his later work seems to have its roots in some private world of dreams, perhaps never otherwise expressed.’ And Godfried Schalcken, so Leslie Megahey will tell you, is ‘a fairly bad artist that no-one has ever heard of’. But before we come to the judgements, who is Leslie Megahey and why has he made a film about this painter?

Leslie Megahey is an immensely accomplished TV director and the current editor of the BBC’s Omnibus series. In the past he has made programmes about Rodin, Gauguin, Ligeti and John Donne. Or rather he has made finely-crafted and intense films about these artists; his works are never standard biographies, but rich and imaginative patterns of images and sound which recreate part of the experience of artist and artwork.

For his film about Georges Rouault, Megahey took the artist’s symbols of the clown and the circus, brought them to life and wove them around Rouault’s themes and preoccupations. For his Gauguin story he built a South Seas paradise in the film studios at Ealing; then reproducing on film the precise qualities of Gauguin’s painting, he punctured its myth and mystery by exposing the artifice from which is was derived. And for Schalcken the Painter, with the collaboration of an exceptional design team and the brilliant camerawork of John Hooper, Leslie Megahey has filmed a tale in the exact style of 17th century Dutch painting. Familiar subjects,  compositions and well-known masterpieces have been given life. Individual frames resemble (and often reproduce) works by Vermeer, Jan Steen and Gabriel Metsu. There’s even a late self-portrait by Rembrandt.

Yet it’s not at all a simple story of artists from Amsterdam. The script is based on a tale by the Victorian writer Sheridan Le Fanu. The film editor, Paul Humfress, with whom Leslie Megahey has worked on all his recent films (and who was, incidentally, the c-director of [Derek Jarman’s] Sebastiane) discovered the story in a Dutch bookshop. Liberally rewritten (though with a scrupulous regard for scholarship), it has become an extravagant grand guignol chiller. Yet even more interestingly it has been shaped into of the Artist’s consciousness at a particular historical moment, a study of the material basis of his (without exception) work and an indictment of the necessity for exploitation in such a context. By implication it is also an examination of the approach usually adopted towards such figures by television documentaries.

The voice of Sheridan Le Fanu introduces the story over a painting by Schalcken representing a female figure, a man drawing his sword and, in the darkness behind them, an almost indistinguishable form which may be a ghostly face. (The actual picture is believed to exist but Leslie Megahey was unable to track it down.) Le Fanu explains that his great-grandfather knew the picture well, ‘and from Schalcken himself he learnt the terrible story behind this picture.’

That terrible (although also partly comic) story then begins with the painter apprenticed to Gerrit Dou, and in love with his ward and neice, Rose Vanderkaust. Schalcken as a student can offer her nothing and a mysterious, hideous stranger arrives one night to purchase Rose’s hand. Dou accepts, and Schalcken in no position to do otherwise, acquiesces. Rose promptly disappears and Schalcken is fated to spend the rest of his life searching for her. When eventually he does trace her, he becomes caught in an horrific, inexplicable fantasy which inspires the painting to which Le Fanu introduced us.

Every scene is immaculately filmed but as Leslie Megahey explains, ‘while the lighting and compositions and so forth are based on 17th century Dutch art, it wasn’t intended to be purely imitative of the paintings. Otherwise it becomes purely an academic exercise. In all my films visual imagery is used as a commentary, to make connections, so you don’t have disembodied voices explaining things.’

‘Further the way we shot and cut it was very much against the conventions of drama shooting. We’ve done it so that you are, as it were, looking at paintings – we’ve tried to get a feeling of looking-in. Which reminds us of the way people make icons of their possessions. And the film is built around money changing hands- everyone in the film is bought.’

The voyeuristic quality not only forces us to question how and why we look at paintings, it also adds immeasurably to the eeriness and unease of the film. Which means that it’s the perfect late-night Christmas viewing and not at all the sort of piece you would expect from Humphrey Burton and friends in the Music and Arts Department.

Neither was Leslie Megahey’s first season last year as editor of the Omnibus series. In contrast to the straightforward, journalistic approach of The South Bank Show, Omnibus carried a number of exciting innovative films where the form was often as important as the content. Distinctive filmmakers like Jana Bokova (Living Room, Mareka and Marevna) and David Wheatley (Magritte, The Brothers Grimm) contributed essays with highly imaginative, almost surreal conceptions. While their work is far too different to speak of a tradition, they share many of the same premises as the work of Leslie Megahey.

Leslie Megahey states their premise very simply. ‘The worst thing in the world,’ he says, ‘is to make a film that would have been better as a book.’ And while Schalcken the Painter may have started out as exactly that, the finished work transcends its source quite remarkably.

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