Eugène Delacroix paints the revolution of 1830 and establishes a Romantic visual idea of revolution that has had a lasting influence on art, film and culture.
“Although I may not have fought for my country, at least I shall have painted for her,” Delacroix wrote in a letter to his brother.
The revolution is well underway: the people are fighting in the streets. We see cannon smoke and in the distance, building are on fire. The rabble swarms over the bodies of the dead: soldier and citizen alike are fallen. The crowd exults, the violence is inescapable, and all are led by the majestic figure of Lady Liberty, urging on her crowd of citizen soldiers. Exhilarating stuff!
This is one of the first actively political works of modern painting.
It depicts the Paris uprising of July 1830, which overthrew Charles X, the king who was restored after Napoleon’s defeat. Delacroix did not participate in the uprising: he was in the Louvre helping to protect the collection from the chaos. Though he depended on commissions from institutions and members of the royal family, Delacroix had republican sympathies. Perceived the uprising as a suitable modern subject for a painting, he started to paint this dramatic scene of the crowd breaking through the barricades, led by the female symbol of Republican France, “Marianne” or Lady Liberty. It is a cinematic and Romantic vision, seeking to achieve an immediate emotional impact.
The painting has a pyramid composition: the base, strewn with corpses, serves as a pedestal supporting the the victors as they push forward, and the pyramid is crested by the lovely Marianne.
In her figure, Delacroix combines classicism, Romanticism and realism. Liberty’s dress is draped in a classic manner, and her face has a Grecian profile with a classical straight nose. The bare-breasted, fierce image of Marianne leading the battle had appeared in the French revolutionary propaganda of the 1790s, and Delacroix revives it, but here makes it romantic, full of colour and life, yet also real.
Eugène Delacroix paints Realism
Her upraised arm reveals underarm hair. Underarm hair was considered to be so vulgar that no painter dared to represent it.
She holds a real gun in her left hand, the 1816 model infantry gun with a bayonet.
The other figures in the painting are both as real and as symbolic as Marianne. Delacroix has faithfully reproduced the style of dress worn by different sectors of the society at the time.
The man to the right of Liberty in the black beret (worn by students) is a symbol of youthful revolt. The man with the sabre on the far left is a factory worker. Elsewhere in the picture, we can see that Delacroix has depicted other workers and peasants realistically. The figure with the top hat may be a self-portrait or one of Delacroix’s friends. He represents a bourgeois or fashionable urbanite making common cause with the ordinary people.
The painting was a key inspiration for Eve Stewart, production designer for the 2012 film of Les Miserables which is set during the 1830 events.
Eugène Delacroix paints a dangerous picture
The 1830 uprising did not end in a new Republic, but in a substitute King, and it took several more revolutionary events before France finally became a republic. As one of the most dramatic, persuasive and stimulating images of revolutionary action, Liberty Leading The People was dangerous. The painting was hidden away from public view in 1863. Today it is one of the most popular paintings in the Louvre.
Liberty Leading The People is one of the most cinematic paintings of the 19th century and continues to serve as a matrix for crowd scenes, and for the inclusion of symbolic character types within the composition.
Delacroix’s Liberty is bare-breasted to emphasize her femaleness, but her female body is not sexualized here. This active, heroic, female figure owes something to the athletic dynamism of the Roman goddess Diana.
Diana (L) and Athena (R)
But Diana was a goddess of chastity and was not supposed to be sexual. Likewise, Athena, goddess of wisdom as well as of strategic warfare, is not sexual but is one of the ‘virgin goddesses’ (together with Diana/Artemis and Hestia).
Active female heroes that are NOT sexual are rarely presented in cinema
In recent years female action heroes have become more common, but with the exceptions of ‘Sarah Connor’ in the Terminator films and ‘Ripley’ in the Alien films, it is rare to see female action heroes who are not sexualized.
Thomas Cole’s The Savage State, The Clan of the Cave Bear and Quest for Fire
How to artists and filmmakers depict pre-history? You might be surprised to find that it is actually very uncommon for them to try to do so. Jurassic Park is not pre-history, it just has dinosaurs. Pre-history is different: the term means history before recorded information. It is the long period between the use of the first stone tools (3.3 million years ago) and the invention of writing (9000 – 3400 BCE).
This is a long time! But be careful not to imagine that prehistoric humans lived like animals. We made a lot of visual art, architecture and jewellery, for a long time before writing appeared. Most of it is fabulous. In fact, even the idea that writing is the mark of civilization ignores the sophisticated oral and visual cultures which never developed writing because they really didn’t need it.
Anyway, for the purposes of this article, the term pre-history really is about history; it’s about what popular culture has long referred to as the ‘caveman (and cavewoman)’ era. As you’ll see, it takes a lot of imagination to conjure up what ‘caveman world’ might have been like. Fortunately, a handful of artists have actually tried to do this.
First, painting. Given that pre-history predates most of what we might consider urban society, it stands to reason that depicting pre-historical scenes would be about landscape and nature, and humans within that. Of course, there are plenty of paintings which are pure landscape, but it is rare for an artist to depict an explicitly prehistoric scene.
Even the spectacular painter of light, Claude Lorraine, felt obliged to add human narratives to the landscape. See, for example, Landscape with Narcissus and Echo; it’s clearly about the trees and the clear golden light, not about the mythical figures. (Actually, Claude got other painters to paint the people). I digress.
Closer to our topic, British-American Thomas Cole painted The Savage State in 1833. It is a remarkable painting that seeks to depict a primeval scene. In The Savage State, Cole imagines a world before human civilization.
Cole is best known as America’s first great landscape painter, founder of the Hudson River School. The Savage State is part of Cole’s series The Course of Empire, five paintings depicting the rise and fall of an imaginary city.
In it, he protests the ruin of the landscape by ‘civilisation’ (a theme he returns to in other paintings). Cole’s series follows a coherent narrative, tracing the story as a primeval community develops into a vast empire, then falls into decadence. It is almost a film storyboard,
I will return to The Course Of Empire in another article. Here I want to isolate The Savage State as a distinctive and possibly unique painting of pre-history. We will use this as a starting point to consider how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history.
In The Savage State, primeval humans live in a sublime landscape of swirling sky and rough terrain. Landscape dominates the image. There are indications of human ‘savages’ in the picture. You can see them off to the right in a small encampment. They do not represent any specific ethnicity. Nor do they represent conquered people. Instead, Cole meant to show ‘the origins of modern society’.
The figures in the picture are tiny, and we can barely see them, never mind understand any details. It does look like Cole’s ‘savages’ reference aboriginal North American life. You should know that Cole also painted scenes from his friend James Fennimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans. It’s unlikely that Cole had any experience of actual native communities. These had been largely eradicated from the Hudson River region, where Cole worked.
In his writings, Cole made it clear that he intended the human settlement to be European. However, in the 19th century, before archaeology of pre-historical sites, there was little knowledge or understanding of what pre-historical communities in Europe might have been like.
Unfortunately, the political conditions on America at the time meant that European settlers, of which Cole was one, believed that the Native Americans were less ‘civilised’ than Europeans. Therefore, they might serve as models for pre-historical imagery.
So, while aspects of the ‘generic savages’ in The Savage State are probably appropriated from Native American cultural imagery, Cole did not consciously intend to depict Native Americans as prehistoric. Nevertheless, the prevailing colonial mindset he inhabited led him there.
In the 1980s, two films came out, both of which went to great lengths to try and imaginatively and credibly depict prehistoric human life. The first was 1982’s Quest For Fire, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. The second was directed by Michael Chapman, in his film version of the novel Clan of the Cave Bear (1986, from the novel by Jean Auel). Both of those films are almost entirely forgotten today, and I was not expecting much, but I was both surprised and fascinated by them.
Quest for Fire
Quest for Fire originated as a fantasy novel written in 1911 (by two Belgian brothers under the pseudonym J.-H. Rosny). This was long before today’s carefully-excavated knowledge about pre-history. But it indeed reveals the author’s fascination with both evolution and human behaviour. I’m not particularly concerned about whether the book or the film is accurate; first of all, I would have no idea because it’s not my area of specialism.
However, one can ask the critical question: is the film at least credible? It deals with human emotions and behaviours, which we would recognize today: group solidarity, domination and submission, conflict, love and loyalty, and pride in overcoming adversity. The Quest For Fire story begins with a small nomadic group carefully protecting its precious fire. But they don’t have the Promethean ability to make fire from scratch. When the fire goes out, three young males from the group go off in search of fire.
Along the way, these vaguely apelike humanoids make contact with a seemingly more ‘evolved’ group that lives in villages, has much more language and uses tools. The coming-together of a woman (Rae-Dawn Chong, excellent performance) from the sophisticated group and a man from the unsophisticated group symbolizes some kind of dialectic: the last frame shows the couple in peace and harmony, the woman pregnant.
The visual depiction of the ‘caveman world’ in Quest for Fire is achieved through excellent cinematography by Claude Agostini and the work of Production Designer Brian Morris and his art department (which won Oscars and BAFTAs for makeup). Morris and his team had a very challenging job. Unlike Cole, they couldn’t merely look to (recent or historic) aboriginal communities as a shortcut to depict what prehistoric humans may have been like. So, they had to try to make it up from archaeological research while at the same time creating a richly exciting and relatable world for audiences to inhabit for the duration of the film. As a Franco-Canadian co-production, there was a substantial budget for location shooting. Jean-Jacques Annaud (who is, of course, one of the great French directors of our era) was able to film in some of the world’s most sublime unspoilt landscapes: Kenya, British Columbia, the Bruce Peninsula and the Scottish Highlands. The landscape cinematography by Agostini and his crew offers up a continent, unlike the ones we are familiar with now. And thankfully no dinosaurs.
Commenting at the time of the film’s release, the critic Gene Siskel noted that at first the film seems ludicrous and the depictions a bit forced, but then you start to think ‘I wonder if that’s the way it did happen?’ And when that happens, ‘Quest for Fire’ has you hooked.” Roger Ebert concurred, writing that “by the time the movie was over, I cared very much about how their lives would turn out.”
Clan of the Cave Bear
Clan of the Cave Bear also has a plot that hinges upon the interaction between a primitive tribe and a more evolved individual. It is an adaptation of a bestselling novel by Jean M. Auel, published in 1980, which spawned a series that only concluded in 2011. Auel did plenty of research for the book, but has no academic background in pre-history studies; you cannot go to either the book or the film for “facts.” Yet both books and movies offer much in the way of atmosphere and ideas.
Because the film is based on Auel’s recent book (cashing in on its bestseller status), it has less scope to develop its own way – in contrast to Quest for Fire. Screenwriter John Sayles has done what he can with Auel’s story, and it is an absorbing one, though somewhat hampered in its ending by the fact that Auel clearly planned sequels.
In Clan, Ayla, a young Cro-Magnon woman (Daryl Hannah), is separated from her family and orphaned during an earthquake. Found by a group of cave-dwelling Neanderthals, she is raised as one of their own. Her intelligence presents a challenge to the tribe’s young future chief Broud (who unfortunately looks and acts like a member of an 80’s metal band). But the film is less about understanding some fine points about human development than it is about championing Ayla’s female emancipation and empowerment. As Ebert put it, ‘Neanderthal man is on the way out, and Cro-magnon woman is on the way in.’ As such, it’s an uplifting film in the 80’s tradition of Flashdance, although Chapman and his team don’t soft-soap the brute details of caveman life. The British Columbia locations are again breathtaking and versatile, as is the production design by Anthony Masters (Papillon) and especially the set decoration by Kimberley Richardson.
What grates in Clan is the juxtaposition of the fascinating story of Ayla’s self-discovery, her challenge to the patriarchal Clan and the finely-wrought visual storytelling, against the dated 80’s costume and makeup styling, not to mention the framing of the characters, which is pure 80’s cliché. Although Darryl Hannah’s performance is good, the studio just could not resist making the most of her blonde locks and leggy beauty. As Ebert bracingly put it, “Instead of people who are scarred, wind-burned, thin and toothless, it gives us graduates of the Los Angeles health club scene, and a heroine who looks as if she just walked over from makeup.”
Nevertheless, I enjoyed Clan of the Cave Bear, and I can’t help thinking that the narrative of female self-discovery just did not sit that well with the audience of 1986; I could not find any reviews by female critics. Dated the film may be in some respects, it is definitely worth a watch.
So, what about the pre-history?
What do we learn about the depiction of pre-history shown in these films? How do artists and filmmakers depict pre-history? When he painted The Savage State Cole was already a committed conservationist preoccupied with human depredations on landscape. In both Quest for Fire and Clan of the Cave Bear we see humans dwarfed by the landscape, dominated by it, unable at the stage of human development to do anything more than simply survive in it.
I did find something particularly fascinating when I was watching Clan of The Cave Bear. At one point there is a shot of a river which seems to be a direct reference to Thomas Cole’s most famous painting, known as The Oxbow (View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm). The picture and the film still both reveal the winding switchback of the river. Many art historians interpret The Oxbow as insinuating the confrontation between wilderness and civilization. In the left foreground the wild untamed landscape represented by a large, thunderstruck tree amid a tangle of bush. This gives way to the far view, which takes up most of the right-hand side of the painting, depicting a peaceful, populated and cultivated landscape intersected by the serpentine Connecticut River. While the wilderness is depicted as dark and the cultivated territory as light filled, Cole’s own feelings about human encroachment on the territory were decidedly ambivalent. It is not too difficult to feel the same ambivalence when we watch Quest For Fire and Clan Of The Cave Bear – how we humans came to our tendencies towards violence and acquisitiveness, and how these dark things coexist with our tendency to innovate and create, and to care for one another and cooperate.
Cole was engaged in painting ‘The Course of Empire’, the series The Savage State belongs to, and took time off from that to paint The Oxbow.
Director Michael Chapman, who is mainly known as a cinematographer (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) is on record as having a strong sensibility for art and painting and I wonder if perhaps he was influenced by Cole’s Oxbow, which is held in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Both movies are of their time: the 1980s. However, they display that era’s willingness to embrace stories that were really different. They tried to find ways of envisioning things that demanded a lot of imagination but were still very much rooted in realism. Today so many big-budget films are about worlds of pure fantasy that we have no real connection to (e.g. superhero films). It is interesting to see these pre-history films attempting to understand something real yet almost ungraspable and try to recreate it. It hardly matters that they don’t actually succeed. Like Thomas Cole’s painting, they are trying to approach more significant themes and invite us to engage our brains in a vast imagining of the human story. In this respect, neither nor Quest for Fire nor even Clan Of The Cave Bear are escapist: they are challenging works of imagination that raised questions and in the end – through the vehicle of entertainment – they do invite us to confront ourselves.
Today’s painting depicts a moment in Colonial History The Battle of Aboukir which happened in Egypt during the war between Napoleonic France and Britain. The history of what happened is explained below. This painting by Antoine-Jean Gros Bataille d’Aboukir, 25 Juillet 1799 is in the Palais de Versailles.
The picture shows the successful charge by General Joachim Murat at Aboukir. The general is on the white horse in the centre of the composition. In fact Murat himself commissioned Gros to make the painting in 1806. It was brought to Versailles, hung in the Coronation room, in 1835.
This is a good example of a ‘cinematic’ painting. Let’s consider the elements of what makes a painting ‘cinematic’
Let’s start with LIGHTING
Notice how the central part of the picture is much brighter and ‘lit’ even though this is supposed to be taking place outdoors in ‘natural’ light. The sense of brightness is created by the placement of white things in the centre of the picture, rather than any suggestion of a change in the natural lighting. This is a good example of the painter Antoine-Jean Gros’s fidelity to realism, within the context of a highly dramatic setting and action.
Gros uses three main colours in this picture; yellow, red and white. Yellow (shades from yellow to brown) is the colour of nature – the dust and earth of Egypt. White appears in the clothing of some of the figures, but in the main, it is the colour of the General’s horse that stands out. Red is very dominant; redness forms a circle around all the centre whiteness. it’s a striking effect.
Paintings can’t move, but the ‘cinematic’ painting very often gives the illusion of movement, usually through the gestures of the figures or through the use of dynamic composition such as strong diagonals horizontals and verticals that indicate that something is moving through space. Even though we don’t see it moving, we can easily understand that it is moving. When we look at paintings such as this one we really get to see the dynamism of movement as a painted illusion. Here movement is indicated in the centre of the painting by the diagonal positioning of the standard, which slices through this section of the painting in a very strong diagonal line. It is also red, which almost gives it a sense of being like a sword slash, through the painting. The gestures of the figures, with outreaching arms and the twist of the bodies, also indicates movement. The whole painting feels as though it is vibrating with movement, writhing and alive.
MOVEMENT – THE DIAGONAL!
This kind of highly dramatic realism is very common in cinema. In art history, painting something so that it looks as though it is really there or really happening, is often referred to as ‘naturalism’. The struggle and the figures look natural even though as a depiction of the actual battle of Aboukir, I’d seriously question how ‘realistic’ it actually is. I mean, why would the man at the feet of General Murat’s horse be stark naked? It’s really unlikely the Ottoman troops would go into battle stark naked or wearing clothes that fall off really easily. As a depiction of Colonial History, the Battle of Aboukir may not be realistic but it is spirited.
However, from a dramatic point of view, it allows the painter to demonstrate the vulnerability of the Ottoman soldiers (and the weakness of their position) overcome by the magnificent French troops under Napoleon’s great general, Murat. Additionally, it allows Gros to show off his ability to paint the human figure. Of course, if we were to try to re-create this battle for cinema we really couldn’t get away with showing this nudity, not for decency reasons but because it would actually be completely ridiculous. In fact, even in this picture, it’s completely ridiculous but somehow painting gets away with it.
The depiction of battles in cinema has a long history and has produced some extremely interesting scenes in films but these scenes are difficult to shoot. Partly because unlike in painting, is difficult to get single compositions within the frame so that one can focus on specific incidents. However, painting is a good guide for the filmmaker. Lighting, compositions use of colour and gesture in paintings can inspire the filmmaker because it demonstrates very clearly what is effective and engaging to the eye.
Some great battles in cinema history:
Omaha Beach Saving Private Ryan
The Street Protest Turned Battle, The Baader-Meinhof Complex
Braveheart – The Battle Of Falkirk
Apocalypse Now, Helicopter Beach Assault
Waterloo (1970), The Charge Of The Cuirassiers
Gladiator, Battle In Germania
Glory (1989), The Storming of Fort Wagner
Zulu (1964), The Battle of Rourke’s Drift
What Actually Happened at Aboukir?
There were several battles called Battle of Aboukir (or Abu Qir) during the period of war between Napoleon’s France and Great Britain.
You may be familiar with the battle of Trafalgar which is commemorated in London’s Trafalgar Square, although Trafalgar itself is in Spain You may be familiar with the battle of Waterloo which is commemorated in Britain by a railway station and a bridge and is also the name of a town in Ontario, Canada – as well as a number of towns in the English speaking world. But the actual Waterloo is in Belgium.
The point is, often we understand history through particular moments but we don’t understand how those moments arrived. How on earth did the French and the Turks and later the British end up having a fight at a place with an obviously non-European name like Abu Qir?
Where is Aboukir?
Abou Qir is in Egypt; you can go there*: it’s a town on the Mediterranean coast near the ruins of ancient Canopus 23 kilometers northeast of Alexandria. It is located on a peninsula, with Abu Qir Bay to the east. The bay is where, on 1 August 1798, Horatio Nelson fought the Battle of the Nile, often referred to as the “Battle of Aboukir Bay”, an event also painted by Philip James De Loutherbourg (1800) among others.
The battle depicted by Gros took place a year later on land between the French expeditionary army and the Turks under Mustapha Pasha (acting as an ally and agent of the British, though the Ottomans later switched sides). The French claimed it as a victory but it didn’t resolve anything.
Two years later they fought the Battle of Alexandria (aka Battle of Canope), on 21 March 1801 between the French army under General Menou and the British expeditionary army under Sir Ralph Abercromby, who died in the battle . after this the British marched on Alexandria and laid siege to the city.
*I’ve been very near to it but didnt actually make it there. Next time!
There are no paintings of the siege of Alexandria, or what happened in this essentially civilian city. Alexandria was one of the most important cities in the eastern Mediterranean. There’s no record left by Europeans of the suffering that happened to Egyptians as a result of being caught in the crossfire between two European empires and the dying, opportunistic Turkish empire.
As you can see there’s something very uncomfortable and disconcerting about the idea of British and French and Turkish armies battling it out on Egyptian soil.
What is interesting about Gros’s painting is that, for all its attempt to depict the excitement of battle and the man on the White Horse as a symbol of European domination, when you know the actual history, the painting becomes a testament to the brutality of the colonial project, whether it’s English, French or Ottoman. It’s a very honest picture of what was at the root of colonialism: violence. A testament to real Colonial History The Battle of Aboukir is an important painting and we shouldn’t forget about it.
If you want to see more of Colonial History the Battle of Aboukir by Antoine-Jean Gros [Bataille d’Aboukir, 25 Juillet 1799] is in the Palais de Versailles.
Note: the colonisation of Egypt
Europeans were very aware of Egypt and regularly train traded with this outpost of the Ottoman Empire. Egypt had not been an independent country since the Roman conquest and by the 18th century was firmly established as a very lucrative, revenue-giving province of the Ottoman Empire. The French had considered trying to get hold of Egypt for over 100 years but the expedition that sailed under Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 was connected with revolutionary France’s war against Britain. Napoleon hoped that, by occupying Egypt, he would damage British trade with the East Indies and strengthen his hand in bargaining. But he had other aims. He wanted to free Egypt from the Ottomans and establish it as a progressive territory of Revolutionary France, Egypt was to be regenerated and would regain its ancient prosperity. Together with his military and naval forces, Napoleon sent a commission of scholars and scientists to investigate and report the past and present condition of the country.
The story of Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt is told very sensitively and dramatically in the film Adieu Bonaparte by the Egyptian film maker Yousseff Chahine. The great actor Michel Piccoli plays one of the French scientist-engineers sent by Napoleon (who appears in the film played by Patrice Chereau) and his relationship with Ali, a young Egyptian man caught between traditional culture and his resentment at the reality of colonialism, and his fascination with European science. The film is available in French and Arabic .
WRITTEN BY GILLIAN MCIVER, 2017 CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSE Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International
SOME RIGHTS RESERVED YOU MAY SHARE, REPRODUCE, DISTRIBUTE, DISPLAY, AND MAKE ADAPTATIONS SO LONG AS YOU ATTRIBUTE IT TO GILLIAN MCIVER.
GILLIAN MCIVER IS THE AUTHOR OF ART HISTORY FOR FILMMAKERS (BLOOMSBURY PRESS) 2016 AVAILABLE AT ALL GOOD BOOKSELLERS INCLUDING AMAZON AND THE REST
Paul Delaroche’s 19th century painting depicts a tragic, doomed English queen; Trevor Nunn’s 1985 film Lady Jane brings her to life.
Welcome to A History of the World in 16 Paintings. I am going to explain the whole history of the world (well, selected exciting bits of it, anyway) through sixteen extraordinary paintings and then tell you about the films inspired by both the historical story and the picture. Stay tuned for some real surprises.
I will be offering you a preview of an exciting new project that I’m working on, and you are the first to know about it. I’d love to hear what you think. Don’t forget to sign up to my newsletter to get exclusive content from the series.
Who knows, there might be more than 16 … stay tuned
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey
Paul Delaroche painted this picture in 1833. As a French artist in turbulent political times, it was probably prudent to paint exciting scenes from a distant period of another country’s history. Here he depicts the execution of Jane Grey, a young aristocrat from the Tudor family who was briefly Queen of England.
Jane is sometimes known as the ‘nine days Queen’ because her reign was extraordinarily short. When young King Edward VI died, he apparently named Jane as his heir as the closest legitimate member of the Tudor family who could claim the throne. Edward did have two half-sisters by way of his father, Henry VIII. However, both Mary and Elizabeth were considered illegitimate: Henry had divorced Mary’s mother Catherine of Aragon and executed Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn.
Jane was brought to the throne partly through the machinations of her family, who sought to fulfil their own ambitions through her. However, Mary also had partisans, and after a very short time Mary prevailed. Jane was arrested and thrown in prison as Mary claimed the throne, becoming Mary I. Mary was the first full Queen regnant of England; that is, a Queen who rules entirely in her own right.
Apparently, Mary did not want to execute Jane but it was politically expedient to do so, and so therefore the young girl (only 16 years old!) was taken from her prison in the Tower onto Tower Green and publicly beheaded. If you visit the Tower today, the Beefeater guides will show you exactly where Jane was executed.
However, Delaroche doesn’t show this public beheading. Instead he depicts the action in a dark chamber, so he’s able to manipulate the lighting to make it look even more harrowing. Delaroche wants you, the viewer, to sympathise with Jane: her fragility, purity and innocence emphasised by the flimsy white dress she’s wearing and the pearly luminescence of her skin. At the same time, the picture plays into 19th-century ideas about fragile womanhood and also the titillation of the ‘woman in peril’ trope.
Lady Jane, the movie
In the 1980s, theatre director Trevor Nunn directed a film version of Jane Grey’s story, called Lady Jane with a young Helena Bonham Carter playing Jane (in a wonderful, feisty performance). The film recast Jane and her handsome husband Guilford Dudley as doomed young lovers fighting against a hostile and vaguely Thatcherite establishment. It’s very romantic and good fun; not necessarily accurate but it serves as a good introduction to the Jane and her life, and suggests what it might have been like to live in those fractious Tudor times.
I’m going to start with art critic Charles Baudelaire’s quip about painter Horace Vernet. Writing in in The Painter of Modern Life in 1863, Baudelaire accuses Vernet of being ‘a veritable journalist, not an artist’. Baudelaire criticised Vernet’s paintings of recent history as being too accurate, rejecting Vernet’s work as reportage rather than art since ‘he just paints what he sees’. Baudelaire believed that art should be truthful but imaginative.
Baudelaire wanted artists to paint modern life, and to find the grand and the epic in it. It is no wonder then, that he championed Delacroix’s imaginative vision of the barricades rather than Vernet’s observational one. Delacroix stayed painting in his studio in the 1830’s uprising, while Vernet went out to see, and draw, the violent insurrections of 1848.
Journalism and Baader Meinhof Complex
Uli Edel’s Baader-Meinhof Complex chronicles the Red Army Faction in 1960s and 70s Germany, events that happened during his youth. The Baader-Meinhof Complex is a straightforward adaption of journalist Stefan Aust’s factual book of the same name. Aust, who knew several RAF members and has been a journalist since that time, has done extensive research on the subject and wrote a first draft of the script. Producer Bernd Eichinger and Uli Edel finished Aust’s screenplay.
The film is an example of high realism and devotion to historical accuracy. However, the film’s pacing resembles that of the thriller genre, and Edel employs stylistic visual approaches that may be called ‘painterly’.
The Red Army Faction (RAF) committed bank robberies, bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations. The film follows Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader, and Gudrun Ensslin from their formation to their capture and deaths at Stammheim jail. The film attempts to be a factual yet dramatic recounting of a still-contentious and divisive recent history.
At the time of the events shown in the film, Stefan Aust was a colleague of Ulrike Meinhof at the magazine her husband edited. Aust is therefore both an investigative journalist and an inside witness to the early stages of Meinhof’s radicalization. The film faithfully follows the timeline of Aust’s book, from Meinhof’s criticism of the Shah of Iran’s visit to Berlin on 2 June 1967 and the subsequent violence up to the 18 October 1977 deaths of Baader and Ensslin in prison. Aust did not only research and investigate the events, but he was also a direct witness to many of them. Possibly because of his links to the German left at the time, he obtained many candid interviews with former members of the RAF, reflecting on their actions and motivations.
Truth and Accuracy
The Baader-Meinhof Complex is based solely on investigative journalism, unlike other more fictionalised accounts. The film’s judgements are mostly agreed upon by experts, and all the characters are real. It is important to understand the film’s relationship to the facts, and how the journalistic approach and the dramatic approach cohere. Yet the film is no mere recitation of facts. It operates on the viewer emotionally, through scenes which adhere faithfully to the factual account but are visually presented as thrilling and, at times, sublime.
This unusual factual thriller does not trade historical accuracy for drama.
Writer-producer Bernd Eichinger stressed that he is not interested in the why but the how of the RAF, which lets the deeds speak for themselves and offers multiple interpretations. Edel and Eichinger achieve this by combining both ‘art’ and ‘journalism’ approaches, through an engagement with painterly visuals as much as through detailed attention to authenticity.
Director Edel and DP Rainer Haussman adapt art historical images into the mise en scene, suffusing the realism of the journalistic adaptation with a sense of the sublime. They create moments that ‘evoke’ paintings.
The Baader Meinhof Complex is a film about a journalist. Although the film is ostensibly about a group, for much of the narrative it principally follows Ulrike Meinhof’s gradual transformation from a left-wing journalist into an active, armed radical of the Red Army Faction.
The film mainly follows Meinhof’s radicalization and introduces Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, who are less important in the story. The first part of the RAF story—radicalization, violence, and capture—is exciting. The rest of the story involves their detention, dramatic trial, and mysterious deaths in prison.
Aust’s research shows that the thriller approach is terrifyingly appropriate for the first half of the film. ‘Baader arranged it so our heroic political beliefs flew right out of the window, and there we were, right in the heart of a thriller,’ said Beate Sturm, a former member. “You just slip into that sort of thing,” Sturm said about joining the RAF. Once in, the group had momentum. ‘As we felt we knew we got into all this for the correct political reasons, we relished the thrill of it too,’ Sturm says to Aust.
However, the actions of historical individuals (and what drives them) is something that cannot really be subjected to the rigours of ‘authenticity’; even the diaries of Meinhof, mined by Aust and Edel, cannot simply be replicated on the screen. It is left to the visual design to convince the viewer that what they see is ‘true’.
The most striking aspect of the film is not simply its desire for visual historical authenticity and the methods used to achieve it, but the visual structure of the film. Edel and Haussman’s attention to period authenticity binds the two parts of the film stylistically, but once the characters arrive in Stammheim, the pace slows and the contrast between physical and psychological violence becomes stark. However, the first portion’s dramatic and well realised set-pieces capture the audience and prepare them for the second part.
The main set-pieces are visually spectacular, fast-paced, and audio-visually impactful. The first is reenacting the 2 June 1967 protest against the Shah of Iran’s visit to Berlin. Second is student leader Rudi Dutschke’s speech at a Berlin University rally against the Vietnam War. The third is the mass protest at the Axel Springer publishing company in Kochstrasse, 11 April 1968, following the attempted assassination of Dutschke.
Edel calls the RAF a “German tragedy”. Tragedies evoke strong emotions. Edel says in an interview, ‘I don’t think you can grasp anything at all until you can understand it emotionally. ‘I don’t believe in a purely rational analysis of things. I believe that a purely rational analysis must always be supported by an emotional analysis as well’.
This sense of tragedy is conveyed less through the story, which in its journalistic form is fairly grubby and complicated, than through its visual reference points. By faithfully re-creating the historical event while increasing the emotional charge of the scene, culminating in a moment meant to evoke the sublime to transport the viewer emotionally the film moves from journalistic realism to painterly grandeur.
2 June 1967 The Bismarckstrasse riot reenactment.
First AC Astrid Meigel said four cameras were used on Bismarckstrasse, ouside the German Opera House, to capture the demonstration’s violence and panic: one held-held, two Steadicams, and one studio camera on a dolly. DP Klaussman says, ‘we wanted to get specific images that have appeared on the original news coverage of the event. You have to start with the big shots, with everybody there, and then you move closer and closer until you’re getting little moments like the young girl being crushed against the barrier.’ The constantly moving, eye-level camera makes the viewer feel viscerally frightened. All cameras are at victim eye level. We run alongside young and elderly people alike, see them smashed in the face. However, news footage of the events shows a big discrepancy between what the fiction film audience sees and what the news cameras filmed. Klausmann’s cameras are always “inside” the action, beaten and trampled by police, unlike the news cameras which stand back like Vernet’s observation of the barricades. Finally, one of the protestors is shot dead. In short, the scene is shocking and distressing: state violence wreaked upon unarmed civilians.
The Baader Meinhof Complex depicts the 2 June 1967 as a “massacre of the innocents,” one of the most potent themes in art history. Flemish painters turned the New Testament tale of the Massacre Of The Innocents into a horrific condemnation of state brutality against civilian populations. Pieter Bruegel, Peter Paul Rubens, and Cornelis Van Haarlem are three of the most striking painters of the topic. Their images show state aggression against unarmed civilians.
Peter Paul Rubens’ version immerses the viewer. Dead babies are piled up as living ones are brutally manhandled. A soldier lifts an infant as if to smash him into the ground. One woman holds the soldier’s sword blade and bites his hand, while another scratches his face. It’s a horrifying vision of state violence breaking families apart, yet it shows women fiercely fighting back. The image astonishes modern viewers. The Biblical “massacre of innocents” depicts state aggression, seen in the Roman soldier’s helmet at the upper part of the picture. It’s a depiction of horrible brutality, visceral assault of women and children, injustice, and pathos.
Meinhof Crosses the line
After Rudolf Dutschke was shot in April 1968, the Axel Springer publishers were attacked across West Germany. Springer denounced students and young people, and the students denounced Springer and all its publications. Many blamed Axel Springer for the assassination attempt. West-Berlin publishing house headquarters saw some 3,000 protesters. They chanted, lit fires, and tossed stones and Molotov cocktails. In the film, Meinhof becomes involved, instead of observing like a journalist. The scene shows her ‘crossing the line’ from observer to participant.
The media footage of the event shows the protesters gathering in daylight giving speeches and massing in great numbers but but Edel shows Meinhof arriving in the evening after the fires have been started. The effect then is of a highly dramatic chiaroscuro, so different to the televisual images. Footage from other West German cities where Springer officers were attacked do show nighttime images but as you can see they tend to depict the authorities more than the perpetrators. Edel’s vision was quite different: he wanted to show the rioters’ perspective.. In order to do this, he unsurprisingly turns to Delacroix rather than Vernet.
The third example I’ll show you comes from same scene but offers an entirely different viewpoint on the RAF story and invokes a different kind of artwork.
Like a scene from Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell, the demonstrators’ bonfires shadow everything against the night sky. Meinhof stands silently, taking in the commotion and frenzy around her. Bathing in the chaos and frenzy all around her, a growing euphoria is clear upon her face.
She is then grabbed and dragged to the police cars. As she moves out of the frame, someone shouts. The camera pans over a hellish wasteland of turned-up cobbles, strewn newspapers, and burning delivery vehicles. A bearded, bare-chested young man with long dark hair stands, holding his arms out in a crucifixion pose amid the commotion. The camera comes in for a medium close-up as he stands Christ-like, silhouetted against the fires, shouting “Dresden! Hiroshima! Vietnam!”
The scene’s end, with the Christlike figure howling in the flames, cannot be compared to be situated in relation to Delacroix’s revolutionary heroics. We must look to older works from an earlier worldview. In fact, this figure seems confusing because the film doesn’t show any theological standpoint.
If the Springer riot is Meinhof’s own moment of ‘holy self-realisation’, the later prison scene shows the starvation death of RAF member Holger Meins as skeletal, tortured features of Grunewald’s Christ in the Isenheim altarpiece.
What is the meaning of these quasi-religious references?
The 1978 film Germany in Autumn interviews RAF member Horst Mahler in prison. He discusses “evil” and personal responsibility in dissident groups. He asks ‘how is it that a person like Ulrike Meinhof is willing to kill, or at least accept it as a possibility?’ … ‘moral degeneration of the capitalist system’ is completely apparent, and those who act within it do so in a corrupt manner, ‘we judge them morally, condemn them, and, based on this moral judgment, we recognise them as evil’. Mahler concludes ‘Therefore it is justified to destroy it as evil, even if it is in human form. In other words, killing people’.
Stefan Aust observes that ‘for me, the whole struggle from the very beginning of my research was realising that the RAF had a quasi-religious character more than a rational political character’. Therefore, by framing the revolutionary cause as a Christ-like self sacrifice, to deliver us from evil, Edel gets right to the heart of how the radicals saw themselves. For all their talk of freeing themselves from the shackles of the historical past, and joining in with the oppressed of the world for new internationalist world socialism, they remained culturally embedded in the Judeo-Christian mindset with which they were brought up. Because they resisted evil, the RAF convinced themselves they were good. Because the RAF was good, their opponents were evil.
Using the visual references to the massacre of the innocents and to the suffering Christ – images embedded in Western art and therefore in the Western worldview – in the context of a violent riot and the hunger-striking prisoner, Edel offers a visual manifestation of what Horst Mahler articulates: the theological worldview of the modern revolutionist.
To sum up, the realist style is still dominant in each set-piece and carries on throughout the film. But in the set-pieces, we see realism move toward the sublime, in the depiction of the terror of violence, and in the Springer scene, catharsis. Each of these scenes visually maps onto an existing visual motif in painting, and each of the paintings communicates something about contemporary events. Moreover, each painting manipulates the mise en scène in order to indicate something of the sublime: the terrifying violence of the massacre fo the innocents paintings, Delacroix’s romantic exhilaration of revolutionary direct action.
The Baader-Meinhof Complex’ high-concept ‘the RAF story as a thriller’ adapts the journalistic text faithfully, then reaches beyond it, locating the emotional and artistic impulses within the film’s mise enscène.
Though faithfully following Aust’s journalistic account, and adhering to both the newsgathering images and the published histories on the subject, Edel’s film manages to combine the exactitude of the ‘veritable journalist’ and the intensity sought by Baudelaire’s idea of ‘plunging’ into the world. The film blends correctness and authenticity with drama and affective engagement. This tension between the faithful recounting of ‘what happened’ and the desire for imaginative and interpretive drama through the invocation of the sublime, is at the heart of The Baader Meinhof Complex.
Is the film ‘realistic’? Yes it is. It follows, more than most films, the established facts and accepted judgements.
Is it ‘real’? That is impossible to judge. No film can recreate the past. Every person that remembers the time – including the producer and director – will remember it differently. The ‘real’ is always temptingly out of reach. We can only imagine, and tell stories.
The western was the film genre that brought the heroic figure together with the overwhelming yet splendid landscape. This case study looks at a subversion of that cinema genre through an unlikely relationship: English portrait and landscape painter Thomas Gainsborough (Blue Boy, 1770) and American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained, 2012).
Quentin Tarantino has often been referred to as the archetypal “postmodern” filmmaker. His films bear the hallmarks associated with postmodernist approaches: appropriation of ideas, images, and texts from different sources; referencing other movies, books, and art; pastiching established genres; conflating popular culture and high culture. In his later films, Tarantino subverts existing genres, including established trash and schlock genre forms, and through the process of subversion seeks to make a serious point.
Thomas Gainsborough, the eighteenth-century portrait and landscape painter, could not be further apart from Quentin Tarantino at first glance. Yet Gainsborough was subversive in many ways. Like Tarantino, he broke new artistic ground and challenged established artistic forms. However, until Django Unchained, it would have been ridiculous to imagine a comparison between Gainsborough and Tarantino, or even to discuss them within the same sentence. But in that film, Tarantino and his design team (J. Michael Riva and Sharen Davis) appropriate a key element of one of Gainsborough’s most popular and most widely distributed painting, The Blue Boy. It is from this starting point that we will look at this case study of Django Unchained and Gainsborough’s Blue Boy.
The Blue Boy was painted before Gainsborough moved to London. Born and raised in a lower-middleclass family in rural Suffolk, he moved to the spa town of Bath as his portrait practice developed. The problem for Gainsborough was that he preferred landscapes. He liked painting people—skin tones, drapery, and costume—but, with the exception of certain female clients, he disliked painting portraits of the type of people who commissioned him. We know this because in his letters he complains about his rich, arrogant, empty-headed clients, and says many times over that he wishes he could just go to the countryside and spend the rest of his life painting landscapes and common folk. (His own favorite was The Woodsman, 1788, a portrait of a poor forest worker.)
It is not unusual for people to dislike their day job and wish to be doing something else. But Gainsborough’s ability to create real likenesses of his subjects made him successful. He rejected the current fashion of painting his subjects dressed up as mythological beings; he wanted to paint people in their own clothes, looking as they would if you met them. One of the trendiest fashions in mid-eighteenth-century England was to be painted wearing the court costume of the previous century, in the style of Dutch painter Anthony Van Dyke at the court of King Charles I. Van Dyke’s paintings were widely copied; all decent painters understood that they should be able to make a Van Dyke to order.
Van Dyke painted his aristocratic subjects wearing elaborate silk and lace suits, one of the most influential being Lord John Stuart and His Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart (1638). In the painting, Bernard Stuart is wearing a fabulous pale blue satin suit, though most of it is obscured by a heavy silver cape.
Normally this is the kind of portrait that Gainsborough would have scoffed at replicating. But two years previously he had been elected a founder member of the Royal Academy of Arts. It was never an easy relationship; Gainsborough felt like an outsider with something to prove. He decided to challenge the claim of the Academy’s head, Sir Joshua Reynolds, that blue colors should be used only as accents, not in the main mass of the picture. He painted a mass of blue, an exercise in color and light reflecting on silk, using layers of different blue pigments: lapis and indigo, cobalt and turquoise, together with charcoal and creamy white, and sent The Blue Boy to the Royal Academy’s 1770 Salon.
But who was the blue boy? He was not an aristocrat or theater celebrity who would normally command an Academy-level portrait. He was Jonathan Buttall, a good friend of Gainsborough and an iron merchant in London. It was not a commissioned portrait: Buttall posed for Gainsborough as a friend. Buttall was far outside the circles of power; he could never have worn court dress. Therefore, The Blue Boy is a subversion. It is not only a painting of an eighteenth-century man in seventeenth-century dress; it is an aristocratic portrait that portrays a middle-class man.
The painting became the talk of the Academy, and its success spurred the painter to move to London two years later. He was commissioned by the royal family, and his success enabled him to take more time out to paint his beloved landscapes.
But it was not that simple. Soon after arriving in London, Gainsborough fell out with the Royal Academy and spent the rest of his life in rivalry with Joshua Reynolds. He would probably be surprised to know that The Blue Boy remains his most popular and most influential painting—though not his best—while to him, it was a caprice. While Jonathan is not portrayed heroically, he stands for the bourgeoisie, excluded at that time from political power and influence, which was still in the hands of the aristocracy. Dressing him in Van Dyke costume must have been a bit of a joke, a subversion to slip into the heart of the Establishment, the Royal Academy.
By the late nineteenth century, The Blue Boy was an internationally popular print and is said to have inspired the 1919 film Knabe in Blau by F. W. Murnau (now thought to have been lost). Quentin Tarantino and costume designer Sharen Davis likely first came in contact with the picture as a kitsch print; it was ubiquitous throughout the 1970s, appearing in many inexpensively printed versions. Blueboy was also the name of a US gay porn magazine of the 1970s.
Tarantino, like Gainsborough, started as a rank outsider. He has talked many times about his lack of any insider connections to the movie business, his total lack of power or influence when he started his career. It was hard. “Pauline Kael used to say that Hollywood is the only town where people ‘can die of encouragement’ and that kind of was my situation,”5 he says.
Like Gainsborough, Tarantino has to date shown no intention of following an established career path. Despite his love of popular culture, he has not made a studio franchise picture. He regularly takes a drubbing from critics, who decry his unabashed love of trash cinema, and those who criticize his films for violence.
Django Unchained is in part a road movie; as production designer Michael Riva says, it is Django’s psychological journey, but it is also a geographical journey through landscape. Django and Schulz arrive in Tennessee and head to a haberdashery, where Django is invited to pick out a costume in order to play the part of Schulz’s valet. The next shot is of Django wearing a bright blue suit, styled in a vague pastiche of seventeenth-century fashion, the archetypal Blue Boy.
The connotations are rife: The Blue Boy is a well-known kitsch print, but the painting resides in the important Huntingdon Museum in Los Angeles. “Boy” was a condescending term used to address all African American males regardless of age, particularly in the South.
We first see Django in his blue suit from the side, riding a horse through a landscape, a cotton field. The composition of this shot is itself a nod to the subgenre of the equestrian portrait.
Van Dyke made a famous equestrian portrait of King Charles I, which was repeatedly copied, and Gainsborough made variations on Van Dyke (as exercises, or simply to pay the bills). And the David portrait of Napoleon is an equestrian portrait. Equestrian connotes aristocrat and hero. But in that costume? Not yet.
The blue suit makes Django stand out, command attention, and is ineffably striking. Riva notes that “color is a really important to me, it’s a mood establisher.”7 The intense blue (much brighter than The Blue Boy’s silk) acts paradoxically as a red flag to the white supremacists he encounters. But both Jonathan Buttall and Django are in costume; Jonathan could never dress like that to do his daily business as an iron dealer. Django soon equips himself in what Riva calls “warm nicotine colors,” in more practical—and stereotypically “western”—garb.
The Blue Boy motif is incongruous in a western. Yet, as Tarantino points out, “One of the things that’s interesting about Westerns in particular is there’s no other genre that reflects the decade that they were made and the morals and the feelings of Americans during that decade than Westerns. Westerns are always a magnifying glass as far as that’s concerned.” He notes that “Westerns of the ’50s definitely have an Eisenhower birth of suburbia and plentiful times aspect to them. . . . the late ’60s has a very Vietnam vibe to the Westerns leading into the ’70s, and by the mid-70s, you know, most of the Westerns literally could be called Watergate Westerns because it was about a disillusionment and tearing down the myths that we have spent so much time building up.”
Django is a western that subverts the dominant white male hero in a wish fulfillment revenge fantasy that forces the audience to confront race and slavery. It is probably too much to consider The Blue Boy as a wish fulfillment class fantasy. Perhaps we should consider Django Unchained’s Blue Boy motif to be a parody, with its political connotations, while Gainsborough’s Blue Boy is an apolitical pastiche. Yet Gainsborough’s own letters bear witness to his private discomfort with the upper class.
Tarantino and Gainsborough share the status of being both insider and outsider. Neither man belonged to an influential coterie or was a member of an art or film dynasty. Both gained success on their own terms, even if Gainsborough sometimes whined about his clients.
You don’t actually need to know anything about the Van Dyck paintings or Gainsborough to appreciate Django Unchained. But understanding the art historical provenance of the costume, with its many underlying connotations, can help you see why it is so effective, and how art can be so influential that it manages to be replicated in unexpected places, while continuing its original message.
By the time the Thomas Edison company turned its cameras on Buffalo Bill, the imagery of the American West had been established for almost acentury: a vast empty landscape, with stunning scenery, few people, andpicturesque Native populations. Early western movies were able to use thesepaintings and illustrations to create exciting settings that were alreadyfamiliar to audiences. Early American cinema audiences were almost entirelybased in urban areas, particularly the immigrant-populated cities of theeastern seaboard, who only saw the West in the cinema and in art.
The western is the most landscape-centric film genre. Indeed, the landscape defines the western completely, as thestories are inextricably linked to their location. But the visual imagery of thewestern is drawn almost completely from painting: the sublime vision, dramatic sunsets, a sense of isolation, emphasis on topography such as mountains, rivers, and lakes. Figures are often depicted as almost miniscule.
But the paintings are themselves nostalgic, showing a vanishing way of life, hiding the reality of tourism and the squalor that existed in both Native encampments and settler villages. The popular media of the time did not elaborate on these things.
The western is a truly American genre, in painting and in cinema. The covered wagon trains, the cowboys, the Native American camps, and the monumental landscapes of Colorado, the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Plains belonged only to America. The appeal of the western was that it could be a shared cultural experience, bringing together immigrants from the four corners of the earth to participate in an “American” story. Exported, the western film made America a glamorous and exciting place.
The western film tries to have the best of both worlds: a stunning yet nostalgic landscape, almost completely unspoiled by humans, yet, paradoxically, the western is full of stories of human heroism, depredation, and betrayal. In the next chapter we will look at artistic depictions of heroism, and how they feed into cinema.
Although the road movie may seem to be the quintessential American genre, its roots lie in Europe and in a literary tradition known as the picaresque, in which the plot is structured as a journey. In cinema, by the middle of the twentieth century, the western began to merge into the road movie. The two have much in common: the movement of characters between civilization andwilderness, the contrast between civility and barbarism, and the wide open landscape. The road symbolizes and embodies America’s historical frontier ethos, recurring as a persistent theme of American culture.
The western had always offered a specific conception of American national identity typified by individualism and aggression. In the linear narrative structure of the road movie, these characteristics become concentrated and codified. The landscape of the road movie, as with the western, is the inexorable “third character” of the film—it both mirrors and influences the action and the mood.
Easy Rider, 1968 Dir. Dennis Hopper, DP Laszlo Kovacs
“It’s about 2 guys riding across the west, John Ford’s west, only they’re going to go east.” (Peter Fonda)
Two young men with motorcycles cut a lucrative drug deal and then ride across the USA to the New Orleans Mardi Gras. On their way they visit a hippie commune and a Mexican American farm, befriend a civil rights lawyer, and encounter intolerance and violence. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper wanted to make a movie that would take the pulse of the era, a time convulsed by the Vietnam War and the perceived “generation gap” between the conservative older generation and the youth.
Easy Rider contrasts “America the beautiful” with an ugly America: the beauty of the landscape against the brutality of its inhabitants. But not all of the landscape: the film idealizes the Southwest, with its dramatic desert vistas, populated by hospitable, spiritual folk—Native Americans, Hispanics, hippies and indicts the South. “In the Southwest the protagonists enjoy the freedom of the road, the hospitality of those they encounter in the beauty and mystery of the region’s wilderness.”
Conversely, the South, despite occasional glimpses of verdant beauty and Old South plantation houses, reveals African American poverty and a despoiled industrial world of oil refineries, cheap cafes, and ignorant bigots.
The movie was made on location, following much of the famed old Route 66 through California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Louisiana, and a great deal of it was shot on the open road by DP Laszlo Kovacs. Fonda and Hopper rode their motorcycles on the road, accompanied by the camera car, a 1968 Chevy convertible with the backseat taken out and a pinewood floor where the tripod was fixed. This allowed Kovacs to use a telephoto lens to offer many differentpoints of view while aligning the movement of the bikes, capturingthe landscape from the bikers’ perspective. “Laszlo was able to give us a sense of freedom of being on the road, of being able to experience America for the first time . . . he was able to be that metaphor of freedom”
(Cinematographer Ellen Kuras).
Kovacs, a refugee from the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, recalls first crossing America by bus, sitting in the front seat. His first impressionof America was that it was a “devastatingly beautiful country . . .it left such an impression on me [. . .] that later on I was able to use it in my movies.” The trip also “taught me one lesson that the environment the background is so important it has to be a third character because it tells so much about people who live in it.”
The landscape is indeed a character in Easy Rider. As Fonda points out, the film reverses the classic western route of east to west.
The journey starts in hope, with stunning sequences in the Painted Desert and in Monument Valley (interestingly, the film crew left New Mexico and passed right through Texas; if they shot there, none of the footage is in the film) and ends on a nondescript roadside on the banks of the Atchafalaya River in upstateLouisiana. Kovacs invoked created romanticism through the use of lensflare; previously considered a grave camera error, Conrad Hall had usedit in 1967’s Cool Hand Luke. Kovacs saw its aesthetic possibility to createwhat he called “rainbows” of light, romanticizing the landscape andoffering a shimmer of hope that is belied by the film’s story.
Body horror is based on deep-seated fear of the disfigurement and despoliation of the living body, and of the decomposition of the dead body. It reminds us of our mortality, frailty, and vulnerability. Ancient cultures understood this fear very well; for example, in ancient Egypt it was believed that despoiling a body meant that the soul could not reach the afterlife. Likewise, to disfigure a statue was a grave insult to whomever it represented. Body horror in art and cinema is based on the visual representation of this violence toward the body; to varying degrees, the shock is in witnessing the desecration of the living or the dead.
One of the earliest horrific images in Western art is actually a crucifixion scene: Matthias Grünewald’s crucifixion for the Isenheim altarpiece (1512– 1516). It is a night-time scene, with the crucified body in the front and centre of the composition. Grünewald’s Christ is a macabre figure, distorted in agony, his body already decaying as he slowly dies a monstrous, torturous death.
This is a painting about the extremes of physical suffering, yet it was not painted to terrify its viewers. It was painted for a hospital, and it was meant to help people suffering from plague: by identifying their own suffering bodies with the suffering of the Savior, it was meant to bring hope, if not in this life then in the afterlife. Very few representations of the crucifixion since Grünewald’s have been so graphic.
Martin Scorsese also emphasized the brutality of crucifixion in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ was controversial because of the extreme violence of the crucifixion, and there were accusations that it turned the story into a kind of body horror. This raises the question: when does extreme violence turn into body horror? It is a matter of degree, but we can call it body horror when the principal emphasis of the picture or the film is on the torn and mutilated body.
This is certainly the case in Titian’s The Punishment of Marsyas (c. 1570). According to the legend, Marsyas was a satyr (a half-human, half-animal creature) who challenged the god Apollo to a music contest and lost.
The punishment, for his hubris in challenging a god, was to be flayed alive. Titian (1488–1576) paints the flaying as a kind of diabolical party. This is not the only painting of this horrible punishment; the subject was also addressed by José de Ribera (1637), also quite a disturbing image. In Ribera’s picture, the animalistic aspects of the satyr are almost completely imperceptible. The horror lies in the visceral depiction of Marsyas screaming in agony as Apollo strips open his leg. Bartolomeo Manfred’s Apollo and Marsyas (1616–1620) is tame by comparison. In Titian’s version there’s quite a crowd, playing music and seemingly enjoying themselves. Marsyas is upside down, like an animal at slaughter, but also maybe an alchemical reference to the symbol of the Hanged Man. The mundane reality of the dog lapping up the spilt blood, while another character is collecting the blood in a bucket, like a butcher going to make blood pudding, renders the scene both prosaic and repulsive in the same moment. Yet perhaps this is another alchemical reference.
Why would artists want to paint something as horrifying as somebody being flayed alive? Titian and Ribera did not paint these pictures just for the gore. In classical times, Marsyas was always ambiguous. He was the mortal, subhuman creature who dared to challenge a god, thus upsetting the hierarchy and deserving of punishment. However, to the Romans, he was sometimes portrayed as a proponent of free speech and a symbol of liberty, and was associated with the common people. Sometimes he was even seen as a subversive symbol in opposition to the emperor. It is possible that in late Renaissance Italy, this Roman interpretation of the mythological character of Marsyas still had currency.
There are scenes of violence in paintings that would be considered too extreme for cinema audiences. However, in 2008, Martyrs, directed by Pascal Laugier, featured the protagonist Anna (Morjana Alaoui) being flayed alive in graphic detail. The film, part of the movement known as New French Extremity, continues to be controversial. However, so-called New French Extremity is only one direction in body horror cinema. Some filmmakers, such as Catherine Breillat, have been widely acclaimed for combining body horror with philosophical and intellectual questions. The same can be said, in a more populist way, about the work of David Cronenberg. Cronenberg’s earliest films, including The Brood (1979), Videodrome (1983), and The Fly (1986), are all masterpieces of the body horror genre.
In 2005, Eli Roth made the first Hostel film, which deeply divided critics, unsure if it was “just one damn blow-torching after another”10 or “splatter with a conscience.”This type of film has sometimes come to be known as ‘torture porn’. In 2010, A Serbian Film (Srđan Spasojević) was released, though almost immediately banned in many countries. The film follows a down-on-his-luck former porn actor who agrees to make one more movie, which turns out to be a snuff film; it features graphic depictions of necrophilia, rape, all kinds of torture, and child sexual abuse. Though it completely unimpressed critics, the film remains alongside The Human Centipede, Cannibal Holocaust, and others, as examples of how filmmakers push the limits of what is acceptable. A Serbian Film and Cannibal Holocaust are also, not coincidentally, films about filmmaking.
Because films are aimed at mass audiences, they incur censorship controversy in ways that paintings, which can easily be hidden away in private, can usually avoid.
Traces of body horror are evident in the bleeding dead game and slabs of meat of 16 & 17th century Flemish still life, and the highly symbolic skulls in vanitas paintings.
Those pictures were meant to remind the viewer of their own mortality, and that all the things of the earthly world are ultimately in vain. Only God separates us from the butchered pheasant.
In the same way, body horror films also remind us of our own mortality and the vulnerability of the flesh.
Death and the body
A modern perspective on body horror in art is offered by Francis Bacon in Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962). This is Bacon’s second attempt at a crucifixion scene; the first, painted in 1944, is in the Tate Britain. While the earlier painting shows three barely anthropomorphic monstrous creatures, the 1962 painting explicitly connects the human body to the slaughterhouse, to meat, to the inevitability of death. In fact, Francis Bacon’s whole body of work could be considered an exercise in painting body horror. Critic Adrian Searle notes that “Bacon’s art . . . contains an entire repertoire of bruises, wounds, amputations done up with soiled bandages.” (Adrian Searle, “Painted Screams”, The Guardian, Tuesday, 9th September 2008) Bacon here completely rejects the idea of composed spirituality in death; he also rejects the pretty, romanticized view of death seen in paintings such as the morbid but sentimental Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis (1856), below, one of the most popular and widely reproduced of Victorian paintings.
Heroic stories – whether true or mythical, are enduringly popular. This heavily fictionalized biopic of William Wallace, who led a Scottish rebellion against the English King Edward I, was a critical and box office success, winning Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director – in all, a total of five Oscars.
The ideal “hero” model was established in earliest antiquity, in the ancient epics of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, and the Norse sagas. Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with 1000 Faces shows that similar stories of heroism are present in all societies, at all times in history. It is not a surprise to see that from early times artists have sought to portray heroes and heroic acts. Heroes in paintings are not meant to be realistic; they are heroic. What about heroes in films?
The old-fashioned notion of hero was taken up immediately by cinema, particularly during Hollywood’s Golden age. The appeal of the heroic character endures: some of the most popular include Indiana Jones, Ripley in the Alien films and Neo in the Matrix films. Neo’s partner in The Matrix, Trinity, performs a role similar to the Greek goddesses who help (and often become lovers with) heroes like Odysseus, Perseus and others. Trinity also has elements of the powerful goddess Diana the Huntress (Greek Artemis), a popular subject in Graeco-Roman sculpture. Wearing a tunic and carrying weapons, Diana seems quite dangerous (see the Diana of Versailles from 200 AD in the Louvre). But later paintings tend to show her nude and sexualised (e.g. Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, 1556).
This well known painting of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David is a famous depiction of more recent heroism.
Apparently Napoleon actually crossed the Alps on mule, a far more suitable animal for this kind of tricky and difficult journey. However this wouldn’t do for heroic painting, and so David has portrayed the general not only on a horse, but on a splendid horse rearing up on the edge of a precipice. The staunch general maintains his composure, looking directly out of the canvas and pointing upwards, towards victory and triumph. In the background the Army pushes forward: we can see the war machines being transported up the side of the mountain, and the tricoleur in the lower right. The structure in the picture is striking: Bonaparte is centre and is upright, while the horse and the mountain are on a strong diagonal running from the top left to the bottom right. This arrangements creates a string sense of drama and danger. The diagonal arrangement in the painting that immediately catches the eye. The sensation of wind coming from the rear is shown in both the billowing cape, and also the mane and tail of the horse, indicating the harsh alpine winds that confront the Army. Yet look at the wind direction: these winds are themselves propelling the general, the horse and the Army forward towards victory. David is indicating that even the gods are behind Bonaparte.
David was a staunch supporter of the French Revolution, even its most extreme faction. However when Napoleon took control, David switched allegiances. One might think that David would be disgraced after the fall of Napoleon, but in fact the restored King Louis 18th offered to keep David on as court painter. The artist refused, remaining true to his revolutionary principles.
David was not the first artist to show that portraying real-life people as heroes involves exaggeration and theatricality. David knew that this is not how Napoleon crossed the Alps, but he understood that in order to create a painting with the highest impact to deliver the propaganda message of Napoleon’s overarching genius, strength, power and glamour, it was necessary to create a powerful, glamorous painting. This problem is at the heart of bio-pics which attempt to show the core character in a heroic light. Much of the true story and extraneous detail has to be removed, and any act or gesture made by the central character needs to be reinterpreted as heroic. One of the best examples of this in recent cinema is Mel Gibson’s 1995 film Braveheart, which puts a completely new gloss on the true story of William Wallace. Wallace was a real person, who did rebel but under circumstances rather different to those shown in the film. The film tries to capture historical detail, but there’s no question that it was glamorized for dramatic effect
Films about Napoleon Bonaparte – how ‘heroic’ is he?
Napoleon 1927 Directed by Abel Gance DP Jules Kruger, one of the greatest history films, owing much to both David and Delaroche.
Désirée 1954 Directed by Henry Koster, DP Milton R. Krasner. This film takes a different approach and focuses upon the relationship between Bonaparte (Marlon Brando) and Désirée Clary (Jean Simmons).
Waterloo 1970 Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk DP Armando Nannuzzi (Napoleon played by Rod Steiger)
Youssef Chahine’s Adieu Bonaparte depicts Napoleon (Patrice Chereau) from the point of view of a young Egyptian during the French conquest and occupation of Egypt. In Fench and Arabic – no English versions available.
I have not really said anything about ‘superheroes’ in this article – I have been focusing more on real people portrayed as heroes. I’ll come back ot the topic of hero and superhero in the fantasy genre.
Dutch art of the 17th century has a lot to teach the film maker. During this period, Dutch painters such as Rembrandt, Jan Vermeer, Gerrit van Honthorst, Pieter de Hooch and others developed a kind of painting that combined intense realism with drama and emotion. They did this largely through a deep understanding of how lighting works within the image.
They learned from the Caravaggists, the followers of Caravaggio (the Italian painter who I’ll write about in a later post ) who was one of the first to really demonstrate how careful manipulation of light is one of the chief tools of the visual storyteller.
The film Admiral follows the visual style of the Dutch painters and the Caravaggists in using light as a way to model the physical characteristics of the films characters, to create painterly shots, and – as a self-reflexive motif that runs throughout the film – to include paintings within the films mise en scéne* to remind the viewer that the story of the film is deeply connected to the historical world which we chiefly know through the paintings . Here are some examples of how that works in the film:
Vermeer’s Milk Maid
Early on in the film we catch a very, very brief glimpse of the admiral’s maidservant working alone in the kitchen. This shot, which only lasts a couple of seconds, is a recreation of the very famous Vermeer painting The Milkmaid. The recreation of this painting in the film indicates not only a connexion with Vermeer and the Dutch Golden Age’s great achievements in art, but alludes to Vermeer’s representation of domesticity and the beauty of the everyday – which in the context of the film is the one thing that the Admiral is never able to truly experience, because he sacrifices his family life in order to save the nation.
Later (and I don’t want to give away too much of the plot), there is a terrible scene where one of the main characters in the film is killed in a particularly vile way by a baying mob in the streets of Amsterdam The film shows the painting being done from life; as the characters pass through the street, we catch a glimpse of an unseen painter painting the picture. We have no idea whether or not the painting was done in situ (probably it wasn’t).
Realistic Sea Battles
In my previous blog post, I showed you the recreation of the sea battles in the film, and how they are based on the marine pictures by Dutch artists. However, what is particularly interesting is that the nature of movie-making is that you can actually go onto the ships and participate in the battles, rather than – as the painters had to – portray them at a distance. Roel Reiné’s camera brings us right onto the deck in the middle of the fighting.
At one point we are taken below deck and the lighting of this particular shot is strongly reminiscent of a painting by the Caravaggist Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera (see below, Ribera’s St Jerome, a good example of the lighting effect).
It is a technique known as tenebrism which is very extreme contrasts of dark and light. This is an important shot because it really brings home to the viewer the human experience of the battle, the terror that the participants must have felt, yet at the same time, the framing of the picture gives us a sense of something spiritual – perhaps the worthiness of the sacrifice.
* mise en scéne is a term that refers to everything that appears in the frame of a shot: what is before the camera and its arrangement: composition, the set/location and all its props, the actors and where they are placed, the costumes, and the lighting. It can also include the use of colour and tonality. The term originated in the theatre and means ‘placing on the stage’. In film, of course, there isn’t a stage; the camera substitutes for the stage. The camera is much more mobile and so the mise en scéne of a film is constantly changing
to learn more about Art History and film, read my book ART HISTORY FOR FILMMAKERS