Subverting the heroic

Django Unchained 2012

Gainsborough’s Blue Boy 1770
van Dyke, equestrian portrait 1635
Blueboy magazine (1974 to 2007)

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 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.

the Road Movie

Easy Rider, dir. Dennis Hopper 1969

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.

The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak
Albert Bierstadt 1863 Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

 

Easy Rider ,1969

A History of the World in 16 paintings, and the films they inspired

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 by Paul Delaroche National Gallery London Fair use applies educational / critique use only. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche National Gallery London Fair use applies educational / critique use only. Source: Wikimedia Commons  

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.

 

Helena Bonham Carter as Jane Grey; screen shot

More information

 

the painting: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/paul-delaroche-the-execution-of-lady-jane-grey

the film: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Jane_(1986_film)

the history: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Lady-Jane-Grey/

Books: 

Nicola Tallis, Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey

Eric Ives, Lady Jane Grey – A Tudor Mystery

and a novel version: Alison Weir, Innocent Traitor


MORE of A History of the World in 16 paintings, and the films they inspired:

Gros’s Battle of Aboukir

Thomas Cole’s The Savage State

Heroes and the heroic in art and film

a heavily fictionalized biopic

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?

Braveheart in Action

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).

Diana of Versailles, Wikipedia

Napoleon Crossing the Alps (Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass) 1801

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.

The Arts of Cinema Part II: Admiral and the Golden age of Dutch Painting

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

shot from Admiral
Jan Vermeer The Milk Maid, c.1660

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).

Jan de Baen painting the painitng below, shot from Admiral
Jan de Baen

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.

 

still from Admiral

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

Bloomsbury Press direct

Amazon UK

Waterstones UK

Amazon USA

Amazon Canada

and you can order it from your local bookstore

 

I. The Arts of Cinema: Admiral

The first of my series of Film Stills that Look Like Paintings.  I’ll be talking about what ‘painterly’ means in films later this week. This is a shot from Admiral, directed by Roel Reiné, 2015. It is a historical drama about the Anglo-Dutch wars in the late 1600s. It is a very exciting, beautifully made film that has just the right mix of real history and dramatization.

film still from Admiral, 2015

Interestingly, even at the time – during the Anglo Dutch wars – English collectors were buying Duch paintings of the battles! Even more interesitngly, the Admiral of the film’s title, Michiel de Ruyter – one of the greatest Dutch marine comanders – has a number of splendid portraits in the London museum. 

Portraits and people

Lieutenant-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter (1607–1676) RMG Repro ID: bhc2997
Frank Lammers as de Ruyter, screen shot

Sea battles in film and art

Battle of Terheide, Jan Abrahamsz. Beerstraten, 1653 – 1666 Rij
screen shot from the film

According to Reiné, preparations for the film were done in the Rijksmuseum, to get the sets and cinematography just right. The exciting depictions of 17thC sea battles by Backhuysen, Beerstraten, Vroom and others are captured in a convincing mise en scéne. Many paintings by these artists are also in the Royal Martime Museum in Greenwich, London. 

I should add that Reiné was also Cinematographer on the film which is fairly unusual. He’s great at painterly historical action: he has also done episodes of Black Sails, and recently Knightfall & Washington.

Ludolf Bakhuizen: attack on the Medway: The Royal Charles carried into Dutch Waters, 12 June 1667. Royal Maritime Museum Greenwich BHC0292

More on Admiral and the Golden age of Dutch Painting

in Part 2 I’ll explain how Roel Reiné used paintings in his film design

THE MOMENT OF SUSPENSE AND THE ‘CINEMATIC’

My favourite painting in the Wallace Collection, Perseus and Andromeda by the incomparable Titian. Painted in the 16th century (!!!) and as fresh as yesterday, it manages to capture the moment if suspense and high danger as Perseus hurtles towards the sea monster while Andromeda, terrified, looks in. I like the way Titian does NOT sexualise her; her nudity shows her vulnerability not her allure.
I visit this painting often. It really taught me about the “moment of suspense” as a visual image.

18th century VFX!

“The Defeat of the Spanish Armada” by Philip James (Jacques-Phillipe) De Loutherbourg.

the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Jacques-Phillipe Loutherbourg 1790
the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Jacques-Phillipe Loutherbourg 1790

Loutherbourg is a fascinating artist. Born in France, he became a successful painter very young, but moved quite suddenly to London where he reinvented himself as a theatre scenographer. He pretty much invented what we would today call special effects (vfx). He even invented a kind of proto-cinema presentation system. He continued to paint, and this depiction of a slice of English history is a good example of his highly cinematic style: lurid colours, dramatic composition, intense sublime.
Loutherbourg was a keen alchemist and follower of occult practices. For a couple of years he even quit art and became a faith healer. That didn’t really work out.
Amazing, underrated and visually stunning, Loutherbourg’s paintings all deserve another look.

This picture is the best visual representation of the defeat of the Armada we have; the various films that have been made of the event aren’t nearly as evocative. Kapur’s Elizabeth the Golden Age is pretty bad actually in terms of the battle scenes. 

It would take until 1979 that a war film would have the courage to create visuals like this painting does – and that film is Apocalypse Now shot by the brilliant Vittorio Storaro.

In terms of fantastic sea battles, the most Loutherbourgian one I can think of is Pacific Rim.

 

 


#arthistory #film #cinema #vfx #arthistoryfilm #painting #art

MARK ROTHKO AND CINEMA

Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon 1958, at the Tate Modern, might not seem to have anything at all to do with cinema. but I would argue that it (and all Rothko’s work) teaches us a lot about colour. How is darkness made visible? How to differentiate two colour darks and make them both harmonise and clash? How can we use this knowledge in film making? And how to immerse your viewer in the moment of the film by the use of colour? Rothko wanted the viewer to be ‘in’ the painting, not standing looking at the painting, so he made the huge fields of color enormous, overwhelming. And you can feel this strongly in the Tate’s Rothko room.

ROTHKO TATE MODERN

Some Roman Ultra-Violence

Check out this astonishingly violent, horrid painting! It is by 19thC French painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme who made many historical and Orientalist paintings. Many of his works are tinged with a strange sickly eroticism but this one is positively sick-making, in a fun Roger Corman / Tarantino kind of way. (the picture is in a private collection and is rarely seen, maybe never; would love to know who’d put this on his wall )

ean-Léon Gérôme [CLICK IMAGE TO EXPAND] Gathering Up the Lions in the Circus Source: https://www.pubhist.com/w38153
Jean-Léon Gérôme [CLICK IMAGE TO EXPAND]
Gathering Up the Lions in the Circus Source: https://www.pubhist.com/w38153
It depicts the end of a “typical” session of the Roman Games when the evil emperors would put a bunch of Christians in the ring with the lions, and watch the lions tear the Christians apart.  The scene was probably influenced by the stirring descriptions of the carnage in the novel Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz. In the 1951 film of Quo Vadis meat was stuffed in “dummies” dressed like Christians and the lions – who had probably (and unethically) been starved before hand – tore them to pieces.  Today, hopefully, we would not treat animals like that; thank god for CGI.

human ‘torches’ – people burned alive while hung from posts.

horrible chunks of flesh lying on the ground and a man whipping a lion. what’s not to dislike here?

now the gendered violence. an inexplicably naked, almost un-chewed woman lying provocatively in the gore. Fully disgusting.

These horrors were described in detail by the Roman historian Tactius. Remember, the term ‘historian’ did not mean then what it means today. Today you have to have a history degree to call yourself that. Ideally more than one degree. Tacit did not and basically his history of Rome under Nero – including the ultraviolence rendered here visually by Gérôme – was written at the behest of Nero’s enemies, meaning it is a hatchet job. Modern historians do not think that things were quite like Tacitus describes them, though his account of the factional fighting among the Roman elite was probably pretty accurate. 

Interestingly, Quo Vadis author Sienkiewicz was himself probably inspired by the Polish academic history painter Henryk Siemiradzki; Siemiradzki’s Nero’s Torches, 1877 shows the decadent Emperor enjoying a lavish party while to the right of the painting a row of human torches is in the process of being lit. Imagine the smell!!!

Henryk Siemiradzki Nero’s Torches [CLICK IMAGE TO EXPAND]
source: wikimedia.org
It’s probably redundant to say this, but there is actually NO evidence that Christians were ever fed to lions as public entertainment. Persecuted, they were; executed, sometimes. But gobbled up in the arena, probably not.

Text ©Gillian McIver all right reserved. Images sourced online as indicated, fair use applies.