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

BODY HORROR

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.

Matthias Grünewald’s crucifixion for the Isenheim altarpiece (1512– 1516)

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.

Scorsese, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

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.


THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, Jim Caviezel, 2004, (c) Newmarket/courtesy Everett Collection

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.

Titian’s The Punishment of Marsyas (c. 1570).

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.

Laugier,P. Martyrs 2008

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.

Vanitas; Pieter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life, 1630

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.

Frans Snyders – Still-Life with Dead Game, Fruits, and Vegetables in a Market, 1614

Death and the body

Bacon, F. Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962)

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.

Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis (1856)

©Gillian Mciver 2021 ArtHistoryfilm Art History for Filmmakers. Text not to be reproduced without permission.

Eugène Delacroix paints revolution!

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!

Eugène Delacroix paints the revolution of 1830 and establishes a Romantic visual idea of revolution that has had lasting influence
Liberty Leading the People (detail), Eugène Delacroix / Public domain / Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.

Colonial History The Battle of Aboukir

History in Art and Film

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.

Battle of Aboukir
Bataille d’Aboukir, 25 Juillet 1799 Battle of Aboukir. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Fair Use applies, critical and educational use.
 

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. 

Battle of Aboukir detail

COLOUR

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.

Battle of Aboukir detail
RED!!

MOVEMENT

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.

Battle of Aboukir detail
 
MOVEMENT – THE DIAGONAL!
podcast by Gillian Mciver of The Battle of Aboukir

Cinema Battles

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

The History

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?

here it is!
Modern City of Alexandria to the left, the bay on the right

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!

Colonialism depicted

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.

 

Adieu Bonaparte

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 .


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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


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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

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

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.

Welcome!

Giorgione - Three_Philosophers [Google_Art_Project]
Giorgione – Three_Philosophers [Google_Art_Project]
Since cinema’s earliest days, literary adaptation has provided the movies with stories; and so we use literary terms like metaphor, metonymy and synedoche to describe visual things. But there is another way of looking at film, and that is through its relationship with the visual arts – mainly painting, the oldest of the art forms. Art History for Filmmakers is an inspiring guide to how images from art can be used by filmmakers to establish period detail, and to teach composition, color theory and lighting.

The book Art History for Filmmakers – published by Bloomsbury Press and available for all good book dealers – looks at the key moments in the development of the Western painting, and how these became part of the Western visual culture from which cinema emerges.

As the author of this book I’m looking forward to readers’ comments and questions. I will also post my own short film and exhibition reviews and information.