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