Body horror is based on deep-seated fear of the disfigurement and despoliation of the living body, and of the decomposition of the dead body. It reminds us of our mortality, frailty, and vulnerability. Ancient cultures understood this fear very well; for example, in ancient Egypt it was believed that despoiling a body meant that the soul could not reach the afterlife. Likewise, to disfigure a statue was a grave insult to whomever it represented. Body horror in art and cinema is based on the visual representation of this violence toward the body; to varying degrees, the shock is in witnessing the desecration of the living or the dead.
One of the earliest horrific images in Western art is actually a crucifixion scene: Matthias Grünewald’s crucifixion for the Isenheim altarpiece (1512– 1516). It is a night-time scene, with the crucified body in the front and centre of the composition. Grünewald’s Christ is a macabre figure, distorted in agony, his body already decaying as he slowly dies a monstrous, torturous death.
This is a painting about the extremes of physical suffering, yet it was not painted to terrify its viewers. It was painted for a hospital, and it was meant to help people suffering from plague: by identifying their own suffering bodies with the suffering of the Savior, it was meant to bring hope, if not in this life then in the afterlife. Very few representations of the crucifixion since Grünewald’s have been so graphic.
Martin Scorsese also emphasized the brutality of crucifixion in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ was controversial because of the extreme violence of the crucifixion, and there were accusations that it turned the story into a kind of body horror. This raises the question: when does extreme violence turn into body horror? It is a matter of degree, but we can call it body horror when the principal emphasis of the picture or the film is on the torn and mutilated body.
This is certainly the case in Titian’s The Punishment of Marsyas (c. 1570). According to the legend, Marsyas was a satyr (a half-human, half-animal creature) who challenged the god Apollo to a music contest and lost.
The punishment, for his hubris in challenging a god, was to be flayed alive. Titian (1488–1576) paints the flaying as a kind of diabolical party. This is not the only painting of this horrible punishment; the subject was also addressed by José de Ribera (1637), also quite a disturbing image. In Ribera’s picture, the animalistic aspects of the satyr are almost completely imperceptible. The horror lies in the visceral depiction of Marsyas screaming in agony as Apollo strips open his leg. Bartolomeo Manfred’s Apollo and Marsyas (1616–1620) is tame by comparison. In Titian’s version there’s quite a crowd, playing music and seemingly enjoying themselves. Marsyas is upside down, like an animal at slaughter, but also maybe an alchemical reference to the symbol of the Hanged Man. The mundane reality of the dog lapping up the spilt blood, while another character is collecting the blood in a bucket, like a butcher going to make blood pudding, renders the scene both prosaic and repulsive in the same moment. Yet perhaps this is another alchemical reference.
Why would artists want to paint something as horrifying as somebody being flayed alive? Titian and Ribera did not paint these pictures just for the gore. In classical times, Marsyas was always ambiguous. He was the mortal, subhuman creature who dared to challenge a god, thus upsetting the hierarchy and deserving of punishment. However, to the Romans, he was sometimes portrayed as a proponent of free speech and a symbol of liberty, and was associated with the common people. Sometimes he was even seen as a subversive symbol in opposition to the emperor. It is possible that in late Renaissance Italy, this Roman interpretation of the mythological character of Marsyas still had currency.
There are scenes of violence in paintings that would be considered too extreme for cinema audiences. However, in 2008, Martyrs, directed by Pascal Laugier, featured the protagonist Anna (Morjana Alaoui) being flayed alive in graphic detail. The film, part of the movement known as New French Extremity, continues to be controversial. However, so-called New French Extremity is only one direction in body horror cinema. Some filmmakers, such as Catherine Breillat, have been widely acclaimed for combining body horror with philosophical and intellectual questions. The same can be said, in a more populist way, about the work of David Cronenberg. Cronenberg’s earliest films, including The Brood (1979), Videodrome (1983), and The Fly (1986), are all masterpieces of the body horror genre.
In 2005, Eli Roth made the first Hostel film, which deeply divided critics, unsure if it was “just one damn blow-torching after another”10 or “splatter with a conscience.”This type of film has sometimes come to be known as ‘torture porn’. In 2010, A Serbian Film (Srđan Spasojević) was released, though almost immediately banned in many countries. The film follows a down-on-his-luck former porn actor who agrees to make one more movie, which turns out to be a snuff film; it features graphic depictions of necrophilia, rape, all kinds of torture, and child sexual abuse. Though it completely unimpressed critics, the film remains alongside The Human Centipede, Cannibal Holocaust, and others, as examples of how filmmakers push the limits of what is acceptable. A Serbian Film and Cannibal Holocaust are also, not coincidentally, films about filmmaking.
Because films are aimed at mass audiences, they incur censorship controversy in ways that paintings, which can easily be hidden away in private, can usually avoid.
Traces of body horror are evident in the bleeding dead game and slabs of meat of 16 & 17th century Flemish still life, and the highly symbolic skulls in vanitas paintings.
Those pictures were meant to remind the viewer of their own mortality, and that all the things of the earthly world are ultimately in vain. Only God separates us from the butchered pheasant.
In the same way, body horror films also remind us of our own mortality and the vulnerability of the flesh.
Death and the body
A modern perspective on body horror in art is offered by Francis Bacon in Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962). This is Bacon’s second attempt at a crucifixion scene; the first, painted in 1944, is in the Tate Britain. While the earlier painting shows three barely anthropomorphic monstrous creatures, the 1962 painting explicitly connects the human body to the slaughterhouse, to meat, to the inevitability of death. In fact, Francis Bacon’s whole body of work could be considered an exercise in painting body horror. Critic Adrian Searle notes that “Bacon’s art . . . contains an entire repertoire of bruises, wounds, amputations done up with soiled bandages.” (Adrian Searle, “Painted Screams”, The Guardian, Tuesday, 9th September 2008) Bacon here completely rejects the idea of composed spirituality in death; he also rejects the pretty, romanticized view of death seen in paintings such as the morbid but sentimental Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis (1856), below, one of the most popular and widely reproduced of Victorian paintings.
Eugène Delacroix paints the revolution of 1830 and establishes a Romantic visual idea of revolution that has had a lasting influence on art, film and culture.
“Although I may not have fought for my country, at least I shall have painted for her,” Delacroix wrote in a letter to his brother.
The revolution is well underway: the people are fighting in the streets. We see cannon smoke and in the distance, building are on fire. The rabble swarms over the bodies of the dead: soldier and citizen alike are fallen. The crowd exults, the violence is inescapable, and all are led by the majestic figure of Lady Liberty, urging on her crowd of citizen soldiers. Exhilarating stuff!
This is one of the first actively political works of modern painting.
It depicts the Paris uprising of July 1830, which overthrew Charles X, the king who was restored after Napoleon’s defeat. Delacroix did not participate in the uprising: he was in the Louvre helping to protect the collection from the chaos. Though he depended on commissions from institutions and members of the royal family, Delacroix had republican sympathies. Perceived the uprising as a suitable modern subject for a painting, he started to paint this dramatic scene of the crowd breaking through the barricades, led by the female symbol of Republican France, “Marianne” or Lady Liberty. It is a cinematic and Romantic vision, seeking to achieve an immediate emotional impact.
The painting has a pyramid composition: the base, strewn with corpses, serves as a pedestal supporting the the victors as they push forward, and the pyramid is crested by the lovely Marianne.
In her figure, Delacroix combines classicism, Romanticism and realism. Liberty’s dress is draped in a classic manner, and her face has a Grecian profile with a classical straight nose. The bare-breasted, fierce image of Marianne leading the battle had appeared in the French revolutionary propaganda of the 1790s, and Delacroix revives it, but here makes it romantic, full of colour and life, yet also real.
Eugène Delacroix paints Realism
Her upraised arm reveals underarm hair. Underarm hair was considered to be so vulgar that no painter dared to represent it.
She holds a real gun in her left hand, the 1816 model infantry gun with a bayonet.
The other figures in the painting are both as real and as symbolic as Marianne. Delacroix has faithfully reproduced the style of dress worn by different sectors of the society at the time.
The man to the right of Liberty in the black beret (worn by students) is a symbol of youthful revolt. The man with the sabre on the far left is a factory worker. Elsewhere in the picture, we can see that Delacroix has depicted other workers and peasants realistically. The figure with the top hat may be a self-portrait or one of Delacroix’s friends. He represents a bourgeois or fashionable urbanite making common cause with the ordinary people.
The painting was a key inspiration for Eve Stewart, production designer for the 2012 film of Les Miserables which is set during the 1830 events.
Eugène Delacroix paints a dangerous picture
The 1830 uprising did not end in a new Republic, but in a substitute King, and it took several more revolutionary events before France finally became a republic. As one of the most dramatic, persuasive and stimulating images of revolutionary action, Liberty Leading The People was dangerous. The painting was hidden away from public view in 1863. Today it is one of the most popular paintings in the Louvre.
Liberty Leading The People is one of the most cinematic paintings of the 19th century and continues to serve as a matrix for crowd scenes, and for the inclusion of symbolic character types within the composition.
Delacroix’s Liberty is bare-breasted to emphasize her femaleness, but her female body is not sexualized here. This active, heroic, female figure owes something to the athletic dynamism of the Roman goddess Diana.
Diana (L) and Athena (R)
But Diana was a goddess of chastity and was not supposed to be sexual. Likewise, Athena, goddess of wisdom as well as of strategic warfare, is not sexual but is one of the ‘virgin goddesses’ (together with Diana/Artemis and Hestia).
Active female heroes that are NOT sexual are rarely presented in cinema
In recent years female action heroes have become more common, but with the exceptions of ‘Sarah Connor’ in the Terminator films and ‘Ripley’ in the Alien films, it is rare to see female action heroes who are not sexualized.
Thomas Cole’s The Savage State, The Clan of the Cave Bear and Quest for Fire
How to artists and filmmakers depict pre-history? You might be surprised to find that it is actually very uncommon for them to try to do so. Jurassic Park is not pre-history, it just has dinosaurs. Pre-history is different: the term means history before recorded information. It is the long period between the use of the first stone tools (3.3 million years ago) and the invention of writing (9000 – 3400 BCE).
This is a long time! But be careful not to imagine that prehistoric humans lived like animals. We made a lot of visual art, architecture and jewellery, for a long time before writing appeared. Most of it is fabulous. In fact, even the idea that writing is the mark of civilization ignores the sophisticated oral and visual cultures which never developed writing because they really didn’t need it.
Anyway, for the purposes of this article, the term pre-history really is about history; it’s about what popular culture has long referred to as the ‘caveman (and cavewoman)’ era. As you’ll see, it takes a lot of imagination to conjure up what ‘caveman world’ might have been like. Fortunately, a handful of artists have actually tried to do this.
First, painting. Given that pre-history predates most of what we might consider urban society, it stands to reason that depicting pre-historical scenes would be about landscape and nature, and humans within that. Of course, there are plenty of paintings which are pure landscape, but it is rare for an artist to depict an explicitly prehistoric scene.
Even the spectacular painter of light, Claude Lorraine, felt obliged to add human narratives to the landscape. See, for example, Landscape with Narcissus and Echo; it’s clearly about the trees and the clear golden light, not about the mythical figures. (Actually, Claude got other painters to paint the people). I digress.
Closer to our topic, British-American Thomas Cole painted The Savage State in 1833. It is a remarkable painting that seeks to depict a primeval scene. In The Savage State, Cole imagines a world before human civilization.
Cole is best known as America’s first great landscape painter, founder of the Hudson River School. The Savage State is part of Cole’s series The Course of Empire, five paintings depicting the rise and fall of an imaginary city.
In it, he protests the ruin of the landscape by ‘civilisation’ (a theme he returns to in other paintings). Cole’s series follows a coherent narrative, tracing the story as a primeval community develops into a vast empire, then falls into decadence. It is almost a film storyboard,
I will return to The Course Of Empire in another article. Here I want to isolate The Savage State as a distinctive and possibly unique painting of pre-history. We will use this as a starting point to consider how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history.
In The Savage State, primeval humans live in a sublime landscape of swirling sky and rough terrain. Landscape dominates the image. There are indications of human ‘savages’ in the picture. You can see them off to the right in a small encampment. They do not represent any specific ethnicity. Nor do they represent conquered people. Instead, Cole meant to show ‘the origins of modern society’.
The figures in the picture are tiny, and we can barely see them, never mind understand any details. It does look like Cole’s ‘savages’ reference aboriginal North American life. You should know that Cole also painted scenes from his friend James Fennimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans. It’s unlikely that Cole had any experience of actual native communities. These had been largely eradicated from the Hudson River region, where Cole worked.
In his writings, Cole made it clear that he intended the human settlement to be European. However, in the 19th century, before archaeology of pre-historical sites, there was little knowledge or understanding of what pre-historical communities in Europe might have been like.
Unfortunately, the political conditions on America at the time meant that European settlers, of which Cole was one, believed that the Native Americans were less ‘civilised’ than Europeans. Therefore, they might serve as models for pre-historical imagery.
So, while aspects of the ‘generic savages’ in The Savage State are probably appropriated from Native American cultural imagery, Cole did not consciously intend to depict Native Americans as prehistoric. Nevertheless, the prevailing colonial mindset he inhabited led him there.
In the 1980s, two films came out, both of which went to great lengths to try and imaginatively and credibly depict prehistoric human life. The first was 1982’s Quest For Fire, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. The second was directed by Michael Chapman, in his film version of the novel Clan of the Cave Bear (1986, from the novel by Jean Auel). Both of those films are almost entirely forgotten today, and I was not expecting much, but I was both surprised and fascinated by them.
Quest for Fire
Quest for Fire originated as a fantasy novel written in 1911 (by two Belgian brothers under the pseudonym J.-H. Rosny). This was long before today’s carefully-excavated knowledge about pre-history. But it indeed reveals the author’s fascination with both evolution and human behaviour. I’m not particularly concerned about whether the book or the film is accurate; first of all, I would have no idea because it’s not my area of specialism.
However, one can ask the critical question: is the film at least credible? It deals with human emotions and behaviours, which we would recognize today: group solidarity, domination and submission, conflict, love and loyalty, and pride in overcoming adversity. The Quest For Fire story begins with a small nomadic group carefully protecting its precious fire. But they don’t have the Promethean ability to make fire from scratch. When the fire goes out, three young males from the group go off in search of fire.
Along the way, these vaguely apelike humanoids make contact with a seemingly more ‘evolved’ group that lives in villages, has much more language and uses tools. The coming-together of a woman (Rae-Dawn Chong, excellent performance) from the sophisticated group and a man from the unsophisticated group symbolizes some kind of dialectic: the last frame shows the couple in peace and harmony, the woman pregnant.
The visual depiction of the ‘caveman world’ in Quest for Fire is achieved through excellent cinematography by Claude Agostini and the work of Production Designer Brian Morris and his art department (which won Oscars and BAFTAs for makeup). Morris and his team had a very challenging job. Unlike Cole, they couldn’t merely look to (recent or historic) aboriginal communities as a shortcut to depict what prehistoric humans may have been like. So, they had to try to make it up from archaeological research while at the same time creating a richly exciting and relatable world for audiences to inhabit for the duration of the film. As a Franco-Canadian co-production, there was a substantial budget for location shooting. Jean-Jacques Annaud (who is, of course, one of the great French directors of our era) was able to film in some of the world’s most sublime unspoilt landscapes: Kenya, British Columbia, the Bruce Peninsula and the Scottish Highlands. The landscape cinematography by Agostini and his crew offers up a continent, unlike the ones we are familiar with now. And thankfully no dinosaurs.
Commenting at the time of the film’s release, the critic Gene Siskel noted that at first the film seems ludicrous and the depictions a bit forced, but then you start to think ‘I wonder if that’s the way it did happen?’ And when that happens, ‘Quest for Fire’ has you hooked.” Roger Ebert concurred, writing that “by the time the movie was over, I cared very much about how their lives would turn out.”
Clan of the Cave Bear
Clan of the Cave Bear also has a plot that hinges upon the interaction between a primitive tribe and a more evolved individual. It is an adaptation of a bestselling novel by Jean M. Auel, published in 1980, which spawned a series that only concluded in 2011. Auel did plenty of research for the book, but has no academic background in pre-history studies; you cannot go to either the book or the film for “facts.” Yet both books and movies offer much in the way of atmosphere and ideas.
Because the film is based on Auel’s recent book (cashing in on its bestseller status), it has less scope to develop its own way – in contrast to Quest for Fire. Screenwriter John Sayles has done what he can with Auel’s story, and it is an absorbing one, though somewhat hampered in its ending by the fact that Auel clearly planned sequels.
In Clan, Ayla, a young Cro-Magnon woman (Daryl Hannah), is separated from her family and orphaned during an earthquake. Found by a group of cave-dwelling Neanderthals, she is raised as one of their own. Her intelligence presents a challenge to the tribe’s young future chief Broud (who unfortunately looks and acts like a member of an 80’s metal band). But the film is less about understanding some fine points about human development than it is about championing Ayla’s female emancipation and empowerment. As Ebert put it, ‘Neanderthal man is on the way out, and Cro-magnon woman is on the way in.’ As such, it’s an uplifting film in the 80’s tradition of Flashdance, although Chapman and his team don’t soft-soap the brute details of caveman life. The British Columbia locations are again breathtaking and versatile, as is the production design by Anthony Masters (Papillon) and especially the set decoration by Kimberley Richardson.
What grates in Clan is the juxtaposition of the fascinating story of Ayla’s self-discovery, her challenge to the patriarchal Clan and the finely-wrought visual storytelling, against the dated 80’s costume and makeup styling, not to mention the framing of the characters, which is pure 80’s cliché. Although Darryl Hannah’s performance is good, the studio just could not resist making the most of her blonde locks and leggy beauty. As Ebert bracingly put it, “Instead of people who are scarred, wind-burned, thin and toothless, it gives us graduates of the Los Angeles health club scene, and a heroine who looks as if she just walked over from makeup.”
Nevertheless, I enjoyed Clan of the Cave Bear, and I can’t help thinking that the narrative of female self-discovery just did not sit that well with the audience of 1986; I could not find any reviews by female critics. Dated the film may be in some respects, it is definitely worth a watch.
So, what about the pre-history?
What do we learn about the depiction of pre-history shown in these films? How do artists and filmmakers depict pre-history? When he painted The Savage State Cole was already a committed conservationist preoccupied with human depredations on landscape. In both Quest for Fire and Clan of the Cave Bear we see humans dwarfed by the landscape, dominated by it, unable at the stage of human development to do anything more than simply survive in it.
I did find something particularly fascinating when I was watching Clan of The Cave Bear. At one point there is a shot of a river which seems to be a direct reference to Thomas Cole’s most famous painting, known as The Oxbow (View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm). The picture and the film still both reveal the winding switchback of the river. Many art historians interpret The Oxbow as insinuating the confrontation between wilderness and civilization. In the left foreground the wild untamed landscape represented by a large, thunderstruck tree amid a tangle of bush. This gives way to the far view, which takes up most of the right-hand side of the painting, depicting a peaceful, populated and cultivated landscape intersected by the serpentine Connecticut River. While the wilderness is depicted as dark and the cultivated territory as light filled, Cole’s own feelings about human encroachment on the territory were decidedly ambivalent. It is not too difficult to feel the same ambivalence when we watch Quest For Fire and Clan Of The Cave Bear – how we humans came to our tendencies towards violence and acquisitiveness, and how these dark things coexist with our tendency to innovate and create, and to care for one another and cooperate.
Cole was engaged in painting ‘The Course of Empire’, the series The Savage State belongs to, and took time off from that to paint The Oxbow.
Director Michael Chapman, who is mainly known as a cinematographer (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) is on record as having a strong sensibility for art and painting and I wonder if perhaps he was influenced by Cole’s Oxbow, which is held in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Both movies are of their time: the 1980s. However, they display that era’s willingness to embrace stories that were really different. They tried to find ways of envisioning things that demanded a lot of imagination but were still very much rooted in realism. Today so many big-budget films are about worlds of pure fantasy that we have no real connection to (e.g. superhero films). It is interesting to see these pre-history films attempting to understand something real yet almost ungraspable and try to recreate it. It hardly matters that they don’t actually succeed. Like Thomas Cole’s painting, they are trying to approach more significant themes and invite us to engage our brains in a vast imagining of the human story. In this respect, neither nor Quest for Fire nor even Clan Of The Cave Bear are escapist: they are challenging works of imagination that raised questions and in the end – through the vehicle of entertainment – they do invite us to confront ourselves.
Today’s painting depicts a moment in Colonial History The Battle of Aboukir which happened in Egypt during the war between Napoleonic France and Britain. The history of what happened is explained below. This painting by Antoine-Jean Gros Bataille d’Aboukir, 25 Juillet 1799 is in the Palais de Versailles.
The picture shows the successful charge by General Joachim Murat at Aboukir. The general is on the white horse in the centre of the composition. In fact Murat himself commissioned Gros to make the painting in 1806. It was brought to Versailles, hung in the Coronation room, in 1835.
This is a good example of a ‘cinematic’ painting. Let’s consider the elements of what makes a painting ‘cinematic’
Let’s start with LIGHTING
Notice how the central part of the picture is much brighter and ‘lit’ even though this is supposed to be taking place outdoors in ‘natural’ light. The sense of brightness is created by the placement of white things in the centre of the picture, rather than any suggestion of a change in the natural lighting. This is a good example of the painter Antoine-Jean Gros’s fidelity to realism, within the context of a highly dramatic setting and action.
Gros uses three main colours in this picture; yellow, red and white. Yellow (shades from yellow to brown) is the colour of nature – the dust and earth of Egypt. White appears in the clothing of some of the figures, but in the main, it is the colour of the General’s horse that stands out. Red is very dominant; redness forms a circle around all the centre whiteness. it’s a striking effect.
Paintings can’t move, but the ‘cinematic’ painting very often gives the illusion of movement, usually through the gestures of the figures or through the use of dynamic composition such as strong diagonals horizontals and verticals that indicate that something is moving through space. Even though we don’t see it moving, we can easily understand that it is moving. When we look at paintings such as this one we really get to see the dynamism of movement as a painted illusion. Here movement is indicated in the centre of the painting by the diagonal positioning of the standard, which slices through this section of the painting in a very strong diagonal line. It is also red, which almost gives it a sense of being like a sword slash, through the painting. The gestures of the figures, with outreaching arms and the twist of the bodies, also indicates movement. The whole painting feels as though it is vibrating with movement, writhing and alive.
MOVEMENT – THE DIAGONAL!
This kind of highly dramatic realism is very common in cinema. In art history, painting something so that it looks as though it is really there or really happening, is often referred to as ‘naturalism’. The struggle and the figures look natural even though as a depiction of the actual battle of Aboukir, I’d seriously question how ‘realistic’ it actually is. I mean, why would the man at the feet of General Murat’s horse be stark naked? It’s really unlikely the Ottoman troops would go into battle stark naked or wearing clothes that fall off really easily. As a depiction of Colonial History, the Battle of Aboukir may not be realistic but it is spirited.
However, from a dramatic point of view, it allows the painter to demonstrate the vulnerability of the Ottoman soldiers (and the weakness of their position) overcome by the magnificent French troops under Napoleon’s great general, Murat. Additionally, it allows Gros to show off his ability to paint the human figure. Of course, if we were to try to re-create this battle for cinema we really couldn’t get away with showing this nudity, not for decency reasons but because it would actually be completely ridiculous. In fact, even in this picture, it’s completely ridiculous but somehow painting gets away with it.
The depiction of battles in cinema has a long history and has produced some extremely interesting scenes in films but these scenes are difficult to shoot. Partly because unlike in painting, is difficult to get single compositions within the frame so that one can focus on specific incidents. However, painting is a good guide for the filmmaker. Lighting, compositions use of colour and gesture in paintings can inspire the filmmaker because it demonstrates very clearly what is effective and engaging to the eye.
Some great battles in cinema history:
Omaha Beach Saving Private Ryan
The Street Protest Turned Battle, The Baader-Meinhof Complex
Braveheart – The Battle Of Falkirk
Apocalypse Now, Helicopter Beach Assault
Waterloo (1970), The Charge Of The Cuirassiers
Gladiator, Battle In Germania
Glory (1989), The Storming of Fort Wagner
Zulu (1964), The Battle of Rourke’s Drift
What Actually Happened at Aboukir?
There were several battles called Battle of Aboukir (or Abu Qir) during the period of war between Napoleon’s France and Great Britain.
You may be familiar with the battle of Trafalgar which is commemorated in London’s Trafalgar Square, although Trafalgar itself is in Spain You may be familiar with the battle of Waterloo which is commemorated in Britain by a railway station and a bridge and is also the name of a town in Ontario, Canada – as well as a number of towns in the English speaking world. But the actual Waterloo is in Belgium.
The point is, often we understand history through particular moments but we don’t understand how those moments arrived. How on earth did the French and the Turks and later the British end up having a fight at a place with an obviously non-European name like Abu Qir?
Where is Aboukir?
Abou Qir is in Egypt; you can go there*: it’s a town on the Mediterranean coast near the ruins of ancient Canopus 23 kilometers northeast of Alexandria. It is located on a peninsula, with Abu Qir Bay to the east. The bay is where, on 1 August 1798, Horatio Nelson fought the Battle of the Nile, often referred to as the “Battle of Aboukir Bay”, an event also painted by Philip James De Loutherbourg (1800) among others.
The battle depicted by Gros took place a year later on land between the French expeditionary army and the Turks under Mustapha Pasha (acting as an ally and agent of the British, though the Ottomans later switched sides). The French claimed it as a victory but it didn’t resolve anything.
Two years later they fought the Battle of Alexandria (aka Battle of Canope), on 21 March 1801 between the French army under General Menou and the British expeditionary army under Sir Ralph Abercromby, who died in the battle . after this the British marched on Alexandria and laid siege to the city.
*I’ve been very near to it but didnt actually make it there. Next time!
There are no paintings of the siege of Alexandria, or what happened in this essentially civilian city. Alexandria was one of the most important cities in the eastern Mediterranean. There’s no record left by Europeans of the suffering that happened to Egyptians as a result of being caught in the crossfire between two European empires and the dying, opportunistic Turkish empire.
As you can see there’s something very uncomfortable and disconcerting about the idea of British and French and Turkish armies battling it out on Egyptian soil.
What is interesting about Gros’s painting is that, for all its attempt to depict the excitement of battle and the man on the White Horse as a symbol of European domination, when you know the actual history, the painting becomes a testament to the brutality of the colonial project, whether it’s English, French or Ottoman. It’s a very honest picture of what was at the root of colonialism: violence. A testament to real Colonial History The Battle of Aboukir is an important painting and we shouldn’t forget about it.
If you want to see more of Colonial History the Battle of Aboukir by Antoine-Jean Gros [Bataille d’Aboukir, 25 Juillet 1799] is in the Palais de Versailles.
Note: the colonisation of Egypt
Europeans were very aware of Egypt and regularly train traded with this outpost of the Ottoman Empire. Egypt had not been an independent country since the Roman conquest and by the 18th century was firmly established as a very lucrative, revenue-giving province of the Ottoman Empire. The French had considered trying to get hold of Egypt for over 100 years but the expedition that sailed under Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 was connected with revolutionary France’s war against Britain. Napoleon hoped that, by occupying Egypt, he would damage British trade with the East Indies and strengthen his hand in bargaining. But he had other aims. He wanted to free Egypt from the Ottomans and establish it as a progressive territory of Revolutionary France, Egypt was to be regenerated and would regain its ancient prosperity. Together with his military and naval forces, Napoleon sent a commission of scholars and scientists to investigate and report the past and present condition of the country.
The story of Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt is told very sensitively and dramatically in the film Adieu Bonaparte by the Egyptian film maker Yousseff Chahine. The great actor Michel Piccoli plays one of the French scientist-engineers sent by Napoleon (who appears in the film played by Patrice Chereau) and his relationship with Ali, a young Egyptian man caught between traditional culture and his resentment at the reality of colonialism, and his fascination with European science. The film is available in French and Arabic .
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Paul Delaroche’s 19th century painting depicts a tragic, doomed English queen; Trevor Nunn’s 1985 film Lady Jane brings her to life.
Welcome to A History of the World in 16 Paintings. I am going to explain the whole history of the world (well, selected exciting bits of it, anyway) through sixteen extraordinary paintings and then tell you about the films inspired by both the historical story and the picture. Stay tuned for some real surprises.
I will be offering you a preview of an exciting new project that I’m working on, and you are the first to know about it. I’d love to hear what you think. Don’t forget to sign up to my newsletter to get exclusive content from the series.
Who knows, there might be more than 16 … stay tuned
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey
Paul Delaroche painted this picture in 1833. As a French artist in turbulent political times, it was probably prudent to paint exciting scenes from a distant period of another country’s history. Here he depicts the execution of Jane Grey, a young aristocrat from the Tudor family who was briefly Queen of England.
Jane is sometimes known as the ‘nine days Queen’ because her reign was extraordinarily short. When young King Edward VI died, he apparently named Jane as his heir as the closest legitimate member of the Tudor family who could claim the throne. Edward did have two half-sisters by way of his father, Henry VIII. However, both Mary and Elizabeth were considered illegitimate: Henry had divorced Mary’s mother Catherine of Aragon and executed Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn.
Jane was brought to the throne partly through the machinations of her family, who sought to fulfil their own ambitions through her. However, Mary also had partisans, and after a very short time Mary prevailed. Jane was arrested and thrown in prison as Mary claimed the throne, becoming Mary I. Mary was the first full Queen regnant of England; that is, a Queen who rules entirely in her own right.
Apparently, Mary did not want to execute Jane but it was politically expedient to do so, and so therefore the young girl (only 16 years old!) was taken from her prison in the Tower onto Tower Green and publicly beheaded. If you visit the Tower today, the Beefeater guides will show you exactly where Jane was executed.
However, Delaroche doesn’t show this public beheading. Instead he depicts the action in a dark chamber, so he’s able to manipulate the lighting to make it look even more harrowing. Delaroche wants you, the viewer, to sympathise with Jane: her fragility, purity and innocence emphasised by the flimsy white dress she’s wearing and the pearly luminescence of her skin. At the same time, the picture plays into 19th-century ideas about fragile womanhood and also the titillation of the ‘woman in peril’ trope.
Lady Jane, the movie
In the 1980s, theatre director Trevor Nunn directed a film version of Jane Grey’s story, called Lady Jane with a young Helena Bonham Carter playing Jane (in a wonderful, feisty performance). The film recast Jane and her handsome husband Guilford Dudley as doomed young lovers fighting against a hostile and vaguely Thatcherite establishment. It’s very romantic and good fun; not necessarily accurate but it serves as a good introduction to the Jane and her life, and suggests what it might have been like to live in those fractious Tudor times.
Dutch art of the 17th century has a lot to teach the film maker. During this period, Dutch painters such as Rembrandt, Jan Vermeer, Gerrit van Honthorst, Pieter de Hooch and others developed a kind of painting that combined intense realism with drama and emotion. They did this largely through a deep understanding of how lighting works within the image.
They learned from the Caravaggists, the followers of Caravaggio (the Italian painter who I’ll write about in a later post ) who was one of the first to really demonstrate how careful manipulation of light is one of the chief tools of the visual storyteller.
The film Admiral follows the visual style of the Dutch painters and the Caravaggists in using light as a way to model the physical characteristics of the films characters, to create painterly shots, and – as a self-reflexive motif that runs throughout the film – to include paintings within the films mise en scéne* to remind the viewer that the story of the film is deeply connected to the historical world which we chiefly know through the paintings . Here are some examples of how that works in the film:
Vermeer’s Milk Maid
Early on in the film we catch a very, very brief glimpse of the admiral’s maidservant working alone in the kitchen. This shot, which only lasts a couple of seconds, is a recreation of the very famous Vermeer painting The Milkmaid. The recreation of this painting in the film indicates not only a connexion with Vermeer and the Dutch Golden Age’s great achievements in art, but alludes to Vermeer’s representation of domesticity and the beauty of the everyday – which in the context of the film is the one thing that the Admiral is never able to truly experience, because he sacrifices his family life in order to save the nation.
Later (and I don’t want to give away too much of the plot), there is a terrible scene where one of the main characters in the film is killed in a particularly vile way by a baying mob in the streets of Amsterdam The film shows the painting being done from life; as the characters pass through the street, we catch a glimpse of an unseen painter painting the picture. We have no idea whether or not the painting was done in situ (probably it wasn’t).
Realistic Sea Battles
In my previous blog post, I showed you the recreation of the sea battles in the film, and how they are based on the marine pictures by Dutch artists. However, what is particularly interesting is that the nature of movie-making is that you can actually go onto the ships and participate in the battles, rather than – as the painters had to – portray them at a distance. Roel Reiné’s camera brings us right onto the deck in the middle of the fighting.
At one point we are taken below deck and the lighting of this particular shot is strongly reminiscent of a painting by the Caravaggist Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera (see below, Ribera’s St Jerome, a good example of the lighting effect).
It is a technique known as tenebrism which is very extreme contrasts of dark and light. This is an important shot because it really brings home to the viewer the human experience of the battle, the terror that the participants must have felt, yet at the same time, the framing of the picture gives us a sense of something spiritual – perhaps the worthiness of the sacrifice.
* mise en scéne is a term that refers to everything that appears in the frame of a shot: what is before the camera and its arrangement: composition, the set/location and all its props, the actors and where they are placed, the costumes, and the lighting. It can also include the use of colour and tonality. The term originated in the theatre and means ‘placing on the stage’. In film, of course, there isn’t a stage; the camera substitutes for the stage. The camera is much more mobile and so the mise en scéne of a film is constantly changing
to learn more about Art History and film, read my book ART HISTORY FOR FILMMAKERS
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.
Portraits and people
Sea battles in film and art
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.
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 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.
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.
I have been in NEW YORK solely for the purpose of LOOKING AT ART. What was the most cinematic painting I saw? Oooooh, so many! American art was a revelation! One of my favourites is BROOKLYN BRIDGE by Joseph Stella, at the Whitney Museum. Notice how Stella brings together elements of abstraction, expressionism and realism! Walking around the bridge on both sides f the river, and seeing it in different lights, I understood exactly what Stella was doing. Making me think, how would I light and compose the bridge if it was a film shot? When I got home, and I crossed Hammersmith Bridge in London I started to think about that. …