WU TIANMING came into his own in the Chinese culture wars of the late 1980s. He’d been a “movie brat,” a village kid in love with films since childhood, and he first thought that he’d like to be an actor. In 1960, aged twenty, he managed to get into a training class for film acting run by the Xi’an Film Studio, of China’s sixteen state-run studios the one nearest to his home in Sanyuan, Shaanxi Province. Having joined the studio’s payroll he did some bit-parts in the studio’s productions of the early 1960s, but his dreams of stardom ended—along with almost everything else in the film industry—in 1966, when Mao’s Cultural Revolution turned most areas of Chinese life upside-down. Wu never talked about how he got through the “years of turmoil” but we know that he came out of them wanting to be a director. He spent the last three years of the Cultural Revolution (1974-76) studying directing at the partly re-opened Beijing Film Academy.
Back in Xi’an, he co-directed two features with his friend Teng Wenji and then made his debut as a solo director with River Without Buoys (Meiyou Hangbiao de Heliu) in 1982. It’s hard to overstate the impact this film had in China at the time. First, it was the most accomplished and original movie ever to come out of Xi’an Film Studio, a less than lustrous production center founded only to pay lip service to the communist government’s policies of de-centralization and regionalism. Second, its tale of rafters on the Xiao River played into the contemporary fashion for “scar fiction”—novels, poems, and films which lamented the emotional and psychological wounds inflicted on ordinary people during the Cultural Revolution—but transcended the genre by focusing on surly, hard-bitten men and doing without tear-jerk sentimentality. Shot entirely on location with an almost tactile immediacy, the film gave veteran star Li Wei (who had made his screen debut thirty-four years earlier in Fei Mu’s legendary Spring in a Small Town) his last great role as Pan Laowu, a hard-ass loner unjustly criticized by extremist leftists.
The prestige, the commercial success, and the emotional resonances of River Without Buoys led to Wu Tianming’s appointment as the new head of Xi’an Film Studio in 1983. Approaching his forty-fifth birthday, he was the youngest studio head in the PRC and, according to a 1987 New York Times report by Edward A. Gargan, immediately made his presence felt by telling the studio staff it was shameful that so many Xi’an Studio films appeared on “Year’s Worst” lists. A good five years before Deng Xiaoping called for sweeping economic reforms in the public sector, Wu began making radical changes in the studio. He went straight into production of his own new feature Life (Rensheng, 1984), attacking what he defined as the three main problems in Chinese society: having to accept assigned posts rather than choose one’s own employment, the practices of nepotism and favoritism, and “unhealthy tendencies in the Party.” All but unnoticed outside China, the film created national shockwaves at home and fueled intense debate.
Life inaugurated a policy of producing “westerns”—by which Wu meant movies with deep roots in the West China regions around Xi’an, although one of the films he greenlit, He Ping’s The Swordsman in Double-flag Town, actually was a brilliant “translation” of codes and conventions from the American Western. On top of high-grade entertainments, Wu insisted on producing a number of tansuo pian—literally “experimental films”—which he saw as important for raising aesthetic and conceptual standards, regardless of their commercial performance. They included Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Horse Thief (Daoma Zei, 1986), shot in Tibet and Gansu, and Chen Kaige’s King of the Children (Haizi Wang, 1987), shot in Yunnan; both films obliquely reflected their directors’ experiences in the Cultural Revolution.
By employing “Fifth Generation” directors like Tian and Chen and allowing them to make defiantly non-commercial films, Wu found himself at odds with Wu Yigong at the Shanghai Film Studio, who regularly spoke out against “elitist” films which the mass audience couldn’t understand or relate to. But Wu Tianming prevailed, not least because his once-moribund studio produced as many hits as Shanghai did, but also because his tansuo pian were premiered in international festivals and acclaimed as breakers of a “new wave” in Chinese cinema.
Wu cemented his strategic alliance with the “Fifth Generation” by making a deal with Chen Kaige’s cinematographer Zhang Yimou: in return for letting him turn director to make Red Sorghum (Hong Gaoliang, 1987), Zhang agreed to act in Wu Tianming’s new film Old Well (Lao Jing, 1987) as well as supervising its cinematography. Both films took the China market by storm and went on to achieve considerable international success. These triumphs strengthened and emboldened Wu. When the head of Shaanxi Propaganda Bureau criticized his policies, Wu Tianming fought back by publicly denouncing him as “a bureaucrat who doesn’t understand films but wants to control filmmaking.” As the International Herald Tribune commented, it was “virtually unheard of for a well-known Chinese artist or intellectual to criticize a Party official to a western reporter.”
Wu Tianming was traveling abroad in the spring of 1989, as the protest-occupation of Tiananmen Square gathered momentum: first in Australia, as the head of a Chinese film delegation, then in the US by the time the Party opted for military force to end the protest. He chose not to return home, and American universities queued up to offer him “visiting scholar” posts to get him through the crisis. By 1993, though, he was reduced to running a video-rental store in Monterey Park, California, and stumbling through daily English-language lessons; he told me that he learned five new words each morning and had forgotten four of them by the afternoon. It was inevitable that he would eventually return to China, and inevitable that his many enemies in the Communist Party would make his life difficult when he did.
There were two last films as director: King of Masks (Bian Lian, 1995), a charming fable about a 1930s street entertainer, financed by Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong, and An Unusual Love Story (Feichang Aiqing, 1998), in which strong performances just about redeem the mawkish plot. There was also a return to his origins as an actor when he starred in the 2012 film Full Circle. But, like too many of China’s greatest film talents, Wu Tianming had a career curtailed by circumstances beyond his control. When it mattered in the late 1980s, though, he was a one-man reform movement—and boy, did he achieve.
Tony Rayns is a London-based freelance filmmaker, critic, and festival programmer.
Michael Schmidt, Ein-heit (U-ni-ty), 1991–94, gelatin print, 20 x 13 1/2”.
GERMAN PHOTOGRAPHER MICHAEL SCHMIDT died on May 24, 2014 after a long illness. He will be remembered by his friends for his great warmth and loyalty, as well as for his uncompromising honesty and utter lack of sentimentality. “Life is not a holiday,” he liked to say. He was a very serious guy, but he had a robust sense of humor—a big smile and even bigger laugh. He will also be remembered by his peers for his dedication to his work and to theirs, and for his affecting brand of high ambition stripped of the even slightest pretense. “I am the best photographer in the Wartenburgstrasse” was another refrain, and nothing pleased him more than a strong new body of work made by a friend.
Schmidt will be remembered above all for photographs and books rooted in his native Berlin. He was born there in October 1945, just shy of five months after the end of the war in Europe. “The pre-natal period was very important,” he insisted. So, too, was the location. He was born in what would become West Berlin, but when he was a child his family lived in the East for several years before fleeing back to the West. Schmidt started out as a cop (it’s what his parents wanted) and learned photography on his own in his early twenties. In 1969 he began teaching photography at the Volkshochschule (adult education center) in his neighborhood of Kreuzberg, and at the center in 1976 he founded the Werkstatt für Photographie (Workshop for Photography).
That same year, Bernd Becher was appointed professor at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, which dwarfed the Workshop in scale and prestige, and the art world soon became obsessed with photographic doings in Düsseldorf. But during Schmidt’s five years of involvement with the Workshop it was a beehive of impressive visits and/or exhibitions by the likes of Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Larry Clark, William Eggleston, John Gossage, and Stephen Shore. It is extraordinary that a neighborhood community center was among the first and most active institutions in Europe to embrace the vitality of postwar American photography.
Meanwhile, Schmidt in his own work was applying the lessons of American work to his deeply personal experience of his battered and divided hometown. His early books were devoted to the Berlin neighborhoods of Kreuzberg (1973) and Wedding (1978) and to the city and its inhabitants more broadly (Berlin: Stadtlandschaft und Menschen, 1978). The photographs are as brittle and unadorned as Robert Adams’s early pictures—minus the bracing sunshine of the American Southwest—and the new buildings seem just as grim as the city’s nasty scars. The pictures nonetheless convey familiarity and affection—and a weighty regard for the inhabitants.
Berlin nach 45 (Berlin since 45), the strongest of Schmidt’s early series, was photographed in 1980 but not published until 2005. Pristine pictures devoid of people survey a cityscape whose bombed-out lots remained barren after the Wall went up in 1961. Here, Schmidt’s steady gaze often met the blank firewalls of buildings that were half their former selves, and the stripped severity of the photographs slices like a sharp knife. Despite the nominal reserve of the images, Schmidt’s emotion enters our hearts through our eyes, as it would again in a series titled Waffenruhe (Ceasefire) that he began in 1985 and published in ’87. Here, reserve gave way to high pictorial drama: Extreme details, croppings, overlappings, disparities of focus, and somber tones transform drab and ugly patches of the city into monuments of funereal pain. And though many of the pictures are fragmentary, murky and cryptic—as if it hurt Schmidt to look—there’s no question that the main subject is the Berlin Wall.
The stylistic evolution of Schmidt’s work from the early ’70s to the mid ’80s was remarkable. Perhaps still more remarkable was the passage that led from the expressionist immediacy of Waffenruhe to the dense, complex, and demanding Ein-heit of 1996. The single German word broken in half signalled Schmidt’s skepticism toward Germany’s euphoric rush to reunification in 1990—a message unfortunately diluted by the English title U-ni-ty. About half of the book’s 163 photographs are by Schmidt; the rest are his photographic copies, often decisively cropped, of images from newspapers, magazines, propaganda magazines, and the like. The deliberate, poetic sequence simultaneously evokes the painful complexities of German history after 1933 and interrogates the reader, who is obliged to interpret the uncaptioned images and the implications that arise from the sequence. Among photobooks, Ein-heit is at once the most creative response to Walker Evans’s American Photographs since Robert Frank’s The Americans and a wily embodiment of postmodern sophistication.
After Ein-heit, Schmidt stopped photographing in Berlin. He went on to complete valuable projects on women (Frauen, 2000), provincial Germany (Irgendwo, 2005), and the food industry (Lebensmittel, 2012, for which he was awarded the Prix Pictet three days before he died). But his most important and lasting legacy is his sustained, artistically vital, and deeply moving engagement with his native city.
Peter Galassi is a scholar and curator whose principal fields are photography and nineteenth-century French art.
Michael Schmidt, “Lebensmittel,” 2006–10, c-print, 22 x 32”.
I AM NOT SURE if it’s appropriate to picture someone who was a great human being with a tremendous love of life by first mentioning that he was a former policeman. But imagine a friendly cop, someone who would know how valuable the idea of organization and order is for society. Michael Schmidt wouldn’t let go. So when you discussed images with him, he would have a firm conviction, paired with an openness and tremendous generosity to give advice and support. He would be sure of his own work by the time he showed it, but he freely admitted that he wasn’t certain until he had it where he needed it to be, and that discovery process could take many years. And he would be staunchly convinced of other people’s work, too, which allowed him to help a great number of artists, especially once he founded his legendary Workshop for Photography in Berlin in the late 1970s.
Berlin was then, and to a certain degree is still, a provincial city. To a great extent he coined the images we associate today with its leaden past, when the wall was still up and the city seemed to be a dead end. He actually described himself as working in a cul-de-sac. When asked if he could work somewhere else, too, he replied, “Of course I could, but I wouldn’t know why.” He made black-and-white images of the corners no one loves, cares about, or ever had any aesthetic ambition for. Yet he wasn’t unemotional about the place, he was just unsentimental, and his clear, unblurred view onto the small world he saw matched—in his own, very recognizable dialect—pretty much what other people in other countries were recognizing as iconic as well. That made his work, if not international (as it’s not about being linked to some global aesthetic), then inspiring for people elsewhere who didn’t suffer from a similarly desolate environment. Though he was until recently mostly noticed in smaller circles rather than the broader public he deserved, he was nevertheless massively influential for a number of generations of German photographers without directly being their teacher.
But work that looks today like a classic Teutonic view onto our trite and demure environment, which defined the everyday in West Germany, was just one aspect of his efforts. His surroundings changed, and so did he. His sensitive attention turned toward more fundamental concerns: The last body of work which gained international acclaim was about food (his series “Lebensmittel,” in literal translation, “means to live”), which I saw over the years in different formations and constellations in his studio located in the two Germany’s former Grenzland (borderland). He started to use color photography, sparsely—and surely not for the same reasons others do, but rather to show, for instance, the grotesqueness of packaged meat that reveals a clown’s face when sliced. It was shocking: Apples would suddenly look aggressively healthy, cabbage depressing. He had a great sense of humor and was a man who was not as granite faced as one would think looking at his prints. Schmidt was ill for a year, seriously facing death, without losing his resilient vigor. He knew time was running out, and he worked until his last weeks, just publishing a book called Nature a few days before he passed away. That book looks like his legacy: I don’t think he believed in fate, and the sixty-some pictures in the book at least wouldn’t suggest that. Here, the photographer’s eye looks at trees, undergrowth, fields, one odd cow, and branches. His stoic view is unsentimental, not looking for solace in the romantic, and absolutely aware of an unbridgeable distance between himself and the unimpressed nature around him, which runs its course with logic but without any divine dramaturgy.
Thomas Demand is an artist based in Berlin and Los Angeles.
ROBERT OLSEN was a great painter—and one of the most dedicated and humble artists I have worked with. Over the course of a decade, from 2000 to 2010, my gallery presented ten solo exhibitions of his work and featured his paintings, drawings, notebook pages, and videos.
Robert was a nighttime painter. He was out in the street of Los Angeles night after night, taking photographs to use as source material for his paintings. He preferred the very early morning hours, when the streets are empty and the city sleeps. Like no other painter, he was able to capture the quiet beauty of urban desolation and the profound sense of loneliness that life in Los Angeles triggers. His paintings, often small in scale, pinpoint that exact moment where the noise of the everyday quiets down into silence, where people confront their fundamental questions: Why am I here? Where am I going? And while many artists have examined the dark side of this vast city, no one has captured the urban anxiety brought on by the relentless pursuit of the American dream quite like Robert.
Robert was kindhearted and deeply supportive of his fellow artists. Even though he was a very active member of a community of artists, many of whom he knew from his time at UCLA, he had a singular determination that kept him apart from the crowd. Working with him was a profound pleasure. He was utterly professional, deeply dedicated to his work, and one of the hardest-working artists I have known.
I miss him greatly and mourn that Los Angeles has lost a great painter before his time.
Robert Olsen, Motel Room (Winnipeg), 2002, oil on panel, 7 3/4 x 9 3/4”.
THE STRANGEST PART about Robert passing away young is that I always felt that Robert was looking very forward to being an old guy. His unkempt beard would be even more stately once it had turned to gray. I imagined him in a professorship somewhere: old, huge, and holding court. Teaching freshmen art students about cadmiums, and underpainting, and Bruegel. Still not really taking the best care of his appearance or health, but all that was now just part of the classic “old painting professor” package. Robert deeply enjoyed learning, and you could tell he quietly enjoyed being a go-to authority for a great many things.
It seems eerily fitting that Robert was so obsessed with traditional painting techniques—ways of working that were laborious, time-consuming, and too expensive for a lot of people. Done in the name of permanence. Imported pigments, sanded underpaintings, washes, whole tedious opuses about the chemical makeup of plywood versus MDF panels: all to make sure his work would hold up for as long as possible. Many times it was almost a chore to hear him wax on about the technical aspects of his paintings, but now it is his meticulous obsession with his work’s permanence that will leave everyone with a record of his talent, and his keen eye for the succinct. His care and attention will be his legacy, long before he ever intended it to be.
When I think back, I very rarely remember ever seeing Robert angry. He was a calm presence, just as his work depicted a calm presence.
The true power of what he painted was making people see the potential beauty in forgotten and bypassed things, things that we would only really ever consider in a cursory way, were it not for him. I’m not sure how many times I would have driven out to Palm Springs in my life and glanced at the power-generator-fan fields while driving by, never stopping. It was with Robert, though, that I did stop, so he could take pictures for paintings. We stood there in the searing heat, getting unexpectedly sandblasted by winds that you had to lean into to not fall over. We kept grinning and nodding to one another, understanding that we were having ten minutes there that would stick with both of us for a good deal longer. Those fans are interesting when you drive by, but they are majestic if you stand under one, and it’s a day that I will always look back on, and be thankful that Robert drove me out there, just to go . . . there.
Robert was a good carpenter. He was a good son and brother. He could run a theory class, but he could also tear up a karaoke bar.
Lately, I hadn’t seen that much of him, as we lived far apart, and we had come in and out of our frequency of communication. But in all honesty, he was one of the those people that you feel you could call in an emergency, no matter how long it had been, and he would be there. And I know that perception holds true for other people who knew him as well.
I’m going to miss seeing my tiny dog hop up on Robert’s huge belly and voraciously clean his beard when he would come over. He always closed his eyes and let it go on just slightly too long. He loved it, the dog loved it, I loved it.
Paul Cherwick is an artist based in Los Angeles.
MICHAEL GLAWOGGER was my friend. I find myself encumbered with questions that I would like to ask him.
Michael, why did you make so few movies? Is your meticulous achievement its own explanation, or could you not get the resources to do more than you did? While you lived, I never thought to ask this, because why wouldn’t you make more movies? Why would you or I ever die?
(Michael, should I envy you? You escaped old age and died while you were working on what you wished.)
But what would you have done had you lived to a hundred? Do you feel that you accomplished enough? Megacities (1998) and Workingman’s Death (2005) are great works of art. They convey humanitas and diversity. A hundred years from now and more, if there are still people, people will be watching them, I hope. But what is your “message,” Michael? Perhaps your movies are so effective because you never had one and wished simply to show us how we are. I never asked you any such question, because it would have annoyed you. I suppose you would have said that the message didn’t matter unless I could see it.
Michael, you had a light and graceful way with people, but did people make you happy? Your movies are not.
Michael, what should I do now? Did you ever learn any more than I did how to help our brothers and sisters on this beautiful, miserable world?
William T. Vollmann is a writer and journalist based in California.
WHEN CORNELIUS GURLITT was recently laid to rest at a cemetery in Düsseldorf, a eulogist, speaking in style, quoted the pessimist philosopher of life Arthur Schopenhauer: “We share the same environment, but each lives in a different world.” The funeral was the provisional end to a farcical episode in a long-running play: the politics of memory. Still, many unanswered questions remain. Reason enough for Passages to commemorate Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, who died more than half a century earlier, in 1956, in a car crash.
The episode opened in November 2013 with the belated disclosure that in 2012, German officials probably acting without sufficient legal authority had confiscated more than twelve hundred works of art that Gurlitt had inherited. His father had been a protagonist of the Nazis’ “Degenerate Art” operation, and so they suspected that looted art was among the pieces in Gurlitt’s Munich apartment. Additional and apparently more valuable works were subsequently discovered in a house near Salzburg. It now appears that the actual number of looted works is in the single digits and might well be zero. Even cases that initially seemed clear-cut, such as that of a painting by Henri Matisse, have come to appear rather ambiguous; German authorities have received several requests for restitution. The potential heirs are confronted with two different testaments, one of which puts a Swiss museum in an awkward spot: Gurlitt bequeathed the collection of pictures, whose value was grotesquely overstated in early reports, to the Kunstmuseum Bern. Its trustees will have to consider how to deal with this inheritance—Swiss collections are already rife with works whose fates are intertwined with the baneful history of the Third Reich. This makes Gurlitt’s legacy both a challenge and an opportunity.
Gurlitt seems to have been an aging recluse and art enthusiast who now and then drew on his parents’ collection to help pay for what appears to have been a modest lifestyle. Some sales were transacted in Switzerland, and on one such occasion, Gurlitt attracted the attention of the German customs authorities by traveling with a considerable sum in cash; although he was under no obligation to report the money, his actions prompted suspicions of tax evasion. The ensuing firestorm in German newsweeklies and national daily papers as well as the international press was symptomatic of a media landscape in which some journalists seemed to have lost all sense of decency. Speculating wildly, commentators blew the case up into a sensation and created the sense that one of the last-surviving major war criminals had been caught. The reports and editorials with their sometimes-sanctimonious tone and lack of interest in the legal details was one thing; another was the glaring light the case shone on provenance research and restitution machinery, which is all too often driven by profit seeking and careerism beneath a moralistic veneer.
As it is, Germany has an image problem right now: Growing numbers of its citizens profit from speculative financial and real-estate investments; the social classes drift apart as the state gradually abdicates its responsibilities; and most pertinently, Germany is now a society of heirs, professional sons and daughters who strive as adeptly as possible to manage what has fallen into their laps. Inevitably, some of the riches are the direct or indirect fruits of the depredation of large parts of earlier populations: Germany’s, especially the German Jewish, as well as that of the entirety of Europe. Our country’s present wealth is founded on millions of wrongs, as the contemporary historian Götz Aly has trenchantly pointed out in his recent studies and opinion pieces. It is hard to acknowledge this history, and Germany’s failure to acknowledge it is the lasting stain on the character of a nation that often prefers to forget, its ostensible interest in history notwithstanding. Speaking in Berlin, Ronald S. Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, had every right and reason to point out one tip of the iceberg—the fact that works unlawfully acquired by the state still grace the walls of museums and administrative offices—reminding his listeners of the rather dilatory approach Germans long took to the task of accounting for their past. But there are also other voices in the debate, fewer but clearly audible, that have called for a sort of reconciliation with the past, and they cannot be dismissed out of hand as revisionist. One prominent advocate of this position has been the Munich-based contemporary historian Michael Wolffsohn, whose own family was affected by the Aryanization policies of the Third Reich. We should not callously ignore these voices, although the effort must be made to rectify flagrant wrongs.
The Gurlitt case may also be remembered as an object lesson in the waning of public outrage in the face of complexities that forbid any cut-and-dried judgment. But what does it teach us? The past keeps catching up with Germans, and with a vengeance: the Third Reich is a history that will not be bygone. Twenty or twenty-five years ago, it was the debate over possible financial compensation for former victims of forced labor; now it is the debate over the status of works of art in museums and private collections (which Lauder has described, with a skewed but striking image, as the “last prisoners of war”) and the need to reappraise the role of the international art trade. In that regard, the auction house Neumeister in Munich has demonstratively led the charge. The Gurlitt case, it seems, has added a new dimension to this issue, but then it only seems so. Thirty years ago, Martin Broszat advocated a historicization of National Socialism; by and large he was right, but we should make one minor addition: We need an analysis and historicization also of our mentality in dealing with the past. Perhaps we will then understand as well why we still fail to do our homework—for as the case of Cornelius Gurlitt has forcefully reminded us, “we share the same environment, but each lives in a different world.”
Translated from the German by Gerrit Jackson.
Olaf Peters is professor of art history and art theory at the Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg in Germany, and curator of “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany,” up through September 1 at the Neue Galerie, New York.
IN MARCH 1947 IN ROME, Carla Accardi, the only woman in an otherwise entirely male group, signed the Forma manifesto, immediately joining a debate that was animating the postwar art world, on “figuration/nonfiguration” and on whether or not to be “politically engaged.” Born in Trapani, Sicily, in 1924, she studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence and then, in 1946, went to Rome, where she would live until her death on February 23, 2014, in her studio-home on the Via del Babuino a few steps from Piazza del Popolo.
Photos from those early years in Rome depict a very young, slender woman with short hair and huge eyes filling a tiny face—an eternal adolescent, with a beauty all her own, outside the usual canons, decidedly ahead of her time, not just in the way she looked, but in her choices in life and work. She had just settled in Rome with Antonio Sanfilippo, her future husband, when she went to Paris, courtesy of an international exchange organized by the Fronte della Gioventù Italiana and by the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France. Her time there was spent visiting museums and galleries, one of which, “in the Place Vendôme . . . I only later learned was directed by Michel Tapié,” the critic who soon would become a strong supporter of her work. Her early work, characterized by a formalist/Concrete art emphasis on color and geometric shapes, resulted in an invitation to participate in the 1948 Venice Biennale. (In 1952, in that same city, she would visit the Peggy Guggenheim collection.)
Around 1953–54, Accardi began working in a new direction, making her first black-and-white paintings, created with the canvas spread out on the floor, because “I couldn’t imagine drawing these signs in conjunction with easel painting. . . . 1954 was a decisive year, it’s true, but 1953 saw the birth of my first works with the sign.” These struck Tapié, who from that point on supported her pictorial research, including her among the leading practitioners of art informel and writing a text for her first solo show in Paris (in 1956 at Galerie Stadler). Pierre Restany and Michel Seuphor also followed her development as an artist, and her career during this period was marked by her inclusion in the inaugural exhibition of the Rome-New York Art Foundation (1957), the Carnegie International Exhibition (Pittsburgh, 1958), “Painters of Rome” at the New Vision Center (London, 1959) and the Moholy-Nagy Scholarship Auction (Chicago, 1960); in 1961 she had her first solo show in New York at the Parma Gallery.
In the mid-’60s she made a radical material change, abandoning the use of tempera in favor of fluorescent colors, applied to sicofoil, a transparent plastic material. The result was plastic/pictorial compositions that were strongly environmental in nature, such as the Rotoli (Rolls), 1965, and Tende (Curtains), 1965–66, Triplice tenda (Triple Curtain), 1969–71 (now at the Centre Pompidou in Paris), and Ambiente arancio (Orange Environment), 1976. A similar impulse also persists in certain works from the ’70s, such as Lenzuoli (Sheets), 1973–74 and Ambiente origine (Origin Environment), 1976. It was during this period that Accardi somewhat withdrew from art-making to work in the militant feminist movement, along with the critic Carla Lonzi. From the ’80s on, she gradually returned to a traditional pictorial structure, employing a broad, distinct chromatic range, applied to works on canvas and in ceramic and to three-dimensional works in Perspex, as well as her spectacular “floors,” conceived at the turn of the new century.
She participated in major exhibitions during this period, including at Castello di Rivoli (1994), the Kunstverein in Ludwigshafen (1995), the Villa Medici in Rome (1977), the Kunstmuseum in Bonn (1999), MoMA PS1 in New York (2001), the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2002), Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma (2004), the marta Herford (2007), and the Museo Bilotti in Rome (2010). A catalogue raisonné by Germano Celant was published in two volumes in 1999 and 2010. Until just hours before her unexpected death, Accardi continued to work with the energy of a young artist, creating new wonders, always capable of astonishing younger generations, to whom she never ceased relating. Proof of this can be seen, for example, in her recent exhibition with Paola Pivi in London (Carlson, 2013). Indeed, Carla Accardi was fundamentally an artist of the twenty-first century who, only by chance, was born in the twentieth.
Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.
Pier Paolo Pancotto is a curator and critic based in Rome.
THE FIRST TIME I saw Czechoslovakian director and writer Věra Chytilová’s 1966 film, Sedmikrásky (Daisies), it blew my mind. Why had I never seen this farcical feminist work? It was at once dark, absurd, political, philosophical, rebellious, outrageous, critical, hysterical, and subversive—all while featuring some of the most brilliant uses of optical printing, film collage, jump cuts, colored filters, textures, costumes, props, and food that I had ever seen. (The cinematography and special effects were the work of the great Jaroslav Kučera.) Eyeliner plays a role in the film, as do a host of symbolic foods—phallic ones such as pickles, bananas, and sausages, as well as similarly loaded others such as eggs, milk, and apples, are constantly eaten throughout. The ending features an orgiastic food fight that rivals that of Animal House (1978). But these exuberant, materially intoxicating “girls gone mad” scenes are intercut with bombs dropping and critiques of Czech culture and government.
The reason I hadn’t seen the film, it turned out, was that it had an extraordinarily mixed reception. It was banned by the government for a year after its original release in 1966. Released a year later, it immediately gained international acclaim at festivals (winning the Grand Prix of the Belgian Film Critics Association). Yet the work still saw limited circulation in the US and was mostly available in the 1990s on VHS and DVD. It was not until 2009 that a new, restored DVD was released with an edit approved by Chytilová. Chytilová was one of the leading figures of the Czech New Wave in the 1960s, and Daisies remains the film for which she is best known, despite its limited circulation. Over the years, I’ve heard or read various things about the controversy surrounding the film and its release. I heard that Jean-Luc Godard panned the film because it engaged with things that he considered bourgeois. I also heard that the pre–Prague Spring government denounced the film because of the amount of food destroyed in its making. The DVD extras feature Chytilová discussing the controversy: The film was funded by the government and released two years before the Prague Spring, but was immediately banned and was not allowed to be shown in Czechoslovakia or distributed outside the country for a year. Chytilová herself was not officially blacklisted, as most other members of the Czech New Wave were, but she was not allowed to work in her own country for almost ten years.
The film features two young Czech women, both named Marie, who decide to “go bad” because the world has gone bad. The film opens with aerial shots of bombs dropping in World War II and train wheels turning—this footage is intercut with the two Maries sunbathing, moving like mechanical puppets. In the opening dialogue, they determine that “nobody understands them.” In response, the Maries proceed to engage in a series of nonsensical, slapstick, sometimes surreal montages of actions and interactions with various materials. They constantly dress and undress, eat pickles and other phallic foods, and engage in a host of scenes inside their Prague apartment. Between these long interior sequences, the Maries go out to expensive restaurants to find older men who will pay for their meals. Scene after scene, these old men treat them to lavish meals, as the Maries pig out on cake, wine, and other fancy foods, only to ditch the old men later at the train station. The two women are the only young people in a world of older-generation types—they delight in getting drunk and blowing psychedelic bubbles in their drinks, falling down slapstick style, their kitten heels clicking along, their polka-dot dresses flash from tiny dots to large dots, their 1960’s cat’s-eye liner gets thicker and thicker throughout the film, until at the end it’s a wide band across their faces. They sunbathe and quite literally fall into a Garden of Eden, where they dance like rabbits and eat green apples. All this exuberance is laced with a dark irony.
My favorite scenes take place inside the Maries’ apartment. Here again, we see an incredible use of optical printing, collage, and cinematography, mixed with the textures of foods and fabrics. The Maries write all over the walls, light streamers on fire, and take baths in milk (while dissolving paper cut-out images of men they have taken into the bath with them) while eating tons of pickles; they roll each other up in blankets and off the bed, threaten to commit suicide with gas from the stove, and many more antics that range from disturbing to delightful, from playful to macabre. In one scene, the girls eat sausages, bananas, and eggs, violently slicing then with scissors—then they cut out images of foods and meats from magazines and eat the paper images, before lighting the room on fire. In another macabre scene, the Maries use scissors to cut each other’s clothes like paper dolls then turn the scissors to their body parts, cutting off each other’s arms and heads, the beheaded bodies still madly wielding scissors (like editors cutting film)—and eventually this collaged and optically printed scene creates a dadaist, Cubist cut-up of the entire room.
After all of this, the Maries find themselves in the countryside of Czechoslovakia, where they wander through small towns and farmers’ fields. They soon realize that the groups of workers there can’t see them or hear them. A striking montage of hundreds of close-ups of locks on doors follows. Eventually, the Maries find themselves in a large, very gray civic building covered in Communist posters, where they cram into a dumbwaiter. As they pass by each floor, they see glimpses of culture: a symphony performing on one floor, workers carving meat on another. They get out to find an empty chandeliered banquet room filled with grandiose table settings and a buffet with platters of meats, cheese, and endless deserts. Here, the hungry Maries engage in the most glorious, debaucherous food fight, destroying the entire banquet, dancing on the table, their kitten heels digging into cakes and foods and swinging from the giant chandelier. They fall from the chandelier into a lake, and typewritten words appear on the screen: “There was only one way to finish up. Is there any way to mend what’s been destroyed?” The wet Maries call for help, and as lumber workers lower logs into the lake for them to climb up, they say, “We’ve gone bad!”
The film cuts to them back in a banquet room covered from head to toe with suits made from newspaper and twine. Somehow, the Maries are back in the banquet, putting back together the table settings—broken plates are reassembled; cakes are pushed back together. Their own loud, illegible whispers are the only sounds while they work, moving like puppets in fast motion to repair the damage they have done. The film ends with them still in their newspaper suits, bound by twine and lying on the table. A chandelier falls onto them, and the film cuts to an intertitle that reads, “Dedicated to Those Whose Sole Source of Indignation is a Messed-Up-Trifle,” over the same aerial footage and sound of bombs dropping onto buildings with which the film opens. A call to action for anger and madness not to be trivialized.
Some of the moves used in Daisies were picked up by parts of the Third Wave feminist movement, as exemplified by riot grrrls and grrrl power, which emerged at a time when women were actively redefining the roles and definitions of feminism to be more inclusive and open. This involved exploring sexuality as power and an attempt to embrace what “grrrlness” was in its many forms. Presenting girls as ravenous and hungry is a statement that Godard misunderstood. Yet, in the years since, we have often seen similar statements evidenced in cult, avant-garde, and popular film: In Chantal Ackerman’s I’m Cold, I’m Hungry (1984); in the cult film Ladies and Gentlemen: The Fabulous Stains (1982, directed by Lou Adler and written by Nancy Dowd under the pseudonym Tom Morton), where eyeliner is again a material in exaggerated use; the girl duo shows up again in Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974, Jacques Rivette) and in the escapades of Thelma & Louise (1991, directed by Ridley Scott and written by Callie Khouri). The apocalyptic feminist ending of Daisies (as the Maries are seemingly killed by the chandelier) is shared with Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983), a futuristic feminist film that addresses race and class. The body is seen as a tool for pleasure and power through Jane Fonda’s character in Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy (1968). The girls/women in films and videos such as Spring Breakers, Bridesmaids, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Ryan Trecartin’s work all contain aspects of Daisies’ conceptual or stylistic approach.
Then again, most of the films above do not share Daisies’ deployment of experimental film techniques such as optical printing, collage, and nonlinearity. Through these techniques, Chytilová’s film finds another wide set of resonances—the list is too long to even start, but think of filmmakers such as Man Ray, Maya Deren, or Pat O’Neill, or a film such as Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) (which ends with an epic ten-minute scene of a building blowing up in slow motion, set to Pink Floyd music). That is where the film’s brilliance lies: It collapses approaches ranging from the comedic to the political to the experimental. On the DVD extras, Chytilová notes that “in the late 1960s, Czech films that experimented with form, or filmmaking techniques, were criticized by the authorities for their inaccessibility.”
Once I saw Daisies, it immediately rose to the top of the most important films to me as an artist and as a person. I’ve watched it dozens of times, shown it to everyone I know, taught the film to my students, and gotten my daughter and her friends into it. Its influence runs the gamut—just the other day I saw a new music video that was a remake of Daisies. It’s a cult film forty years after its release in Prague, screening with new prints regularly at art-house cinemas such as Los Angeles’s Cinefamily. While many in the mainstream might not know this film, it functions as cult films do—with an intense following. I am grateful to this great filmmaker for her lasting and influential work—Daisies—captivating, psychedelic, intoxicating, dark, and powerful all at the same time. Rest in peace, Věra Chytilová. Your work and influence lives on.
Jennifer West is an artist based in Los Angeles.