PRINT Summer 1986


The Art of Filming Painting: Derek Jarman and Caravaggio, Peter Greenaway and Jan Vermeer, Paul Leduc and Frida Kahlo.

WHEN IT'S NOT EXPLORING the crude reality of daily life, film sometimes turns its eyes on art—on art history, on esthetic philosophy, on literature, on itself. A recent example was The Draughtsman’s Contract, 1982, by the Englishman Peter Greenaway, the contemporary master of bafflingly speculative, perfectly conceived (and designed) cinema. The movie tells the story of a 17th-century draughtsman and of the challenge his art poses to aristocratic British society. A whodunit in powdered wigs, it is a sort of allegorical marriage between Agatha Christie and the Marquis de Sade, but it is also, more abstractly, what Greenaway calls a “film about twelve drawings”—a puzzle, coolly and precisely arranged, about art, cinema, and the nature of perception.

A number of films on art were shown at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, ranging from a biography of the painter Frida Kahlo to Greenaway’s latest meditative conundrum, A Zed & Two Noughts, 1986, which attracted a large audience of young viewers. So did Caravaggio, 1985, by Derek Jarman, director of such films as The Jubilee, 1978, and a punkish 1979 version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Both Jarman and Greenaway, fellow countrymen and almost exact contemporaries, have reputations as strong-headed eccentrics, but it is these directors’ estheticism that most appeals to today’s nervously sensitive audiences. Making films is not the only thing the two men have in common: each began as a painter, and each has had a reputation as a novelist. (Jarman has also become well-known as a designer of sets and costumes.)

Skillfully handling color, light, perspective, and space, both men charge their new works with a kind of optical sensitivity, and with a complex texture of esthetic relations. For Jarman, the Baroque painter Caravaggio is “the inventor of cinematic light,” and “the first one to give light a dramatic function in painting”; certain scenes in the film are careful re-creations, beautifully lit, of images from Caravaggio’s work. A Zed & Two Noughts was filmed in the Netherlands, and its “visual master of ceremonies,” according to Greenaway, is Jan Vermeer; at times, in imitation of the Dutch painter, Greenaway projected the light “from the left, from outside the frame, at a distance of 1.40 meters above floor level” into his “1/24th-second units of 17th-century life.” Deliberately missing from Greenaway’s film, however, is the warmth of Vermeer’s canvases. The director defines his light with extreme precision, and it is blue, steely, and ice-cold.

A zed, or zee, and two noughts make a zoo, and a zoo is a principal location in Greenaway’s film, which, in his own ironic description, is a work “about eight traditionally acknowledged Darwinian periods of evolution.” This characterization perhaps reflects a literal truth, but it isn’t to be trusted for a minute. Greenaway is a Swiftian humorist, and the path down which he draws the viewer leads, more strangely even than in The Draughtsman’s Contract, through a labyrinthine puzzle. His glittering paradise of the imagination begins with a swan, which flies over a road, causing a car-crash that kills two women, the wives of twin brothers. The driver, Alba Bewick (Andrea Ferreol), survives, though she loses a leg, which has to be amputated. The operation is performed by a spectral-looking surgeon, van Hoyten (Joss Ackland); systematic to the core, he badly wants to amputate his patient’s other leg as well, and in fact succeeds in doing so later in the movie. Before then, however, the luxuriously pampered Alba has made the widowed twins her lovers—and has become the mother of twins.

Through the medium of the two widowers, zoologists who search for the meaning of life in a series of ever stranger experiments, Greenaway entertains a variety of questions—whether the zebra is a black animal with white stripes or a white one with black stripes, for example. At the same time, through the experiments’ Eadweard Muybridge-like system of photographic documentation, he runs a variation of the plays on art and representation that he explored in The Draughtsman’s Contract. In a device as subversive and disturbing as some of Luis Buñuel’s early images, Greenaway uses the twins’ photographic work to introduce a number of time-lapse sequences of decaying animal corpses, each successive body larger than its predecessor. Fanatic students of form (and its decay) and of symmetry (and its collapse), in the final experiment the twins commit suicide after turning their cameras on themselves; snails creeping over their naked corpses cause a blackout, a short circuit, which ends not only their project but also Greenaway’s, a brilliant, razor-sharp, highly artificed filmic speculation on evolution and annihilation, form and dissolution, chance and necessity, and vision.

For Caravaggio, Jarman constructed a whole environment in a London warehouse: the taverns, studios, roadsides, and Vatican palaces of 16th- and 17th-century Italy. He begins his portrait with an ending, a vision of Caravaggio as a dying man, and then returns to the artist’s earlier life, creating productions of his paintings in the form of tableaux vivants. But Jarman is also concerned with his own ideas and fantasies of Caravaggio. His narrative is woven together from threads he picked up in years of study of the sparse data available on the artist, and of the iconography of the paintings, from which he extrapolated a kind of hidden biography. The tableaux he stages are exquisitely beautiful; in great detail, they indulge and enact his notions of Caravaggio’s “modernity.” The prostitutes and pimps whom the painter used as models for his religious pictures; his bi- or homosexuality; his access to the decadent circles at the Vatican; his involvement in a murder these move to center stage in Jarman’s film. Using a palette of the religious, the criminal, and the sexual, the director creates a very personal work. It makes sense that his next project is to make a film of the last hours of a more contemporary poète maudit, murdered during an erotic excursion—Pier Paolo Pasolini. The characters who cross before Jarman’s camera in Caravaggio smoke cigarettes, and, often, wear modern street clothes.

As a young woman the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who died in 1954, was severely injured in a traffic accident which eventually led to the amputation of one leg. Yet she led an extroverted life, married the mural-painter Diego Rivera, and was an active and unflinching partisan of the radical left. Paul Leduc’s Frida: Naturaleza Viva (Frida: alive life), 1984, leafs unchronologically through her life, deliberately avoiding hagiography. Leduc stages splinters, fragments, phantasms, moments of lacerating conflict and neurotic narcissism—cinematic equivalents of Kahlo’s adventurous, evidently allegorical paintings. The result is an enigmatic, shocking series of images of a female Passion: on the one hand, episodes of oppression and bodily pain, and on the other, epiphanies of artistic triumph over the mental and physical wounds that shrouded the life of this woman with scars and stigmata. And Leduc has obviously been sensitive to Kahlo’s work, using his experience of it to approach her desires, obsessions, and fears. With Caravaggio and A Zed & Two Noughts, Frida completed an extraordinary trio of films about the hidden lives encoded in art.

Wolfram Schütte is the film and literature editor of the Frankfurter Rundschau, and writes a column on film for Artforum.

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.