Posts Tagged ‘art’

Director: Frederick Wiseman

Country: France / USA / UK

Runtime: 180 mins

In Skyfall, James Bond sits at the National Gallery and studies Turner’s famous masterpiece The Fighting Temeraire. Shortly afterwards he is joined by Q, who in this incarnation is a computer whizz. Even before any dialogue occurs between the two, the question raised by the scenario is clear: is Bond even relevant in the contemporary world of hacking and electronic eavesdropping? Or, like HMS Temeraire, is he only fit for the scrapyard?

As it happens, one of the paintings that features in Frederick Wiseman’s masterly documentary, National Gallery, is in fact a spy story. One of the gallery’s guides explains to her audience that Rubens’ picture Samson and Delilah depicts a crucial ambiguity in the countenance of Delilah as she holds a sleeping post-coital Samson. Delilah, a kind of female Bond in the Bible, has been paid by the Philistines to seduce Samson in order to discover the source of his strength. As Samson sleeps, a servant prepares to cut off his hair, whilst a group of Philistines wait at the door in preparation to arrest the weakened man. But Delilah herself, in her seduction of Samson, has developed feelings for him. This is reflected in the tender look on her face as she gazes down on him. One hand gently caresses his face, but her other hand – reflecting the duality of the situation – is more rigidly posed.

This is just one of many paintings whose inner meanings are revealed to us by knowledgeable gallery staff, one of whom explains to a group of children that all paintings tell a story. Some paintings are more mysterious than others in terms of their interpretations. One notable example is Holbein’s The Ambassadors, with its anamorphous skull (although this object itself we are told, unlike many devices used in paintings, only ever means one thing – death).

At three hours in length, National Gallery, requires the kind of patience with which one must explore a gallery or museum. But the film really is quite a revelation, displaying the working life of the gallery’s staff in fascinating detail. Most of the scenes fall into one of three categories: educational activities of one sort or another, restoration work being applied to damaged artworks, and business meetings of senior staff. In terms of education, this goes beyond merely guiding visitors around key works. We also see a class of visually-impaired people exploring touch-versions of Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre at Night, groups of people attending life-drawing classes, and students attending lectures.

Elsewhere, restorers – often wearing special magnifying goggles – chip flecks off of damaged paintings and place them on slides to be inspected under microscopes. They dab away at tiny portions of artworks, adding either paint or varnish – and there is some detailed explanation of the effects of different types of paints and varnishes (apparently, different varnishes can affect colour differently, just like filters on a camera lens). We are told that some past restorations haven’t always been entirely helpful, but that the modern principle is that any additions by restorers must be removable. In one magnificent instance an X-ray of a painting reveals a second picture beneath the first.

Behind the scenes we get a few snapshots of the difficult decisions that need to be made, balancing the artistic goals of the gallery with the harsh economic realities that must be faced. At one point senior staff discuss whether they should allow Sport Relief to project an image onto the front of the gallery. Many such requests are received but are turned down, as the gallery -itself a charitable institution – attempts to maintain its distinctive character rather than be used as an advertising billboard for every worthy cause. However, in this instance it seems that Westminster Council has arranged for the square just outside the gallery to be used as a finishing point for a marathon (without consulting the gallery). Thus, the gallery staff debate whether they should just accept this as a fait accompli and go along with the projection idea as a way of advertising themselves. On the other hand, they are successful enough that they don’t really need to advertise themselves, the marathon itself will inevitably stop visitors coming into the gallery, and agreeing to the projection might set a precedent.

Another discussion revolves around money, as a budget for the coming year has to be set in the context of a substantially reduced grant contribution. At this point reality comes crashing in. Since National Gallery was completed, plans have been announced to privatise hundreds of staff – with the obvious implications for their terms and conditions – and the Director Nicholas Penny, and several other managers, have announced their resignations. The Director of the neighbouring National Portrait Gallery has also announced his resignation. Of course, even the necessity for commercial sponsorship of exhibitions brings with it the risk of adverse publicity, and at one point we watch as Greenpeace activists scale the front of the gallery and release a banner protesting against sponsorship from Shell because of their role in oil exploration in the Arctic.

As if to emphasize the sense of foreboding aroused by the budget discussions, Wiseman takes us next to a discussion of Turner’s painting The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, whereby a guide explains how the artist was concerned with the broader theme of empires rising and falling, which obviously included the British Empire. Decline in this picture is symbolised by a vivid setting sun. Sunset evokes change in the next painting considered, which is Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire.

But rather than leave us on a negative note, the final third of National Gallery takes us through a range of other pictures, classes, and restoration activities without any obvious political connotations. Throughout the film the camera also roams across the visitors themselves: people lost in contemplation, sleeping, sketching, young men romantically nuzzling the cheeks of their girlfriends, and classes of schoolchildren listening attentively to the ever-knowledgeable guides. On the evidence presented here, the senior staff at the National Gallery have an enviable gender balance that is not matched in many organisations, although they are overwhelmingly white (I don’t think I saw any non-white faces). Similarly, the visitors themselves – like the subjects of nearly all the Gallery’s paintings – appeared to be mostly white, with the notable exception of some of the school classes who were visiting. One group of schoolchildren is actually told by a guide that the collection they are viewing was financed largely by the results of slavery, the one point in the film where any issue of ethnic diversity is mentioned.

There is no voiceover narration to National Gallery and none of the staff who appear are actually named. This is an approach that works well, as all the speaking that is needed is done by the people onscreen. Frederick Wiseman has put together a quite extraordinary documentary. I felt it was three hours well spent.

Rating: 5/5

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Director: Mike Leigh

Writer: Mike Leigh

Country: UK

Runtime: 150 mins

Cast: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Ruth Sheen, Martin Savage, James Fleet, Joshua McGuire

An alternative title for Mike Leigh’s dazzling new film about the great artist, Joseph Mallord William Turner, could easily have been Turner and His Women. This is not just a film about the development of Turner’s ability to create the most sublime images, although great beauty is depicted. It is the contrast between Turner’s sensitivity as an artist and his insensitivity towards women that dominates the film and bookends it in the opening and closing scenes. But in other ways Turner could also be incredibly generous and this too is highlighted.

Leigh sets out his stall right from the beginning. After some artfully done opening credits and a beautifully sweeping landscape scene involving a sunrise, Flemish milkmaids, a windmill, and Turner (Timothy Spall) silhouetted against the sky, reality comes crashing back to earth when Turner returns to his father’s home in London. No sooner has the maid, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), appeared to take the artist’s request for a cup of tea, when he reaches up and gropes her breast, before then groping her between the legs. The two of them are clearly already intimately acquainted and, as brutal as Turner’s  behaviour seems, it is also invited. Lonely Hannah has feelings for Turner although his urges appear to be purely sexual.

Not long after this, Turner’s work is interrupted by the arrival of an angry, poor, ex-lover, Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) and the two daughters she has bore the artist. We never learn the history of this particular relationship, but what is clear is that Turner has no interest in Sarah and the children. He simply wants to get back to his easel and canvas.

But if Turner behaves poorly towards the women he is involved with, elsewhere he is more selfless. He lends £50 to the indebted artist Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), despite the latter’s rudeness born of desperation. Later, when Turner begins painting the works that are now recognised as his greatest, he is publicly mocked by Vaudevillians, and Queen Victoria refers to one of his pictures as “an ugly yellow mess”. Despite these humiliations, when a wealthy collector offers him a fortune for all his works Turner turns him down, saying that his pictures have been bequeathed – “to the British nation”. Turner also firmly defends the reputation of another seascape painter against the criticism of an insufferable, fawning Ruskin (Joshua McGuire).

Timothy Spall’s portrayal of Turner is one of the great performances of the year. He learned to paint over several months in order that his applications of brush to canvas would be convincing. His Turner is a great grunting force of nature, drawing crowds of onlookers as he leaps and spits on his canvasses, before smearing the oils into mysterious pre-impressionist clouds and seas. At one point, he has himself lashed to the mast of a ship in order that he can experience a storm at sea. From this he creates a masterpiece, Snow Storm. Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth. However, he also suffers the consequences in the form of a bad bout of bronchitis. He is tended through his illness by Mrs Booth (an outstanding performance from Marion Bailey), the twice-widowed landlady of his lodgings in Kent. Turner enters into a secret relationship with her and she is the one woman who he genuinely cares for and treats decently.

As you might expect, Mr Turner contains some gorgeous landscape and seascape scenes. At one point we see Turner and some associates heading out to sea in a small boat, as clouds scud across a red sky above them. A large ship is being brought towards land by a tug and we realise we are watching the scene that became the classic picture The Fighting Temeraire. Even though this scene must have been a digital creation, it is still beautiful, and when I recognised what it was it brought a lump to my throat.

With numerous excellent performances, splendid cinematography, and a fine musical soundtrack, Mr Turner is very much a film worth seeing.

Rating: 10/10

Directors: Tim Newton and Bob & Roberta Smith

Writers: Tim Newton and Bob & Roberta Smith

UK: 2014

Runtime: 83 mins

In defence of art: a scattershot blast at Michael Gove

Watching Art Party brought back memories of my own art master at Bexley & Erith Technical High School, now rebranded as BETHS Grammar School (skip ahead a couple of paragraphs if you aren’t interested in this personal digression!). To me, Mr Wilson was one of the most inspiring teachers, not just because of his obvious enthusiasm about visual art but because of the way he dealt with his disability. At some point in his life Mr Wilson had lost an arm. He didn’t talk about it and I never knew what had happened, but the story that had filtered down to us (true or false, I don’t know) was that Mr Wilson had lost his preferred arm and subsequently taught himself to draw and paint with his remaining arm. But to my young self, who had never encountered any form of disability (other than a neighbour with a glass eye), what most struck me was the matter-of-fact way Mr Wilson behaved in regard to his bad arm. He never tried to hide the stump. On the contrary, he would walk confidently around the classroom in short-sleeved shirts with the stump protruding, including a stringy flap of skin that hung down. When he was demonstrating aspects of painting or sketching to us he would tuck brushes, palettes, or drawing pads under that stump. Back then, in the 1970s, this struck me as quite bold and I think it seemed to represent the idea that art and artists have a freedom that isn’t apparent in other areas of life. 

Mr Wilson didn’t just teach, but he would also produce his own art. There was one year when structural problems at the school forced us to temporarily decamp to a recently-vacated convent. In the hall of this building Mr Wilson undertook a large mural depicting some sort of battle scene (as I dimly recall, it was a middle ages kind of thing, with swords and suits of armour). Once we had relocated back to the proper school buildings I used to walk past the convent, which was in my home town, and still see the mural through the window. Until now, I hadn’t really stopped to appreciate the incongruity of having a battle scene on a convent wall. I like to think that the picture hadn’t been commissioned by the headmaster and that Mr Wilson was driven by his own inner inspiration.

Although I didn’t end up pursuing an artistic career, several years ago I took up photography and didn’t need to be taught the rule-of-thirds because I remembered this from my school art class. All of which brings me to Art Party, a film made in response to the apparent downgrading of arts within schools by UK Education Secretary Michael Gove. In 2011 the artist Bob and Roberta Smith (real name: Patrick Brill) wrote an impassioned letter to Gove about the importance of arts in schools. This was followed, in 2013, by a large gathering of artists at Scarborough for an “art party”, described in The Guardian by Adrian Searle as “a continuation not just of Brill’s campaign, but of Bob & Roberta’s art. Everyone became unwitting accomplices. With its seminars and performances, films, lectures and comedy acts, stands, podium speeches and fringe meetings, the conference was at once the real thing and masquerade, serious and silly, amateurish and passionate. It was also part-exhibition, part cringingly bad craft fayre, part gig and am-dram talent night, part immersive installation”.

The Art Party film is partly a documentary account of the Scarborough event, including Bob & Roberta Smith reading out his letter to Gove, performances from musicians, and interviews with various participants about the value of art in schools and in society generally. There are several performances from one of my favourites, Flameproof Moth, a busker who can often be seen playing artfully ramshackle songs on the beach at London’s Bankside, even as the tide comes in and the waves start lapping around his legs.

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This is all interspersed with fantasy segments involving a fictionalised version of the then Education Secretary, “Michael Grove” (played by John Voce), and his entirely fictional aid Hettie Nettleship (Julia Raynor). In truth, these scenes were a bit hit-or-miss, and the resolution of the Grove story wasn’t entirely coherent. During the Scarborough event there is a kind of redemption for Grove, as he suddenly sees the light and joins in the party. However, having struck this note of optimism, the writers then serve up a rather mean-spirited ending for Grove that seems to fly in the face, not just of his change of heart, but of the positive advice sung by Flameproof Moth (to Nettie) only moments earlier to “Reach for your best available thoughts”. Given that Michael Gove himself is also no longer the Education Secretary, having a fictionalised version of him in the film does make it already seem somewhat dated.

According to the final credits, several politicians – including Gove – were “unavailable” to take part in the film. This means that Art Party ends up being a rather one-sided affair, a piece of agitprop for art rather than a wider exploration of educational values. However, the spirited contributions by the various artists, in both interviews and performances, are by themselves pretty convincing arguments for the cause they wish to support.

Note: Just prior to seeing Art Party I discovered that I work at the same institution as one of the writer-directors. In addition, several students contributed to the film. As that might be construed as a conflict of interest I haven’t rated this film.