Thursday, April 28, 2011

Breathing New Life Into Old Art

For those whose circumstances made it impossible to get an advanced degree in art history, there are plenty of programs now available on television and DVD. Sister Wendy Beckett has narrated numerous documentaries on art. The History Channel and PBS have also done yeoman's service in making art history available to the general public.

Many film fans flock to festivals to get a leg up on movies that are soon to be released. Some are attracted to specific genres of film (horror, gore, romance, action, etc.). Over the years I've learned that many film festivals offer an invaluable service to culture vultures -- a service of which far too few are aware.

A film festival is where audiences are most likely to encounter the latest documentaries about art history. While some filmmakers like to focus in on a specific artist's work, others find their inspiration in tracking how certain pieces of art have traveled from one collection to another. In 2007, the San Francisco Film Society presented the Bay area premiere of The Rape of Europa, a stunning documentary exposing how Adolf Hitler (himself a failed artist) looted the art collections of European Jews and, as German forces invaded one country after another, sought to seize some of the world's greatest works of art.

At the 2010 San Francisco Indie Film Festival, I was intrigued by the political and financial shenanigans exposed in The Art of the Steal. Don Argott's documentary about the fight to gain control of the famous Barnes art collection (whose 9,000 pieces of art include 181 works by Pierre-August Renoir, 69 painted by Paul Cézanne, 60 works by Henri Matisse, 44 works by Pablo Picasso and 14 paintings by Amedeo Modigliani) is a must-see for art lovers.

Less than a month before he was assassinated, President John F. Kennedy spoke at Amherst College on October 26, 1963, where he made the following remarks:
“It is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.
If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeish once remarked of poets, there is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style. In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society -- in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost's hired man, the fate of having ‘nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.’
I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.”
In recent years, the San Francisco International Film Festival has consistently included documentaries about art history in their programming. In 2005, Sumiko Haneda's exquisite Into the Picture Scroll: The Tale of Yamanaka Tokiwa completely blew me away. Roger Garcia wrote the following description of the film for the festival's program guide:
"This extraordinary film presents Japanese classical scroll painting as never before. The Yamanaka Tokiwa comprises twelve scrolls painted by Matabei Iwasa some 400 years ago. It tells the then-famous puppet theater story of Lady Tokiwa, who is murdered by bandits in Yamanaka on her way to visit her samurai son. Learning of her fate from her ghost, the son sets out to avenge her death. With a newly composed joruri score (ballad singing with shamisen accompaniment), Sumiko Haneda has created a stirring cinematic work from a static painting that is one of Japan’s cultural treasures. The camera reveals details unseen by the naked eye; close-ups reveal background detail of everyday life in Edo-era Japan, while Eisensteinian montage delivers action-packed scenes of attack and swordplay. We learn that although the tale was for the mass market, it resonated deeply with Iwasa, whose father was a samurai and whose mother was executed after a failed rebellion."

A panel from one of the scrolls of the Yamanaka Tokiwa

At the 2008 San Francisco International Film festival, Peter Greenaway's dramatic film entitled Rembrandt’s J’accuse took a forensic approach toward analyzing an historic piece of art in a style that might best be described as "CSI: Art History."

This year, the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival is featuring three new documentaries which examine historic works of art. Having only seen two of them, I found it curious that one would be marketed as a 3D film which, because of its director's international fame, will get a tremendous amount of publicity. The other, by a relatively unknown filmmaker, will get nowhere near the publicity it so richly deserves.

* * * * * * * * *
On December 18, 1994, Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet began to explore a cave in southern France that revealed a stunning collection of wall paintings by prehistoric man. Subsequently named in honor of one of the three explorers, the Chauvet cave is considered by many anthropologists to contain the first evidence of human art in the form of cave paintings

Scientists have since reached the conclusion that humans did not inhabit the cave. Rather, it was often a shelter for cave bears (and had absolutely nothing to do with the release of 1986's popular  film, The Clan of the Cave Bear). Using radiocarbon dating techniques, it has even been determined that a drawing of a reindeer that was started by one person may have been completed by someone else 5,000 years later!

Although the cave's existence has been known for more than 16 years, scientists have carefully laid down walkways in an effort to prevent any unnecessary damage to its soft clay floor (the cave had been sealed shut by a rock slide at least 20,000 years ago). This is not the kind of site that can be opened to the public. Indeed, there is now talk about building a visitor center that would include a simulation of the cave and its prehistoric paintings.

Paintings of horses in the Chauvet cave

The artwork discovered in the cave consists mostly of paintings of wild animals: bears, lions, rhinoceri, buffalo, and woolly mammoths. The paintings of horses are remarkably skilled, especially for someone using the crudest of artistic tools.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a fascinating documentary by Werner Herzog which was filmed under the most curious circumstances. The two questions that instantly come to mind while watching the film are:
  1. How did Herzog get permission to make the film?
  2. Why did he choose to film in digital 3D?
I have no way of answering the second question. However, in recent interviews, Herzog has confessed to being fascinated by cave paintings since he was a child.

He spent nearly a year trying to get permission to film from France's Ministry of Culture, the regional government in southern France, and the collective of scientists working in the Chauvet cave. His proposal was simple:  If the  French government would let him film the cave as an employee, he would only ask for a fee of one euro. In return, he would donate the film (with all noncommercial rights) to France.

Herzog's film crew in the Chauvet cave

Herzog's 90-minute film (which contains interviews with scientists, art historians, etc.) also includes some beautiful vistas of the valley created by the Ardèche River. While some of the interviews offer wonderful background material on the prehistoric environment in Southern France, there are certain moments within the cave (the "heartbeat" scene, in particular) which ring false.

Film fans should be able to keep themselves occupied debating whether or not it was worthwhile for Herzog to shoot the film in digital 3D (at this point in his career he doesn't really have to prove himself to anyone). The film's one notable drawback is that it tends to get a bit repetitious in the second half as Herzog shows footage of the same drawings over and over again.

I don't think people who see the film in 2D will suffer any great artistic loss.  The real art is on the walls of the Chauvet cave and any opportunity to see it is a spectacular gift from Herzog and France. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
In 2007, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco mounted an exhibition entitled Princes, Palaces, and Passion: The Art of the Mewar Kingdom. Billed as a collection of artwork from the kingdom of Mewar (located in northwestern Rajasthan), the exhibition featured quite a few Indian miniatures. Eager to see the new exhibit, I hauled my ass down to the Asian Art Museum and received a rather unpleasant reality check.

Over the course of the previous decade I had undergone three surgeries on my left eye. A steady stream of allergies (coupled with the fact that I live right across the street from Dolores Park) meant that my eyes were constantly blurry or tearing. Those two factors (along with my bifocals) made it almost impossible for me to clearly see -- much less appreciate -- the miniatures painted by famous Indian artists.

A beautiful new documentary by Amit Dutta concentrates on the work of the artist Nainsukh. But instead of an academic lecture about the artist and his work, Dutta's film seeks to reenact many of the moments captured by Nainsukh in his miniatures and, in doing so, let the viewer imagine what was in the artist's mind at the time.

Dancers recreate a scene from one of Nainsukh's miniature paintings

The one drawback to Nainsukh is that it takes about 30 minutes before viewers catch on to how the action in the film is aimed to reproduce some of the artist's miniature paintings.  Once a viewer hooks into the symmetry in the film's structure, all that's required is to sit back and enjoy the film's visual splendor. But first, a little bit of historical perspective is in order.  According to the film's production notes:
"Nainsukh (born in Guler c. 1710, died 1778 ), the greatest of 18th century Indian Miniature painters, son of the respected Pandit Seu and younger brother of Manaku, deviated from his family workshop style because of his interest for Mughal naturalism. At the age of 39, Nainsukh followed the call of Raja Zorawar Singh to his castle in Jasrota. Here, Nainsukh served him and, after his untimely death, his young son Raja Balwant Singh as retained artist. These two dandy-like, non-ruling Rajput princes were connoisseurs who enjoyed spending their limited fortunes on colorful guests with a fastidious taste for music, dance and theatrical performances."

A painting comes to life in Nainsukh

"Nainsukh participated in their artistic amusements as an 'organizing observer' and as the chronicler of their predilections by dozens of pictures, which are a clear proof of his closeness to this hillnobility’s life-style -- a world he depicted with sympathy and respect. Involved in some court intrigue and probably incapable to repay some heavy debts to a miscreant court priest, Raja Balwant Singh was forced to leave Jasrota, and Nainsukh accompanied him in exile, where the prince died three years later. It was Nainsukh, who participated in the death rites for his long-time patron, as is recorded in the pilgrim’s register at Haridwar with an entry made by Nainsukh, embellished also with a fine drawing dated June 1763."

One of the scenes from Nainsukh's paintings that is brought to life in the film.

In his director's note, Amit Dutta writes:
"Inspired by the paintings and biography of Nainsukh, this film is shot in the same region where the artist had lived and worked. The actors are local people and include the direct descendants of Nainsukh. The story is from my homeland and I speak the same dialect. The artist himself is played by Manish Soni, one of the finest contemporary miniature painters in India. Nainsukh was realised with the collaboration of the scholar Dr. Eberhard Fischer who has been more than a producer."

Dutta's film has no discernible dialogue. Instead, it is often accompanied by a cacophony of bird calls and mooing cows. And yet, the amplified sounds of nature only enrich the experience of seeing Nainsukh's art come to life. Whether the actors are getting into the necessary positions to mimic the slaying of a tiger or dance for a prince, the film is so visually rich and acoustically stimulating that its beauty can often take the viewer's breath away.

A miniature portrait painted by the artist Nainsukh.

I wish it were possible to show some of the reenactments in the film but, alas, no trailer is available at present. Take my word that Dutta's documentary will overwhelm you with a rare and exorbitant beauty and thrill you with its vibrancy as it brings Nainsukh's art to life.

No comments: