Perfectly dressed

Peter Campbell

  • Moving Pictures by Anne Hollander
    Harvard, 512 pp, £15.00, April 1991, ISBN 0 674 58828 2

Words about pictures are often commentaries which justify categories. They give reasons for inclusions, exclusions and orderings. Connoisseurs distinguish genuine works from misattributions, and historians establish chronologies which support claims about why and how things have changed. What they write can be challenged by facts. A new X-ray or a contemporary inventory may destroy the argument a group of paintings was chosen to illustrate. Critics, by contrast, invent categories which facts cannot invalidate. For example, Kenneth Clark’s distinction between the naked and the nude stands as long as we agree that pictures of unclothed people can be assigned to either the nakedness pile or the nudity pile. A comparison or anecdote may suggest why pictures in a critical category look similar, or may be the catalyst which leads the reader to react as the writer wishes, but no revelation about a painter’s intentions, no change in attribution, no proof of forgery, can force the removal or inclusion of a particular image.

Anne Hollander’s Moving Pictures is a rarity: a convincing new way of sorting post-1500 European and American paintings – into the cinematic and the non-cinematic. In explaining how the set of images she identifies as cinematic relate to our experience of the movies, she has produced some of the most accessible, intellectually rewarding and striking writing about painting I have come across. The book advances one main thesis to which particular excursions hark back:

The point about movies is not just that they move, but that they move us. And the chief way they do that is by offering sets of partial and puzzling views, just as life does, and making art directly out of their arbitrary, unfinished nature ... Cinematic art ... allows beauty to arise from the very quality of contingency that informs the images. Before the camera existed, many artists in the still media tried to do the same thing, to create beauty the same way, and indeed to create narrative, revealing a story in the unpredictable flow of visual life and seizing the viewer’s soul with it.

Hollander says that many of the artists she writes about ‘seem to a modern, post-cinematic eye to have prefigured the way movies work as pictures in the modern world’. She sees the ‘rise of film as the natural continuation of their special kind of illustrative impulse’.

The central part of Hollander’s argument is illustrated by paintings from the Northern tradition of smooth-surfaced, light-enhanced realism, in which an immaculate record of the effect of light on surfaces produces special meanings that ‘Baroque rhetoric, Rococo elegance, Neoclassic and Romantic dramaturgy, Impressionist vibrancy and modern formal abstraction’ neither aspire to nor achieve. In a painting by Rubens, even if it is of a lion hunt or a battle – and not a picture with a literary source, like a Nativity or an allegory – the narrative is energetic: the viewer is explicitly told what is happening and what will follow. Vermeer’s Woman pouring milk is different. Hollander says it is the light that does it: ‘a rush of human meaning seems to fill the room where a woman is standing at her kitchen window and nothing at all is happening, except for milk pouring out and light coming in.’ In such paintings, ‘surroundings are reflectors of interior states ... and can be the image of a state of mind.’

Photographs record the fall of light on objects, and the photographs which, seen in sequence, make up a movie also have unspoken meanings. As the argument of Moving Pictures advances, pre-cinema ‘cinematic’ ways of painting and their realised continuation in the movies are subsumed in a broader definition of cinematic vision. But, although Hollander finds Hollywood epics prefigured in John Martin’s Biblical extravagances and a foretaste of the framing and editing of commercial movies in Menzel’s illustration from The Life of Frederick the Great, proto-photographic cinematic imagery is her main concern. She believes it makes quite run-of-the-mill movies into hybrids, which ‘unfold a romantic tale made entirely of realistic pictures containing that same paradox – a continuous flow of directly presented actualities, but each pregnant with possible meaning and each giving birth to the next, a sort of perpetual Vermeer or Manet, an ongoing Goya, an endless Hopper, but used to create a fairy tale not much different from Cinderella or Jack the Giant Killer.’

So why do nearly all movies make so much of surface narrative? Why have the fairy-tale as well as the Hopper strip? Hollander answers that, while a filmmaker like Antonioni requires ‘no plot more elaborate than the story of inner states to satisfy the need for a “story” ’, most movies require explicit narratives because ‘without emotional continuity a film becomes disjointed and irritating and easy to forget, however beautiful.’ Even when they are communicating more in a different way, the sequence of painting-like scenes must be joined by a surface narrative.

The cinematic analogy separates paintings which make us voyeurs from those which make us an audience. This distinction is expanded in a comparison Hollander makes between the dramatic and the theatrical. Theatre can be static ‘like an emblem or an epiphany – the significant action may all be simultaneous and may consist of some timeless and constant interaction’, (she gives Botticelli’s Birth of Venus as an example). ‘By contrast, movies, like Shakespeare’s plays and Greek tragedies, are always going somewhere unknown and taking us with them.’ These are dramatic, rather than theatrical. Rembrandt and Goya are dramatic; classic art is theatrical. The Vermeer and de Hooch interior, even Goya’s Disasters of War are scenes we have come upon: they are calm or terrible but not didactic. They do not display a story, as Piero’s Baptism does, but take one instant from it. Such pictures have something of the anonymity of photographs. Writing of Bruegel, and paintings like The Fall of Icarus, Hollander says: ‘The artist and his superior judgment stay out of sight, so we may absorb the quality of these unself-conscious people without absorbing any editorial commentary.’ Even in paintings which seem to refer to nothing but the look of the world, subtexts can be identified – allusions to sex in Dutch genre paintings, and to the vanity of human wishes in Chardin’s picture of a young man blowing bubbles – but you do not need to know about them to know what a picture means to you. With movies it can be the other way about: you may have to ignore the story to appreciate the visual narrative. Hollander observes that it took a long time for anyone to see commercial American films as art, and that it was the French who did it first. Watching a film in which the actors speak a foreign language forces you back to the stimulating ambiguities of visual content. Here, Hollander argues, both originality and the continuation of a long tradition of dramatic illustration can be found. To make her case she has unpicked particular strands in the visual culture of the last four hundred years, and found versions of almost every component of the movies – except those, like dialogue and editing, which cannot exist except in time.

She identifies as cinematic both photograph-like pictures and pictures which occupy the same social and economic niches as the movies. By paying attention to popular culture, narrative devices and fashion, she extracts new truths from canonical images. Take what she says about fashion and French 17th and 18th-century painting. She begins with engravings, ‘the new and exquisite fashion prints of the 17th century’ which contributed to the figure style of serious painters. Watteau, who ‘for all his outdoor settings was a wholly urban artist’ borrowed from them. His milieu was ‘artistic, literary and theatrical people who gave city life its newly acquired refinement’. His dreams are ‘city dreams’, taking place in ‘parks probably modelled on the grounds of the actual suburban houses of Watteau’s friends and patrons, where informal costume parties, amateur plays, and concerts of the sort he shows did in fact take place’. The way people dress and stand mirrors a new kind of privacy, a rich life quite unlike the public life of the Court. ‘The look of the total figure in its clothes ... both ideally elegant and perfectly natural at the same time,’ the stuff of fashion photography, is also there in Watteau’s figures: ‘People of both sexes are only precariously and provisionally upright; they may loll and sprawl and lean at any moment, and then spring up again to dance ... The specific details of fashion, whatever they are, become the conveyors of a changeable personal atmosphere, and hence of mutable sexual possibility.’ Popular engravings lead to an understanding of elements in a visual culture which are more universal and primitive than the best works of art (which exemplify them as much as the worst do) would have let one guess: ‘One more feature of the late 17th-century fashion prints that found its way into later French art was an extremely youthful facial style for both sexes. Smooth round chins, wide-open bright eyes, short noses and fresh expressions pervade the paintings of Watteau, Chardin, Boucher, Greuze and Fragonard: these are the same babyish French looks that revive in the works of Renoir and ultimately in the films of Brigitte Bardot.’ Observations which a critic less attuned than Hollander to the uses art makes of feelings about one’s own body might not think to make, even if they crossed his mind, are very well put: Chardin’s paintings contain ‘a double truth: the basic one about colour, light and feeling purveyed by Rembrandt, with whose name Chardin’s was immediately associated; and the other, pervasive, but often unacknowledged one about the satisfactions of being perfectly dressed, which may go even deeper when carried in solution in a medium of unimpeachable realism. This is a main component in popular cinematic imagery, one of the things that make movies so inescapably riveting in their basic visual quality, before the acting and directing, the music and the editing even register.’

Extending her commentary beyond the central idea of a visual sub-text, Hollander finds parallels between teamwork in the movies and in painting. She gives an account of the contributions of Tiepolo’s costume department, casting-director and set-designers to his ceiling paintings: ‘The clothes in Tiepolo are palpably made of intractable taffeta and brocade – hemmed, lined and interlined, and obviously quite heavy to handle when flying in a high divine wind or balancing on one inch of lintel’; his extras are ‘notable individuals’. These functions are, to be sure, personifications of the artist; on the other hand Tiepolo’s architecture-man, Mengozzi-Colonna, who prepared perspectives of columns, stairs and domes as if they were the sets of a filmed spectacular, really was an additional member of the team. In Callot’s etchings, which show, among other things, the horrors of war, Hollander finds a genius for crowd-management, ‘a De Mille like combination of huge scope and small incident’, and a smoothness which links the glossy unreality of Hollywood epics to a much older glamorising tradition:

Callot and Bosse used a fashion-plate figure style, extra tall and slim with nonchalant posture. It was a mode left over from Mannerist painting, but it was most appropriate to the persuasive kind of graphic art devoted to promoting a smooth way of looking at actualities ... illustrations of contemporary life that might describe a military triumph or a local festival look satisfying and reassuring when even ragged soldiers or poor peasants have good figures and a graceful, modish stance and wear tatters with an air. One aspect of modern commercial films has been a similar way of enhancing realism with bodily fashion. It puts a sexy icing on ordinary events, to make banality attractive and sordid misfortune romantic.

Although Callot was an engraver, not a painter, his patrons were not plebeian. Hollander suggests that it was the elegance of his performances which was appreciated by the dukes and princes of the Church: ‘Every kind of scene in Callot’s oeuvre shows a world with a satisfying surface gloss that flatters the viewer, whatever the subject, by suggesting that the universe is rendered chic by his gaze ... This was a Hollywood device during the great days of American self-flattery ... not a King but a whole nation was served the visible world on a platter, as if it were perfectly baked and glazed.’

The parallels Hollander draws make you see paintings and movies a little differently – and that little unglazes the eye to a remarkable degree. She begins by asking why the movies move us, but her greatest achievement is to sharpen our awareness of still pictures. What she writes about the cinema is less revealing, because her equation of the visual content of movies with strings of paintings sidesteps a consideration of the way in which movies exist in time. The obvious comparison with what she identifies as cinematic painting is still photography, and she seems to acknowledge this point: ‘The camera, which in still photography can look so objective, in motion is the narrative vessel of subjectivity itself, like the dreamer’s eye, or the painter’s eye ... total engagement is what it offers.’ The engagement offered by still photographs seems to me quite as great as that offered by paintings: the difference between still and moving images is greater than that between photograph-like paintings and photographs. Atget’s views of Paris and Vermeer’s view of Delft have a lot more in common than Vermeer’s pictures of housewives and the cinematography of Babette’s Feast. To illustrate films Hollander has had to use stills. But, to unpick her pun, movies do not just move us, they really do move; and even when illustrations are made from clips (as against publicity-stills) they are imperfect aids to memory. The point can be made the other way round: films and television about painting and photography do violence to pictures when they take them out of the still world in which they have their proper existence and allot them so many seconds of screen time.

The cinema has borrowed from painting, and arrived by parallel evolution at solutions which resemble those of certain kinds of painting. It also has an aesthetic of its own. Some of the greatest visual things in the movies – Fred Astaire dancing, Buster Keaton doing anything – depend so entirely upon movement that visual analogies with still pictures mean very little. As the technique of cinema advanced the sequences of framed ‘pictures’ which make Eisenstein and Orson Welles such a gift to compilers of illustrated film histories (and connections with painting easy) became a less important part of film vocabulary. Technology has brought a fluidity to shots like the one which follows Ray Liotta through a restaurant kitchen in Goodfellas which cannot be suggested by stills. The importance of elements common to both painting and the cinema – Caravaggio light, Callot compositions, Hopper home town – has diminished as cinema has taken on its own visual identity.

The point is worth raising only because Hollander’s argument might imply that on some large scale the aesthetic input/output table always balances: that appetite demands a constant amount of fiction and imagery, and that the form a given fictional or pictorial product takes is merely a matter of intellectual book-keeping. In its crudest form this line of argument comes up with remarks like, ‘If Rembrandt was living today he would be a film director.’ In tracking down the cinematic in paintings and the painterly in cinema, Hollander exaggerates the degree to which the cinema is a visual medium, and blurs the qualities, unique to each medium, which are lost when one or other is dominant.

In finding likenesses and making up teams, she sometimes does less than justice to differences. She is very good on American painting, and in particular on Eakins, Homer and Hopper: Eakins’s singers ‘produce Mendelssohn from within their trimmed and stiffened taffeta as naturally as they might speak or sigh at some pointed moment; the seams and frills are a little displaced by the action of breathing and show the slight stress under the light; and the earnest faces are supported rather than mocked by the earnest elaborateness of the dresses’. But when she moves from such telling particularities to say that ‘Homer, Eakins, and Sargent share a confrontational emotional style, an illustrative mode that is very American ... a style linked to the movies of the future even more than to the paintings of the past,’ she makes too broad a sweep. On the face of it, Eakins is so unlike Sargent. Eakins made elaborate perspective studies and took photographs; Sargent concentrated on the spontaneous rendering of what was in front of him. Sargent made large brush marks with creamy paint; Eakins’s surfaces are thinly painted. Eakins’s approach to the evocation of feeling was cerebral; Sargent was master of a facility which, in the absence of a sense of spatial geometry to back up his genius for representing transitions of tone, put him at the mercy of the thing in front of him. Sargent had a gift for finding poses which display flatteringly, but probe no deeper than any sitter would wish; Eakins cared very little, or so one would judge by the results, about how well or ill the sitter looked, so long as his kind of truth was told.

Arguable groupings like these follow on the distribution of so large a part of European and American visual art into cinematic and non-cinematic piles. That Hollander’s categories are significant is clear: I would not have guessed that the idea of a cinematic mode could be used to reveal so much about the way pictures affect us. Paradoxically, Moving Pictures makes you acutely aware of the importance of stillness. One feeling given by the greatest paintings she illustrates, is that any tiny change in the disposition of things – of the furniture in the de Hooch interior, of the peach in the Chardin still life – would break the spell. That, moving as they are, if they really moved they would cease to move us at all.