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.’

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