Tom Roberts’ famous painting, A Break Away! (1891) is a ‘moving’ picture in more than one sense of the word. With thirst-crazed sheep rampaging diagonally almost the full length of the screen-shaped picture from the left to the pool in the bottom right in the bottom right corner, and the horseman in the foreground, frantically trying to cut them off, swerving diagonally in the opposite direction, it is so vibrant with movement that it could almost be a still from a film. Any minute now, those sheep and the dust they raise look as if they’re going to burst out of that single frame, into the next, then the next, and the one after that… And when that happens, we have moving pictures, or cinema.
If Roberts’ ‘still’ painting startles us into seeing – or experiencing – motion, within five years the Lumière brothers were to startle audiences in Paris with still images that did suddenly burst into movement – which is how those early films used to be shown, starting as a projected still which would then burst into a series of moving pictures. As early cinema historians such as Tom Gunning have shown, what amazed the audiences of the time was that perfectly natural objects like leaves on a tree, waves on a shore – objects that audiences were accustomed to seeing reproduced frozen by the still camera – started to actually move. (Gunning)
In some ways, painting and cinema seem such obvious partners. The visual representation of nature, the problematic relationships with reality and fantasy, the treatment of time and space, and their framing devices are just some of properties they share. And, although it’s not how popular culture is usually described, their lack of ephemerality is another. As art historian Anne Hollander has written: “Just as God and Adam perpetually lose touch on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, so Fred and Ginger always …[dance]…in exactly the same way now as then, and forever.” (Hollander, 3) What concerns Hollander, however, is what might seem to be the major distinguishing difference between the two art forms: their relationship with motion.
A Break Away! is a good example of the impulse among painters in the late nineteenth century whose work seems to anticipate how cinema was to treat movement. In Hollander’s book, Moving Pictures, she searches through art history for the paintings that gave birth to the moving image. Arguing that the cinema is a mass medium which, nevertheless, succeeds in ‘moving’ individual members of the audience, each in their own particular and private way, she traces the roots of cinema back to artists whom she calls ‘proto-cinematic’. These, she concludes, were artists who were familiar with both paint and prints and who worked in the tradition of Northern European art. This tradition had defined itself by the middle of the fifteenth century “as seeking to render both real and fantastic material, sacred or secular, in terms of optical experience”, and was nurtured by a Protestantism which encouraged a private appreciation of images. (Hollander, en passim)
Hollander’s analysis, however, is too narrow: she ignores the growing impulse towards the moving image from artists of all kinds – painters, certainly, but also photographers, music hall and vaudeville performers, magicians, graphic designers, and so on – in addition to scientists, technicians and mechanicians. In Cinema and Painting: How Art is used in Film, Angela Dalle Vacche points out that Hollander’s account is also historically blinkered:
…throughout the history of art, starting with the flickering shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave, we can find innumerable instances of protocinematic imagination. As soon as we acknowledge cinema’s tendency to borrow from all sorts of art forms and to employ many different visual sources within the same film, we have to conclude that Hollander’s belief in one single, direct genealogy risks narrowing the richness of the encounter between cinema and painting. (Vacche, 8)
Hollander’s approach is further distorted by an idealised view of painting and a denigratory view of cinema, treating the latter as some sort of uncivilised child, reluctant to exchange the pleasures of instant gratification for the more mature, delayed pleasures of the reality principle:
Cinema, that great infant, has demonstrated…how to use past art to suit the present eye, how to respond, absorb, reflect, and move on, seizing what is needed and eating it without thanks, flourishing with ungovernable energy on mixed garbage and gourmet fare. Film…[is] stuffed with material grabbed without ceremony from Manet and Goya, from Velasquez and Vermeer, from Turner, Church, and Bierstadt… The whole makes a modern illustrative art of incomparable richness, even though it lacks coherence. (Hollander, 8)
However incredible it may seem to film academics and a growing number of highly cineliterate audiences today, Hollander is not alone in dismissing cinema as a fully-fledged art form. While the power of the moving image has always been undeniable (and not infrequently exaggerated), films were not initially considered to be works of art in the same universe as those of a Rembrandt or a Michelangelo.
This was due to a number of reasons: early cinema was closely connected with popular entertainment; it was associated with technology; films soon became produced by an industrial process and filmmaking a collaborative form of production with no single, clearly defined artist at work in the romantic tradition. Above all, it was the infinitely mechanically reproducible nature of cinema that led many cultural critics and analysts from seeing it as an art; cinema, as mass culture, lacked uniqueness.
When such a refusal informs a critical analysis of cinema, the result is not illuminating about either painting or cinema. As Vacche points out, Hollander’s viewpoint “would rather teach us about which kinds of painting anticipated the cinema than about the various ways in which cinema addresses painting.” (Vacche, 9) Art historian John Walker offers another example of how film studies is ill served by an approach which denies the status of ‘art’ to cinema. In Art and Artists on Screen, Walker employs representation theory to explore ways in which filmmakers have visualised real and fictional painters and architects and their work. He builds up a steam of contempt for cinema, describing films as: Alexander Korda’s financial and critical flop, Rembrandt (1936), starring Charles Laughton; John Huston’s “alarmingly trite” life of Toulouse Lautrec in Moulin Rouge (1952); Vincente Minnelli’s “disastrous” attempt to put Vincent van Gogh on celluloid in Lust for Life (1956); Sir Carol Reed’s equally “disastrous” film, The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), in which Charlton Heston was “unconvincingly” cast as Michelangelo and Rex Harrison as Pope Julius ll.
Although more tolerant of what he considers to be high culture, ‘art’ films such as Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986) and Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), Walker is so dismissive of cinema that he fails to detect a meaningful dialogue between painting and cinema. He also suggests that because many of the films he discusses offer an imaginative treatment of actuality and lack absolute verisimilitude, cinema, as a whole, cannot be treated as an art form on the same footing as painting. This is like dismissing the Sistine Chapel ceiling on the grounds that God didn’t really look like that. (1)
Clearly there are differences between cinema and art, but these differences may lie in how we see them rather than in what is on the canvas or the 35mm frame of celluloid. At the same time, art history can provide illuminating insight into moving pictures, one opening up an analytical path that explores the relationship between cinema and painting in terms of intertextuality and a joint participation in culture from two equal art forms. As Vacche suggests, by focussing on the interplay between the arts, it becomes “possible to explore the often antagonistic relationship between word and image, and on the tension between tradition and modernity”. (Vacche, 11)
The relationship between the two art forms was made illuminatingly clear in a lecture given last year by Virginia Spate, Power Professor of Fine Art at the University of Sydney, on the ‘Monet and Japan’ exhibition that she curated for the National Gallery of Australia. (Spate) Looking at a slide of Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines (1873), with its smudged Parisians bowling along the wide boulevard, the connections with cinema were ghostly and yet, at the same time, unmissable. The Monet painting evoked images of that day in Paris, 22 years later, when the public attended the celebrated first cinematic screening on 26th December 1895. (2) The auratic association was partly the result of the way in which the bodies were painted; while frozen they also seemed to indicate the impulse for the moving image. It was also because, by chance, the Boulevard des Capucines was the very street where Lumière Brothers’ films were projected.
When Professor Spate showed a series of Monet paintings of a steam train – Exterieur de la gare (1877), Interieur de la gare St-Lazare (1877), Gare St-Lazare (1877) – the connections became more concrete. The pulsing, kinetic energy of the steam engine, such a powerful symbol of modernity, one loved by so many impressionist painters, seemed to be as close as any still image could get to the moving image. It was impossible not to see an uncanny echo, screened upon the back of my retina, of the Lumière’s short film, L’arrivée d’un train en gare à la Ciotat/Train arriving at station, which led to the myth of audiences running in alarm from their seats as they allegedly failed to detect the difference between reality and its representation.
Next, further impressing upon me the fascination of artists and audiences with motion, we saw an entrancing, mesmerising Monet painting of the ocean, Waves Breaking 1881. Once again, this image translated in my mind into the Lumière brothers’ film of waves breaking on a shore. Waves endlessly rushing forward, breaking and receding – a romantic image if ever there was one – became one of the most popular subjects for that entirely modernist invention, cinema. It became a popular image the world over, an early example of genre, and was seen in the new modern cities of Australia where you might think the proximity to the ocean of the majority of the population would preclude an appetite for such a genre. Far from it: a surf movie was one of the very first films ever projected in an Australian theatre.
On 22nd August 1896, audiences at the Melbourne Opera Theatre were captivated by a single-shot English film called Rough Sea at Dover. The reporter from The Age could have been describing Belle Isle when he enthused: “Perhaps the most perfect of the scenes is the seascape, a flowing tide and rocky foreshore. The rhythmic motion of the waves, the spray and the foam, where the broken waters are reft by boulders were so intensely natural that the audience…broke into a storm of applause.” (Thoms) Reminding us of an ever ebbing and flowing debate about art and its role in representing nature, he continued: “The water was so blue and so refreshing that one of the young ladies audibly expressed a desire to paddle in it.”
Trains and waves, one man-made the other natural, both involving movement and both capable of transporting people, literally and metaphorically. The train was to become (and to some extent remains) a favoured trope of filmmakers. Discussing the replacement of the horse and buggy by ever-faster means of travel since the invention of the steam engine in the 1850s, Barrett Hodsdon points out in his informative catalogue for the Dawn Of Cinema season:
…it appears more than coincidental that these fundamental shifts in human beings’ ability to traverse vast distances coincide with the full realization of a visual recording instrument that liberated them from the physical constraints of time and space in everyday existence. The fluid universe of images was suddenly available for pure psychic and emotional entry. (Hodsdon, 23)
None more obviously than in the opening sequence of the popular musical, Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972) which plunges into an abyss of intertextual and intercultural references to the history of early cinema, as well as the ongoing dialogue between painting and movies. The opening sequence starts off still, unfocussed and dissonant. It then bursts into movement and visual and aural clarity as it reveals that we’re looking in a mirror at the reflected image of the emcee (Joel Grey) who welcomes us into a nightclub – the 1930s equivalent of a music hall or vaudeville, the birthplace of early cinema. The nightclub interior cuts to a full screen static shot of a powerful steam engine slowly entering a station, coming inexorably towards the camera, and it then cuts back to the nightclub.
The world we’re welcomed into is a world of fantasy, perverse desire and make believe; it’s also an historical real world – the station ‘is’ Berlin, the year ‘is’ 1931; we know this to be true and real because a caption tells us so. The references to old-style decadence and new-style fascism – and their blurred boundaries – are unmistakeable. Among all this, as the camera pans around the nightclub, we see where painting fits in: at a table, on her own, with a carefully poised, long cigarette holder, a monocle and a mannish bob, sits a perfect reproduction of the painting by the German Subjectivist artist Otto Dix, Portrait of the Writer Sylvia von Harden (1926). The frame of the painting no longer exists; it is replaced by the screen frame and as many frames of 35mm celluloid as it takes to pan past her.
The history of the relationship between painting and cinema and in particular or cinema’s ‘reaction’ to modernism is necessarily more complex than this example of simple homage. As Hodsdon points out:
At the birth of cinema, Modernist art movements were almost ready to run amuck, in the greatest revolution ever in art history. Art would never return to the simple homologies of the past (i.e. the painter as the unerring eye accurately reproducing the observed world in perspective). The field of visual representation would be dismembered forever – refracted through forms of abstraction and prisms of subjectivity…(but) cinema stood in a strange relation to the onslaught of Modernist art. The arrival of the medium itself would not find a direct connection with Modernism until the 1920s when the first filmic avant-garde seized upon the disruptive and reconstitutive potentials of film to contest its own evolving representational stance. (Hodsdon, 23)
Sydney artist, painter, calligrapher and filmmaker David Perry suggests that “cinema was seduced early on by the pre-modernist notions of a linear literary narrative, by naturalism and by realism in terms of both form and content.” (3) The avant-garde, of course, challenged the linearity, the realism, the naturalism and so much of the romanticism of popular narrative cinema; it was to Futurist and Cubist art movements that Perry and his fellow avant-garde Sydney filmmakers, Ubu Films, looked for inspiration in the 1960s. For Perry it was the early modernists’ treatment of movement that provided the link to his filmmaking.
The Futurists were concerned with depicting motion as a symbol for the dynamism of modernity; their paintings are inflected by cinema’s ability to make objects appear to fly though time and space as the work of Giaccomo Balla and Umberto Boccioni reveals. In paintings such as Balla’s charming Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912), with the dog’s little legs scurrying it forward, and Flight of Swallows (1913) with a flock of birds swirling and diving, each one almost identical but fractionally different and, of course, further forwards and upwards, he and his fellow signatories of the Italian Futurist manifesto (1910), developed the representation of movement by presenting the same form again and again. To twenty-first century eyes they offer a pre-echo of a series of photocopies, or look like the still frames from a videotape.
The Cubists presented objects from a more mechanical perspective; to Perry their images look as if they were produced by a moving, handheld camera travelling round an object and recording all its surfaces and edges from all angles. The handheld camera, of course, had not yet been invented, but Perry’s impression – another pre-echo – is hard to avoid when looking at paintings like Fernand Leger’s The Smokers (1911) or The Card Party (1917).
Dadaism played with movement and time on another plane altogether. A typical Dada work of art was the mass produced or ‘ready-made’ object taken from its original context and exhibited as ‘art’, imbuing their art with a sense of ‘wrong time, wrong place’. Film was an attractive medium for Dadaists such as Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. The latter was to pre-empt arguments about auteurism and the industrial process of mainstream cinema when he stated that it was not important who had actually made the item on display, or whether it had been made with the artist’s own hands; what mattered was the idea and the selection. This impulse to explore the diurnal is shared by cinema which similarly took everyday objects and put them on exhibit as a form of ‘art’. The Lumière Brothers’ Repas de Bebe/Feeding the Baby (1895) offers one such example. Spooling fast forward, the illuminated glass of milk in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) possesses a similar, both eerie and familiar, sensibility.
The dismemberment of motion by a process of repetition and infinite mechanical reproduction offered a meeting place for science and the ludic where cinema and painting could chiastically challenge and influence each other. Modernist art found its filmic form in the films of avant-garde filmmakers such as Fernand Leger’s famous film, Ballet Mecanique (1924), a farce indebted to the films of Charlie Chaplin. Ballet Mecanique explores the forward flow of linear time, its sense of smooth progression, by loop-printing a sequence of a grinning washerwoman climbing step stone steps. Historically its provenance can be traced to the Lumière Brothers’ film Demolition d’un mur/Demolition of a wall (1896), which projectionists would play first forwards and then resurrect the wall by playing it backwards. Its legacy can be clearly seen in many of the films by experimental filmmakers including Paul Winkler’s, whose Long Shadows (1991) forever coalesces the past, present and future in his loop printing of 1920s tourists who walk up the Blue Mountains over, and over, again. (4)
All this supports the idea, as Perry maintains, that just as cinema has clearly been influenced by painting, “it is inconceivable that artists weren’t influenced by cinema”. Notions of time and movement, as well as the role of the artist in an age of infinite reproduction, are endlessly explored in the work of artists (many of whom have made, and make, films just as Leger did) such as Andy Warhol, Eduardo Paolozzi, Yoko Ono, Gilbert & George, Cindy Sherman and Tracey Moffatt. This was confirmed at the dazzling “Hitchcock: Art, Cinema and…Suspense” exhibition at the Museum Of Contemporary Art, Sydney in 1999 where Hitchcock’s interest in themes such as voyeurism, obsession, the double, and the relationship of landscape to narrative was mirrored in the work of a large number of artists including the last four artists in the list above.
Of all his films, Spellbound (1945) is perhaps the best known for its relationship with painting (although both Rope  and Lifeboat  have a certain ‘still life’ quality to them). The famous dream sequences by art director James Basevi were based on designs by surrealist Salvador Dali of which Hitchcock said:
I felt if I was going to have dream sequences, they should be vivid. I didn’t think we should resort to the old-fashioned blurry effect they got by putting Vaseline around the lens…I used Dali for his draftsmanship. I wanted to convey the dreams with great visual sharpness and clarity. Chirico has the same quality, the long shadows, the infinity of distance, and the converging lines of perspective.
John Walker observes that Dali’s style of painting fitted Hitchcock’s prescription because it employed the highly detailed, smooth-surfaced, trompe l’oeil, perspectival manner of depiction that northern European oil-painters had developed during and after the Renaissance. This mode of representation, as Hollander points out, had been mechanised by the inventions of photography and cinematography. The contents of Dali’s paintings were non-naturalistic – soft watches, burning giraffes, distorted limbs propped up by crutches etc. – but the naturalistic way they and their landscape settings were rendered accorded perfectly with the clarity of standard film images. (Walker, 151)
Another parallel between Dali’s painting methods and cinematic technique is the way in which, in some of his paintings, figurative images emerge from and blend with landscape backgrounds – an effect entirely reminiscent of a cinematic dissolve. (Walker, 152) Other films by Hitchcock reveal how he liked to make everyday objects strange – the eerily glowing glass of milk in Suspicion, already mentioned, is a good example of this desire to reveal the horror in ordinary ‘things’, suggesting a further bond with Dali.
What makes Hitchcock’s films such a valuable resource when exploring the relationship between cinema and painting is that they do not display an easy one-way route of cultural influence. He was clearly influenced by contemporary art and architecture, and his films influenced a wide range of contemporary artists. (5) Reflecting on this ludic two-way flow between different art forms, Geoffrey O’Brien writes:
…the game consists in finding images from elsewhere that can mix seamlessly with images from Hitchcock’s films so that Kim Novak strewing flowers into San Francisco Bay before throwing herself into the water is mirrored by the Ophelias of Millais and Redon; the indefinitely prolonged kiss of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious by Rodin’s Kiss; the haunted houses of Rebecca and Under Capricorn and Psycho by analogously desolate settings from Arnold Böcklin and Fernand Khnopff and Alvin Langdon Coburn.
The game doesn’t stop there: Andy Warhol’s Kiss (1963), Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990), Gus van Sant’s Psycho (1998), and Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980), to name but a small number, all offer more images to the giant, intertextually inflected, cultural bio-feedback system.
This is a system, or game, if you will, at which a number of Australian filmmakers demonstrate an aptitude. David Perry’s film Poem 25 (1965) is a conscious attempt to explore on film some of the precepts of Dadaism. Part of the Theatre of Cruelty event at Sydney University, it was originally made as a silent film that was projected over a speaker on stage, as he declaimed the poem written by dada poet Kurt Schwitters. Perry drew, or wrote, the series of numbers directly on to clear 16mm film, synchronising these images with a recording of the poem. The ensuing drawing was then used as a negative with which to print the final result – a mesmerising, infuriating series of apparently random, white numbers dancing on a black background.
This fiercely avant-garde, intellectually rigorous short film has surprising pointers to an altogether different film, Davida Allen’s Feeling Sexy (1999), ostensibly about the life and loves of a young woman in the age of post-feminism. A painter herself, Allen’s framing and editing offer memories of still-lives, brought to life…and then, as if scared that too much movement might blur the image, they fade and move on to the next one. This lovely film is like watching a slide show or like walking round a gallery of paintings. The effect, like Dadaism, is to isolate the ordinary and the everyday and represent it as a work of art. The film (like Hitchcock’s) hides objects and emotions in plain sight and shows them within the murk of a souring relationship.
John Polson’s Siam Sunset (1999) also explores how the relationship between paint and celluloid can reveal that which has been concealed. This is an Australian road movie, a very American genre which Australian filmmakers have made their own. (6) The plot involves a young man who works for an English paint company, inventing colours (and their names) that can be technologically reproduced into identical cans for painting houses and furniture. Due to accidental/coincidental reasons he’s lost his house, his job, the love of his life, and his peace of mind. So he takes to the road, in this case by tourist bus to Australia’s central desert where he hopes to regain his sanity and, perhaps, find an elusive colour red that he associates with his lost love. On the road he meets a beautiful young woman, but he can’t get this colour red out of his mind. Thus he feels compelled to jump out of bed in order to find it. Art and true love, it would seem, don’t mix.
He finds both, of course, when he ‘discovers’ the colour that’s been haunting him. He introduces it to his new love (and to us) and they embrace the new by physically throwing paint on a wall and daubing it with their hands. This movie, (more fun than many critics and audiences gave it credit for) says a lot about the Australian cinema’s ability to jettison, customise or appropriate the culture that comes from overseas – whether it’s the Old English Paint Company colours, or an American film genre, or a Jackson Pollock painting (Blue Poles) acquired for the National Gallery of Australia. Even more fascinating are the resonances from the chain of thoughts arising from the narrative as the English paint company is jettisoned: what plunges into Australia’s pool of cultural capital is a colour that can only be found the Australian central, red, very un-dead desert. The ‘new’ colour, when ‘found’, turns out to be one our hero first saw in Thailand (hence it’s name ‘Siam Sunset’), placing Australian culture in a relationship with the nations of the Pacific rim: a relationship that both pre-and post-dates modernism.
Inevitably, every film’s relationship to painting will be different: it depends on who made it, who the intended audience is, what the budget is, and on the cultural attitudes toward cinema, painting and art in general. Above all, how that relationship is perceived depends upon audiences. Those who denigrate cinema, dismissing it for its mass appeal, refuse to see film as an art form. They will presumably either fail to see the connections, or see it as a destructive relationship, bringing art and painting ‘down’ to the level of popular culture. Others will celebrate the intergenericity of cinema and see film as art.
For cinephiles, exploring the links between the two art forms allows us to see how cinema, especially commercial cinema, actually possesses a sense of timeless substance rather than ephemerality usually ascribed to popular cultural forms. (7) In this context, Jean-Luc Godard provides insight into the way in which painting and film inform each other and are part of an process of constant redefinition:
Perhaps ten thousand people have not forgotten Cezanne’s apples, but a billion spectators will recall the cigarette lighter in Strangers on a Train, and if Alfred Hitchcock has been the only poete maudit to achieve success, it is because he was the greatest creator of forms of the twentieth century and that it is forms which tell us, finally, what there is at the bottom of things; and what is art except that by which forms become style. (8)
Godard, of course, privileges cinema as an art form. The main point, however, is not that cinema is influenced by painting, nor that painting is influenced by film, but that both are art forms which draw upon a common pool of cultural capital which itself involves a flow between all the different arts.
Gunning, Tom, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde” in Thomas Elsaesser with Adam Barker (ed), Early Cinema: Space, Frame Narrative, BFI, London 1990
Hodsdon, Barrett, The Dawn of Cinema 1894-1915, MCA, Sydney 1996
Hollander, Anne, Moving Pictures, Harvard University press, Cambridge, Mass., 1991
Walker, John A., Art and Artists on Screen, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1993
Spate, Virginia, lecture ‘Monet and Japan’ at University of Sydney, 1 March 2001
Thoms, Albie, History of the Surf. Sydney, 2000
Vacche, Angela Dalle, Cinema and Painting: How Art Is Used In Film, University of Texas Press, 1996
- British art critic Waldemar Januszczak attacked Jarman’s Caravaggio for its historical inaccuracy and for presenting the artist as the “Janes Dean of the Italian baroque…a true successor to Lust for Life”. In Dancing Ledge (London: Quartet books, 1984), Jarman commented: “films about painters end up pleasing nobody; there is a visionary tug-of-war from which neither artist nor filmmaker emerges victorious.” (p. 9)
- First in France, that is. There was an earlier public screening in Germany.
- Private conversation, May 2001
- Paul Winkler: Films 1964-94. MCA. Sydney, 1995
- See, Notorious: Alfred Hitchcock and Contemporary Art, catalogue of the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford. 1999
- See Jane Mills. The Road Movie, A Study Guide. www.afi.org.au 2001
- For a different take on this view, see Geoffrey O’Brien “Hitchcock the Hidden Power” in The New York Review of Books, Nov 15, 2001
- Cited in Geoffrey O’Brien (ibid); extracted from Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma (Paris: Gallimard, 1998)