Kindred Spirits
The influence of painting on film
By Jeff Hanson

From Gadfly March 1998

Cinema owes much to painting in both content and style. But films, while often influenced by great works of art, are more than just moving paintings. Critics like Gilles Deleuze have long recognized this distinction. Deleuze refers to the film medium not in terms of "frames"—sequential static images (like paintings in a row)—but as "photogrammes," images that are fundamentally time‑bound and produce a state of consciousness in the viewer distinct from that produced by a painting. Such a realization is the basis for director Jean‑Luc Godard's observation that "Cinema is truth 32 times a second." Films have often taken painters and painting as their subjects, and the difficulty that inevitably dogs these attempts is the problem of presentation. How do you "show" an artist painting without boring your audience to death? Worse yet, how is the creative process that underlies painting best illustrated on film?

One solution is to focus not on the artist and his work but on the social and personal conditions around him. Hence, one watches Basquiat (1996) and sees the painter's life unfold against the background of the 1980s art scene in New York City. Personal circumstances also couch the narrative in films like Vincent and Theo (1990) and Surviving Picasso (1996). The expectation here is that viewers will be sufficiently familiar with their respective artists. The films can then concentrate on "untold" stories like Van Gogh's relationship with his brother or Picasso's torrid love life. Films of this kind present their subjects indirectly through the social and/or personal circumstances of the painter's life and work. The success of such a strategy is debatable, however.

Another approach is to divorce the cinematic narrative from the facts of the painter's life, work and social context to construct a new, particularly cinematic examination of all three. This, it seems, is the idea behind Stephen Soderbergh's Kafka (1991), an underrated interpretation of the life and work of writer Franz Kafka that mixes types and images from the author's writings with features of his life.

Kafka is not far in spirit from Derek Jarman's Caravaggio (1986), a film that deals only partly with the life‑events of Michelangelo Caravaggio. It draws the viewer's attention away from historical context by including modern anachronisms in the 17th‑century scene (like a digital watch on a courtier's wrist). More interestingly, Caravaggio imitates the Italian artist in its visual style and punctuates its narrative with filmic reproductions of his paintings in an effort to lend images to the artist's creative force.

Akira Kurosawa used a similar approach in a portion of his film Dreams (1990). In one of the dreams, Kurosawa meets Vincent Van Gogh (played with relish by Martin Scorsese). Far from a literal depiction, the segment is surreal in form and content. Kurosawa attempts to find Van Gogh "in" his paintings: he walks on‑screen through several of Van Gogh's better‑known compositions toward a field where the artist is at work. Their exchange is, of course, completely fantastical (Van Gogh not only speaks to this contemporary filmmaker but also with blackbirds). At the end of the segment, the image freezes and the camera pans out to reveal that the foregoing scene was a painting done by Van Gogh—a painting which hangs on the wall of a museum while Kurosawa admires it.

Films that examine painting in this way tend to be the most stimulating. By avoiding the confines of factual reality, Jarman and Kurosawa widen the view into their subjects' minds while skirting the inherent problem of presentation—a problem also absent from films directly influenced by a particular artistic style or school.

The rise of cinema, for instance, was contemporaneous with the avant‑garde art movements of the early part of our century, and the consequences are not hard to see. Early German silents like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Nosferatu (1922) were stylistic counterparts to the Expressionist paintings of their day. They, in turn, influenced film noir, arguably the most important American contribution to cinema.

A notable example of a painter intimately involved in a film is Salvador Dali's set design for Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945). Dali created surreal effects to illustrate the mental state of Gary Cooper's character whose psychological trauma is diagnosed by Ingrid Bergman. The case is actually a bit ironic in that Dali devoted himself to a surrealism that defied rational explanation. The film, however, is based on the supposition that, no matter how weird things get in the human mind, modern psychological science can make sense of just about anything. So the fact that Cooper gets unreasonably upset when Bergman runs a fork across a white tablecloth can be explained by the fact that he accidentally killed his own brother while skiing (parallel lines on a white surface agitate him because they remind him of ski tracks in the snow).

A recent instance may demonstrate how the appearance of a painting in a film can be subverted to the intentions of the filmmaker. In his recent The End of Violence (1997), Wim Wenders includes a segment which depicts a movie shoot. The scene being shot (the movie within the movie) is an exact duplicate of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, the paradigmatic picture of mid‑century, urban American alienation. In Wenders' version of the painting, the beautiful blond at the diner's counter shoots the soda jerk, the suggestion being that violence and image‑media are deeply involved in the peculiarly American isolation that Nighthawks represents.

Others have abandoned painting as their primary art in favor of cinema. Peter Greenaway, creator of resplendent films like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989), Prospero's Books (1991), The Macon Baby (1993) and The Pillow Book (1997), began his artistic career in painting, and, in fact, still describes himself as a painter working in cinema. He cites at least three reasons for making the move to film:

Well, I suppose the most obvious concern is that paintings don't move. So we must embrace the notion of movement. Apart from one or two obscure paintings by [Robert] Rauschenberg which had in‑built transistor radios, paintings don't deal with music. I have an excitement, an attachment, to the way music and the image can be integrated... And on the whole painting does not deal with text. So for me cinema is the ideal medium where I can engage in a notion of playing with text and playing with image.

Anyone who has seen Greenaway's work knows that these concerns occupy the forefront of his aesthetic. It might even be argued that Greenaway accomplishes a kind of deconstruction of the screen by eschewing straight realism for a cinema that capitalizes on all its capabilities. He reiterates time and again that cinema has been too much like illustrated text throughout its history, naming only Abel Gance's Napoleon (which, even in 1929, was experimenting with split screens) as a prominent exception. With Greenaway, we get picture‑in‑picture arrangements, time‑defying constructions, contrasting film stocks and surreal compositions, a style that's principally about image and owes more to modern painting than to the history of cinema.

Greenaway argues that if film is to accommodate itself to the new millennium and become an art form in its own right, it must free itself from screenplays and formulate images independently. He believes painting, at least in part, holds the key to crafting such a style. Hence, we find ourselves, once again, in a position where painting constructs our cinema aesthetic. Just as early films drew strength from techniques and styles advanced by painters, perhaps modern cinema can be refreshed through a renewed exposure to and consideration of its kindred art.