Fine Art

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Fine Art


The cinema has engaged in a dialogue with the traditional fine arts—visual art, literature, music, theater, and architecture—from its inception to the present. The relationships between cinema, the "seventh art," to the other arts is indeed vast and complex. Film's ability to build convincing worlds with spatial depth recalls the functions of architecture, while music lends film its power to arouse abstract emotions that neither words nor images can fully express. The movies' emphasis on the body and human emotions connects it with the theater and poetry. Film's narrative emphasis has obvious affinities with prose fiction, and of course the medium's visual aspect aligns it with painting. Further, the ways in which cinema references art informs a variety of cultural discourses.

Born out of the circus, vaudeville, and the Grand Guignol, the cinema engaged in a dialogue with the arts and high culture during its early or primitive period, when one shot with movement inside the image was enough to capture the viewer's attention. The pioneers of filmmaking were well aware of the arts: Georges Méliès (1861–1938) was educated as an academic painter, and the Lumière brothers (Auguste Lumière [1862–1954] and Louis Lumière [1864–1948]), although trained as engineers and photographers, restaged the commonplaces of French Impressionist painting in their depiction of leisure time and daily life. The films of Méliès and the Lumières are marked by jokes, puns, parodies, puzzles, anagrams, riddles, and charades about the clichés of painting. Louis Lumière's short Partie d'écarte (Card Game, 1895), for example, recalls a trope familiar from Flemish genre painting to Cézanne's The Card Players (1890–1892). D'écarte, from the verb écarter (to separate), is a pun for des cartes (referring to cards). The card game in this particular party represents the unpredictable nature of life, with its promises and surprises.


Through the traditions of national cinemas, cultures represent themselves to audiences both at home and abroad. Hence the function played by the arts in the development of national cinemas is most significant. Before and after World War I, the various national film industries in Europe distinguished themselves through allusions to domestic aesthetic traditions. In Italy, for example, Giovanni Pastrone's epic Cabiria (1914) draws on the grand tradition of Italian opera, complete with monumental sets and masses of extras. In Germany, Robert Wiene's Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) and F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) tap German romanticism's interest in origins and subjectivity while also drawing on the visual style of German expressionism. Both films cast the upheavals of the self in the jagged angles and skewed shapes familiar from German expressionist painting; the sets make visible a sense of spiritual anguish, and their natural locations suggest peaceful surfaces concealing mysterious evils. One of the most famous German expressionist films, Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), is an architectural film built on psychoanalytic allusions and images of industrial regimentation. In his direction of the actors and his handling of crowds, Lang was influenced by the theater of Max Reinhardt, who used sculptural groupings of automaton-like actors. By designing and streamlining the scenes featuring crowds—a feat of directorial control and vision—Lang evokes a sense of dehumanization.

In comparison to the expressionist taste for the supernatural, the so-called French impressionist avant-garde of the 1920s preferred a more psychological understanding of interiority. Germaine Dulac's La Souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet, 1922) uses musical allusions and visual effects to suggest the psychological complexities at the core of an unhappily married woman, thus depicting a feminine self torn by erotic repression and a desire for domestic rebellion. In the 1920s and 1930s, French surrealism thrived on unexpected analogies and unsettling disruptions of objects. The development of the surrealist director Jean Cocteau's esoteric shifts between word and image, tactile and visual references in Le Sang d'un poète (Blood of a Poet, 1930), anticipate many of Jean-Luc Godard's collages in Pierrot le Fou (1965). More generally, surrealism's taste for disruption anticipates the French New Wave's playful orchestration of literary, pictorial, musical, and popular sources in film. Before and after the revolutionary upheavals of May 1968, the French New Wave directors, especially Godard, wove together the legacies of different periods of film history, ranging from surrealist word–image games to the montage ensembles developed out of Soviet Constructivist art.

With film impressionism, surrealism, and expressionism, the national cinemas of France and Germany embraced the agendas of modernist avant-garde movements. Furthermore, around 1914 the Italian futurists published a manifesto about the cinema (they also made a few films, most of them lost). However, the silent Italian film industry steered away from avant-garde experimentation in favor of a more popular, operatic cinema based on great books and paintings of high culture. This edifying approach from Italy became a model for the development of the cinema in Hollywood as well. The Italian compromise between mass spectacle and famous works, populist entertainment and an attention to pictorial values, reappears in the work of the American director D. W. Griffith, notably The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), and Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919). Set in Victorian England and replete with opium dens and Buddhist references, Broken Blossoms is a melodrama whose artistic aspirations are confirmed by its tragic ending in which all three protagonists die. The film deals with alcoholism, family abuse, and racial miscegenation, deploying the style of Pre-Raphaelite painting in its representation of the self-effacing but sensuous character of the girl Lucy (Lillian Gish).


By upgrading the melodrama with art-historical references, Griffith's Broken Blossoms paved the way for the stretching of genre films from formulaic narrative to more aesthetically complex works. Whether the narrative deals with the biography of a famous artist (the biopic) or with a famous battle (the historical film), it is possible to elevate genre to the "art" film. As the scholar Charles Tashiro has pointed out, some historical films depend on pictorial citations as period sources, including William Dieterle's Juarez (1939), with its literal restaging of Goya's 1814 painting Executions of the Third of May 1808, and Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975), which is informed by eighteenth-century portraiture and genre paintings ranging from Joshua Reynolds to John Constable. Bo Widerberg's Elvira Madigan (1967), though it does not recall any specific picture, is steeped in the colors, landscapes, fabrics, and atmospheres of impressionist painting.

American biopics devoted to the life of an artist, such as John Huston's Moulin Rouge (1952), about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life (1956), about Vincent van Gogh, can be considered art films in a very loose sense. These films tend to recycle society's cliches about artists—notions of genius, madness, recklessness, inner torment, exile, and romance. Films as different as Legal Eagles (1986) and Modigliani (2004) suggest that making art goes hand in hand with living intensely, talent with struggle. As is apparent from the character of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) in Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944), Hollywood traditionally represents artistic figures and environments in a self-destructive or corrupting light; painting specifically is the equivalent of excess, color, femininity, vice, and solipsism. The French director Maurice Pialat takes a more sociological and existential approach to his subject in Van Gogh (1991), where art-making is still all-consuming and self-destructive yet leaves room for friends, family, and colleagues. As conceived by Pialat, Van Gogh is subjected to the value judgments of his period about the artist—entailing notions of femininity, creativity, and individuality—but he is not the embodiment of corruption and decadence.

The Hollywood musical, with its emphasis on costume, color, and set design along with music and dance, is a genre that evokes the relation of art and film through visual style. In An American in Paris (1951), for example, the set designs evoke the style of French impressionism. In another genre, film noir, chiaroscuro lighting and Gothic architecture show the influence of German expressionism, a sensibility that migrated from Europe to Hollywood. Another notable instance of generic reference to visual art is in the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock, which from Psycho (1960) onward includes references to the paintings of Edward Hopper (1882–1967), an American artist famous for his deserted diners at night, lonely motels, uninhabited vistas, and isolated individuals. And in a science-fiction film with noirish underpinnings like Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), the eclectic mix of architectural citations from various periods and styles endows the film with a strange nostalgia for a more authentic historical past in such a way as to calibrate the loss of memory and a jaded sensibility.


The marriage of art and cinema through genre in American cinema often resulted in the identification of art with elitism and deception. In European film history, the post–World War II art film developed in the film industries of France, Germany, and Italy. The film theorist and historian David Bordwell has argued that the "European art film" is more of a mode than a genre because its stylistic conventions stem from a general opposition to the rules of Hollywood cinema. Bordwell argues that films such as Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960) and Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966) were born out of the rejection by Italian neo-realism of Hollywood's causal storytelling, goal-oriented protagonists, and emphasis on narrative closure. By choosing ambiguity, unresolved narratives, directorial expressivity, location shooting, and existential malaise with a social consciousness, the European art film was an alternative to Hollywood in the 1950s.

Andre Bazin's influential role as a critic enabled the rise of Italian neorealism and the French New Wave. François Truffaut relied on artistic citations from French impressionism and early modernist painting in such films as Jules et Jim (1962) and Les Deux anglaises et le continent (Two English Girls, 1972); by contrast, Roberto Rossellini's neorealism has traditionally been praised for its newsreel look and rejection of art-historical sources. However, the argument that Italian neorealism exists outside of art history is naïve. In the Naples episode of Paisà (Paisan, 1946), for example, the relationship between figure and ground, with the big soldier and the small child sitting among the ruins, invokes the end of Renaissance painting's anthropocentric model. The urban landscape is an image of destruction and rubble, yet the two characters occupy the center of the frame so that the ruins amid which they sit acknowledge in reverse the humanist function of architecture in the Italian pictorial tradition.

Bordwell's model of the European art film applies to the self-reflexive, modernist films of the sixties but does not include the pastiche-like postmodernist films that began to appear in the 1970s and 1980s. Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985) contains many references to Duane Hanson's hyperrealist sculptures, while Bernardo Bertolucci's Il Conformista (The Conformist, 1970) uses René Magritte's sleek irony and art-deco interiors. Lina Wertmüller's use of spaces suspended in time for Film d'amore e d'anarchia (Love and Anarchy, 1973) echoes the metaphysical atmosphere found in the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. It is also important to remember that there are many other art films that, on the one hand, do not entirely follow Bordwell's model and, on the other, may have little to do with postmodern nostalgia. Thanks to their understanding of art-historical categories, these films are neither simply citational texts nor superficial and seductive pastiches compensating for an increasing sense of loss of memory and authenticity. And, finally, they are not always structured as travelogues of human alienation, a penchant triggered by neorealism's use of vignettes or sketches rather than coherent, causal narratives.

Filmmakers such as F. W. Murnau, Eric Rohmer, Alain Cavalier, and Andrei Tarkovsky are aware of the history of art to the extent that they move beyond it, treating it as a convenient storehouse of images. Their films can be called "visual form" films because these filmmakers incorporate the insights of pictorial genres into their own work. By taking seriously the links between landscape painting and subjectivity in, for example, Nosferatu, Murnau models his images on Caspar David Friedrich's vistas with precipices and fogs, eerie peaks and huge rocks. Murnau frames from behind small and lonely human figures, which he juxtaposes against vast natural spaces filled with a sense of the sublime; the director's insertion of an internal viewer matches Friedrich's use of the so-called ruckenfigur, a lone figure in a landscape, to underline how that landscape can be a figment of someone's mind yearning for the divine or sensing the possibility of horror. Nosferatu is therefore an example of the crossover between film and art in the context of silent German expressionism as a national cinema. Visual form is relevant to the tension between neoclassical and French romantic painting in Eric Rohmer's Die Marquise von O … (The Marquise of O, 1976), an adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist's novella. By juxtaposing the sensuality of the word to the introspective qualities of the image, Rohmer questions the opposition of Enlightenment rationality and romantic impetuousness. Tarkovsky in Andrei Rublev (1969) uses fluid camera movements and shots of doors and windows to explore the hypnotic power of religious icon painting. Likewise, by using many close-ups on objects and an austere color scheme, Alain Cavalier in Thérèse (1986) links the genre of still-life painting to the humility of servants and the subordination of femininity.

Films that are part of a national cinema tradition (with or without a link to an avant-garde movement), modernist art films and postmodern pastiches, and visual-form films overlap the flexibility of these categories and bears witness to the richness of the encounter between art and film. Although the heyday of the European art film is over, cinema from Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa deserves much closer examination in the light of the relation between film and art. For example, the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's use of detailed images and vast landscapes relies heavily on the style of Persian miniature painting in his films Ta'm e guilass (A Taste of Cherry, 1997) and Bad ma ra khahad bord (The Wind Will Carry Us, 1999). Sergei Parajanov's Sayat Nova (Color of Pomegranates, 1968) combines Russian folk culture with performance art, while some of his compositions could easily be called installations and move from the screen to the art gallery. Although most of the critical work on film and art has relied on European case studies, it has become especially urgent to tackle Islamic and African visual traditions in order to achieve a better understanding of the art films that these areas of the world have produced. Japanese and Chinese cinema has drawn heavily from national traditions of woodblock printing and scroll painting.

American avant-garde filmmaking of the 1960s and 1960s was heavily influenced by minimalism in the visual arts. The films of Andy Warhol, Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, and Paul Sharits are related to the work of artists such as Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Donald Judd, and Robert Smithson, all of whom worked in a variety of media. In the light of this awareness that what goes on in the art gallery relates to what happens on the screen, the American artist Eleanor Antin (b. 1935) coined the expression "black box, white cube"—the first term referring to cinema, the second to the art gallery. This phrase has been increasingly used by artists working in film and video, perhaps because so many mixed-media installations have blurred the boundaries between sculpture, film, architecture, video art, and painting.

SEE ALSO Art Cinema;Expressionism;Surrealism


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Angela Dalle Vacche