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24.2.05

Art Movie

This may not be news to anyone else, but I was very interested in what a recent article (Henri Matisse, the movie, February 19) by Rachel Campbell-Johnston in the London Times had to say. It was about The Artists on Film Trust, the brainchild of documentary filmmakers Hannah Rothschild and Robert McNab, with the goal of compiling a definitive collection of film footage of artists "in their studios or talking about their work."

Nobody knows who the first painter ever to be filmed was, but Renoir must have been among the earliest. A piece of 1915 footage shows him, a septuagenarian and nearing the end of his life, hunched in a bath-chair in front of a canvas. His hands are clotted with arthritis. His beard flows to his chest. And as he dabs at the canvas and then leans back to check, he smiles almost impishly as if the effect pleases him. To see footage like this is to watch art history in the making. [...] Len Tabner sets up his easel on the bow of a boat that rises and falls in the heavy sea swell. Lowry draws in the streets under the surveillance of local children. Louise Bourgeois finds first pleasure and then sadness in destruction as she smashes a plaster model. Hockney, initially frustrated by a photo processor’s error, turns disaster to his own advantage by making a letter of apology a part of his piece. [...]

On a basic level, these films provide a record of artists’ techniques. You see the balletic grace of Kandinsky’s watercolour drawings, Otto Dix feathering a smoothly modelled limb, Henry Moore carving with hammer and chisel, Gerald Scarfe hurling great buckets of paint, and Gilbert and George finding a fresh opportunity in the fact that a bluebottle that came buzzing into their studio had eaten their slide samples of blood and sperm. But they also inspire new conjectures and ideas. "By the time the film of Monet was shot, his eyesight was also shot," says McNab. "He is shown working outside on a canvas set up under a white parasol. He's wearing a white hat so that his pupils were shaded and so more dilated than if he was under direct sunlight. And his beard and suit and waistcoat are also white. And noticing this, I can't help wondering if, just as a photographer uses a white surface to bounce the light back, Monet wore these reflective white clothes to help him see better."
A little Internetting revealed that Rothschild and McNab were in Los Angeles in 2003, to show a few of their clips at the Getty Research Institute. The news now is that their collection will not have a permanent home, thanks to a partnership with the University of the Arts London (near the Tate Britain). The public will be able to watch films free of charge. A promotional DVD, which has many of the best clips, was screened at the University of the Arts London on February 22. I'm trying to see if they are going to release such a DVD commercially.

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