Hanging celluloid on the wall

Art and Film Since 1945
June 20, 1997

It has become a commonplace - as this century draws to a close - to describe cinema as the art form of the 20th century. So where does this leave the other visual arts? That is what this book sets out to explore. The book has been conceived in conjunction with a major exhibition by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, entitled "Art and Film". Both exhibition and book seek to demonstrate the complex, yet subtle, interaction between art and film in the postwar era.

In the words of Kerry Brougher, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the object of the exercise is to "map the social and aesthetic issues that have shifted painting towards cinema, film towards the visual arts, and have fused the two together into new hybrid forms". What is interesting is that the point of departure for the project is 1945 - a date that is employed to mark the transition from "the first half of film's history, a history of growth and experimentalism, to the second half after the growth had peaked. A new postwar history would be built out of film's own image - a history derived from history, film reflecting film".

The change from innocence to self-reflection is embodied in Orson Welles, and the shattered hall of mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai is presented as a reflection of the complex dialogue between art and film that has evolved since 1945, holding the "cinematic spectacle up to the mirror of contemporary culture, splintering and re-arranging it into new, self-reflexive experiences that highlight and subvert screen practice".

The book contains a lengthy introductory essay by Brougher which lucidly charts the journey art and film have taken together since 1945. Beginning with Welles, Brougher moves to Billy Wilder, showing how the self-reflexiveness in Citizen Kane is more forcefully demonstrated in Sunset Boulevard. Picking up Gloria Swanson's line, "We had faces then", Brougher connects the celluloid face as an object of desire with the constructions of Joseph Cornell. But as Cornell was looking backward with nostalgia, other artists in the 1940s and 50s were attempting to break away from the spell of cinema and construct a new relationship to the screen. Both Edward Hopper and photographers such as Weegee and Robert Frank shifted attention away from the screen and towards the spectators, while other artists reacted to the onslaught of images the movies had unleashed on the public by providing a new context for them. At this point, Brougher focuses on the work of Pop artist Richard Hamilton, whose work subsumed the essence of film into painting in the same way that Michelangelo Antonioni did the reverse - "misusing" the elements of cinema to create a more abstract kind of art.

The pinnacle of the Pop approach is found in Andy Warhol, whose screen-prints and films are the clearest examples of an artist who shifts painting towards cinema and cinema towards painting. Brougher finds Warhol's cinematic counterpart in Jean-Luc Godard, whose early work was likewise captivated by Hollywood iconography, consumer culture and modes of production. Brougher then moves from Warhol's artistic practice into structuralist film-making especially emphasising Michael Snow, whose Wavelength can be seen both as film-making as well as a perceptual, postminimalist - even conceptual - art work. At the other extreme to minimalism are the expansionist artists like Stan Brakhage, who tried to push the image to such a complex and multilevel state that film was shoved up against its boundary line of possibilities.

The last section of Brougher's essay discusses the tendency of contemporary culture to visit cinema as a site - some sort of location that once existed, but must now be seen from a distance. This desire to see oneself seeing unites cinema and art within the experience of gazing, a tendency encapsulated in the still from Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract, where the draughtsman stares out at the spectator through the medium of his perspective device.

The clarity of Brougher's text is beautifully aided by the exemplary reproductions of film stills and artworks, so that the trajectory she charts can be effortlessly followed by the reader. What particularly struck me was the relationship of spectators to what has passed before their eyes over the past half-century. The photos of Weegee, as well as those of Diane Arbus and Robert Frank, reinstate that most important element in the art of cinema, the audience - without whom all is for nought.

The seven other essays in the book enlarge on several of the themes and issues contained within Brougher's overview. Russell Ferguson discusses the disengagement of stardom from its ties to the Hollywood studios and the opening up of spaces where it became possible for artists to make use of stardom's vocabulary - first with David Bailey and Richard Hamilton's swinging London, and then with Andy Warhol and his dictum: "History will remember each person only for their beautiful moments on film - the rest is off the record."

Bruce Jenkins investigates a decade which was capable of producing Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad, and Michael Snow's Wavelength. Kate Linklater looks at how the alliance of film, feminism and psychoanalysis placed representation on the agenda of ideological critique, a discussion whose major point of reference is the work of Cindy Sherman. Robert Rosen reflects on the relationship of film to painting, but in an area not usually seen to be productive of such investigation - commercial narrative cinema.

Jonathan Crary discusses how Fritz Lang's three Mabuse films deal with the technology of perception and the apparatus of power, and how their interconnectedness inevitably leads to control over the spectator. The final essay, by Molly Nesbit, is a free-form meditation on the current state of cinema.

I must confess that like the entranced spectators in the Weegee photo that adorns the inside cover, cinema has always been for me an emotional, rather than an intellectual experience. Growing up in America in the 1950s, movies were the repository of dreams - a repository created by Hollywood. As such, the essays which deal with Fritz Lang, or with conventional narrative cinema - even the one on Andy Warhol and 60s experimental cinema - engage me more than the one on feminist and psychoanalytic theory (though it is lucidly presented and argued) or Nesbit's homage to Godard's Histoire(s) du cinema, which left me cold. But that may be a reflection of my own inadequacies, rather than the book's. Like the celebration of art and film at the Hayward Gallery last year, Art and Film Since 1945 left me spellbound.

Walter Donohue is film books editor, Faber and Faber.

Art and Film Since 1945: Hall of Mirrors

Author - K.Brougher, J.Crary, R.Ferguson, B.Jenkins, K.Linklaker, M.Nesbit, R.Rosen
ISBN - 1 88522254 21 0
Publisher - Monacelli
Price - £40.00
Pages - 3

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