Paintings in Film | Individual Directors | Selbstporträt "Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer" | Caspar David Friedrich

Individual Directors

Eight film directors will be considered whose films have been variously concerned with the art of painting.


Five of the below developed an interest in painting at an early age two of who went on to study it—Jarman at the Slade, Greenaway at Walthamstow College of Art. Russell studied photography at Walthamstow Technical College and though mostly associated with his numerous biopics about classical music composer also made a total of eight films about painters for the BBC in the ten-year period from 1957-1967. And while it may be surprising that Tarkovsky, Jarman and Greenaway made only a handful of painters biopics between them, their films are replete with painterly images and the use of actual paintings, for example Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow from Solaris (1972). A sixth director is added right at the end for the sake of completion.

Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986)

Andrei Rublev (1966)

The nine-minute epilogue with a choral background by Russian composer Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov shows a sequence of details of several of Rublev’s actual icons and is the only part of the film in colour. The first and last few minutes in particular with their dissolves, pans and extreme close ups lend Rublev’s paintings an almost abstract quality. The epilogue itself thereby becomes a sort of triptych, its more ‘medieval’ middle section framed by a modernist beginning and end. The icons shown in order are:


Enthroned Christ

Twelve Apostles

The Annunciation

Twelve Apostles

Jesus entering Jerusalem

Birth of Christ

Enthroned Christ

Transfiguration of Jesus

Resurrection of Lazarus

The Annunciation

Resurrection of Lazarus

Birth of Christ


Archangel Michael

Paul the Apostle

The Redeemer


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Derek Jarman (1942-1994)

Caravaggio (1986) see Queer Biopics.


Peter Greenaway (1942- )

Greenaway’s films include (tableaux vivants of) paintings by and/or show the influence of Georges de La Tour (The Draughtsman’s Contract), Bronzino and Piero della Francesca (The Belly of an Architect), the pre-Raffaelites and Rubins (Drowning by Numbers), Franz Hals and Dutch still-life (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover), Titian, Girogione, and Bellini (Prospero’s Books), Crevalcore, Desidero and Bellini again (The Baby of Macon), and Utamaro and Hokusai (The Pillow Book) not to mention his own drawings for A Walk through H and The Draughtsman’s Contract (see also Pasco 22).


The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

Midway through the film at 0:58:35-1:00:21, the draughtsman Mr Neville places a painting by the German artist Januarius Zick (1730-97, the transition from Rocco to Classicism) directly in front of Mrs Herbert on a stool to indirectly establish connections between Allegory on the Achievements of Newton in the Field of Optics (1794) and the events so far in tilm:


Perhaps Mr Herbert has an eye for optical theory … an interest in the pictorial conceit? … Do you think the characters have something to tell us … Do you think that murder is being prepared?


However, while Neville obviously thinks it is about sex, intrigue and murder both painting and film are about far more than that, for example the painting’s very title foregrounds the “achievements” of Newtonian optics and the reflection in the mirror indicates a sense of investigative playfulness with images. But Neville is incapable of comprehending this because he is a draughtsman who simply paints what he sees without understanding the underlying significance (of a painting which incidentally wasn’t completed until a decade after the year the film is set [1694])!). Ultimately Greenaway wants his audience to think about a variety of issues:


…the film’s original premise which is – should an artist draw what he sees or draw what he knows? Sight and knowledge are not at all the same thing. Seeing and believing. Just because you have eyes does not mean you can see. The eye is lazier than the brain. Because of such contradictions and inadequacies, the draughtsman is framed, and in both meanings of that phrase. And because of the film’s ubiquitous optical-device, a frame on an easel, and because of the obsessive framings of the movie-camera itself in making the film, we are framed too. And we know that cinema itself is a framing device in both meanings of the word. Perhaps with profit the argument that seeing and knowing are not the same thing, should be always applied to cinema. And in the end The Draughtsman’s Contract perhaps ought to be called The Filmmaker’s Contract. What is the profit to a filmmaker, if he only films what he sees and not what he, and also his audience, undoubtedly know?



Not only that, by the way individual parts of the painting are edited into the filmic text as a montage sequence a new hybrid art form is created as the boundaries between film and painting are blurred. A similar interplay takes place between the twelve drawings (done by Greenaway himself) Neville is commissioned to complete and their filmic equivalents. For an example see 4:26-4:33:


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A Zed & Two Noughts (1985)

Not an actual biopic but does have tableaux vivants of Vermeer’s paintings.


Nightwatching (2007 UK Martin Freeman) / Rembrandt’s J’Accuse (2008 documentary)

The latter is a companion piece to the former and goes into more ‘factual’ detail about the theory Greenaway indirectly floats in Nightwatching that Rembrandt’s 1642 The Night Watch contains hidden references to members of The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch (one of the paintings’s alternative titles) conspiring to commit an act of murder for their own personal gain.


Goltzius and the Pelican Company (2012 historical film)

Hendrik Goltzius (1558-1616) was a German-born Dutch printer, engraver and painter. Along with the previous Nightwatching and planned film on Hieronymus Bosch, this represents Greenaway’s triptych on “Dutch Masters.”


PS The OK Doll is the script for an unrealized film about the life-size doll that Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka had made of Alma Mahla which he lived with for three years!


PPS The Greenaway Alphabet (2017 Netherlands Saskia Boddeke)

A documentary by Greenaway’s partner, the multimedia artist, opera and film director Saskia Boddeke, featuring Greenaway and his sixteen-year-old daughter Zoe/Pip, both of whom can be seen at work on sketches, drawings, and small paintings.


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Ken Russell (1927-2011)

All films made for the BBC arts programmes Monitor (1958-1965) or Omnibus (1967-2003)


Making an Action Painting (1957) made the work of the Royal College of Art action painter William Green controversial and he himself notorious by showing him creating paintings by cycling across a surface saturated with paraffin then scorching the surface with fire. His working methods were parodied in the 1961 Tony Hancock film The Rebel.


Scottish Painters (1959)


This focuses on Roberts MacBryde (1913—1966) and Colquhoun (1914—1962), who were both professional collaborators and lovers. Their relationship began when the “Two Roberts” (as they were collectively known) met at Glasgow School of Art in 1933 and did not end until Colquhoun died in 1962. Most of their paintings are still lifes and portraits. According to his autobiography Russell first encountered their paintings and later the artists themselves at an exhibition of theirs when working in the Bond Street art gallery Lefévre in 1948 which was selling their work (Russell 77—78). While living and leading a bohemian lifestyle in the Soho of the 1940s, the two Roberts simultaneously engaged with the contemporary art scene through their friendship with Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud as they came under the influence of the European modernist school, Picasso in particular.


Narrated by actor and writer Allan McClelland, the film opens with a shot of the artists atop their horse-drawn cart packed with paintings heading for their timber-cottage studio in Suffolk “close enough to London for them to be able to sell their paintings and cheap enough for them to do nothing but paint” (1:30—34). Russell’s documentary then “consists purely of short interviews with each painter, followed by a montage of their work, with Russell’s camera slowly tracking in to fine details and pulling back to reveal the wider context” (Brooke) accompanied by, for instance Debussy’s orchestral arrangement of the first of early modernist and experimental composer/performance artist Erik Satie‘s Gymnopédies, an early use of this piece in film to be employed on countless occasions afterwards. Satie’s music is also used to accompany shots of MacBryde painting and narrating. Why Satie? We are told by the voiceover that MacBryde’s “interest is in form, shape and colour,” and Satie’s interest in form and shape has continually been attested to as well. Russell could also be picking up on what he obviously regards as the underlying melancholy tone of the paintings or chose this minimalist music because of the gentle, dreamy, stately, serene drifting from one moment (= one painting) to the next, thereby giving the paintings both time and room (the same music plays over the opening credits of Salome’s Last Dance from 1988). According to numerous sources, Satie himself may even have been inspired for the atmosphere he wanted to evoke in his Gymnopédies by a painting, Pierre Puvis de Chavennes’ languid portrait of three young girls by the seaside, Jeunes filles aus bord de la mer (1879). Whatever the reason(s) for Russell’s choice, Scottish Painters is certainly “an important milestone in the art of filming art” which “shows the viewer how to read the paintings by deconstructing the compositions into interlinked component shapes, from the detail to the whole and back again using Eisenstein’s matched dissolves” (Sutton, Talking Ken Russell 28). And to compensate for the lack of colour, MacBryde slices a lemon to use in a still life and says: “Lemon yellow screams, a screaming kind of yellow” (02:29—02:33).


A similar sequence with exactly the same film techniques of montage, tracking, incorporation of music and dissolves is dedicated to Colquhoun and what he has admitted is his “endless concern with the human form” (6:17). Colquhoun admits to an element of nostalgia in the creative wellspring for his work that “came out of rather romantic memories” (6:50) connected to where he lived. While he talks there is a dissolve from Colquhoun painting to a lone whole-body veiled figure walking away from the camera along a beach. This brief shot is intended to metaphorically evoke the everyday Scottish people who made such an impact on the painter during his childhood and who he subsequently depicted in his paintings on several occasions. Through both subject and construction, the film illustrates the ways in which the two Roberts engage both the local (the romance of everyday Scottish life) and the global (the attachment to a European modernist aesthetic; Satie, Debussy and so on). Ultimately all Colquhoun‘s paintings of human figures are “an exercise in the use of paint and shapes.”


Interestingly enough, correspondence between Russell and the two Roberts show that the initial reaction of the painters was that while the film did make them look “like a couple of bums,” they still “liked it particularly the treatment of the paintings.” Russell on the other hand denied this was his intention and replied that the “idea was to show that unlike the painters who compromise or make painting a part-time affair you two carry on painting whatever happens, through thick and thin” (Monitor file).


Old Battersea House (1961)

Narrated by Huw Wheldon, head of the BBC‘s Monitor arts strand, the film displays the art of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in a kind of shrine to both their paintings and sculptures. The 96-year-old owner, the writer Wilhelmina Stirling, was the younger sister of the painter Evelyn De Morgan, and her husband William De Morgan was also part of the circle. Stirling, who owned and lived in the house when the film was made, takes the visitor on a tour of the house and explains how she came to be a supporter of the ideals of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Her manservant Mr Peters uses a large lamp to light up the dark corners while Stirling claims the place is haunted and that a toad modelled for the devil in one of her sister’s paintings. Together with his cinematographer John Ray, Russell shot the film “by lamplight with the house’s heavy curtains drawn,” making the works of art come “to life by moving them, the sculpture and plates slow-turning on pedestals, whilst simultaneously moving the camera in a sort of choreography (Sutton, Talking Ken Russell 43).” The three-dimensional representational spaces created by a tracking camera were the work of the editor Allan Tyrer, who was also the supervising editor of Kenneth Clark’s 1969 Civilisation” (Sutton, Talking Ken Russell 43). Russell returned to the subject of the Pre-Raphaelites six years later with Dante’s Inferno see final entry.


Mr. Chesire’s Traction Engines (1962)

The first of Russell’s three films on naïve painters, in this case landscapes of steam engines, with films about James Lloyd and Henri Rousseau to follow.


Pop Goes the Easel (1962)


In 1962 Ken Russell completed his first full-length (fictionalized) documentary portrait for Monitor. It depicts four contemporary English Pop art pioneers, at the time still in their twenties, aiming to capture and reflect their excitement and youthful energy: painter and illustrator Peter Blake (1932- ); painter, graphic artist and filmmaker Peter Phillips (1939- ); painter, illustrator, collage artist, photographer, filmmaker and sculptor Derek Boshier (1937- ) and painter and collage artist Pauline Boty (1938-1966). They are shown both in their studios and as active observers of various forms of popular entertainments and amusements such as circuses and street markets as well as in connection to Pop art in a vibrant collage of dancing, playing pinball, flicking through the pages of illustrated magazines, the carnival(esque), movies, pop and jazz music, television and toys. Ken Russell’s highly visual and musical approach which is contained in embryo in Scottish Painters has by now become appropriately stylish, exuberant, freewheeling and playful throughout, perfectly capturing the beginnings of the swinging sixties along with the non-diegetic pop soundtrack. Russell “constructs an elaborate, rapidly cut rhythmic kaleidoscope of images of film and pop stars (Brigitte Bardot, Buddy Holly), fashion magazines, fast cars, politicians, the space race, guns, girls, American culture in general” (Brooke) as he moves between fantasy and more realistic documentary-style sequences.


Seated in front of a wall of pop art images that could quite easily come from Pop Goes the Easel itself, Huw Wheldon introduces the film (and reinforces class distinctions) by admitting that while some may dismiss the world of pop artists as “tawdry and second rate” it is a world all the same “packed with its own mythology, its own heroes, its own heroines, its own laughter, its own poetry”, one in which “we all live whether we like it or not” and which the artists “approach with the utmost relish” (0:30—1:19). Wheldon concludes with brief descriptions of the four artists (1:20—2:44) after which there is a complete absence of voice-over narration for the rest of the film.


Next, Peter Blake is presented  in bed (in a shot which recalls the residents of The House in Bayswater) surrounded by his pictures and cut outs from glossy magazines intercut with extracts from films featuring Brigitte Bardot. The non-diegetic music is not a song by the actress but about her. This establishes a parallel to the pictures. In its pictures pop art likes to make use of material taken from other media such as pull outs from magazines or newspaper headlines, which they prefer to an image of or statement from, say, a film star.


Blake’s On the Balcony (oil 1955—57) is a ‘theme and variation’ on The Balcony (1868) by Edouard Manet. It combines images of ordinary, everyday people (mostly youthful teenagers) with a  newspaper photograph of the royal family via a photograph of his late tutor John Minton;  a painting by fellow-student Leon Kossoff and products from the USA (a packet of Lucky Strike, an “I love Elvis” badge and a copy of Life magazine).  The painting reflects the conflicts and cultural changes of post war Britain. In Pop Goes the Easel (9:24—11:34) Blake’s collage-like painting is “dissected literally: the camera isolates sections and rhythmically cuts them to the gallop of James Darren’s ‘Her Royal Majesty’ (Flannagan 76). This shows Russell has developed the technique of intercutting music with images, specifically of paintings, in Scottish Painters, a method employed elsewhere in Pop Goes the Easel, for example pans and tilts to move in and out of Blake’s walls onto which he has stuck cut outs from magazines. Overall, Pop Goes the Easel marks a progression and uses a more sophisticated approach compared to the previous Scottish Painters with extracts from other films inserted into the filmic text, a denser, more textured soundtrack, and more multilayered editing and camera movement.


The sequence featuring Peter Phillips includes a musical  accompaniment of some classics of late 50s jazz by Julian “Cannonball” Adderley (“This Here” 1959), Charles Mingus (“Folk Forms Number One” 1960) and Ornette Coleman (“Embraceable You” 1960), thereby establishing a connection between Pop Art and Modern Jazz. The funky soul sounds of “This Here” can be heard while Phillips is being chauffeured in an American limousine by an African-American driver through a London suburb. While Phillips is making himself breakfast in front of a(nother!) wall of pictures the non-diegetic “Folk Forms Number One” can be heard framed by the diegetic sounds from an adjoining flat of a woman at a pinball machine. In a montage sequence the camera lingers on some of the pinball machine’s painted-on images as if they themselves were pop art. Lastly, the sad ballad “Embraceable You” perfectly suits the gloomy, somber portraits we see by Phillips of nude female dancers in a series of panning and tracking shots.


Derek Boshier’s career has taken him from London’s Royal College of Art (studying with fellow students David Hockney and R.B. Kitaj) to Texas in the 1980s and his current home Los Angeles since the late 1990s. He voices his concerns with the “whole set up of the American influence in this country…the sort of infiltration of the American way of life” (18:32—18:38) mainly through advertising as he sees it. This process he believes starts with the Cornflakes on the breakfast table, continues with cutouts of American characters like Yogi Bear and Walt Disney’s characters and ends with comics on the backs of cornflakes packets. Boshier admits that many of his paintings deal with the phenomenon of the mass media saturation and the pervasive American cultural influence. Of the four pop artists he is the one to go into the most detail about his art, which he does in a four-minute sequence (19:40—23:56).


We see Boshier’s painting of a Kellogg’s cornflakes packet before turning to the painting England’s Glory (1960) with its criticism of cultural imperialism. The American flag in the top left-hand corner is “American influence creeping in” onto the other more specifically English images such as the Union Jack. Boshier admits his interest in the space race is behind his next painting The Most Handsome Hero of the Cosmos and Mr Shepard (1962). The images of the painting are intercut with a short animated sequence. One of its images is a comic one – a spaceman – and Boshier often uses comic-strip style conceptualisations as he does in Man Playing Snooker and Thinking of Other Things where “the images are split up into compartments as in a comic”. These are all linked to “the general interest theme of England, television and the space probe.” More astronauts on their radios is the sound bridge to “I Wonder What My Heroes Think of the Space Race.” The three heroes presented (all of whom died a hero’s death and who are connected by their childhoods)  are Lord Nelson (a half portrait in military dress and eye patch surveying the scene), Abraham Lincoln and Buddy Holly, whose “Everyday” sets in non-diegetically (22:18) to accompany the images. Boshier concludes that Buddy Holly personifies everything he likes about heroes in general. Russell again employs his familiar technique of montage, dissolves and pans weaving in and out of the paintings.


Pauline Boty is the first of Russell’s female artists, later to be followed by Isadore Duncan in the film of the same name, Elizabeth Siddal/Christine Rossetti (Dante’s Inferno 1968) and Mary Shelley (Gothic 1966) with unfulfilled plans to make films about Maria Callas and Sarah Bernhardt as well. Whereas the previous male artists in Pop Goes the Easel try to explain their work, Russell navigates Boty’s female identity by having her place more emphasis on showing her work, for example her “dense and disturbing collages”, often in the form of spectacle/masquerade as in when she is in top hat and tails miming briefly to the song “On the Good Ship Lollipop”. There is also the image of Boty vigorously brushing her hair and grooming to the strains of “A Foggy Day in London Town” (27:23—28:21) which dissolves into details from her paintings as the film (re)creates itself in her image as a collage of images. She is interested, she says, in the moments when “something very extraordinary is happening, yet everyone around isn’t taking any notice of it at all.” Then we have George Gershwin’s “They All Laughed” (32:38—33:24) from the Astaire-Rogers musical Shall We Dance (1937) with Boty admitting her love of such 1930s musicals which she says have influenced the various shapes and ‘atmospheres’ of her paintings. This is followed by a segue/match cut from the film (33:36) into a 21-shot montage of her collages (34:13).


The film is bookended by an early sequence where our four protagonists visit a fairground together and the wrestling match they all enjoy, very much a dry run for the male nude wrestling sequence in Women in Love (1969). In the twist party sequence to Clay Cole’s “Twist Around the Clock”, David Hockney can be glimpsed briefly as can others like the African-American driver and pinball player and all four pop artists. Right before the end credits we see them painting individually to the classical music of J.S Bach’s Concerto for Four Harpsichords in A Minor—one of the interpretations of which could be that Russell sees them in a wider context, a longer tradition of artistic creation.


The Dotty World of James Lloyd (1964)

This deals with the eponymous self-taught Yorkshire pointillist painter. Russell used Lloyd again as Rousseau: “I was very fond of primitive art in those days and because of this I used to frequent the Portal Gallery which specializes in primitives. It was there that I first saw the paintings of the Yorkshire artist … and I thought: he’s much better than Goya” (Baxter 127). The film “succeeded in getting Lloyd’s work into the Bond Street galleries of Russell’s London” (Sutton, “Ken Russell at the BBC19).


Always on Sunday (1965)


The post-impressionist (naïve) French painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) was in Russell’s view “the greatest Primitive painter the world has ever known” (Russell 94). The offers a series of vignettes centred around Rousseau’s life and presents itself as a hybrid of arts documentary and biopic with actors dramatizing/re-imagining moments of the painter’s life. Rousseau is played by the painter James Lloyd, the subject of the earlier documentary The Dotty World of James Lloyd, “whose own career as a misunderstood naïve painter had many similarities” (Brooke).


Rousseau had a job at the Paris city toll, the reason the writer Alfred Jarry (who wrote the play Ubu roi 1896; he also appears in the film) with a lack of precision called him Le Douanier or customs officer (see the Musée d’Orsay’s “The Dounier Rousseau: Archaic Candour” on the museum’s website). The title we see on the screen is Henri Rousseau: Sunday Painter and this refers to the fact that his art had to be produced in his spare time, even after retirement. Henri Rousseau eventually retired from his position to paint full-time instead of just on Sundays. The film is set after Rousseau’s retirement, which coincided with the beginning of his career as a painter at the age of 49. Though eccentric on one level, Rousseau was quite conventional and bureaucratic on another professional one. Russell emphasizes this contradiction in terms between the classic civil servant and the self-taught hobbyist.


Rousseau took inspiration for his works not from actual first-hand experience and stays in exotic locales but from more local places he had visited like zoos or the botanical gardens in Paris; from illustrated books and print ads and magazines he had seen and read parallels may be drawn with the way Russell depicts Pop Artist’s sources in Pop Goes the Easel. The style and subject matter of popular print culture was reflected in his imagery and use of colour. Rousseau himself said of his inspiration the Parisian greenhouses and gardens: “When I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream” (quoted at “Biography,” Henri Julien Rousseau: The Complete Works).


Ultimately, “Rousseau’s work defies classification; his paintings, like his artistic career, are highly individual” (Musée d’Orsay website). Rousseau’s paintings went on to influence several generations of painters including the early Surrealists who were obviously moved by his ability to evoke a dream state. And even though the Spanish painter patronized him at times, the only painting he sold throughout his entire life was to a young Pablo Picasso. Yet far from being completely alone, it was actually through other artists that Rousseau finally found some support and just before his death a proper audience. By capturing this aspect of his personality Russell turns him into someone who believed anything was possible if only he could paint, summarized by part of the epitaph on his tombstone written by another admirer, Guillaume Apollinaire: “Let our luggage pass duty free through the gates of heaven. We will bring you brushes, paints, and canvas” (quoted at “Biography,” Henri Julien Rousseau: The Complete Works). Russell’s biopic of Rousseau ultimately “rejects naturalism and replaces it with an off-kilter aesthetic worthy of one of Rousseau’s paintings. Always on Sunday is also one of the finest examples of a Russell film about a struggling, misunderstood artist” (Hoyle 47).


Numerous paintings by Rousseau are featured in the film and production secretary Anne James points out that as per Russell’s instructions, designer Luciani Arrighi aimed “to ensure they were all “photographed and printed life-size onto canvas” (Sutton, Talking about Ken Russell 113). Nine have been chosen to discuss, taking into particular consideration whether we see Rousseau working on his painting, the deployment of filmic techniques which by now can be identified as typically Ken Russell like zooms and so on in addition to a montage sequence of several other works. All Rousseau’s paintings have a dream-like quality blending the familiar with the unknown as well as elements of fairy tales, adventure, the uncanny, and the darkly sexual, which must have appealed to Russell.


Artillerymen 1893—95

This could almost be a group picture in the countryside in the way the 13 darkly dressed soldiers and (probably) their commander (in white) are gathered around the large wheel of a canon, perfectly centred in the frame. Briefly at 1:56 and then again at 2:10 we see Rousseau working on the painting, particularly details of the faces like moustaches and eyes. It is the first one he lifts onto his cart to wheel to an exhibition (28 brackets) where it is commented on disparagingly 2:00—3:00 (we hear Russell’s own voice as one of the critics). It is particularly telling that they cannot decide which of the artillerymen is supposed to be Rousseau!


War 1894

The composition is rigorously divided into two horizontal registers. Firstly War, personified as a wild woman in white with a smoking torch and a bare sword, is galloping sidesaddle on a flying black horse through secondly a desolate landscape of butchered male corpses. At 8:58ff we see Rousseau working on it in the presence of Jarry working on Ubu roi. War is described in the voiceover as “a hysterical child riding over a sea of dead bodies, his most ambitious painting yet.” Nevertheless, the painting eventually met “the scorn of an obese, philistine, uncomprehending bourgeois audience” (10:47).


The Sleeping Gypsy (3) 1897

At 16:19ff this is the subject of a letter to the mayor of Rousseau’s hometown Laval offering him the chance to buy the painting. A description then follows of A wandering negress, playing her mandolin with her jar beside her, a vase containing water, sleeps deeply, warn out by fatigue. A lion wanders by, detects her and does not devour her. There’s an effect of moonlight, very poetic.” In addition to the typical Russell zooms of among others Scottish Painters, the nicely lit shot by the sphere and the lamp at 16:48 where the painting’s moon is paralleled by something spherical in the wall and another painting (Portrait of Madame M 1895—97) is a highly successful attempt on the part of Russell at creating his own filmic painting.


The Wedding Party 1905

What appears to be his second wife Josephine at 17:24ff is modelling for the ‘lead role’ as the bride in the painting Rousseau is working on.


Past and Present 1890—99

At 18:44 Rousseau and Josephine are watched over by the artist “as he had appeared twenty years earlier” and his first wife Clemence in the form of two disembodied heads in the sky onto which the camera zooms as the painter is seen working on it.


The Artist Painting His Wife 1900—1905

This can be seen at 19:20—19:30 followed by a cut to Rousseau painting his second wife Josephine on a riverbank, who according to the voiceover “was his model and his muse” for a time.


Old Junier’s Cart 1908

22:38ff shows him “working from a photograph as he often did but reorganizing the figures and adding new ones of his own…transforming the most haphazard snapshot into something personal and strange”: Like a filmmaker does when recreating paintings?


Montage (38:55)

Finally, in a sequence towards the end of the film Rousseau shows his last love Leonie some of his paintings to ‘entertain’ her as he puts it but she proceeds to laugh the whole way through, laughter which then sound dissolves into the laughter of many imposing itself over Rousseau’s narration. Yet while this laughter eventually drowns out Rousseau’s words completely, the paintings assert themselves over it as the montage of his works increases in speed. They are the last things we see at the end of the montage.


As if to further validate the primacy of the paintings, we next see Rousseau painting “one of his greatest canvasses” The Dream (1910) “in which a dream lady is transported into a tropical paradise on Rousseau’s faded plush settee.” The camera tilts up to him adding the final details to her outstretched left hand. The final words of Always on Sunday are “His painting of The Dream is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York—valued at over a million dollars.” Yet even though we have just seen Rousseau die, the very final shot accompanied by triumphant non-diegetic music is of him wheeling his cart around as ever (this reminds us of MacBryde and Colquhoun riding their horse-drawn cart down a lane loaded up with canvases into the Suffolk village where their new studio is based).


Dante’s Inferno: The Private Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Poet and Painter


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The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a nineteenth century art movement founded in 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and several of their friends as a reaction against what they saw as the unimaginative and artificial historical painting of the Royal Academy and the artistic canon it championed.  Its aim was to reject the promotion of Italian Renaissance master Raphael’s aesthetics in favour of what they saw as realist themes of medieval art. The artists shared an interest in nature and realism and an engagement with literature and poetry. Their paintings emphasized bright colours, sharp lighting, an almost photographic reproduction of minute details and a lot of often private poetic symbols. Christian religious imagery, Arthurian romance and mythology were popular themes. Although they called themselves a brotherhood, there were eventually many women in their circle such as Evelyn De Morgan, Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, Marie Spartali Stillman, Rebecca Solomon, Francesca Alexander, Christina Jane Herrigham, the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and Elizabeth Siddal plus the poet Christina Rossetti, who together with Siddal plays a significant role in Russell’s Dante’s Inferno.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) was a painter, illustrator, drawer, designer, etcher and sketcher. The success of Russell’s earlier Old Battersea House had drawn attention to then unfashionable art of the Brotherhood. Rossetti’s art resembles that of his fellow pre-Raphaelite painters in its sensuality, use of symbolism and religious, mythological and literary themes. In addition, much like Caravaggio used people from the streets to model for him The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-9) portrays the likenesses of his mother and sister as Mary and Saint Anne while in Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation 1849-50) Rossetti used his sister as a model for the Virgin.


Apart from Rossetti himself Dante’s Inferno features his sister the poet Christina Rossetti, the painters John Everett Millais (played by Pop artist Derek Boshier from Pop Goes the Easel), William Holman Hunt, and Edward Burne-Jones, the decorative artist and founder of the English Arts and Crafts Movement William Morris, the poet Algernon Swinburne (played by poet Christopher Logue from Pop Goes the Easel), and the critic John Ruskin. The women at the centre are Rossetti’s model and later wife Elizabeth Siddal, Jane Burden, a model who later married William Morris before beginning an affair with Rossetti, and another model Fanny Cornforth who Rossetti lived off and on with towards the end of his life as well. The film concentrates especially on Rossetti’s relationship with Siddal, and while the film does stress her poor health and addiction to laudanum, it also makes it clear that she was an artist in her own right. In addition, Russell’s film focuses on Rossetti as a poet with voiceover quotes from his work and the merging of verse and image in later sequences.


Dante’s Inferno has a lot in common with Gothic (1986) with its multiple, incestuous relationships and muses, hallucinatory visuals of breasts with eyes and mouths spewing cockroaches, and the all-round nightmarish atmosphere of drugs, sex, and horror. There is a similar use of tableaux vivant, specifically the recreation of Füssli’s Nachtmahr in the form of the dramatization of Mary Shelley’s waking dream. A sleeping woman bathed in white light stretches over the end of/across a bed, arms, neck, and head hanging off the end of the mattress. An apelike figure is crouched squatting on her chest and stomach, a sort of goblin-like monster or imp, incubus. At the same time on the far left a crazed horse with glowing eyes and flared nostrils protrudes from the background shadows, flash-lit, eyes burning, hair on end, out of nowhere, seemingly out of control. The painting is set on the border between dream and reality: maybe the woman is dreaming the whole thing. Is she scared, does she feel threatened, helpless and vulnerable and/or is she enjoying it? The horror, dark, irrational forces mixed with eroticism and sexuality in this ‘staging’ in chiaroscuro are all made for Russell. His own filmic version of Mary Shelley’s waking dream is lit by flashes of lightening as she first has a vision of the painting in the storm then sees the demon sitting on her chest, an image employed (controversially) in the marketing campaign for the film. She screams as it reaches for her throat.


Turning to the use of paintings in Dante’s Inferno, numerous shots are consciously modelled on and quote actual Pre-Raphaelite paintings, for example The Light of the World by Holman Hunt, who is shown painting and Annie Miller modelling for it. John Tibbetts writes in terms of the film’s “sensitive blending of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s plangent lyrics to Russell’s tableaux vivants re-creations of the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites” (Tibbets 241). In addition, we have (Wilkes) the shot where Siddall and Dante Rossetti kiss, which is modelled after the embrace of the two protagonists of Rossetti’s The Wedding of St George & Princess Sabra (1857). Then Rossetti is shot in the process of painting both Dante’s Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice (1869-71, the dream is of seeing Beatrice in death; Jane Morris modelled) and Found (1853), a work which depicts the social and moral problems of modern urban life in the form of an ailing woman collapsed in the road who has become a prostitute.


Furthermore, Elizabeth Siddal is acknowledged as an artist in her own right working on her Clerk Saunders watercolour (1857) with Dante posing for it as he did in real life. In the image May Margaret meets the ghost of her murdered lover, Clerk Saunders, who materializes in order to renew his marriage vows. Kneeling on the bed, she kisses the wand to show her fidelity. While the theme of love and desire, the use of bright colors and medievalism all reflect Pre-Raphaelite characteristics, Siddall’s painting is also a meditation on the contemporary issues of gender and class: This is a story about love between social unequals. Russell films other sequences “as if with the light employed in a Pre-Raphaelite painting: that is, the soft glow in dark Victorian interiors” (Robinson 199).


The (compensation for a) lack of colour was mentioned in connection to Scottish Painters. In the case of Dante’s Inferno Russell did in fact lobby for colour and “even went so far as to suggest how he could colour-coordinate the palate of the film to match the personalities and work of the four protagonists.” But the BBC “had only recently begun investing in colour and due to the increased cost they were reluctant to take a risk on a feature-length project directed by someone as unpredictable as Russell” (quoted in Wilkes). In the end, however, this is (once more) than amply compensated for by the overall look of the film which references Fritz Lang (Das Niebelungenlied 1924), The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922). Russell “brought out the look of a classic black and white horror film” to “resemble a region of Transylvania” (Lanza 58). In addition, shooting in black and white has two further advantages. The section Inspirations and Speculations drew attention to the problematic nature of visually equating a painter’s work with their environment as if they presented the world as they saw it (see also the biopic’s proclivity to present an artist’s work “as an aspect of the artist’s personality and biography: a limited conception of art as subjective expression, diary or autobiography” Walker 19). Using black and white both avoids this and kitschy clichés of the Bubbles type, (1886), Millais’ work known to generations by being used in Pears soap advertising.


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Source: You Tube by dante 2


PS Russell was planning a film with Spike Milligan as Van Gogh which, however, never materialised.


Jean-Luc Godard (1930-)

Pierrot le Fou (1965)

Bored with his marriage and bourgeois life, Ferdinand escapes on a road trip to the south with his babysitter and ex-lover Marianne Renoir (sic!), who is already involved in arms smuggling. They initially get by on stealing and eventually flinch from nothing including murder. A plethora of references to the pop art and cartoons of Warhol, Lichtenstein and Oldenburg (and also paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian) all in Techniscope, Eastmancolor and primary colours. Ferdinand reads out the film’s credo from Élie Faure’s Histoire de l’Art (1919–1921) :


After he reached the age of fifty, Vélasquez no longer painted anything concrete and precise. He drifted through the material world, penetrating it, as the air and the dusk. In the shimmering of shadows, he caught unawares the nuances of colour which he transformed into the invisible heart of his symphony of silence.

[From the 1921-30 English translation by Walter Pach]


For an in-depth analysis of Pierrot le Fou see “Cinema against Collage as Painting” (Vacche, Cinema and Painting 107–34) as well as Gardner (259-68) plus the below for further details:


Passion (1982)

While at home the independent self-governing trade union Solidarity is locking horns with the government, the Polish director Jerzy is over budget and making little progress in Switzerland with his historical film. This consists of the recreation, restaging and re-enacting of classical western paintings by Rembrandt (The Night Watch), Goya (The Parasol, Third of May 1808, La Maja Desnuda, Charles IV of Spain and His Family), Ingres (The Valpincon Bather and The Turkish Bath), Delacroix (Entry of the Crusaders in Constantinople and Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), El Greco  (The Assumption of the Virgin), Watteau (The Embarkation for Cythera) and a composite Turkish bath scene by the 19th century French sculptor and historical painter Jean-Léon Gérôme as tableaux vivants set to the classical music of Mozart (Requiem, introit), Ravel, Dvorak, Fauré and Beethoven. Eventually the relationships and connections between the roles of a woman factory worker, hotel manageress, TV director and factory owner take over in importance as Godard’s film becomes a meditation on love, work and money and a reflection on art and the process of film making itself. See also Jacobs 107—17 and Gardner 263-68 where he terms the tableaux vivants “Blocs of Affect.”


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Peter Schamoni (1934-2011)

All documentaries unless otherwise stated.


Hundertwassers Regentag (1973 about the Austrian painter, visual artist, architect[ural doctor], long-time ecological activist and philosopher. The title is taken from part of his nickname Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser =  realm of peace rain-day dark-bright hundred water!!)


Caspar David Friedrich (1986 dramatized documentary)


Max Ernst: Mein Vagabundieren—Mein Unruhen (1991)


Botero – Geboren in Medellin (2008 documentary about the painter and sculptor Fernando Botero)


Peter Schamoni was a German film director and producer from an artistic and academic family. His father Victor was one of the very first German film scholars, his older brother Victor jnr. a TV cameraman, his younger brother Thomas an artist and director, and Ulrich active as a script writer, director and actor. His mother Maria published her autobiography in 1983, My Schamonis. The theologian Wilhelm Schamoni and the painter Albert Schamoni were Peter Schamoni’s uncles. Peter Schamoni also directed Niki de Saint Phalle in 1999 about the Franco-American painter, filmmaker and sculptor and her collaborations with her Swiss husband, the kinetics artist Jean Tinguely.


Further information:


Hans Cürlis (1889-1983) 

The filmmaker with a PhD in art history made 87 short pioneering film portraits about the creative process from 1922 right up until the 1960s under the collective title of Schaffende Hände, theseCreative Hands’ being the emphasis of the films as we see the art works taking shape in them. Sculptors, cartoonists, caricaturists, artisans and even art forgers appear along with painters like Corinth (painting a landscape), Lesser Ury (drawing a Berlin street in his studio), Grosz (at work on a line drawing), Zille (on his Berlin balcony drawing his Berlin Brat), Dix (drawing a female nude), Oppenheimer, Liebermann, Kollwitz and Slevogt, some of them painting the portraits of Heinrich Mann, Pechstein, Kandinsky and Calder among many others.


Zwei Sprachen einer Kunst

This is a double portrait—as the title says, ‘two languages, one art’—of Ury and Kandinsky. Here is an extract from the part of the film dedicated to Ury (1861-1931), one of the leading representatives of German Impression and an extremely prominent artist of the Weimar Republic, followed by an extract from the part of the film dedicated to Kandinsky:


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Source: You Tube by Karl Hoeffkes


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Then, an extract from Cürlis’s Corinth film made in the front yard of the painter’s house in Berlin’s Hansa quarter. Arnheim was especially impressed by how “the process of a work’s creation and the nature of the technique used–for instance, colour mixture, hand position, and hand motions, etc.” was depicted. Armheim detected “educational possibilities not just in showing photographs of paintings, but in using the moving camera, which, by focusing on isolated sections, functions as a pointer to demonstrate the construction of painterly composition in film” (“Painting and Film,” The Visual Turn 153):


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Source: You Tube by Karl Hoeffkes


Finally, a 65-minute German TV documentary From the Studios of the 1920s: The Film Pioneer Hans Cürlis and His Painters Portraits by Joseph Kirchmayer:


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Source: You Tube by Daniel Brannon


Alain Resnais (1922-2014)

These are all black and white short documentaries. See also Other Painter Biopics for Van Gogh (1947 16 mm remade on 35mm 1948) and Gauguin (1950).


Guernica (1950 in collaboration with Robert Hessens)

The film “moves beyond” the painting Guernica’s “shattered, exploded composition, finding its visual echoes” in all of Picasso’s works. Just like Van Gogh and Gaugin, Guernica ”is not a film about a painting, or paintings” but instead “an attempt to convey an artist’s vision of the world” (Wilson 19).


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Source: You Tuby by Clássico&Cia – Cinema Clássico e Filmes Antigos




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