Action PaintingMotion Pictures


Commercial movies have long been the foil and fodder for artists working with video and film. By comparison, few have found anything of interest in the history of painting.


It’s been more than half a century since Allan Kaprow proposed that the best thing to do with the legacy of Jackson Pollock was to jettison the painting part and hang on to the action. Performance—live, filmed, taped—has claimed a seat at the visual arts table pretty much ever since, while painting, undead, fitfully resurgent, has moved in and out of the conversation. During this half-century of an ascendant time-based art, but particularly in the last two decades, feature-length commercial films have been the foil and fodder for artists aspiring to displays of formal self-consciousness, social critique, narrative gravity and a cineaste’s mastery of film history minutiae. By comparison, artists working with film and video have found little of interest in the history of painting.

In 1995, when film still offered more technical control than video, Bill Viola staged an encounter among three women, dilated 45 seconds of action to a running time of about 10 minutes and projected The Greeting—a reimagining of Pontormo’s Visitation (1528-29)—vertically, evoking an altarpiece. It was, in effect, a filmmaker’s response to a “problem” of painting that had engaged artists since Alberti and Leonardo: how can wordless gesture and expression portrayed in a fixed image convey the subtleties of thought and feeling? It can’t, Viola seemed to say, though film might become the beneficiary of painting’s abiding quest to do so. When The Greeting debuted at the Venice Biennale, I wrote that Viola’s nuanced microperformance created the effect “not of prosaic action decelerated, but of a painting miraculously rousing itself to life.” Now St. Paul’s Cathedral in London is interested in having two miracles. Viola has been commissioned to create a pair of permanent video altarpieces, plasma screen polyptychs, to be installed in 2011. With refreshing candor, the church canon has noted that the Millennium Bridge connects the 17th-century cathedral to Tate Modern—and the five million art enthusiasts who visit annually. Wise as well to the temptations of moving pictures, church authorities will switch off and close the altarpieces during services, making it easier for the faithful to give their undivided attention to the performance issuing from the pulpit.

Painting has inspired two works by Eve Sussman, the fanciful yet crisp 89 Seconds at Alcázar (2004), which in 9 minutes presents the lead-up to Velázquez’s execution of Las Meninas as the mixture of bustle and waiting found backstage just before the curtain rises on a tableau vivant, and the much longer, opaque The Rape of the Sabine Women (2006), which lays a modernist veneer over a subject treated by Poussin and David, reframing the Roman allegory as a jealousy-fueled battle of the sexes. Tacita Dean, for whom filmmaking is all about patient—perhaps even impossible—observation, shot the elegiac Day for Night (2009) in Giorgio Morandi’s Bologna studio. (The title evokes Truffaut and Hollywood, but refers to Morandi’s working process.) Dean’s film is essentially a series of stills, a looped slide show, each frame of which recomposes, isolates or crops the familiar bottles and boxes in ways the master never did, as if to ask how these iconic yet material objects could possibly exist apart from how Morandi has taught us to see them.

Most persistent in his attention to historical painting has been the category-defying Peter Greenaway, lately in the news for his son et lumière spectacles centering on digital clones of Leonardo’s The Last Supper and Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana. Sound effects, music, spoken words, spotlights and an overlay of zooming red diagrams animate the compositions in time, even as they serve a penetrating analysis of the pictorial structure that makes the frozen drama effective. Greenaway’s engagement with elucidating the painted image—he has plans for nine works in all—followed his 2005 declaration that narrative film was dead, done in by the remote control. No audience could be expected to stay in their seats for two hours of linear exposition. We had entered a post-cinema, interactive age. Greenaway’s other response to these new circumstances was to launch the interactive (edit your own film from 92 fragments) “Tulse Luper Suitcase” online project, which then sparked a live performance tour that finds Greenaway VJing around the world (I caught the show in Milan in 2006), playing with sequence, discontinuity, overlap and repetition with projections on multiple screens.

Now fast-forward (use your remote) to 2007, when Greenaway conjoined the moribund arts of painting and narrative filmmaking to make Nightwatching, a highly stylized yet undeniably linear film (and it runs 2 hours and 15 minutes!) which dramatizes the thesis that Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch (1642) is a coded indictment of murder plotted by the very men it depicts, men who later conspired to ruin the painter who had outed them. That film has acquired a pendant of sorts, Greenaway’s Rembrandt’s J’accuse (2008, 86 minutes), which is making its U.S. theatrical debut at New York’s Film Forum [Oct. 21-Nov. 3].

With Rembrandt’s J’accuse, Greenaway distills the narrative of Nightwatching into a high-tech art history lecture. He replays and shuffles the story, incorporates footage from the first film and new reenactments, digresses with flamboyant erudition into the political and mercantile arcana of 17th-century Holland, and avails himself of the digital wizardry—limbs move, rain falls, diagrams slice across the composition—that activates his Leonardo and Veronese extravaganzas. The debut of Rembrandt’s J’accuse has coincided with New York’s celebration of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival on these shores and the establishment of New Amsterdam. Observances have ranged from a Vermeer exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum to the re-creation of a Dutch village downtown. The enterprising burgher class that funded Hudson’s expedition and later underwrote the achievements of the so-called Golden Age in Holland is portrayed by Greenaway as a murderous, lecherous, venal, envious lot.

Rembrandt’s J’accuse unfolds as a police procedural, a point-by-point investigation into the murder by musket fire of the leader of the militia whose group portrait Rembrandt was contracted to paint. With his head and shoulders materializing on screen like an errant passport photo, Greenaway is narrator, investigator and prosecutor. The film opens outside the Rijksmuseum—the painting hangs within—which is punningly declared “the scene of a shooting.” We return to the museum at the conclusion, to see Greenaway insisting that we must “re-open the case.”

The credits of both Rembrandt films cite no sources, so it is impossible to say how much of Greenaway’s analysis of the perfidy allegedly encoded in The Nightwatch is supported by documentation and research. The defense might dismiss his assertions as hearsay and speculation. Certainly Nightwatching and Rembrandt’s J’accuse share many essential ingredients with Greenaway’s utterly and deliciously fabricated early feature The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982): murder, sex, deception, greed and not one but an entire suite of images in which clues to a conspiracy are not “read”—with fatal consequences—by the very artist who renders them. As in the Rembrandt films, these visual clues are described as adding up to an “indictment.”

Given the additional complaints embedded in the Nightwatch films, it could be said that we are also watching Greenaway’s J’accuse. If he once blamed the remote control for killing narrative film, in Rembrandt’s J’accuse Greenaway holds “visual illiteracy” responsible for our “impoverished cinema.” He bombards us with pertinent but visually inaccessible facts (quick: name the four major print markets in Rembrandt’s Holland) even as we are chastised for our inability to read what is right before our lazy eyes: the homosexual implications of a hand’s shadow on a groin, the satanic tail suggested by a dangling red sash. Greenaway is a gadfly with a grievance: early in Rembrandt’s J’accuse, he bitterly deplores the fact that the ability to interpret the “manufactured image” is currently “undernourished, ill-informed and impoverished.”

The “manufactured image.” Noting their similar conditions of neglect and misunderstanding, Greenaway finds a shareable name for both cinema and painting, the latter disparaged by Kaprow as the “flat rectangle,” which is, after all, not unlike a screen. Yet, as Greenaway might say, here is another mystery: while his own films are “difficult,” too arty to have mass appeal, the paintings he has selected for elucidation (Las Meninas and Guernica are in the wings) are all crowd-pleasing chestnuts with high-wattage stories. He has called them “Cecil B. DeMille Cinerama canvases.” For so determined a scold, Greenaway may be giving himself a free pass with this choice of popular material. But at least he has signed on to play the role of the true mother to Kaprow’s Solomon: faced with the proposition that the baby be cut in half, Greenaway will not permit action and painting to be sundered.

–By Marcia C. Vetrocq

Photos: Novemeber 2009 Cover: Shadi Ghadirian: Untitled from Qajar (detail), 2005, digital color coupler print, 173⁄8 by 115⁄8 inches. Photo courtesy Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller Gallery, New York.

Scene from Peter Greenaway’s Rembrandt’s J’accuse, 2008, 86 minutes. Courtesy of ContentFilm International.