Shifting Figures

By Carsten Thau, Professor, The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture

Translated by Phillip Shiels

Just a few decades ago, at every cinema one could enjoy the showcases filled with film-stills from the films that were currently on the program. These still-photographs travelled with the films, from town to town. Hence the corners riddled with holes from thumbtacks. The point of these beautifully reproduced photographs was to whet ones appetite for the film and in general convey an impression of the particular film’s universe, it’s locations, and it’s stars, their costumes, possible relationships and gestures.

In addition the films were presented through posters that dramatised the plot and physiognomies of those involved. In first-run film theatres there were even billboards with dramatic jumps in scale between the leading characters powerful figures and the landscape of the film behind them. A distillation of the dream factory stretching across the whole cinema facade.

Posters and billboards constitute a genre, developed quite early on by some illustrators and sign-painters into an individual genre containing it’s own norms of virtuosity. These enormous pictures have fascinated generations up through the twentieth century, where film became in many ways the modern art form par excellence taking a firm grip on everyone’s fantasies and conceptions of the world. 

These type of pictures have, directly and indirectly, influenced numerous artists in and around Pop Art; thus the large painting of mountains in California by David Hockney, acquired by the Louisiana Museum in Humlebæk a few years ago, is strongly influenced by the depictions on the huge cinema billboards.

Other painters have been influenced by carefully detailed storyboards created by important film directors such as Hitchcock and Kurosawa under the preparations for their films; these coloured drawings illustrate the sequence of scenes and the visual composition of each one.

Let us return to the original film-stills as we understand them; photographs of scenes from a motion picture. These are not necessarily identical with the actual cinematic presentation of a given scene. They are created independently by the still-photographer and in many cases the scene does not actually exist in the film. However, they are, as a rule, taken on the set at roughly the same time as the shooting of the live pictures.

Of the film-still, The Encyclopaedia of Film (published by Munksgård-Rosinante) states: ”A photograph taken with a still camera, reproduced on paper (…). A film production often employs a still-photographer whose task it is to photograph both what is being filmed and behind the scenes on the production. The film-still situation is often arranged for the benefit of the still-photographer, so that the essence of a scene or film can be encapsulated. One can also find stills that are not in the finished film. Film-stills are used as advertising material, in press kits, in reviews and in the theatres’ showcases. A reproduction on paper of a single frame from the original film print is called a frame-enlargement.”

What we have here in the present paintings by Maria Wandel are in some cases frame-enlargements transferred to the medium of paint, in other cases film-stills that have undergone the same process and finally looser compositions based on the film in question. The latter is an approach Maria Wandel has used before in her artistic strategies designed to transform familiar visual material.

The films she treats are all works that have a high film historical status. They are all, almost without exception, canonised masterpieces that have become an integral part of every cineastes inner picture album. By virtue of the physiognomies of the actors they are furthermore a component of a visual world that a very large audience can easily recognise. Because stars in the modern visual medias are projected everywhere. Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson have become just such icons, enlarged on posters, in DVDs and magazines, but also by their enormous size on the cinema screen, where they embrace, shoot each other, exude loneliness (as all great actors do), respectively expressing a nameless desire or silently smoke a cigarette in a play of shadow and light, while we sit spellbound in the dark.

The mere sight of Maria Wandels canvases for a cinema-goer brings forth reels of pictures that one can pull through one’s head and see in one’s inner cinema. We all have a Kino im Kopf – a cinema in our head– as they say in German.

The paintings have not only shifted from their media-based background, as stills and frame-enlargements already have. They have also shifted, in that having not been produced by the film industry or the makers of the film in question, they exist independently. The transfer of material that takes place in the painting of something as fleeting as a moment, a camera shot or a scene from a film’s dynamic flow, is in itself something to make one pause and reflect. Furthermore painting has it’s own duration, taking considerable time with brushes and paint to produce and secure the motif. This durational aspect collides with films transience as moving images. This in itself is fascinating. And fascination in the realms of aesthetics means that something is both attractive and slightly frightening or alarming. The emotive lives the actors have had in the living pictures, whether they are still alive as in Robert De Niro or deceased as in Bergman, Bogart and Arletty (the leading lady in ” Les Enfants du Paradis”), become frozen in monumental stiffening, through paintings execution of its motif.

Added to this comes the alienation or strangely disquieting effect that paintings technical use of shadow, colour and slight deformations of the recognisable and cinematic identifiable, achieves.

One is forced to consider: What do these shifts imply? What uncontrollable significance does the exalting of the cinematic image through painting give rise to? Why does the transfer to a new medium, a medium such as painting with it’s own traditions, that are so superior to films’, surprise? And furthermore, what does the artist consider the essential trait of the film in question? Why has she chosen this particular scene?

In some instances the answer will be that the scene encapsulates a key point in the film’s plot or a central event, in others that the motif in a mysterious way is attractive in itself, effective as a rebus or the bearer of an inbuilt code respectively.

At the same time some more general questions spring to mind. What exactly do we recall from films and why do we remember precisely this and that. What makes these scenes representative? Is it something that sinks into our collective memories as something quintessential in this particular film? Are these remembered materials visually stunning or is it more a case of a powerful visual tone that captures the films entire atmosphere?

In conversation one often asks: ”Do you remember that scene in ”Death in Venice” or ”Casablanca”? Wandels Still-Pictures activate and point out all of these processes flowing in the wake of landmark films. The films that so deeply seduced us in the dark cosmos of the cinema, have here, in these paintings, become an object for thought. Film history is full of films that adopt motifs from paintings; here the movement goes the other way.

The subtitles that Wandel incorporates in her canvases can be a guide for thinking. They could also be an objet trouvé, the line of dialogue as a freely floating material from films configuration of conversations. Detached and fastened to the canvas – indeed displaced from the scene the particular utterance belongs to – they become laconic sentences with an effect that is both carefully selected yet in possession of their own solitary conciseness.