Caravaggio: A Pioneer of Modern Cinematography?

January 17, 2013

Starting tomorrow night, LACMA will be screening films that show the lasting influence of Caravaggio’s unique aesthetic and style. In conjunction with the exhibition Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy, “Bodies, Shadows, and Stories: Cinema after Caravaggio” presents films by Pedro Costa, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Derek Jarman, and Martin Scorsese, whose 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ, will screen for free in LACMA’s Bing Theater at 1 pm on Sunday.

Museum educator and art historian Mary Lenihan offers insight into the connection between the master painter and modern film:

Caravaggio lived four hundred years ago. What is his connection to today’s film? What could he have to do with filmmaking?  And what about Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ in particular?

Here are the Oscar-winning director’s own words about seeing Caravaggio’s paintings for the first time, as told to scholar and Caravaggio biographer Andrew Graham-Dixon during a 2005 interview:

I was instantly taken by the power of the pictures, the power of the compositions, the action in the frames…there was no doubt that it could be taken into cinema because of the use of light and shadow, the chiaroscuro effect.
 

As Graham-Dixon explains, Scorsese was introduced to Caravaggio’s work by screenwriter Paul Schrader when the two men were working on Taxi Driver in the mid-1970s. (The Scorsese interview is quoted at length in Graham-Dixon’s acclaimed biography, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane.)  Scorsese continues:

Initially I related to the paintings because of the moment that he chose to illuminate in the story . . . he was choosing a moment that was not the absolute moment of the beginning of the action, it’s during the action, in a way.  You sort of come upon the scene midway and you’re immersed in it. It was very different from the composition of the paintings that precede it, the Renaissance paintings. It was like modern staging in film. It was as if we had just come in the middle of scene and it was all happening. It was so powerful and direct.  It was startling, really, He would have been a great film-maker, there’s no doubt about it. I thought, I can use this too. . . . 

That immediacy, the light-and-dark lighting (chiaroscuro), and the sense of drama that Scorsese recognized are exactly what helped make Caravaggio such a revolutionary painter. There are eight Caravaggio paintings in LACMA’s exhibition, and looking at just two of them, we see what Scorsese means.

In Martha and Mary Magdalene, completed circa 1595–96, we see the sisters Martha and Mary deeply engaged in discussion. About what?  Martha, on the left, holds out her hands, with her right hand touching a finger on the left, as if to count or list something. Mary gazes back, holding a flower, with her hand propped on a mirror. Just what is going on here? Are they arguing? Is Martha trying to convince her sister of something?  Is she listing the reasons why Mary should take some course of action?

The identities of the two women would be familiar to most churchgoers of the seventeenth century. And the imagery Caravaggio includes a flower for purity and a mirror, a symbol of Prudence or the contemplative life, which both help to tell the story. But the artist puts us right in the middle of the scene, and makes us wonder: What are they thinking? The action here is not physical but instead psychological.  We are thrust into the middle, so we, the onlookers, stop and think, too.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalene, c. 1598, Detroit Institute of Arts, gift of The Kresge Foundation and Mrs. Edsel B. Ford, photo © 2012 Detroit Institute of Arts, all rights reserved

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalene, c. 1598, Detroit Institute of Arts, gift of The Kresge Foundation and Mrs. Edsel B. Ford, photo © 2012 Detroit Institute of Arts, all rights reserved

In another Caravaggio painting, The Denial of Saint Peter (1610), which is among the last paintings the artist completed before his death, we are again smack in the middle of the action. The painting’s title leaves no room for ambiguity: this is a scene from Christian scripture, the night of the Last Supper. Jesus is betrayed by one disciple and abandoned by the others, even Peter, one of his most trusted followers. Here again is a sense of immediacy—the dramatic light, the stop-motion of the moment, as Peter denies, for the third time, that he is a follower of Christ.

In this painting we see another of Caravaggio’s revolutionary moves: he painted everyday people, people who looked like those common folks who might see his paintings. (Sometimes, Caravaggio even used prostitutes and other commoners as his models.) In this canvas, Peter has the large hands of a working man; his forehead is lined with age. Unlike Renaissance paintings, there are no idealized figures in Caravaggio’s works. Those gazing at this painting might think, “That looks like my neighbor Giorgio, the stonemason from down the street,” or even “that looks like me.” Exactly. Caravaggio wanted viewers to feel as if they are part of the scene. And with that sense of immediacy, we can start to imagine the profound sense of shame or guilt that Peter feels (a tear has just formed in the corner of his right eye) as he denies his friend and mentor, a man he believes is the son of God.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Denial of Saint Peter, 1610, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of Herman and Lila Shickman, and Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1997

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Denial of Saint Peter, 1610, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of Herman and Lila Shickman, and Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1997

And that brings us back to Martin Scorsese and this Sunday’s film screening.  As the director commented further to Andrew Graham-Dixon:

Making films with street people was what it was really about, like he [Caravaggio] made paintings with them. They weren’t like the usual models from the Renaissance. They were people who were really living life. . . . So in doing The Last Temptation of Christ the idea was going to be Jesus Christ on Eighth Avenue and 49th Street in New York. . . . This is where Jesus would go. He wouldn’t be hanging out on Park Avenue in New York. He’d be in the street with the crack addicts and the prostitutes.The idea was to do Jesus like Caravaggio.

When Andrew Graham-Dixon presented his lecture on Caravaggio here at LACMA in November, we spoke at length about Caravaggio’s dramatic, even filmic, sense. As Graham-Dixon says in his book, Caravaggio “may be considered as a pioneer of modern cinematography.”  This weekend’s films, and especially the Sunday screening of The Last Temptation of Christ, give us a chance to see for ourselves.

Mary Lenihan, Director of Adult Programs, Education Department

All Scorsese quotations are from Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio:  A Life Sacred and Profane, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010, pages 441-442.  The footnote for the interview reads as follows (page 481, referencing to footnote 163):  Martin Scorsese’s remarks have been directly transcribed from his conversations with the author in December 2005, which included an interview filmed for and subsequently transmitted by The Culture Show (BBC Television, directed by David Shulman).


Casting Call: [de]-lusions of Grandeur, a Performance Project by Liz Glynn

January 16, 2013

This Saturday and Sunday, artist Liz Glynn and ten collaborators will recast parts of the Auguste Rodin sculptures in LACMA’s collection. The performance The Myth of Singularity (after Rodin) is part of a cycle that will unfold throughout the year, during which time Glynn will focus on different monumental artworks on display on the museum’s campus. I’ll preface this with an important warning: Please do not try this at home.

Making props for the performance, photo by Yosi Pozeilov

Making props for the performance, photo by Yosi A. R-Pozeilov

Initially, my colleagues in the Conservation Department were not as excited as I was about this project because we needed to make molds of the actual sculptures. They had understandable concerns about the safety of the pieces and possible changes that could occur in the sculptures’ patina as a result of the molding. We had several meetings to discuss how to proceed and how to guarantee the integrity of the works.

Basically, the process comprised applying at least three layers of rubber and then a plaster bandage shell for reinforcement. I learned that silicone rubber was ideal for this project: as long as the silicone is properly mixed, it does not require a release agent and is easily removed without leaving a residue on the original.  Indeed, it usually takes off accumulated dirt on the surface of works.

Making props for the performance, photo by Yosi Pozeilov

Liz Glynn making props for the performance, photo by Yosi A. R-Pozeilov

A big shout-out to conservator Don Menveg who is always extremely helpful and encouraging

A big shout-out to conservator Don Menveg who is always extremely helpful and encouraging

I must admit that when we finally got the green light to run a test on the foot of Jean de Fiennes, I was a bit anxious. Liz has done extensive research on the topic and has many years dealing with casting technologies—she has even cast archeological fragments that date back thousands of years in Herculaneum, Italy.

Making props for the performance, photo by Yosi A. R-Pozeilov

Silicone cast in process, photo by Yosi A. R-Pozeilov

Silicone cast in process, photo by Yosi A. R-Pozeilov

Silicone cast in process, photo by Yosi A. R-Pozeilov

As a mantra, I kept repeating to myself, “These Rodin sculptures are outdoors, exposed to the weather, pollution, and the merciless bowel movements of mid-Wilshire birds . . . They were cast in the late 1960s or early 1970s . . . Liz knows what she is doing . . . ” But still. It was not until we concluded the test and the Conservation Department verified that the foot of good ol’ Jean de Fiennes was still there with the same color on all of his toes that I felt relieved and really thrilled about this project.

Making props for the performance, photo by Yosi A. R-Pozeilov

Liz Glynn making props for the performance, photo by Yosi A. R-Pozeilov

Making props for the performance, photo by Yosi A. R-Pozeilov

Liz Glynn making props for the performance, photo by Yosi A. R-Pozeilov

The Myth of Singularity (after Rodin) is the first in “[de]-lusions of Grandeur,” a cycle of site-specific performances at LACMA by Liz Glynn. This first performance runs from 12 to 5 pm on both Saturday and Sunday, January 18 and 19. For more information, visit the artist’s project blog. You can also RSVP to the event via Facebook to let us know you’re coming.

José Luis Blondet, Associate Curator of Special Initiatives 


Ruscha and Film

January 15, 2013

Ed Ruscha first drew the Hollywood sign in 1967. Since then, the familiar icon has appeared in many of his paintings, drawings, and prints. Although he has joked that the sign was “a smog indicator: If I could read it, the weather was OK,” its recurrence in his art hints at Ruscha’s deep, personal engagement with film and film culture. I traced some of these connections while preparing the exhibition Ed Ruscha: Standard.

Ed Ruscha, Hollywood, 1968, Museum Acquisition Fund, © 2012 Edward J. Ruscha IV. All rights reserved. Photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Ed Ruscha, Hollywood, 1968, Museum Acquisition Fund, © 2012 Edward J. Ruscha IV. All rights reserved. Photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Ruscha vividly recalls seeing Hollywood films at the local theater while growing up in Oklahoma. When he moved to Los Angeles in 1956, he became more immersed in cinema. Among the films he recalls from that time are Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) and Joseph Strick’s The Savage Eye (1960); he also saw foreign films and silent classics at the Vagabond Theater on Wilshire Boulevard near MacArthur Park.

The early 1960s brought about an exciting convergence of young Hollywood and the artistic avant-garde. Ruscha entered these circles and became friendly with Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell, Harry Dean Stanton, Toni Basil, Teri Garr, Walter Hopps, Bruce Conner, Wallace Berman, Stan and Jane Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, and many others. He was at the Hollywood party that Hopper threw for Andy Warhol when the Pop art star made his first visit to Los Angeles in 1963.

By the late 60s and early 70s, Ruscha was making his own films: a self-referential documentary of sorts titled The Books of Ed Ruscha (1968–69, unreleased), followed by the narrative films Premium (1971) and Miracle (1975), both on view in the current exhibition. While he enjoyed the experience of making these films, Ruscha didn’t take them too seriously. He remarked in 1973, after attempting to find distribution for Premium: “Some artists make films that are an end in themselves…they’re statements. Mine’s not like that. I don’t want people to look at the film like it’s a deep statement on my part. It’s just an excuse, the story, to make a movie…. I don’t know where the movie fits in anywhere, and I can’t place it in my art at all.”

Ed Ruscha, Sin/Without, 1990, purchased with funds provided by the Modern and Contemporary Art Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, © 2012 Edward J. Ruscha IV. All rights reserved. Photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Ed Ruscha, Sin/Without, 1990, purchased with funds provided by the Modern and Contemporary Art Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, © 2012 Edward J. Ruscha IV. All rights reserved. Photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Although Ruscha’s movies might not fit into his art, he and his art did find their way into several movies: he created title designs for Mel Damski’s Yellowbeard (1983), had a small role in Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me (1984), and the painting Sin (now in LACMA’s collection and on view in the exhibition) had a bit part in Michael Tolkin’s The New Age (1990). Cinematic motifs continued to proliferate in Ruscha’s work as well, for example a series of prints and paintings depicting film leader, surplus, filler, and tails, inspired by the “flaws and scratches” in old movies. More recently Ruscha appeared in Frontier, a film by artist Doug Aitken (2009), and last year he was the subject of a tribute by Lance Acord on the occasion of LACMA’s Art+Film Gala.

In 2009, Ruscha curated a film series in conjunction with a major exhibition of his work at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne.  For anyone who wants to update their Netflix queue, Ruscha’s suggestions are:

  • Island of Lost Souls (1932), director Erle C. Kenton
  • Bringing Up Baby (1938), director Howard Hawkes
  • Grapes of Wrath (1940), director John Ford
  • The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), director William Wellman
  • Sunset Boulevard (1950), director Billy Wilder
  • Try and Get Me (1950), director Cy Endfield
  • Night of the Hunter (1955), director Charles Laughton
  • Paths of Glory (1957), director Stanley Kubrick
  • The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), director Jack Arnold
  • Private Property (1960), director Leslie Stevens
  • Cul de Sac (1966), director Roman Polanski

Britt Salvesen, curator and department head, prints and drawings department and Wallis Annenberg Photography Department


Divine Inspiration: Music in Works by Regnier and Watteau

January 13, 2013

LACMA’s galleries are full of music references in painting and sculpture. Music, this highly subliminal sensorial awareness, is surely a thing that acts upon us and within us. It is something like the air we breathe and yet we can create it. And it, in that sense, is nothing like air, more like a language snatched from the air at its most precise tonality. It haunts our presence and, in a very real sense, defines existence like none other. We could with little effort hear bebop jazz in abstract expressionism, the hip-hop in Glenn Ligon and conceptualism, or punk and the Beatles in pop art—in all of which the music bestows on those artistic moments a visceral reality that mere looking fails to suggest. But music, any music, and maybe all music has that universal sweet center that can bleed through time and offer a portal to the past. Nothing more beautifully powerful liberates the past than music. Out of curiosity, I was fascinated by two wonderfully evocative pieces of art, a hundred years or so apart.

Nicolas Regnier, Divine Inspiration of Music, circa 1640, purchased with funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. Stewart Resnick, Mr. and Mrs. Jo Swerling, Mathilda L. Calnan from the estate of Charles Alexander Loeser, Mr. and Mrs. David Bright, Alexander M. Lewyt, Museum Associates Acquisition Fund, Isaacs Brothers Company, anonymous donor in memory of Mary M. Edmunds, William Randolph Hearst Collection, Mr. and Mrs. Allan C. Balch Collection, and Mr. and Mrs. Allan C. Balch Fund by exchange (82.7)

Nicolas Regnier, Divine Inspiration of Music, circa 1640, purchased with funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. Stewart Resnick, Mr. and Mrs. Jo Swerling, Mathilda L. Calnan from the estate of Charles Alexander Loeser, Mr. and Mrs. David Bright, Alexander M. Lewyt, Museum Associates Acquisition Fund, Isaacs Brothers Company, anonymous donor in memory of Mary M. Edmunds, William Randolph Hearst Collection, Mr. and Mrs. Allan C. Balch Collection, and Mr. and Mrs. Allan C. Balch Fund by exchange (82.7)

On the third level of the Ahmanson Building is Divine Inspiration of Music, a 1640 painting by Nicolas Regnier, a Flemish artist who worked in Baroque Rome in the style of Caravaggio, whose agent was also Regnier’s agent. Many of his genre paintings that were created while the artist was in Rome were of the same subjects imbued with the melodramatic chiaroscuro so typical of Caravaggio’s art. In 1625, Regnier would move to Venice. Gone was the artful gloom of Rome, and those once-shadowy figures were to become bright and decorative with a lyrical frisson.

Venice then was known as the “Republic of Music,” and, as reported by a tourist, “in every home someone is playing a musical instrument or singing.” Operas were the dominant form, lush and fantastic, an occasion of wonder. The giant was Claudio Monteverdi, whose opera The Coronation of Poppea thrills audiences even today, and there was also Francesco Cavalli and Benedetto Ferrari. Here the instrumental ensemble would come alive and be celebrated.

The ensemble in Regnier’s exquisite brush casts the details of his Divine Inspiration of Music, with its two ladies and sheets of music, two violins, viola, long-neck lute known as a theorbo, and possibly a half-hidden chitarra italiana, a sort of mandolin. Regnier beautifully renders these instruments to such a degree that he captures the dynamic vigor of this almost-lost world of music.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, The Perfect Accord, 1719, gift of The Ahmanson Foundation

Jean-Antoine Watteau, The Perfect Accord, 1719, gift of The Ahmanson Foundation

Also on that level of the Ahmanson Building there’s a wonderful atmospheric painting by Jean Antoine Watteau titled The Perfect Accord. Painted in 1719, it was of eighteenth-century rococo France, where opera was still the major musical form. This was the time between the majestic Louis XIV and the indulgent Louis XV. There was Scarlatti, Francois Couperin, LeClair, but Watteau’s true love was the Italian Commedia dell’Arte.

His passion for music and particularly Mezzetin, the wistful prankster, led to his pastoral genre known as fête gallante, i.e. pleasure seeking.  Here the theme of music as “the food of love” is a central motif of his art. In shimmering pastels of wittily amorous intimacies, Watteau expresses a sinuous lightness and weaves a divine poetic tenderness that would forever define rococo art.

There was always a playful commentary where buffoonery and cultural norms had a whimsical twist. If you peer deeply into The Perfect Accord, you can almost enter the amorous gathering of the strolling couple in which the man stares back at three people in the foreground or at us, the voyeurs. One can almost hear the flautist and imagine a romantic, birdlike ditty played trippingly along, a dell’Arte whimsy effortlessly dancing among the greenery, while the sheet music is held by a downward-facing lady in a white luminously radiant, satin gown, with a theatrical vividly striped pink-and-blue-costumed man at her knees. Watteau died young and would be declared one of the greatest French artists of the eighteenth century.

Though on so many levels it’s impossible to breathe in the sweet air of music, like so much vaporous blood within these sparkling, hypnotic images, we must, in our stillness, know they contained the one third-person witness, this thin ectoplasmic trace of our shared heart strings. 

Hylan Booker


This Weekend at LACMA: Frederick Wiseman Films, Jack Pierson & Malik Gaines Talk, Conversation with Glynn, Ochoa, and Hagen, and More

January 11, 2013

The weekend kicks off in the Bing Theater with a Spotlight on Frederick Wiseman, recipient of the 2012 Career Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. The acclaimed documentarian will be on hand for a conversation, followed by a screening of his 2010 film Boxing Gym.

On Sunday come for a free talk with artists Liz Glynn, Mark Hagen, and Ruben Ochoa—all of whom have work currently featured in Lost Line: Contemporary Art from the Collection. The conversation will be moderated by Jane McFadden, professor of art history at Art Center College of Art and Design. (Come back next weekend for a performance project by Glynn—“The Myth of Singularity (after Rodin),” the first in a series of performances Glynn will carry out at LACMA over the course of 2013.)

Mark Hagen, To Be Titled (Subtractive and Additive Sculpture #8), 2012, purchased with funds provided by AHAN: Studio Forum, 2012 Art Here and Now purchase

Mark Hagen, To Be Titled (Subtractive and Additive Sculpture #8), 2012, purchased with funds provided by AHAN: Studio Forum, 2012 Art Here and Now purchase

Also on Sunday, and also free: photographer Jack Pierson will be at Art Catalogues to talk about his two new books; Pierson will be in conversation with Malik Gaines of My Barbarian and assistant professor of art at Hunter College, CUNY. Pierson will sign books following the talk.

Continuing on the contemporary theme, stop in to see our exhibitions on Robert Mapplethorpe, Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria, Stanley Kubrick, or Ed Ruscha! The latter closes later this month.

Installation view, Michael Heizer: Actual Size

Installation view, Michael Heizer: Actual Size

Or, leave the present tense and look back to a little European art history with Caravaggio or the French ceramics on view in Daily Pleasures. Those ceramics serve as inspiration for our free Andell Family Sunday activities. For still more variety, check out this list of even more exhibitions on view right now, including objects from South and Southeast Asia, ancient America, and more.

Close out Sunday at LACMA by heading into the Bing Theater to see fortepianist Anthony Romaniuk perform pieces by Mozart and Beethoven, as part of our ongoing Sundays Live free concert series.

Scott Tennent


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