Cinema and Painting: How Art Is Used in Film

By Vacche, Angela Dalle | CineAction, Annual 1996 | Go to article overview

Cinema and Painting: How Art Is Used in Film


Vacche, Angela Dalle, CineAction


This book is an attempt by an art historian to expand the horizons of her discipline in a self-proclaimed effort to "join..in the new field of comparative arts" (p. 1). Her project is ostensibly premised on the notion that art history cannot ignore film studies because "the cinema has forever changed the meaning of the word `art' and the meaning of the word `history"' (p. 2). But just as film studies specialists have in recent years moved towards a broader definition of their mandate so as to include video, television and even computer-generated art within their (academic) purview, so it would seem that art historians need to abandon their exclusionary perspective on the fine arts if they are to survive (or at least compete) in this `post-postmodern' world.

Angela Dalle Vacche, an Associate Professor of Art History at Yale University, takes as her focus the query restated from the subtitle: How (is) art used in film? Given that this could be a very large topic, she formulates a narrower set of questions intended to focus the resultant discussion more specifically on the art of painting, which is, for her, "the most problematic but also the most alluring (sic) of art forms". In doing this, she thereby revises the original question to `How is painting used in film?' Dalle Vacche first asks: "(W)hat happens to the paintings used or alluded to in these texts?", and then," (H)ow do these films define painting as the realm of high art, creativity and femininity(sic), setting it against popular culture or industrial technology? "(p. 2) While the first question seeks merely to place `painting' concretely within the filmic text, as an object to be identified, duly noted, and cross-referenced (as in `old art history'), the second question takes us into the more value-laden realm of oppositional critiques which pay homage to contemporary critical theory (as in `new film theory').

Her method of inquiry has led her to choose examples from different cultural contexts and historical circumstances, `each directed by strong, creative personalities (sic)'. The result is that the films she selects offer up different answers to the questions, and each, therefore, constitutes a separate chapter with a separate focus alluded to in its title, an approach she terms "thematic". Thus, in addition to the introductory chapter, there are eight others each dealing with a specific director, specific film, and specific theme. They are, in order: Vincente Minnelli's An American in Paris: Painting as Psychic Upheaval; Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert: Painting as Ventriloquism and Color as Movement; Eric Rohmer's The Marquise of O: Painting Thoughts, Listening to Images; Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou: Cinema as Collage against Painting; Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev: Cinema as the Restoration of Icon Painting; F. W. Muranau's Nosferatu: Romantic Painting as Horror and Desire in Expressionist Cinema; Kenji Mizoguchi's Five Women Around Utamaro: Film between Woodblock Printing and Tattooing; and Alain Cavalier's Therese. Still Life and the Close-Up as Feminine Space.

A major difficulty for this reader arises as a direct result of the overwhelmingly episodic nature of the text. While the chapters are similar in their individual concerns with a single film, the fact is that the method of investigation as well as the findings differ so radically that there is no connection between them, no overall argument that can be traced through them, and hence no coherence to the project as a whole. Ironically, the `intertextuality' that Dalle Vacche establishes as a key element in her textual analyses of individual films is precisely what is missing in her own text.

One of the fundamental problems with Cinema and Painting, I believe, is that neither of the key terms, `art' and `painting', is ever clearly defined; the author's assumption being, I suppose, that their meaning is self-evident. However, all sorts of difficulties evolve from this omission.

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