March 30, 2023
akira kurosawa

Documentary Film and Painting: The Crisis of Representation

In fact Van Gogh often acts as a darling to filmmakers only because his representational mode. A careful investigation of the Dutch painter’s works would expose that his revolution laying the fact that he like a true iconoclast forced painting to come in close liaison with music. His violent lines convincingly cross the boundaries of frame. They go outward. Instead of converging they diverge.

“I am not a painter, but a filmmaker who paints”

                                — Michelangelo Antonioni

Today, the scopic regimes of modernity in which we live, demand that even an original work of art should be reproducible preferably by moving images.  But is it at all possible/ desirable to ‘document’ a painting using the medium of film?  This seems to me a very intriguing question because we, more often than not, encounter cinematic adaptations of painting.  Notwithstanding their relative success or failure I remain in doubt whether painting can be located as a pro-filmic piece of art although I never question the usefulness of filming a particular piece of painting or sculpture.  These reproductions can serve as historical evidences.  At the same time I do remember that North European traditions are often considered to be more pro-cinematic than say Renaissance painting.

In any case I may give you an example, a very famous one in the history of cinema when Alain Resnais made a short film on Van Gogh or we can also refer to his more famous work on Picasso’s Guernica. Despite the fact that the films were made by very competent artists like Resnais people’s reaction were outrageous.  They did not hesitate to call Resnais as immodest.  Only at the intervention of Bazin, the great realist-theoretician Resnais was rescued.  What was the fundamental reason of misunderstanding between the public and artist?  I would submit that the functions of the frame in the cinematic images and paintings are different.  The problem is when the French viewer believing that he was seeing the picture as painted was actually looking at through the instrumental form that profoundly changed its nature.  Space as it is used in a painting is radically destroyed by the screen.  One may ask -why? The answer is simple.  Basically the frame of a painting encloses a space.  In direct contrast to natural space the space in which is experience occurs, a painter opts for a space the representation of which is inward. 

Whereas the outer ages of the screen are not the frames of the film image.  They are the edges of a piece of masking that reveals only partial reality.  A frame is centripetal.  The screen is centrifugal.  In a frame you see everything conversing, where as in screen there is clear divergence or outward movement.  That is why the basic sense of movement in Guernica is lost in its film version.  We have no reason to condemn Resnais.  For the moment if we turn our attention to another great filmmaker Akira Kurosawa we would be compelled to see that in one of the segments of his unforgettable Dreams he, compared to Resnais, became more successful with Van Gogh because in that particular segment he could inform us on the differences of painting and film.  He compared and contrasted both media in a superb way.  Kurosawa was a student of painting and that is why his tributes to Van Gogh became so moving. 

In fact Van Gogh often acts as a darling to filmmakers only because his representational mode. A careful investigation of the Dutch painter’s works would expose that his revolution laying the fact that he like a true iconoclast forced painting to come in close liaison with music.  His violent lines convincingly cross the boundaries of frame. They go outward.  Instead of converging they diverge. 

That was one among the reasons for which Kurosawa attempted to pay tribute to Van Gogh’s concept of motion appears to be so meaningful.  Even if the moving camera sits on a motionless space, the film is still moving and we are still watching, expecting and representing our eyes and spirit in motion.  Movies that end with fade outs on continuing action or freeze frames show how endlessness is at the core of the medium – no tableau can be a true stop to visual flow or to the flow of temporality.  Let us again consider the case of the Inner Eye – the Satyajit Ray master piece on the artist Binod Behari Mukherjee who was Ray’s teacher during his Shantiniketan days. To my mind the Inner Eye is a brilliant documentary not because Satyajit submitted a chronological account of Binod Behari Mukherjee’s development and his unfortunate blindness in later years but owing to Satyajit’s ability to decode a kind of untold motion in Binod Behari’s murals.  Satyajit made a horizontal journey through the murals but never lost his basic point that his tasks envisage a responsibility to translate Binod Babu’s form into an apparently foreign term.  One of the most striking points in the film is the depiction of Dasaswamedh Ghat at Varanasi respectively by Binod Behari and Satyajit.  Not only these two contradictory representations shake hands but also enter into a conversation on the nature of visual culture itself.  Inner Eye therefore is more successful as a task and comment on the limitation of translation rather than illumination of an artist in totality.  The same thing is also true for Ritwik Ghatak’s unfinished project on Ramkinkar. The rushes would reveal that Ghatak refused to stay within the domain of neutrality. On the other hand the subjective camera discovers Ramkinkar’s greatness from the most unusual angels.  We can conveniently refer to the pieces of sculpture on Tagore and Buddhadev.  It is impossible to miss that Tagore’s long hair has been cut by Ramkinkar and Ritwik very consciously tried to handle these subtle moments as observations on the late age agony of a creative artist.  In Lord Buddha the sweating in the form of water droplets in the screen of the saintly Buddha has been emphasized by Ramkinkar and Ritwik like a true admirer recorded it on the screen to preserve the austerity in his camera.  Ultimately what Ritwik does is a kind of magic he comes closer and closer to Ramkinkar thus proving Ramkinkar as a work of sculpture in himself.

When I say film and painting are different media, I actually underscore the point that every great art form live within its own enclave and it has its own autonomy.   It may be communicated to us to an extent but whenever you try to translate something gets lost in translation.  Jean Luc Goddard in his 1982 film Passion showed us a series of classical paintings – most undoubtedly among them was Nightwatch Rembrandt.  At one point of time he cried out in despair that even the best studio in Europe could not fixed the lighting pattern which was rare in the original canvas.  One can at best try to have a very weak copy but the copies cannot reach the heights of original Leonardo, Goya and Delacroix. 

This is the mystery where we usually get stuck and that inspired me to talk and listen to the debate around painting and film in India and abroad.   Let us then proceed to the abstract space where still point of motion can be located.

Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay
Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay

Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay, Professor, Dept. of Film Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Formerly Director and CEO, Roopkala Kendro, Kolkata. Author, translator and cultural analyst.