Men and Wild Horses: Théodore Géricault

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Yes, I’ve been watching a lot of films about art recently, and here’s another one. Artists and Models was the series title for three 80-minute drama-documentaries broadcast by the BBC in 1986: The Passing Show, Slaves of Fashion, and Men and Wild Horses. The writer and director of all three productions was Leslie Megahey, a name I always looked out for in TV listings throughout the 1980s, and still do in the case of films such as these. I watched the series at the time, and taped the episode about Géricault but the tape went astray many years ago so it’s great to find again.

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Art, especially painting, was a recurrent theme in Megahey’s work going back to the 1960s. In his later films he combined this interest with careful period recreations, the most celebrated example of which is his superb supernatural drama, Schalcken the Painter, an adaptation of the Sheridan Le Fanu ghost story. Artists and Models favours art history over drama, being an examination of the connected careers of three French painters of the late-18th and early-19th centuries: Jacques-Louis David, the Neoclassicist who was probably the only artist in history to sign the execution warrants of his own king and queen; Jean-Auguste Ingres, the Academician and painter of sensual nudes; and Théodore Géricault, the gloomiest of all the French Romantic artists. Being partial to the Romantics, especially the gloomy ones, I was always going to be more interested in the Géricault film. But all three films are worth seeing, each depicting an aspect of French art during a time of great historical upheaval: state propaganda (David), meticulous Orientalism (Ingres), and tormented realism (Géricault).

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The Raft of the Medusa (1819). All photo reproductions of this painting are compromised by the bitumen that Géricault painted into the shadows, a substance that degrades badly over time.

Men and Wild Horses uses the researches of Géricault’s first biographer, Charles Clément, to investigate the life of an artist whose bouts of depression and early death cut short a career that promised much but delivered less than the artist hoped. Clément, portrayed by Alan Dobie, informs us that Géricault only exhibited three paintings in the Paris Salon, none of which sold while the artist was alive. The largest of the three, The Raft of the Medusa, is recognised now as one of the great paintings of its age, but the Paris art world didn’t think so at the time. The story of the shipwreck survivors, and Géricault’s obsession with depicting their plight, forms the centrepiece of Megahey’s film which avoids too much awkward historical recreation. Géricault himself is only present via Clément’s account of his life, the memories of the artist’s friends, and the voiceover by Martin Jarvis which provides detail that the biographer was unable to find. The camerman for all three films in this series was Megahey’s regular collaborator, John Hooper, a real artist himself in his manipulation of light and shade. Men and Wild Horses is filled with many beautiful chiaroscuro compositions, so it’s a shame that the copy at YouTube isn’t better quality. The same account also has a copy of the Ingres film, Slaves of Fashion, while the David film, The Passing Show, may be seen here.

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One of the “interviewees” in the film is Antoine Étex, the creator of Géricault’s monument in Père Lachaise cemetery. I took a few photos of this when I was there in 2006; it’s easier to stumble across than some of the other famous tombs, and includes among its details bronze reliefs of Géricault’s three major paintings. British readers will know that “gee-gee” is a colloquial term for a horse so there’s some wry amusement for les rosbifs in the sight of the letters surrounding the monument of a horse-obsessed painter. Despite snapping a close-up of the bronze Raft of the Medusa I was more interested in chasing Symbolist paintings in the Musée d’Orsay and the Gustave Moreau Museum so I didn’t go to look at the original in the Louvre. Maybe next time.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
The Complete Citizen Kane
Schalcken the Painter revisited
Leslie Megahey’s Bluebeard

Bluebeard’s Castle, 1981

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Filmed performances of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle continue to find their way to YouTube. Clips of this film from 1981 have been around for a while but not the entire opera which I hadn’t seen until now. On a theatrical and cinematic level this performance isn’t as successful as the superb version Leslie Megahey made for the BBC in 1988; director Miklós Szinetár gives us a rather traditional Gothic reading that’s only contradicted by the slight stylisation of the sets. The climactic moment when the Fifth Door opens delivers a simple blaze of white light that can’t compete with the equivalent moment in Megahey’s version when the castle floor opens up and Bluebeard’s kingdom is revealed in miniature. The musical recording is excellent, however, with Georg Solti conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Kolos Kováts plays Bluebeard and Sylvia Sass is Judith. Watch it here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Michael Powell’s Bluebeard revisited
Joseph Southall’s Bluebeard
Leslie Megahey’s Bluebeard

The Complete Citizen Kane

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The Orson Welles centenary approaches so the posts this week will be devoted to one of my favourite film directors. The Complete Citizen Kane was an especially generous BBC documentary—comprehensive, authoritative and 90 minutes in length—screened in 1991 for the 50th anniversary of Welles’ most celebrated film. Christopher Swayne and Charles Cabot were the producers, and the narration is by Leslie Megahey, producer and interviewer of The Orson Welles Story (1982), a two-part documentary for the BBC’s Arena that ran for 165 minutes. Megahey’s Welles film was a definitive work for persuading Welles and his collaborators to discuss the director’s entire career at length. Clips of the long Welles interview turn up in The Complete Citizen Kane, as do clips from a later BBC series, The RKO Story (1987), which devoted a whole programme to Welles’ time at the studio.

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The Complete Citizen Kane captures the attention at the outset by showing you a film that never existed, Orson Welles’ Heart of Darkness, the film that would have been Welles’ first project for RKO before it was cancelled due to expense. Helping narrate the evolution of Citizen Kane is William Alland, the actor who played the investigative reporter in the film, and also the voice of the News on the March sequence. Despite obvious sympathies, the documentary devotes some time to Pauline Kael’s controversial Raising Kane essay, and the fraught question of who contributed what to the finished screenplay. The Complete Citizen Kane ends with an extract from a radio show featuring Orson Welles talking to HG Wells shortly after Welles had shocked America with his adaptation of The War of the Worlds. All arts documentaries should be this good.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Return to Glennascaul, a film by Hilton Edwards
Screening Kafka
The Panic Broadcast

The Tractate Middoth

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The recent interest in the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas series has been a thing of mixed blessings, as is often the case when nostalgia fuels a reappraisal. On the one hand aficionados such as myself no longer have to hoard and swap rare tapes or video files now that the BFI has made all the films available on DVD; the interest in those films, and in similar works, has had the additional benefit of resurrecting related TV dramas and series such as Dead of Night (1972), and Leslie Megahey’s exceptional Schalcken the Painter (1979).

On the debit side, the revival of the series in 2005 has been a patchy affair, with results ranging from the very good (A View from a Hill), to the not-so-bad (Number 13), to the disgracefully bad (the 2010 adaptation of Whistle and I’ll Come to You). All these dramas continue the tradition of adapting stories by MR James, a writer whose work is now the first choice for any future stories in the series, and whose oeuvre overshadows that of other possible candidates for adaptation. Whether this last development is a good or bad one depends on your view of James’s fiction.

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Sacha Dhawan among the dusty tomes.

This year we had a new James adaptation, The Tractate Middoth, written and directed by Mark Gatiss, followed by an hour-long documentary about MR James which Gatiss presented. Gatiss and his League of Gentlemen colleagues have been vocal in their enthusiasm for the British film and television ghost story, and for its literary antecedents: last year the team contributed a commentary track to the recent reissue of Blood on Satan’s Claw; League writer Jeremy Dyson has an essay in the BFI’s DVD/BR release of The Innocents; Reece Shearsmith has recorded several readings of Robert Aickman’s superb short stories; Dyson directed, and Gatiss acted in, The Cicerones (aka The Guides, 2002), an adaptation of an Aickman story. The latter was well-intentioned but a short running time combined with a very literal transcription of Aickman’s ambiguities made for a disappointing end result. The Cicerones made me apprehensive for what we might see with The Tractate Middoth but I’m pleased to report that all concerns were unfounded: Gatiss’s film is not only the best MR James adaptation since The Ash Tree (1975) but is the best film in this series since The Signalman in 1976. (Although Schalcken the Painter was screened during Christmas 1979 it wasn’t intended as a continuation of the Christmas ghost stories.) This bodes well for the future of the series, and confirms the importance of having a writer and director with a sympathy for the material.

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Schalcken’s paintings

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Self Portrait by Candlelight (1695).

One additional pleasure of Le Fanu’s story and Leslie Megahey’s film is the way they draw attention to the work of an artist who might otherwise have remained overshadowed by his more famous contemporaries. Ever since seeing the meticulous chiaroscuro of Joseph Wright’s An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump (1768) I’ve been fascinated by paintings which feature a single artificial light source. Candlelit pictures are a particular fascination since these aren’t easy to paint even today when you can photograph the required scene beforehand. How much more difficult would it be painting a candlelit scene by candlelight alone? Works of this nature demonstrate an artist’s fascination with limited sources of light but also serve as displays of expertise, as did so much Dutch painting of Schalcken’s time with its emphasis on photo-realist representation.

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Self Portrait (no date).

This small selection of paintings by Godfried Schalcken (1643–1706) shows some of the pictures that appear in Megahey’s film, or which we see being posed or replicated. At the end I’ve included Schalcken’s own take on the Salomé story which means his work can now be ushered into the Salomé archive. More of Schalcken’s work may be seen at Wikimedia Commons and the BBC’s Your Paintings site. One significant picture is unavailable: the painting which Le Fanu describes at the opening of his story. In his interview about the making of the film Megahey says that they searched the entire catalogue of Schalcken paintings but were unable to find a single picture that matches the one described in Le Fanu’s story. The painting seen in the film (which is perfectly rendered in Schalcken’s style) was created especially for the production.

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A Candlelight Scene: A Man offering a Gold Chain and Coins to a Girl seated on a Bed (c. 1665–70).

Continue reading “Schalcken’s paintings”