The Big Screen: Art History and British cinema
(Session Sponsored by The Paul Mellon Centre)

Mark Hallett, Paul Mellon Centre,

Lynda Nead, Birkbeck,

Ever since its earliest iterations, British cinema has generated exceptionally ambitious and experimental forms of visual representation; equally, it has stimulated outstanding critical and historical interpretation from within the discipline of film studies. In recent years, art historians and film historians have, within higher education, regularly been grouped within single departments, a combination which would seem rational given their shared focus on visual culture. Frequently, however, the two disciplines remain separate and only occasionally do they draw on each other’s forms and methodologies. Furthermore, though art-historical scholarship has recently been directed at artists’ films, and at artists’ moving practice work more generally, less attention has been granted by the discipline to the imagery and histories of British cinema, both mainstream and independent.

Given this situation, now seems a good moment to take stock of the relationship between British art studies and British film studies, and to think anew about how we might work between and across these areas of scholarship to produce exciting new studies of British art and cinema, drawing on the finest historical scrutiny and interpretation within both subject fields. How, we can ask, does working across art (in its broadest sense) and cinema expand and enrich our understanding of the visual arts, and what new insights can be developed by putting different kinds of artistic practice and cultural production into dialogue?

Speakers & Abstracts

British New Wave Cinema as Intermedial Phenomenon: Investigating visual style in A Taste of Honey (1961) through contextualised ekphrasis

Melanie Williams (University of East Anglia)

This paper will explore the film A Taste of Honey (1961, dir. Tony Richardson, wr. Shelagh Delaney) as an example of the intermedial and intertextual phenomenon of the British New Wave of realist cinema in the late 1950s and early 1960s, locating its genesis and development in a complex network of influences and legacies from the Royal Court, Theatre Workshop and Free Cinema, to the Opies’ curation of skipping rhymes, to Coronation Street, Blackpool, the post-war art schools, attitudes to and representations of interracial and homosexual relationships, emergent modes of femininity (exemplified by the film’s star discovery Rita Tushingham), the lyrics and cover art of The Smiths, and much else besides. But while sketching out its broader cultural context, I will equally offer sustained focus on the aesthetic specificities of this film adaptation of Delaney’s play, deploying ekphrasis – in this case a secondary elaboration of an audiovisual medium in a verbal form – to engage with pertinent textual details. In combining analytical breadth and depth in this way, I hope to not only make a strong case for the richness of this particular film but also to model a potential way for art history and film studies methods to converge and inform each other; this seems especially fitting for approaching a film in which several characters are explicitly presented as talented visual artists and which is often described, like many of its New Wave peers, as a ‘kitchen sink’ film, a term which has its origins in art criticism.

Inter(In)Animations between Film and Early Performance Art in Britain: Ian Breakwell and Mike Leggett’s UNWORD (1969–70)

Heike Roms (University of Exeter)

In the late 1960s, visual artist Ian Breakwell and filmmaker Mike Leggett collaborated on UNWORD, a sequence of four performances shown in London, Bristol and Swansea in 1969–70. UNWORD featured words written in large letters on huge sheets of paper hung from the ceiling, which were gradually ‘unmade’ by performer Breakwell through tearing and painting actions. Leggett was free to move around and film throughout the performance. His recorded material was projected at two frames/second at the next UNWORD event, which was also filmed and then projected in the next performance. From this palimpsest of footage, Breakwell and Leggett subsequently created a film work of the same title (1970).

I will discuss how UNWORD reveals the close interrelationship that existed between performance art and experimental art cinema in British avant-garde work of the 1960s and 1970s. Instead of considering that interrelationship as a form of intermediality – a concept that presupposes that film and performance are two distinct media, one recorded, one live, which are brought into an exchange – I will propose the term ‘inter(in)animation’ (borrowed from performance scholars Fred Moten and Rebecca Schneider) to describe how in the meeting between performance and film in the period both were mutually constituted to incorporate live and recorded features. UNWORD shows how performance, far from being merely ‘live’, developed its own ways of reproducing itself through complex forms of repetition and mediation; and how film was staged cinematically as a real-time event of ‘live’ production and reception.

A Studio Picture Pictures a Studio: On Alexander Korda, Rembrandt and Robert Vas

John Wyver (University of Westminster/Illuminations)

In early 1936, the first feature film that Alexander Korda took onto the studio floor at his new production complex at Denham was the artist biopic Rembrandt. The film was central to Korda’s strategy of creating a new British cinema for an international market, and although it failed in that, it established key tropes that have dominated screen depictions of visual artists ever since.

At the heart of his hugely expensive industrial workplace, Korda, along with his brother and production designer Vincent, and a transnational team of collaborators, including Charles Laughton, created the imagined intimate and individual studio, cut off from and yet besieged by the demands of the external world, of the Dutch artist who had come to be mythologised by the Romantics in the 19th century as the exemplar of the individual humanist genius.

At the same time, the full resources of the enclosed, artificially lit and ‘well-tempered’ (the term is Reyner Banham’s) environment of the film studio was used to picture a spectacular fantasy of 17th-century Amsterdam and the landscape near Leiden. The capacity to conjure up at scale, and as a supposed re-creation, the early modern world of the Netherlands, was a powerful demonstration of the modernity of the world to which Korda aspired.

By a close reading primarily of Rembrandt’s sequences set in the artist’s studio and by locating the film within the economic, architectural and production context of Denham in the mid-1930s, this paper links the studios of Rembrandt, the film and Denham with constructions of the artist (both Rembrandt and Korda), and with Korda’s place in British society, financing and culture.

More generally, it aims to explore the potential of a dialogue between art-historical studies of the studio (including Svetlana Alpers’ Rembrandt’s Enterprise and Machine in the Studio by Caroline A. Jones) and the emerging strand of film and television ‘studio studies’ (focused by Brian R. Jacobson’s Studios Before the System, and the recent collection edited by Jacobson, In the Studio).

In a coda, the paper links these concerns with the portrayal of the ruins of Denham Studios in Robert Vas’ documentary The Golden Years of Alexander Korda (BBC, 1968).

‘The Art of the Screen’: George Pearson, Edward Carrick and the role of the artist in British cinema

Inga Fraser (Royal College of Art and Tate)

This paper explores the utilisation of discourses of fine art and craft by those working within the film industry, as a means to campaign for a better standard of production in British cinema. Taking as a case study the lifelong correspondence between the celebrated English director George Pearson (1875–1973) and designer Edward Carrick (1905–98), the paper traces the protagonists’ desire to institute a tradition of artistry, craftsmanship and subjectivity into British cinema, which they sought to locate within the tradition of fine art, rather than as an industry dominated by the concerns of the market and frequently subject to criticism from writers at home and abroad. Lamenting the conditions of industrial labour by which cinema was produced at the time, Pearson and Carrick looked back to the Arts and Crafts tradition of the 19th century for a vision of cinema’s future in Britain. This ideal led Carrick to found, in 1938, the Associated Artist Technicians Film School, the first British school dedicated to film design and production. What emerges in this paper via Carrick and Pearson’s correspondence and associated archives is a strong sense of their desire to marshal cinema’s inherent unruliness as a(n) (art)form, but one that develops from an early wish for a narrower, more concise, set of forms, content and materials for cinema (echoing the avant-garde tradition) into a concern for the contested role of art-director in particular: debating what values and what responsibilities this role can and should uphold.

Films on Art: Artistic innovation and the art-film dilemma in 1970s Scotland

Marcus Jack (The Glasgow School of Art)

Amidst a growing call for the support of artists’ increasing adoption of film media in 1973, the Scottish Arts Council underlined its commissioning policy: public subsidy, they noted, could only be awarded for the making of films about the arts or films by artists. In practice, however, the promise of this policy was cut short and only films meeting the former criteria reached production. Until 1982, this support was amongst the only production funding available for filmmaking in Scotland. While funding guidelines necessitated a peculiar dialogue at the centre of each commission – between maker and art-historical subject – some artists sought to make films which might exist as artworks on their own terms. These conditions precipitated a number of works which sit somewhere between document and experiment, purporting to concern one thing whilst engaging in another. From Murray Grigor’s Space and Light (1972) which uses the architecture of St. Peter’s Seminary to initiate a process of abstraction, to Lesley Keen’s Taking a line for a walk (1983) which departs from Paul Klee’s eponymous instruction to explore techniques in experimental animation, subterfuge became a tactic that produced a unique suite of ekphrastic films as yet unreconciled and little understood. This paper will unpack the legacy of this decade, mapping stories of innovation despite adverse policy. Using methodologies derived from the social history of art, it also advocates for the transference of approaches across the fields of art and film in the consideration of visual culture through its conditions of production.

The Black Urban Film as a Social Aesthetic

Clive James Nwonka (London School of Economics)

British urban cinema can loosely be defined as the body of films emerging in the early 2000s with a shared set of aesthetic and narrational co-ordinates that seek to represent the subcultural practices of black working-class youths. However, the habitual association between cinematic blackness and cinematic realism has curtailed any sustained analysis of the Black British urban film as a distinct aesthetic modality. With particular interest in the 2011 film Attack the Block (Dir. Joe Cornish), this paper explores the filmic lexicalisation of black youth identities within the urban film as a specific aesthetic form. Updating the term social aesthetic, which Born et al. describe as ‘the many ways in which our interactions with art participate in or serve an array of political orientations and social and cultural processes’, and engaging both with Stuart Hall’s concept of ‘transcoding’ and M.M. Bakhtin’s idea of the ‘chronotope’, this paper asks for a disavowal of the traditional modes of black ‘realist’ film analysis and considers the aesthetic heterogeneities and intertextualities that comprise Black urban film. Further, it argues that architectural theory provides an additional optic through which we can interpret how Attack the Block’s tower block constructs an imaginary defence against an oppressive social force.

In instituting an alternative, expansive framework for understanding the black urban text, this paper attempts to locate a distinctive aesthetic composite within the black urban film, and subsequently a specific aesthetic mode of perception.

The Rainbow’s Gravity: Chromatic materiality in British painting and cinema

Kirsty Sinclair Dootson (University of St Andrews)

Notoriously difficult to constrain, colour inherently bleeds across and between fields of study in a manner that refuses to be contained by disciplinary boundaries. Yet critical studies of modern British chromatism in painting and cinema (by John Gage, Natasha Eaton and Sarah Street among others) have developed largely in tandem rather than in conversation, with attention to issues of aesthetics and style, themes of nation and empire, and colour’s rhetorical conflation with race, treated as discrete issues in each media. This paper argues that British colour demands thinking across boundaries that conventionally separate media (film and painting) and disciplines (film studies and art history). Using the recent material turn as a unifying methodological framework for thinking across these divisions, this paper asks how our understanding of colour’s role in modern British visual culture is enhanced when film and painting are placed in productive dialogue. This paper is especially invested in how attention to the material and technological production of colour illuminates the ideological conflation of colour-as-hue and colour-as-race in Britain. While media scholars such as Kara Keeling have considered how anti-black racism is built into the functions of the film apparatus itself, art history has yet to fully grapple with how the materials and technologies of painterly practice might work against black representation. Similarly, film historians have yet to fully explore how the racialised legacies of British painting informed colour cinema’s construction of British identity. Examining the shared techno-materiality of colour highlights the geopolitical, ideological and aesthetic networks that bind these media together.






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