Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

Is the Picture Worth it? Cézanne’s Bathers come to London

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

About a month ago the British government temporarily barred the export of Cézanne’s Vue sur L’Estaque et le Château d’If, which had sold at Christie’s for £13.5 million.

A Cezanne getting the white glove treatment.

The Cézanne gets the white glove treatment.

That’s an enormous amount of money, even if it’s nowhere close to the highest sum ever paid for a Cézanne, either at auction or privately. That distinction belongs to one of the artist’s five paintings of card players, which in 2011 was bought by the royal family of Qatar for somewhere north of $250 million. But £13.5 million is still more money than I can easily grasp, and the possibility of the U.K. hanging on to the landscape made me think back to late 1964, and an occasion when the country did stump up an awful lot of cash for another painting by the artist–Les Grandes Baigneuses, one of his three late, great bather canvases.

nat gallery great bathers

Part One: Philip and George

Now a fixture at the National Gallery, London, the painting was bought in France after the French Minister of Affairs (none other than André Malraux) granted it an export license, a decision he would be soundly criticized for. Since the 1930s, the other two great bather paintings had been in Philadelphia–one in the Barnes Foundation, the other in the city’s Museum of Art. It’s hard not to feel a twinge of regret that none of the three remained in France.

The National Gallery’s acquisition was widely reported in the press and also featured in a short British Pathé newsreel, which you can watch here. Though you might suppose the story really involves French “patrimony,” that doesn’t stop the newsreel from using some still-familiar rhetoric about stopping the work from “going abroad.” “If we had not stepped in promptly,” the narrator explains, “the masterpiece would have gone to another country, and few of our own people would ever have seen it.”

pathe national gallerypathe the picture

Dated 1965, the newsreel was probably made quite early in that year. For, on January 8, 1965, the The Times had reported that “[f]rom today [the painting] is on exhibition in the Board Room at the National Gallery where it will remain for some months.” And it is the Board Room that features in the film. But why hang the work there rather than in one of the gallery’s usual rooms?

Upon its arrival in London, the Cézanne had been, as The Times noted, “relined and very slightly retouched along a joint in the canvas near the bottom.” This does not, however, explain the longer delay, which was essentially a response to the controversial nature of the acquisition. The purchase had occurred during a time of financial crisis in the UK, and many commentators thought that this was a poor use of money and that the work didn’t warrant the steep price tag. Outraged letters to newspapers were written, arguments for and against the acquisition exchanged. So the painting went up in the Board Room, where, The Times noted, it could be “guarded by special security precautions and protected by a transparent plastic shield, against the possibility of such attempts as were made to damage the Leonardo Cartoon when first exhibited at the gallery.” In 1962, ink had been thrown over Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and John the Baptist shortly after it had been purchased for £800,000. The incident was still fresh in the memory. Might a similar, or worse fate, meet the controversial Cézanne?

Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_Virgin_and_Child_with_Ss_Anne_and_John_the_Baptist (446x600)

Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and John the Baptist

From its title screen to its last rhetorical question, the British Pathé film fixates on the price of the Cézanne: “half a million pounds.”

pathe title

But let’s be clear. Though the painting may have cost around £500,000, it certainly did not cost the country that much. The Max Rayne Foundation generously donated half of the funds; while the National Gallery and the government each covered a quarter. Unlike The Times, the newsreel breezily avoids these important details, preferring instead to encourage the suspicion that “we” may have paid too much for work. “For the splendidly hygienic girls in the picture,” the narrator observes, slipping into full Austin Powers mode, “one feels that not even a rash man ever left home.” Still, “[i]t’s no use non-artistic persons getting hot under the collar, culture must be served!”

admiring the picture

Philip and George look at The Great Bathers

Let us now say goodbye to the two cultured gentlemen from the newsreel–“the National Gallery Director, Sir Philip Hendy, and Senior Executive Office, Mr. George Fox”–and exchange them for some less “admiring” alternatives. Say, these two blokes.

pete and dud 2

Pete and Dud in the National Gallery

Part Two: Pete and Dud

They are, of course, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and they are performing their “Pete and Dud” characters in episode four, season one of Not Only… But Also. Broadcast on the BBC on February 20, 1965, “The Art Gallery” skit is set in a mock room in The National Gallery; here we find Pete and Dud eating sandwiches and discussing a range of matters relating to art.

It’s a brilliant and hilarious sketch. Watch it here.

At one point, Pete asks Dud whether he has “seen that bloody Leonardo da Vinci cartoon?… I couldn’t see the bloody joke… D’you know how much it cost, though?… Five hundred Billion pounds… nah, not as much… hold on a moment. Three and eight…. Or somewhere between the two.” From here, it’s a natural segue to the subject of other expensive artworks and we are immediately presented with the precise scenario the British Pathé newsreel had only recently imagined: “two non-artistic persons getting hot under the collar” about the recently acquired Cézanne. The subject of the bathers comes up towards the end of the sketch, and we are given one answer to the film’s parting question: “Is the picture worth it?” Pete answers in the negative: “Another thing we’ve wasted money on is that bloody Cézanne…. Grand Bay-nures. Have you seen that load of rubbish?”

Earlier in the sketch, Pete discusses a cliché: the idea that, in a good portrait, a sitter’s eyes will seem to follow you. He then, implausibly, transfers this idea to Vernon Ward‘s pictures of ducks, which turn out to be just the kind of work Pete and Dud are sorry to see missing from the National Gallery.


Vernon Ward: “Ducks in the morning, ducks in the evening, ducks in the summertime!”

I’ll quote the part of their conversation about Ward, because later it has unexpected relevance to their discussion of Cézanne.

Pete: The thing what makes you know that Vernon Ward is a good painter…. If you look at his ducks. Have you even looked at his ducks?

Dud: Yeah.

P: …If you look at his ducks, you see the eyes follow you around the room. Have you noticed that?

D: Yeah, Pete.

P: If you see sixteen of his ducks, you see thirty-two little eyes following you around the room.

D: Nah, you only you sixteen, cos they’ve flying sideways. And you can’t see the other eye on the other side.

P: No. But you get the impression, Dud, that the other eye is craning around the beak to look at you, don’t you? That’s the sign of a good painting, Dud, if the eyes follow you around the room it’s a good painting. If they don’t, it isn’t.

Cézanne, needless to say, is not remembered for pictures of ducks. He did, however, once incorporate an image of geese, perhaps a copy of a lost painting by Pissarro, into the background of one of his impressionist period still-lifes. But the birds’ heads are cropped and kept out of the frame. How then, Pete and Dud might ask, can we tell whether it is a good painting or not?


Cezanne, Still-Life with Soup Tureen, c.1877

The problem persists when one considers, as Pete and Dud do, the Les Grandes Baigneuses with this “eye test” in mind. Unfortunately, many of the bathers in the work are facing away from us, and only about half of them reveal their (summarily described) eyes to the viewer.

pete and dud 1

Pete and Dud: Cézanne and sandwiches

Dud: …You can’t tell whether that’s a good painting or not, because you can’t see their eyes… whether they follow you around the room.

Pete: No, the sign of a good painting like that, Dud, with their backs towards you, is if the bottoms follow you around the room. If it’s a good painting, the bottoms would follow you around the room.

D: Will they?

P: Yeah.

D: So I’ll test it then.

P: You go and have a look.

D: Alright. I’ll go on up and see if they…..

P: They won’t bloody budge, I’ll tell you that mate.

D: Course I can’t look directly at it. Otherwise, you know, you’ll know I’m looking and they’d get all cagy. I’ll… it’ll be fine.

P: Are they moving, Dud?

D: I think they’re following me, Pete.

P: I don’t think they are, Dud.

D: I reckon they are, Pete.

P: No, those bottoms aren’t following you around the room: your eyes are following the bottoms around the room.

D: Same thing, innit?

P: Course it isn’t. There’s a good deal of difference between followed by a bottom and you following a bottom. Totally different!

pete and dud 5

“Ooooh! It’s flashing all over the place. It’s coming after you, Dud.”

The camera dollies towards the bathers and then, after a dissolve, the sketch concludes with a close-up of the bathers. Off screen, we hear Pete and Dud resolving to meet elsewhere in the gallery: “See yer in the Dutch masters.” In the sketch, the painting seems about as real as the “National Gallery” surrounding it. Looking a little too small and sporting a different frame from the one we see in the British Pathé newsreel, it’s presumably a photographic copy. Did Philip and George welcome the kind of attention that Pete and Dud were bringing to the National Gallery’s recent purchase? I doubt it.

Fifty years later, what would Pete and Dud make of Cézanne’s Vue sur L’Estaque et le Château d’If? They would certainly have to come up with a different sort of test to establish whether or not is a good painting, let alone worth £13.5 million. The landscape is sadly devoid of both eyes and bottoms.

L'Estaque with view of the Chateau d'If (393x500)

In a future post I’ll say more about the landscape and the chances of Britain coming up with enough money to keep it in the country.

Questions, comments, corrections? Contact me here.



The House of Art in “House of Cards”

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

[Spoiler alert: This post mentions a couple of plot points in House of Cards.]

Whenever a TV or film scene is set in a museum, Art Historians are likely to jolt to attention. It’s a Pavlovian response: the art bell rings and we salivate.

And so it was recently while I was watching Netflix’s much-ballyhooed House of Cards, a series whose art-historical resonances began with its promotional material. Picture an enthroned Kevin Spacey posing in the manner of Abraham Lincoln. But–spot the differences!–this wannabe president is actually Frank Underwood, a congressman and the House majority whip, and he has blood streaming down from his guilty hands. They don’t make politicians like they used to.

Daniel Chester French, Abraham Lincoln (from the Lincoln Memorial), 1920.

As the series progresses, Frank, who is married, develops a professional and sexual relationship with a political reporter, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), and strategically leaks information to her. They develop the habit of arranging assignations around Washington D.C., and two of these take place in the west building of the National Gallery. (Film buffs may recall how effectively Hitchcock used the same location in his Strangers on a Train.)

Guy and Anne in the National Gallery, from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.

In the National Gallery, Frank and Zoe are, we are supposed to believe, hidden in plain sight: two apparent strangers who happen to be sitting on the same bench and looking at the same painting at the same time, or pretending to look. To the audience, the work is visible only at the beginning of each scene, in an establishing shot, and at the end, in a series of close-ups. The editing of these close-ups indicates that the painting is being looked at by one or both characters.

In episode one of the series, the painting in question is Thomas Eakins’s The Biglin Brothers Racing (1872).

House of Cards, episode one, around 42 minutes in. Zoe and Frank in front of Eakins’s The Biglin Brothers Racing.

And in episode nine, the work is Mary Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878). Notably, both paintings are nineteenth-century paintings by American artists. We might also add that they are both (broadly speaking) realist artists with strong connections to Paris and Philadelphia.

House of Cards, episode 9, around 17 minutes in. Frank and Zoe in front of Mary Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair.

The two scenes balance each other nicely. The first occurs near the beginning of Frank and Zoe’s relationship: the second towards its end. In the first, Frank sits to the right of the bench and Zoe to the left; in the second, it’s the other way around. In the earlier scene, we find Frank waiting at the gallery bench for Zoe and, after their conversation, he gets up to leave first; in the later scene, the reverse occurs: Zoe waits for Frank and is first to leave. But it is Frank who gets the last words in both scenes, and since these words elaborate on the imagery of the paintings, he comes across as the more engaged viewer.

Watching the House of Cards prompted me to come to three broad conclusions about what tends to work, or not work, in these sorts of museum scenes. Here they are.

1. From an art-historical perspective, films or TV programs get brownie points for recognizing that particular objects are associated with particular locations.
I will immediately add that I don’t hold it against, say, the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair for playing fast and loose with which objects can be found in the Met. Still, as I watch such a film, a voice in my brain (let’s call it the voice of the inner art history pendant) will always be interfering with my valiant attempt to suspend disbelief. “But,” the voice will hector me, “Cézanne’s Lac d’Annecy hangs in the Courtauld Institute, not the Met!” And I love Kurosawa’s Dreams, and recognize that the director’s dream logic gives not a fig for the practicalities of the museum world. Still, the voice of the art history pedant inevitably interrupts the beginning of the “Crows” section of the film, and asks unreasonably: “just when were all those Van Goghs hanging together on the same wall? Never!”

Gallery scene from the “Crows” section of Kurosawa’s Dreams (around 1 hr 4 mins.)

Conversely, I appreciate–even overvalue–films that respect the bond between a location and its artworks. Consider the way John Hughes allowed Ferris Bueller to see some of The Art Institute’s finest artworks during his day off, and how the objects add to the specificity of this Chicago film.

Similarly, since the Eakins and Cassatt works are indeed to be found in the National Gallery, I give credit to The House of Cards for its choices. The paintings help to create a plausible D.C. setting, particularly for those viewers with memories of looking at the paintings in the National Gallery. Even so, the scene’s staging is a little forced. How often is such a major gallery so deserted? Or paintings isolated in this manner? Why the strangely archaic lighting system? Is this even the gallery itself or, as I suspect, another location doubling for it? (The National Gallery is not thanked, or even mentioned, in the credits.)

2. Directors: If you’re going to draw attention to an artwork, it’s a good idea to forge connections between it and other aspects of the film.
With the paintings’ dominant blues hues, and the steely greys of the museum spaces, the gallery scenes fit in well with the chilly palettes beloved by the cinematographer of the House of Cards. But beyond these aesthetic commonalities, Frank’s dialogue serves to focus our attention on broader links between the paintings and elements of the dramatic situation.

Before their first meeting at the National Gallery, Frank calls Zoe to establish their meeting spot and, we might reasonably assume, did so by naming the gallery and the Eakins painting. (“Meet me by the Biglin Brothers!”) Did he even choose that painting partly in order to send a message to his companion? Perhaps. After giving Zoe an important document in the gallery, his parting remarks draw on the work’s imagery and, if we choose to believe him, seem to indicate his prior acquaintance with the work. “I just love this painting, don’t you? We’re in the same boat now, Zoe. Take care not to tip it over. I can only save one of us from drowning.”

“We’re in the same boat now, Zoe.”

By contrast, the second gallery meeting is called by Zoe, who proceeds to inform Frank that their sexual relationship is over, even while she attempts to continue their professional association. Did Zoe choose the Cassatt painting for their rendezvous in order to make a point about female achievement and creativity? Or, if we focus on the subject matter rather than the maker, was it to stress her youthfulness? (They are not brothers in the same boat; rather Zoe is young enough to be Frank’s daughter.)

Whether or not this was her intention, it certainly becomes the drift of Frank’s thoughts when, after Zoe has departed, he looks at the painting and treats us to this sour monologue: “She was never more than a faint blip on my radar. We’ve served each other’s purpose. She wants to be an adult. Let us see how she can fly when she leaves the nest.” As far as Frank is concerned, Zoe, like the girl in the painting, is on her own now. Or, put more positively, by suggesting an affinity connection between Zoe and the girl, the painting seems to comment on Zoe’s willful and youthful independence.

“Let us see how she can fly when she leaves the nest.”

Frank’s words sound as though they come from a tough father as much as an embittered lover. But he is no father. He and his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), have not had children together, a fact that Claire increasingly regrets. The Cassatt painting, in other words, also makes visible an important absence in their lives. The image conjures up not just the kind of child that they might have had, but the kind of comfortable, sprawling domesticity that a child might bring. In this respect, the interior scene offers a sharp contrast to the stark domestic spaces of Claire and Frank’s own townhouse.

Claire also becomes implicated in the first gallery scene–at least retrospectively.  She buys Frank a rowing machine, as though she has somehow intuited what happened in the gallery and would rather direct her husband towards a boat for one, not a berth for two. Besides, she tells him, he needs to work out. Frank resists at first, but, by the end of the second episode, is dutifully rowing hard but going nowhere–a bit like a Biglin brother.

Franks rows, Claire watches (screen left). House of Cards, episode two.

3. Gallery scenes + drama: how obvious is too obvious?
The appearance of the rowing machine indicates how House of Cards risks seeming overly arch and artificial. It’s easy to push too hard on these connections between artworks and other dramatic elements. House of Cards can get away with more of this than is usual. As Frank’s direct addresses to the camera remind us, the series embraces a generous amount of stylistic artificiality. So, in terms of image selection, where might the limit lie? Is there a painting that would be too obvious to include?

It was probably wise not to show an actual image of a house of cards in House of Cards, even though it just so happens that the National Gallery possesses an extremely good painting of this subject. It is by Chardin, who made several other versions of the theme.

Chardin, House of Cards, 1737(?), National Gallery, Washington, D.C.

In general, it is surely better to keep an image of the governing metaphor of your series safely off screen or, if you prefer, hidden up your sleeve. (What if the characters should become aware of it?!)  And I imagine that the makers of House of Cards will only consider playing this card, will only consider including this painting in a scene, near the conclusion of their story.

It will be played, if at all, at the end of some future series, when Frank has built his political empire up to its maximum height. And at that point, his house of cards will either stand or fall.



Making Movies: Filming Artists at Work

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

Here’s a call for papers for the session I’m co-chairing at SECAC 2013 (Greensboro, North Carolina). If we have a good response, we’ll propose an edited volume on the subject, so even if you can’t make the conference, please consider submitting a proposal. And spread the word! [Deadline: April 20, 2013. For full details, click here.]

We solicit proposals for papers addressing any aspect of documentary films showing artists at work.

These films are nearly as old as the film medium itself. They can seem artless and straightforward, like the early footage of Renoir painting, or they can appear highly complicated and elaborately staged, like Clouzot’s Mystery of Picasso (1956). The popularity of these films shows no sign of abating: consider the recent ones about Andy Goldsworthy, Gerhard Richter, and street art (Exit Through the Gift Shop), or consider PBS’s Art21 series.

As Namuth’s 1950 film of Pollock reminds us, these films have sometimes provided audiences with indelible, if potentially misleading, images and ideas about artists’ working processes. They can also be contested cultural products. What film-makers want from a film or video may, or may not, align with the desires of the artist, and vice versa.

To follow this line of inquiry, our panel is also interested in how artists use film to deal with concerns arising out of their other work. Since mid-century across the globe, many practitioners have found film and video expedient for investigating time and perception, demonstrating specific visual concepts or documenting performance.

Paper proposals will be considered for inclusion in the conference and/or for consideration in a possible edited volume on the subject.


Whose Studio is it Anyway? Laura Knight on Film.

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

Over the summer, I’ve been exploring the amazing British Pathé webpage. This searchable site contains digital versions of some 90,000 newsreels, dating from the early years of cinema to the 1970s.

I teach a class called “Art and Film” and was immediately curious to see what art-related material lurked in the Pathé archives. Having found that there was plenty, the germ of an idea was born. Every now and then, I’ll write about some of these fascinating Pathé gems in this blog and, I hope, shed some light on them.

I’m going to start with one of the first reels that caught my attention, a two-minute silent film showing the English painter Laura Knight (1877-1970) at work in what appears to be her studio. Called “Mrs Laura Knight–the famous Artist,” it was made in 1927 and you can see it here.

Knight on Film

In the 1920s, Knight was beginning to receive significant public recognition for her achievements, and the film acknowledges this growing acclaim. As its opening title card explains, Knight “was recently elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, [and] is only the second woman to receive such an honour since the 18th Century.”* In 1929 she was made a Dame, and she became a full member of the Royal Academy in 1936. In the same year, she published the first of her two autobiographies, Oil Paint and Grease Paint, where she vividly describes her own impressions of the Pathé film or, more precisely, her memories of being filmed. Curiously, she does not mention viewing the completed film. So she is probably offering a pointed corrective to the way she suspects she has been portrayed.

Laura Knight

The relevant passage is from a chapter called “A Film Studio.” Here it is in full:

One of the film studios asked me if I would give them the opportunity of making a film of me painting a picture with my model. An exact copy of my studio was to be set up in the film studio. Two men consulted with me about borrowing the necessary gear. I had just completed a half-nude figure, which they were extremely anxious to bring into the film. It was decided that they would chance the propriety of including it, and a taxi was filled with various canvases and drawings.

I arrived with two models at the time appointed, four o’clock in the afternoon. The studio set was sumptuous, sunlight streamed through a large window, outside the frame, creepers twined–most picturesque. The easel was set all ready for use; it was tiny, a rococo affair made for a drawing-room and across the top of it a piece of plush was draped. The studio did not bear much resemblance to my workshop over Butler’s garage, where the view from the window only showed the tops of Seymour Hick’s chimney-pots, but I was assured it would come out all right, so we started to select the particular pictures for display. A crowd of serious-faced men discussed the advisability of the semi-nude, while I watched the red in their faces turn to bright blue in the lights, the veins of their noses looking as if they had been scrawled in ink. A slight delay was caused while one of the producers went away. He returned with a length of pink chiffon floating, which he proceeded to drape across the offending breast of my painted maiden–then I had to interfere, and we compromised by placing another canvas partly in front of her nudity.

I do not know how many feet or yards of film were used up. My models and I acted everything that was ever done in a studio that we and the producers could think of, from the doing of a drawing, to a tea-party, and the advent of a lady visitor. It was no use my protesting that I never had tea-parties in my studio, it was necessary for the tale. I was made to paint standing an inch or two from my canvas, so that the camera-man could see my profile, hand, brush, picture and the model all together. I got weary standing about, and my model very bored on her throne. In a rest, as I watched her idly rubbing her bare back, suddenly there was a violent shout behind me, “Let those damned spots alone!” Poor Eileen dropped her hand quickly, but the camera-man was not referring to her scratching, but to some limes that had been interfered with.

When we had taken off our make-up and were bidding our hosts good-bye, a man said to me, “You’ve been under the arcs five hours; you’ll have slight sunstroke after this.” (312-13)

Filming the Artist and the Observer Effect

Documentaries about artists cater to our desire to pry open the secrets of the artist’s studio and witness private and mysterious acts of creation. But there is an “observer effect” that inevitably compromises this desire. While the film-making process changes the artist’s normal activities, we viewers invariably begin to suspect that this must be occurring. In this case, we are lucky: Knight’s words help us grasp some of these slippages. Her studio is not her studio, even though it is presented as such. Her very stance at the easel–a display easel, not a work easel–has to change to satisfy the camera.

Worse still, these changes are motivated not merely by cinematic or narrative necessity, but by ideological factors–the desire to shoehorn Knight into the role of the “Lady Painter.” In her autobiography, Knight controls how she is being represented and can make the film’s fiction, its “tale” clear. She does not normally have tea parties, nor lady visitors in her studio (two scenes excluded from the final edit); she does not normally drape her easel with plush, nor her painting with pink chiffon. The view from her actual studio, she insists, is gritty and urban, not pastoral.

Knight’s Lights

Limiting the range of Knight’s subjects to portraits and studies of female subjects, the film also downplays the complicated figurative works that by this time had become Knight’s trademark. You can see more of her images of the circus, the ballet, and the theatre here. A specialist in these subjects must be attuned to complicated lighting effects, and Knight’s writing certainly reveals a preoccupation with light. There’s the natural light flooding in through the studio window; the light that strikes the “serious-faced men,” rendering them grotesque; and there are those troublesome “spots” or “limes” that had been interfered with” (in other words, spotlights and limelights).

The scene culminates in another type of light effect, the “slight sunstroke” she is told to expect after her five-hour stint before the filmmakers’ arc lights. Knight uses this gloomy prediction to forge a connection between herself and another painter, Annie Swynnerton, who, in 1922, became the very first woman elected into the Royal Academy as an Associate Member (ARA).*

Annie Swynnerton, 1931

Annie Swynnerton, 1931

During “A Film Studio,” Knight’s fellow ARA is very much on her mind. At the beginning of the chapter, Knight describes Swynnerton at work, “painting a big portrait out of doors in Rome,” but suffering as a consequence. Knight quotes the older painter: “I had heat stroke–it affected my eyes–they were wonderful before that!” (311-312). Now, Knight tells us, Swynnerton can “hardly see.” Less than two pages later, Knight is experiencing her own type of sunstroke, courtesy of the film studio. We are relieved to read that Knight wakes up the next day with her sight intact and nothing worse than “sore eyes and a giddy head” (314).

“Any woman reaching the heights in the fine arts”, Knight reflects, “had been almost unknown until Mrs. Swynnerton came and broke down the barriers of prejudice…” (311). Stressing hard labour, physical risk, and collective struggle, Knight’s writing amends and expands the film’s vision of what it might mean to be a female artist.

In her writing, Knight relates herself to a significant senior artist; in contrast, the filmmakers place the artist firmly in the company of her models. In the second half of this post, I’m going to look more closely at three parts of the film that show the artist interacting with a model (or her likeness) in three different ways. The model appears as a conversational partner for the artist, as a figure in a completed painting, and in the act of modeling. These sections confirm Knight’s hunch: the art of filmmaking inevitably shapes how making art is depicted on film.

Moment 1: Mentoring Mayo (1:35 to 1:40)

“Poor Eileen,” the model Knight mentions, is readily identifiable. She is Eileen Mayo (1906-1994), who posed frequently for Knight and other well-known artists of the day: Vanessa Bell, Mark Gertler, Duncan Grant, and Dod Procter. The Tate Archive holds a lock of her distinctive golden hair, which was clearly considered to be part of her appeal.

A Lock of Eileen Mayo’s hair, Tate Archive

Mayo’s presence in the film helps to explain one of the more stilted segues in the film. After an intertitle informs us that Knight likes to encourage young artists, we cut to a picture of her chatting with Mayo, who now plays the role of student, rather than model. Mayo was both–as the filmmakers seem to have realized. By 1927 she had already attended the prestigious Slade School in London and studied with Fernand Léger in Paris. She would go on to have a very successful career as a designer, illustrator, and printmaker.

Knight and Mayo (1:40ish)


Moment 2: The “Half-Nude Figure” (1:42 to 1:47)

Knight’s prose indicates that the shoot had raised some thorny questions of decorum. The half- or “semi-nude” figure creating all the consternation was, in all likelihood, the painting that creates a bridge into the “gallery” sequence at the end of the film.

Knight and Blue & Gold (1:44ish); and Knight’s Blue & Gold (1927)

Given all the problems it apparently created in the film studio, the work makes a fairly minor, though telling, appearance in the final edit. Knight’s Blue and Gold (1927)–the title alludes to Mayo’s hair–is not strategically obscured or veiled. If anything, it’s the reverse. During the shot, the artist’s gaze drifts downwards towards “the offending breast of [the] painted maiden” and the viewer is inclined to follow her lead.

Reading between the lines, one wonders whether the awkwardness in the studio was less about the finished painting, and more about the attempt to stage a dramatic recreation of its making. Why else would the model be “idly rubbing her bare back,” unless she had been posing nude? Real breasts presented more problems than painted ones and the scene, if indeed it was shot, was ultimately too troublesome to include in the completed film. A suggestive cut, which transforms Mayo back from model (and student) to painted nude, would have to serve instead.

Consecutive shots: Knight with Mayo and Knight and Blue & Gold

Moment 3: Time-Lapse Dissolve (1:04 to 1:18) 

Pathé films from the twenties couldn’t rely on the breezy voiceovers that we associate with their later newsreels. In the silent era, more weight had to be placed on visual storytelling through film. A case in point: the slow dissolve that magically takes the viewer from an early to a much later stage in a work’s development. (To help continuity, Knight places her hand on the easel, holding her pose rather stiffly.) Indicating the passing of an unspecified amount of time, the transition also coincides with a change of media, from drawing to painting.

Consecutive shots: two stages of the same work?

While the simple special effect manages to create a sense of studio time and studio processes, it also causes us to question exactly what we are seeing. These doubts only increase when we compare shots of Mayo posing and the completed work, which is revealed at the very end of the film. Obvious differences emerge.

Mayo posing and the final painting

In the studio, Mayo’s hair is tied back away from forehead, while the figure in the canvas has bangs (“a fringe”). Mayo leans on a bare table, while the figure in the canvas leans on a magazine or newspaper lying on top of a table. Knight could simply be freely altering and augmenting what she sees, but the artist’s own recollections indicate another possibility.

The strictly limited amount of shooting time (some five hours); the number of different scenarios or set-ups attempted; and the fact that the film-makers wanted to introduce at least one preselected painting: all of these tend to confirm my suspicion that the time-lapse sequence actually cuts between two different works. By retroactively creating a “preliminary” sketch on a second canvas, and by restaging the scene of modeling, a simulation of a single work’s evolution could rapidly, if not entirely seamlessly, be created in the studio and in the editing room. The filmmakers may have initially wanted to recreate the genesis of Blue and Gold; they eventually settled for something more anodyne, a “Woman Leaning on a Table.”

Back in the Limelight

Though she appeared in two later Pathé  newsreels, Knight chose not to revisit the topic of being filmed in The Magic of a Line (1965), her second autobiography. But whether she would like it or not, Knight is primed to appear in a new film. Some 85 years after her 1927 film debut, she has once again been found to be “necessary for [a] tale.” Summer in February, a film currently in post production and still awaiting a release date, promises to be “a true tale of love, liberty and scandal amongst the Edwardian artists’ colony in Cornwall.”

This time it will be a trained actress, Hattie Morahan, who plays the role of Laura Knight, “the famous artist.”


*The word “elected” calls for further explanation. In 1768, George III named 34 founding members of the Royal Academy. But, strictly speaking, the two women he included, Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser, were not elected. It was only in 1922 and 1927 that Annie Swynnerton and Laura Knight (respectively) were voted in as associate members (ARAs).