ARTS EXHIBITIONS: The eye of the beholder
Two new shows marking the centenary of British cinema explore the links between artists and film-makers. Kevin Jackson reports
Sunday 25 February 1996
More surprising still are the wildly uncensored doodles Eisenstein was producing at roughly the same time. One shows a naked woman, curved into a half-moon with monstrous flowers sprouting from her pudenda; another a neatly coiffured male angel with a bird's head for genitals. These little cartoons were never meant for public exhibition - they were jotted down on cheap bits of paper, sometimes sent as letters to friends - but that is not to say they are not worth exhibiting, as Oxford's Museum of Modern Art has now chosen to do for "The Director's Eye", the first of two shows marking the centenary of British cinema. As evidence of a restless, febrile temperament, they are at once warmer and weirder than his canonical films; as graphic expressions, they hint at the kind of strange erotic images Eisenstein might have brought to the screen had he died later and Stalin sooner.
Few of the exhibits here are as intimate or as disconcerting as Eisenstein's doodles, but most of them were similarly unassuming in origin. In reconstructing a few of the many, often recondite links between European art and European cinema, the show's co-curators Ian Christie and David Elliot have concentrated on the sketches, paintings and photographs that tend to foam out in the wake of movies as they move from page to screen. Pace the title, the eyes which are celebrated here belong as often to production or costume designers as to directors: Paul Leni's sketches for films by Lubitsch; John Armstrong's costume drawings for the British sci-fi epic Things to Come; John Beckman's tightly plotted set-plans for Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux.
What the exhibition really brings home, though, is how seldom such working sketches could ever have been merely functional in intent: again and again, you're struck by the energetic excess of detail in, say, William Kellner's sombre drawings for The Lavender Hill Mob, or - probably the most extraordinary pieces of their kind here - Alexandre Benois's brooding watercolours of the cavernous interiors for Abel Gance's Napoleon. Benois's devotion to the assignment is not only manifest in the intricacy of his work but in the angry phrase he scrawled across the back of one after viewing Gance's completed film: "This scene was ruined by the so-called demands of cinema!"
The artist-directors themselves are represented in a variety of media: Cocteau and Bunuel/Dali by familiar stills from Le Sang d'un Poete and Un Chien Andalou, Man Ray by a "Rayogram" sequence from Le Retour a la Raison, and the abstract film-maker Len Lye by a collection of the strips of celluloid onto which he would paint coloured patterns. Strictly speaking, Lye was a New Zealander and thus outside the show's European remit, but he sneaks in because so much of his work was done here; similarly, drawings by the Disney Studios and a sequence of Wile E Coyote sketches by the great Chuck Jones are allowed to slip through EU customs since it was the French surrealists who first sounded their artistic merits. Only a sourpuss would object.
For the rest, there is a generous helping of Powell & Pressburger material, including a few (more than faintly kitsch) production paintings for The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann by Hein Heckroth, and plenty of Powell's own, often very good photographs: the funniest image in the exhibition shows David Niven, armed with bow and arrow, hurling himself sideways into a swimming pool clad only in trunks, deerstalker and a mad grin. The exhibition closes with a strong representation of paintings, collages and the like by recent British and honorary British artist-directors - Derek Jarman, Bill Douglas, Terry Gilliam, Peter Greenaway, Sally Potter and Alan Parker - as well as predictably sexy cartoons by Federico Fellini, and Satyajit Ray's delicately uncanny drawing of an alien's head for the sci-fi film he never made.
The main niggles raised by the exhibition concern what it lacks: chiefly work by other artist-film-makers, and some illustration of the moving images eventually created with and from these still images. But if "The Director's Eye" leaves you hungry for more, its sibling show, "Spellbound" at the Hayward Gallery, offers an altogether different take on the issue of art and film. Where "The Director's Eye" is European and retrospective, a partial summary of cinemas past, "Spellbound" is British and contemporary, a guess at cinema to come.
Much of the publicity for "Spellbound" has centred on one of the short films commissioned by its curators, Ian Christie (again) and Philip Dodd - a Tales of the Unexpected-style piece originally titled Is Mr Death In?, an anagram for the name of its director, one Damien Hirst, of whom you may have heard. Though now retitled Hanging Around, and starring Hirst's chums Eddie Izzard and Keith Allen, this remarkably conventional drama is still much possessed by death, and the artist's admirers will be pleased to hear that many of his leading motifs, from raw meat to insect electrocution, are present and correct.
The show's other attractions include contributions by two of the artist- directors on show in Oxford, Peter Greenaway and Terry Gilliam, as well as work by Fiona Banner, Ridley Scott, Paula Rego and Boyd Webb. There's another short film by the young artist Steve McQueen (no relation), and Douglas Gordon's installation 24-Hour Psycho, in which Hitchcock's grisly horror-comedy is projected at the rate of about two frames per second so that it takes a whole day and night to unfold. For many visitors, though, the most beguiling project in "Spellbound" will be Eduardo Paolozzi's Jesus Works and Stores, a huge prop-room for an imaginary film, or for the cinema itself, crammed with some 400 models and puppets, from Nosferatu rats to the Wizard of Oz's Tin Man, slumped dejectedly over a fence. It is not so much a monument to cinema as a cabinet of cinematic curiosities by an artist who has been a lifelong film-buff: nostalgic, funny and occasionally spooky. The Eisenstein of Potemkin might have frowned, but the Eisenstein who made weird and naughty scribbles would surely have loved it.
! 'The Director's Eye': Moma, Oxford (01865 722733), to 14 Apr. 'Spellbound': Hayward Gallery, SE1 (0171 960 4242), to 6 May.
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