Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas in Tativille. "Narrative in Icons of the Nativity: The Representational Problematic of the Nativity Feast and Two Solutions"

Figure 1.  Scenes of the Nativity.  11th century.
The fundamental problem posed by narrative representations in icons seems simple enough: if icons are objects of veneration capable of effecting intercession – that is, if icons are idols in some sense – then what are we to make of scenes that minimize or obscure the presence of a mediating agent?  A second related question follows: is it possible to offer supplication to figures in action – that is, to distracted subject matter?  If it is not, what then is the function of a narrative icon if again it is not that basic quality attacked in both iconoclastic periods?
All of the above questions presuppose a liturgical and/or devotional function in the use of icons.  Indeed, it is difficult to move beyond these concerns in thinking about narrative icons as each is fundamental to our understanding of these images.  At the same time, narrative icons represent such a rich visual tradition in their own right that even the most essential ontological interrogations risk us failing to properly appreciate these panels as works of art, so long as we focus on their functions at the expense of their forms.  It is this latter task of formal analysis that I propose to undertake in the forthcoming pages, though it will not exclude more general considerations of their nature and role in Byzantium.  Then again, these broader examinations will serve first to illuminate the icons studied, and as such will receive as much attention as their facility in this respect merits. 
Regarding the subject of the paper, my primary concern will be a single icon in the Monastery of Saint Catherine on the Sinai Peninsula: an 11th century Scenes of the Nativity that features a number of related narrative strands represented on a single 36cm tall panel (fig. 1).  As such it will be important to view the inquiries preceding my formal analysis as foundational for an understanding of this specific panel.  My impression of the work, to be sure, is that it is exceptional rather than normative, in terms both of its narrative scope and also for its success in appropriating conventional iconography toward a new purpose – namely, for its expression of multiple spatiotemporal units within a single space.  To interject, nativity scenes, by their nature as a hybrid series of disparate events, accordingly posed a difficulty or at least represented an anomaly to Byzantine icon painters, who characteristically depicted individual scenes or single portraits.  As such, it will be necessary at the outset to sketch the basic codes of narrative expression in icons – and their relationship to iconic portraiture – before examining the manner in which the unnamed artist of this great panel has remade the rules of iconic narrative. 
Once both of these tasks are complete, I will conclude with another well-known nativity, Giotto’s 14th century fresco in the Arena Chapel, Padua.  My examination of this last work will ask whether Giotto’s narrative formulation solves one of the key problems extant in all of the nativities.  (The primary focus of the paper offers a different, though perhaps less emulative solution to the same difficulty that Giotto engages.)  In other words, to use George Kubler’s terminology, does Giotto’s work conclude a “form-class”?[i]  However, before this moment in the afterlife of Byzantine nativities can be parsed, a history of the forms and iconography of nativity panels is necessary first.   

The “Scene” Paradigm
            The idea of the religious icon is predicated on narrative.  Each is a depiction of a historical figure or set of figures, whose visual inscription depends upon the details and circumstances of their lives.  To merit representation, the subject of the icon must prove sufficiently germane to the spiritual program of Byzantium: that is, by providing as a model for the Christian life or in clarifying the vagaries of Orthodox theology.  In this way, the icon’s fundamental purpose becomes didactic, as it mediates the faith for the beholder through figurative representation.  Consequently, the move from portraiture to narrative representation in Byzantine art emerges as a logical direction for this imagery, to the extent that the story providing the genesis for the work is always implicit in the icon’s content.  In other words, narrative icons make visible what was already there. 
To illustrate this last point, it is necessary only to look at any number of Byzantine works that augment the portrait of a saint with scenes from their life, such as the early thirteenth century Saint Catherine with Scenes from Her Life (fig. 2) housed at the Sinai monastery that bares her name.[ii]  Here, a full-length portrait of the subject is surrounded by scenes that elucidate “the varied tortures she underwent and her final death by sword.”[iii]  As such, the implicit content of the center portrait is rendered explicitly through the scenes that flank it.  Collectively, they tell the beholder why Catherine is worthy of veneration in iconic form.  While certainly one could imagine a knowledgeable spectator having the same reaction to another portrait of St. Catherine less the narrative imagery, there is, in the narrative form of Saint Catherine with Scenes from Her Life, a lack of ambiguity that derives from this transcription of significant events.  It both adds propositional content to the imagery – that is, St. Catherine, who experienced such-and-such forms of torture, etc. – and to the degree that it makes explicit this content, supplants the oral history that surrounds all iconic subject matter.

Figure 2 Saint Catherine with Scenes from Her Life.  13th century.
 Regarding the smaller images that abut the centered portrait – the “scenes” – each depicts, theoretically, a discrete event in the life of the saint.  Perhaps a clearer example can be found in any number of the ‘polyptychs with multiple feast scene’ panels also housed at St. Catherine’s.  One particularly illustrative example is the monastery’s 12th century Epistyle with Twelve Feast Scenes that divides the historical sources for these feasts into twelve discrete compositions, running chronologically from left-to-right, along four separate panels.[iv]  Each of these “scenes” is segmented from the others by the artist’s rendering of columns and vaults to demarcate the spaces of the individual events.  The narratives presented therein begin at the left of the first panel with an “Annunciation,” followed by a “Nativity,” a “Presentation at the Temple,” and so forth.  Thus, the artist is narrating the lives of Christ and the Virgin, emphasizing those events that have generated commemorative feasts.  Typical for this type, the particular rendering of the feast scenes (with one noteworthy counter-example that will be dealt with in greater detail in the next section) are constrained to discrete spatial and temporal settings that plastically rend the action connoted. 
While it would seem tempting therefore to say that each frame has the value of a photograph, capturing a single moment in time, the reality of its connection to physical laws is less certain.  Whereas certain examples like the “Presentation in the Temple” seem to showcase a particular set of actions at a particular moment in time, other scenes commingle this kinetic quality with highly posed figures that face the spectator in gestures of repose.  An example of the latter is the “Annunciation,” where Gabriel gestures toward the Virgin Mary, who separately faces the viewer to whom she is gesturing.  While such a scene does not negate the conception of a unified space and time, it neither suggests life captured unawares.  Nor does a later scene of the “Raising of Lazarus” where a series of suspended gestures would seem to inscribe not a single time at all, but a sequence of moments: Christ raising the deceased; Lazarus returning from the grave; and his sisters offering worship the Lord.  Thus, the artist depicts both cause and effect in a series of gestures enacted within a single space over a sequence of moments. 
Speaking of the expression of causality within a single space, a second Sinai panel proves even more salient in articulating the Byzantine understanding of the spatial and temporal limits of the scene: in a Menologion from the first half of the 11th century individual instances of martyrdom are paired frequently in discrete scenes.[v]  For instance, in the second scene from the right in the bottom row, and in the third from that side in the row immediately above it, the artist presents a martyr bowing before a man with a sword, presumably in the moment before he will be decapitated.  In order to express both cause and effect in these two frames, the artist represents a second martyr, already beheaded and lying on the ground.  Lest it might appear, then, that the artist has represented the same martyr twice, each of the beheaded figures is distinguished from the adjacent bowed figure through his clothing.  Consequently, these scenes maintain the same basic spatial unity of the feast scenes detailed above, as they refuse to animate the scenes via the replication of a single person within the same frame.  At the same time, they achieve roughly the same effect as they depict both the moment before the slaughter and its result, thereby introducing a temporal dimension through the codes of the art.

The Nativity Exception
There does remain one constant, however, throughout all of the scenes described thus far: in each, individual figures appear only once within the narratives that they populate.  This is true again of every scene in the aforementioned epistyle except one: the “Nativity.”  In this example, the infant Christ appears twice, once lying in the manger and once being bathed by the midwives.  Surrounding these two representations of Christ are similar details from the nativity story that collapse the spatiotemporal unity of the scene: to the left, magi present their gifts to Mary, while shepherds fix their attention on an angel in the right of the scene; below the shepherds, Joseph rests his arm on his knee in a gesture of contemplation, while again, the two midwives bath the infant Messiah to left of his earthly father.  As such the artist has conflates the adoration of the magi, which according to the Gospel of Matthew, occurred two years after the child’s birth, with the birth itself (represented in Christ’s infancy and his bathing by the midwives), with Joseph’s decision to wed Mary (prior to Christ’s birth) and with the angel’s visitation of the shepherds (at the time of the infant’s birth).[vi]  Thus, the “Nativity” figures a series of spaces and times that are woven into a single scene, irrespective of their historical disparities.  That Christ appears twice in the space, moreover, confirms that we are not looking at a single scene in the same manner we do elsewhere, but rather that we are looking at a number scenes combined within a single space.  The space of the scene portends not only an additional vastness of place, but different time values for its various segments.
Importantly, this replication of Christ in the same frame (amid other images lacking any similar duplication) is not unique to the above epistyle, but reoccurs in a number of similar ‘multiple feast scene panels’ at the Monastery of Saint Catherine and elsewhere.  In a fourteenth century Polyptych with Feast Scenes, four separate panels feature four discrete feast scenes apiece;[vii] the scenes are oriented such that an arrangement of the panels horizontally produces a narrative running left-to-right along the top panels and then this same direction across the bottom series of images.  In each of these scenes, the artist maintains a strict adherence to representing figures once and only once, with the exception again of the “Nativity,” where Christ appears twice in the same context that he does in the earlier epistyle.  Similarly, in Two sections of an iconostasis beam with scenes from the life of the Virgin and the Dodekaorton, from the fourth quarter of the 12th century,[viii] the same pattern holds, with Christ’s duplication (within a single frame depicting the “Nativity”) the only such replication of figures, as is also the case with the “Nativity” from the third quarter of the 13th century Dodekaorton icon from an iconostasis likewise kept at the Monastery.[ix] 
At this point, it becomes incumbent to ask whether this peculiar form of visual iteration is unique to the Monastery of Saint Catherine or whether it has appeared elsewhere.  For this, a Constantinople ivory dating from sometime between the first half of the 10th century and the early 11th century provides further evidence of the ubiquity of the noted iconography: in a Diptych with Twelve Feast Scenes from the Life of Christ, the imagery of Mary beside Christ in the manger, Joseph in contemplation, and the midwives washing the child are all in evidence once again.[x]  Owing to its particular form, however, the top scene – the reclining Virgin beside Christ in the manger flanked by the ox and the ass – intrudes upon the lower space, where the midwives must duck to wash the child.  That the artist spares neither in a somewhat awkward representation of both marks the currency of this imagery.  Another even more telling example are the 11th century Byzantine gospels kept at the Bibliothèque Nationale Dèpartment des Manuscrits.  However, to isolate the truly exceptional nature of the iconography’s appearance in this illuminated text, it is first necessary to distinguish the literary sources for the visual subject matter discussed thus far.

Sources of Nativity Iconography
            Much of the nativity story is well-known to western audiences: the annunciation, the visitations of Joseph and the shepherds, the Christ child wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger, the adoration of the magi, etc.  These staples of nativity visual iconography derive from two gospel sources: Matthew chapters one and two, and the second chapter of Luke.[xi]  However, these primary sources do not include all of the common iconography found in both Eastern and Western nativity scenes, including the midwives who have been mentioned on multiple occasions.  Their provenance and that of the remaining iconography not mentioned in either of the gospels is a pair of apocryphal texts: Pseudo-Matthew and the Protevangelion of James.  In the first, conventionally ascribed to Matthew, Joseph has gone to seek Zelomi and Salome to serve as midwives for his newborn son.[xii]  Zelomi examines Mary and discovers that she is still a Virgin, even after childbirth.[xiii]  Salome, doubting the veracity of her partner’s claims, checks Mary herself, which results in her hand drying up.[xiv]  Salome then proceeds to touch the fringes of the infant Christ’s clothing, at which point she is healed instantly. 
In the fourteenth chapter of the Protevangelion, a similar narrative unfolds with Joseph again seeking a midwife.[xv]  The unnamed woman follows Joseph home, examines Mary and reports the story to Salome.  Salome touches the still virginal Mary – as she did in the other text – and her hand once again withers.[xvi]  Consequently, the Lord tells her to carry the Christ child so that her hand might be healed, which indeed it is as she performs the action. 
Yet, it remains significant that in neither of these well-know apocryphal texts do the midwives actually bathe Christ, nor do they perform this operation in the gospels themselves.  Still, the texts’ furnishing of the ever-present midwife motif confirms their importance to the development of the iconography’s visual language.  Moreover, it is not simply in the importation of the midwives into the narrative but in details that appear in many of these panels that we may see the impact of the texts on the establishment of the iconography.  For example, Pseudo-Matthew supplies the ox and the ass that are so ubiquitous in these images.[xvii]  Likewise, the Protevangelion supports the representations of a cave,[xviii] the sheep “standing still,”[xix] and Mary putting the infant in an “ox manger,”[xx] which save for the last of these, have no intimation in the Biblical account.
If most of these motifs are easily established through the texts listed above, the inclusion of the midwives bathing Christ still seems a bit opaque.  In his survey of this very subject, Robert Deshman in “Servants of the mother of God in Byzantine and medieval art,” notes that “the dramatic story of the skeptical midwife Salome began to appear in Eastern Mediterranean art in the fifth or sixth century.”[xxi]  In an example from this time in the British museum, the author notes that “Salome crouches before Christ’s crib clinching her withered arm.”[xxii]  What is immediately striking about this image, considering the iconography that has been discussed heretofore, is the placement of Christ in the manger in the lower register of the scene, along with the crouching midwife, the ox and the ass, and Joseph in contemplation.  Above these small figures is a substantially larger Mary holding the Christ child as she is attended by both the magi and an angel.  As such, this very early nativity-type maintains a number of the principle features of the icons previously detailed: first, the space is divided into upper and lower halves, both of which feature the Christ child, even though no other figure is duplicated; second, Joseph appears in the lower space, seated, with his arm held up in a contemplative posture; and third, a midwife appears with the Child, though again, he is not held in a bath but rather lies in the manger.  Thus, one might say of this early nativity variation that it is closer to the narrative articulated in the apocryphal texts than are the later examples already examined. 
By the eighth century, however, this more canonical representation had somehow morphed into the form that remains ascendant through the coming centuries – that is, with the midwives bathing Christ rather than with Salome showing her injury.  Another Saint Catherine monastic icon, the 8th or 9th century Nativity of Christ, is particularly revealing in this respect, as it labels Salome as the woman washing the infant Christ.[xxiii]  Similarly, Deshman points to an eighth century fresco on the Roman catacombs of San Valentino that likewise identifies Salome in a similar posture.[xxiv]  Moreover, this early Italian example showcases a second scene to the upper left of the Messiah’s bathing featuring a midwife stretching her arm toward Christ.  Thus, it almost seems as if we are looking at a transitional image that marks the iconographic shift between the injured Salome and the washing of the Christ child.  As Deshman notes, “viewed as a whole, one feature of the scene has no known counterpart in Eastern art: the presence of both the doubting Salome and the midwives bathing Christ.  In the East the introduction of the latter seems to have supplanted the former.”[xxv]

 Figure 3.  The Nativity.  7th century.
Still, what does this iconography describe if it does not appear in any of the related texts?  Once again, Deshman seems to provide a reasonable argument: “though Christ had no need of ablution, he submitted to the care required by an ordinary infant to demonstrate that he received human nature in the Incarnation.”[xxvi]  Indeed, it is important to note that from at the earliest examples of this iconography in Byzantium, a bar of light connecting the infant Christ to the heavenly and therefore divine realm had become nearly invariable among examples of the nativity-type (fig. 3).[xxvii]  Thus one might argue that while this ray conferred the child with his divine nature, the bathing imagery worked as a balance, establishing Christ’s equivalent humanity.  Hence Christ is represented twice for each of his two natures: fully divine and fully human.

Illuminated Manuscripts & the Liturgical Function of Nativity Icons
            So with this translation of Christ’s dual nature and the broader history of Byzantine nativity iconography in mind, it is time to return to the illuminated gospels at the Bibliothèque Nationale Dèpartment des Manuscrits.  Here, it is imperative to note that again the midwives appear below the illustration of Mary reclining on her mattress and Christ lying in his manger.  In either direction of this upper figure grouping, sheep run off, illustrating a passage from the Protevangelion.[xxviii]  Beneath these figures, the manuscript again depicts Joseph in contemplation – or in sleep, as an inscription from the Scenes of the Nativity to be examined later makes clear – and once more, the bathing of the Child.  This last example of iconography, moreover, is figured likewise in the illustration of the second chapter of Luke, thereby repeating an element of plot that does not seem to properly illustrate either of the Gospels.  At the same time, were this double representation a manifestation of Christ’s dual nature as has been argued, then its presence in the gospels may have theological rather than narrative implications.
            Accordingly, it is of no minor importance that this iconographic grouping appears in many more illuminated gospels and lectionaries from the Byzantine world.  Among the numerous examples, one might cite the various illuminated manuscripts at Mount Athos that contain this basic iconography: namely, the “Codex 2, Gospel lectionary” that dates from the 12th century or the “Nativity” (Cod. 6, fol. 89v) that appears in the twelfth century Homilies of Gregory the Theologian.  This latter example is particular interesting as it features Salome holding Christ outside of the font, rather than during the bath as is characteristic of nativity iconography.  That it connotes either past or future action seems to emphasize the importance of oral exposition to this particular scene from the Homilies.
            Yet, in spite of the broad evidence for this iconography, its reasons for occurring in these lectionaries, and even more dramatically in the illuminated gospels (in the conflated form detailed above) remains to be established.  To this end, George Galavaris makes a compelling case for the gradual inclusion of this iconography in illuminated texts in his discussion of the Homilies of Gregory Nazianzenus
In the nativity, we have the standard composition which became preeminent in Byzantine art since the Middle Byzantine period… All the scenes are treated separately in the accounts of the Gospels and their illustrations.  In the course of time, however, and under the impact of Liturgy, these episodes were re-grouped and formed a feast picture.  The change took place in the Lectionary in which these events were brought together in the pericopes for Christmas eve and Christmas day and on which the Christmas hymns were based.  This is the typical illustration for the Christmas feast in the Lectionaries.[xxix]
Thus, the iconography that seems so out of the place in the illuminated gospels and in the feast scene polyptychs that otherwise portray single moments in time, appears to have a liturgical function.  That the events depicted were combined into a single space, much as its various sources were combined into a single feast, reveals an economy in both its celebration and its depiction.  In other words, the forms of nativity panels were manipulated to reflect their function in illustrating a single feast or set of feasts.  (It should be remembered that the adoration of the magi supports its own feast, Epiphany, a week-and-a-half after Christmas.)  In every other feast noted above, a single image could and did suffice in articulating the source of the feast.

Scenes of the Nativity
            It is within this broader context of nativity-themed panels then that the achievement of the 11th century Scenes of the Nativity at the Monastery of Saint Catherine may be understood finally (fig. 1; pg. 2).[xxx]  As with the other nativity scenes described, this panel of likely Constantinople provenance features the conventional Mary on a palette beside Christ in a manger, with Joseph and the midwives bathing Christ below and the magi and shepherds flanking the grouping on either side.  Unlike most nativity panels, however, the above iconography represents only a fraction of the depiction.  On this 36.3 by  21.6cm wood panel, rendered in tempera, gold leaf and pigmented varnish, the artist has further showcased Joseph’s son leading the midwives to the holy couple; the magi riding on horseback to the Madonna and Child – and then leaving in another direction; a shepherd playing his flute in the fields; Joseph and his family arriving in Egypt; the mountain swallowing up Elizabeth and John the Baptist to protect the latter from Herod’s soldiers;[xxxi] a gruesome slaughter of the innocents on the bottom of the panel; an image and inscription of “Rachel mourning her children”;[xxxii] and on the top end, a legion of saints congregating in the celestial sphere.  These individual events are presented in discrete scenes delimited by the composition’s topography. 
In terms of their relationship to each other, consecutive events (those that figure causal relationships) are depicted in contiguous locations, while there remains a basic top-to-bottom orientation to the panel: that is the events of Christ’s birth are located above the holy family fleeing to Egypt, which is depicted above a mountain opening up to protect Elizabeth and John from that same danger, and this on top of the slaughter of innocents.  In fact it is only after Christ and John the Baptist have been saved that the content of the lower depiction occurs; their meaning is indeed predicated on the fact the bottom scene has not yet come to pass.  So, the panel seems to impel its spectator to read the bottom imagery as ‘after,’ though certainly there is nothing inscribed in the scene to offer this temporal interpretation.  Rather, it is a matter of space, and more importantly, the spectator’s scanning of the image from top-to-bottom, buffered by an understanding of the implications of the escape scenes, that generates the clear temporal quality of the lower scenes.    
Yet, it is not entirely cause-and-effect that holds together the panel as again can be seen in the compositionally pivotal  – it separates images from Christ’s birth above with the slaughter of innocents below – image of the holy family fleeing to Egypt.  Here, a clear break in the narration is sutured through its spatial connection to the scene of Joseph’s son leading the midwives to Christ, inasmuch as he appears in both locations, which otherwise remain remote due to the large temporal gap intervening between the scenes.  Thus, simple figural repetition holds together the scene where no clear causal relationships are manifest.   
            Nevertheless, in spite of the clear relationships between groups and the overall top-to-bottom orientation, it still remains unclear, based on the spatial organization of the panel, where the narrative begins – and whether the spectator is compelled to begin in any one place.  In order to make this determination, thus, it is necessary to move away from its spatial arrangement, and to consider another element of its composition instead: the panel’s use of color.  Indeed, the most immediately arresting component of this composition may just be one of its least reproducible elements – namely, it utilization of vibrant red-orange hues in the upper center of the composition.  In particular, this pigment is used for the central mattress upon which the Virgin mother reclines; beneath her, for Salome’s garment, in both representations of the figure; above the second of these depictions, for one of the magi’s garments; and finally, for a second representation of that garment in a space above the first.  Corporately, then, this usage of the aforesaid red-orange hue directs the spectators attention throughout the upper left-center portions of the panel, giving the viewer both a visual point of entry into this exceedingly complex nativity, and a narrative one as well – namely in the birth of Christ. 

Figure 4.  Masaccio.  The Tribute Money.  c. 1427.
For a point of formal comparison in post-Medieval world, one might briefly consider Masaccio’s Tribute Money fresco in the Brancacci Chapel (fig. 4).  Here, in this series of narrative scenes, a similarly arresting orange is used to emphasize a figure in front of Christ, who turns his back to the spectator, and another beside him to his right (thereby surrounding the primary subject of this figure grouping).  Being drawn to the first, the viewer then follows the direction of his gesture which leads our gaze toward Christ, in a more muted pink-red, who in turn points to Peter, as the latter enacts the second portion of the narrative on the far left edge of the fresco.  Thus, Masaccio similarly compels his spectator to begin his narrative in a specific spot via the usage of a very similar hue.  From this starting point the spatial dynamics of the narrative take over with the viewer following the gestures and then the strong diagonals of the mountainous backdrop to visually recount the three-part narrative in three scenes organized center, left and then right: Christ gives the command, Peter finds the money in a fish’s mouth, and finally he pays the official.   
That the spectator is to start in this center figural grouping, to return to the Scenes of the Nativity, follows from the sequentially primary sequences that it depicts – just as the strong orange in Masaccio’s fresco leads the spectator to the first of the three scenes in the middle of the composition.  Similarly, if axiomatically it can be said of Byzantine icons that the center is the most significant area of the painting, as is certainly true of Byzantine portraits and each of the nativities discussed until now, then the use of such an attention-grabbing pigment in this region of the painting should similarly tip the spectator as to the primacy of this center figural arrangement.  That this field further simulates the iconography discussed thus far likewise suggests another aspect of its importance to the composition as a whole: namely, that it identifies this nativity with the iconographic tradition of nativity scenes in general, and therefore as a feast-day nativity scene.
            Still, what distinguishes this 11th century Scenes of the Nativity from other nativity panels in the sequence discussed is less its similarity to other nativities than it is difference, and particularly, its formal solutions to the narrative problems inherent in all nativity feast panels – that is, to instantiate events which occurred over a span of more than two years, within the discrete space of a feast panel.  Here, the artist has invented a series of overlapping rolling hillsides within which the narrative occurs.  The scenes thusly depicted each comprise their own historical moments, which on occasion maintain causal relationships with the other events conveyed in their immediate proximity.  That is, the two scenes of the midwives listed above, for instance, are represented on an unbroken diagonal with each other, while the two articulations of the magi scenes are connected vertically.  Between neither of the pairings are there any other scenes or figures represented. 
            Of course, that this Scenes of the Nativity has dispersed the action into a number of causally-linked spaces also impacts the physical laws on display in the panel.  Thus, rather than representing the figures only once, as is the case with the majority of feast scenes, the characters appear as often as the narrative determines.  As such, Mary is present not only on her mattress, but also holding the infant Christ in the upper left as the magi present their gifts, as well as on the back of the donkey as she and her family travel to Egypt.  Likewise, Christ also appears in these three scenes, as well as with the midwives who bathe him.  Therefore, the multiple representations of Christ on the panel are transformed from the anomalous tradition detailed above, into a series of internally-consist spaces that match the physical laws maintained elsewhere in the work.  In other words, there is no “exception” in this Scenes of the Nativity, as a single set of rules governs the entire work.  Indeed, the traditional narrative iconography, rather than being imposed onto a series of scenes that operate according to a different logic (as is the case with the epistyles listed above), is assimilated instead into a panel that makes normative its very anomalies: that is, its incongruous utilization of replication.  Here, one might even say that the fundamental problem of most nativity feast scenes – the demands of divergent times and spaces – is used to the advantage of the work.  A logic is built out of earlier examples of incoherence.
            Not that this is the only occasion for formal invention in this 11th century panel.  A second key location for both the problems of representation and their solutions is in its conveyance of divinity through elements of its formal composition.  Returning to the upper magi depiction, here an angel hovers above the setting along a thick black boundary that delineates the heavenly above from the corporeal below.  Narratively, the angel’s function presumably is to warn the magi to return by another path, which they will on the other side of the central figure grouping (thereby expressing this plot point by purely spatial means).  Yet the artist does not simply allow for an expressly narrative communication of this information, but instead makes a theological argument via his location of the figure on the aforesaid boundary.  That is, a permeable boundary between heaven and earth is created in order to articulate the divine character of this being.  Indeed, this barrier is breached for a second time by a separate angel who visits the shepherd in the fields, granting further credence to an interpretation of this formal element’s theological function.
            At this point, one might argue that the presence of a third angel visiting Joseph below might then appear to be an exception to the schema indicated above.  However, that this angel is situated within a brown color field that likewise includes the angel visiting the shepherd and the divine Christ child – the only other express representations of divinity on the panel; the bathing Christ, as is argued above, is a visualization of his humanity – confirms that the artist of the work is interested in more than simply detailing the exigencies of the nativity plot; instead, the artist has manifested a will to parse the theological dimensions of the well-known story.  In other words, the divine nature of beings that pass into this world finds expression both in direct visual analogy – the black boundary between the two realms – and also in their pictorial association within a single color field.  In this way, the beam of light that connects Christ to the heavens seems (at least to the modern spectator) slightly less aberrant as it is paired with a second form – the brown color field – whose purpose is a similar imputation of divinity.
            Speaking of this color field, in the lower left portion of this swath, beside the only angel not located along the black boundary, Joseph reclines in the same position that he maintains throughout the Byzantine nativity sequence being discussed.  (While this particular image can be ambiguous in certain representations of the nativity narrative, here an inscription reads: ‘Joseph, son of David, fear not to take Maria as your wife.’)  In this case, however, the curved contour of Joseph’s back is echoed by the topography next to which he sits, and which delineates him from the midwives to his right.  As such, the artist’s manipulation of this space serves the narrative that it supports in that provide separate fields for discrete action, even as the artist has attempted to establish a visual harmony between his figural and topographic forms.  For instance, the same contour that echoes Joseph’s back as he reclines (perhaps even on this curved hillside) also establishes a visual rhyme with Salome as she bends over in the adjacent scene.  Likewise, the hillside that crops the midwives as they climb toward the plateau, where they will wash the infant Christ, serves as the mountain that will also hide Elizabeth and John from Herod’s soldier.  Thus, there is a double function to the topography as it both distinguishes separate scenes and also confers the physical space within which the narrative is occurring, beyond its aesthetic role in harmonizing the figures in space. 
            Moreover, the artist of the icon has demonstrated an acumen for naturalism that is not at first obvious in this rather flat (in perspectival terms) panel.  Indeed, it would be left to later artists to establish atmospheric and one-point perspective in nativity icons.[xxxiii]  However, in this system of overlapping hillsides, the artist is careful to represent tangible floors upon which the action is set, be it the flat ground upon which the magi present their gifts to the Virgin and child, or the gentle slope of the ground over which the Theotokos travels to Egypt.  In either case, the artist utilizes a modeling in light and shadow that imputes a presence to the spaces where the action is occurring.  Though it is more that they suggest a spatial world than it is rendered in its totality, the fact that these interlocking scenes are spatialized in this fashion confirms the works’ attempt to bring a certain facsimile of naturalism to an iconography that often eschews this very quality. 
In fact, one can see a similar attempt to represent figural volume as another manifestation of the artist’s naturalistic impulse.  To this end, the artist again models his surfaces in light and shadow to convey a sense of volume in the figures: a good example of this technique can be found on Joseph’s leg as he leads his family to Egypt.  Here, a bright light reflects off the front of Joseph’s leg, which is likewise shaped by the shadow on either side of this surface (whether it is the back of his leg or his inner thigh).  Moreover, the folds of the drapery reaffirm the weight of the figure as they cascade over its surface, thereby also demonstrating the artist’s keen interest in representing textiles much as they would appear in nature.

So what then is to be made of the exceptional detail observed in the artist’s rendering of drapery, and more to the point how does it relate to the aesthetic program otherwise instantiated in Scenes of the Nativity?  First, the use of the word “naturalistic” to connote a certain life-likeness in these textiles is by no means arbitrary.  In fact, it is this same impulse that animates the works’ engagement to the central problematic of the nativity feast scene: that is, to its solution to the iconographic problem of figural replication.  In this piece, the laws that govern traditional forms are implemented across the entire scene, producing a narrative which is not merely suspended in a single time, but rather accumulates a series of moments – without any arresting exceptions.  In other words, Scenes of the Nativity represents one of the fullest attempts in Byzantium to depict the fourth dimension, time, which of course is the basis for all narrative depiction.  Thus, to use Alois Riegl’s terminology apropos of Dutch portraiture, the artist has concerned himself with producing an “internal coherence,” at least with regard to the individual narrative scenes.[xxxiv]  That is, each figures a genuine moment in time.
However, in producing the effects listed above, the artist has sacrificed the coherence of the space as subject to a single fragment of time.  Not that there is any such restriction to naturalistic settings in Byzantine art.  After all, the epistyles considered formerly articulate their narratives in classical settings often delimited by large columns.  It is though the spaces of these settings are prosceniums.  This we could also say of Scenes of the Nativity, so long as we make the following addendum: that the settings here are far sparer.  To fully conceptualize space in this work, it is necessary to consider each representation as spatially unrelated to the others.  Imagine for instance the Theotokos arriving in Egypt with the remaining panel depictions occluded.  Perhaps the hill behind them the remains, or better yet, disappears as the floor beneath the family extends to the horizon.  Either way, the topography becomes incidental, a compositional tool rather than the precise setting for the events.  To use the terminology of cinema, this is a work of montage: the individual scenes are their own discrete units, connected by the spatial organization of the topography.  Rather than being linked together in a horizontal strip – as with both cinema and the epistyles considered heretofore – these moments in time adhere to the flat surface of the panel.
All of this is to say that Scenes of the Nativity reaffirms Byzantine conventions of spatial un-reality, though in a new way.  Thus, it is should not be a critical over-extension to say of the work that it portends an increased naturalism, provided that space is never wholly naturalistic in Byzantine art.  It smuggles these qualities in its modeling and its maintenance of physical laws – two places where this quality can emerge in Byzantine art – while upholding the theatrical nature of space in Byzantine narrative art.

Figure 5.  Giotto.  Nativity.  c. 1304-6.
Postscript – Giotto’s Arena Chapel Nativity
If Scenes of the Nativity’s solution to the problematic nature of nativity feast scenes was to universalize the anomalous, and thereby to make it the code itself, Giotto’s answer can be seen as the opposite course: to bring everything into the unity of a single figure in space.  However, what makes Giotto’s particular solution more instructive than other similar post-Byzantine works is his retention of the breadth of nativity iconography.  In his fresco at the Arena Chapel in Padua (fig. 5), Giotto keeps Mary and the infant, the ox manger, the ox and ass, the presence of the midwife, sheep, a shepherd and the heavenly hosts above – that is all the irreducible elements of the iconography – while creating a new dynamic unifying the figural grouping.  In the case of this work, Giotto has depicted Mary handing Christ to the Midwife over the manger, thereby uniting these two traditionally discrete scenes.  To put it another way, Giotto has submitted each of his figures to a single moment in time.  Indeed, the Arena chapel painting still showcases events with different temporal geneses: namely, Joseph in sleep, the angels announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds, etc., but with the corrective that the scene could be instantly understood as a coherent space in time.  As with Scenes of the Nativity, there is no exception in Giotto’s cycle, though again, Giotto accomplishes this by bringing the nativity iconography into correspondence with the other feast scene’s reliance upon spatiotemporal unity, whereas the earlier panel uses the “exception” to produce a new logic.

[i] George Kubler defines the “form-class” in the following terms: “The entity composed by the problem and its solutions constitutes a form-class.”  Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962): 33.
[ii] Robert S. Nelson and Kristen M. Collins, eds., Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006): 264-5, fig. 55.
[iii] Ibid., 265.
[iv] Ibid., 170-3, fig. 20.
[v] Konstantinos A. Manafis, ed., Sinai: Treasures from the Monastery of Saint Catherine (Athens: Ekdotike Athenon, 1990): 147, fig. 16.
[vi] Iconography of Joseph
[vii] Nelson and Collins, 162-3, fig. 18.
[viii] Manafis, 156-7, fig. 25.
[ix] Ibid., 194, fig. 68.
[x] Helen C. Evans and William D. Wixom, eds., The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843-1261 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997): fig. 91.
[xi] Gospel of Matthew 1:18-2:18 and Gospel of Luke 2:1-24.
[xii] The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (http://www.gnosis.org/library/psudomat.htm): Chapter 13.
[xiii] Ibid.
[xiv] Ibid.
[xvi] In this passage, the author states: “But her hand was withered and she groaned bitterly.  Ibid., 14:20.  
[xvii] Pseudo-Matthew, chapter. 14.
[xviii] Protevangelion, 12:13.
[xix] Ibid., 13:8.
[xx] Pseudo-Matthew, chapter. 16.
[xxi] Robert Deshman, “Servants of the Mother of God in Byzantine and Medieval Art,” in Word & Image 5 (1989): 33.
[xxii] Ibid., 33-4, fig. 1.
[xxiii] Manafis, 140, fig. 6.
[xxiv] Deshman, 33, 36; fig. 3.
[xxv] Ibid., 36.
[xxvi] Ibid., 33.
[xxvii] “The Nativity with various associated scenes. This is a portable encaustic icon of religious folk art dating to the 7th century.”  (http://touregypt.net/featurestories/catherines2-7.htm)
[xxviii] Protevangelion.
[xxix] Manafis, 317.
[xxx] Nelson and Collins, 154-5.
[xxxi] Protevangelion 16:6.
[xxxii] Matthew 2:18.  This depiction, it is worth noting, visualizes allegory.
[xxxiii] Examples of increased perspectival depth – depicting the space in planes stretching from the bottom foreground to the top background – become common from the 14th century onward.  Kurt Weitzmann discusses the ascendancy of such a style in The Icon (p. 170-3).  Among other pieces, he mentions a Nativity of the Christ, detailed on page 172.  Additional instances beyond his immediate purview include a Sinai Hexaptych with the Dodekaorton (14th c.; Manafis, p. 198-9, fig. 72); The Nativity (Constantinople artist, 15th c.; in Anastasia Drandaki, Greek Icons: 14th-18th century, the Rena Andreadis Collection, p. 24, fig. 4); and Icon with the Mother of God of Vladimir (in Sinai Byzantium Russia: Orthodox Art from the Sixth to the Twentieth Century, fig. R63).
[xxxiv] Alois Riegl, The Group Portraiture of Holland (Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1999): 220-1.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ten Best Films of 2010

In an act of impetuousness, I have submitted my annotated list of the "ten best films of 2010" on sister site Ten Best Films.  In my defense, I would point to the improbability of seeing anything better than these ten during this December Oscar season, though a future viewing of Mike Leigh's Another Year may just confirm my prematurity.  (At year's end I do promise a more thorough stock-taking of 2010 on this site, which will account for the best of the last two-and-a-half weeks; I hope there is much to report.)  Regardless, these are ten films that matter, which should be seen by those who really care about the medium. Whether or not any are displaced ultimately is beside the point.

As for the films themselves, close readers of this site might be able to guess most if not all of my selections, as I have written about each over the course of the past few months.  In order of preference, my choices for the "ten best films of 2010":

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichaptpong Weerasethakul)
Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raoul Ruiz)
Aurora (Cristi Puiu)
Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean)
The Social Network (David Fincher)
Ha Ha Ha (Hong Sang-soo)
Le quattro volte (Michelangelo Frammartino)
Unstoppable (Tony Scott)
The Strange Case of Angélica (Manoel de Oliveira)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

This Week in New Haven: "Films from the Darkest Hour: Europe, 1942-1943"

This week in New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University will be presenting its seventh annual Film Studies conference and film festival dedicated to the work of a single year or two in European cinema.  This year's event, devoted to the cinema of 1942 and 1943, brings together nine features, four shorts and a collection of newsreels from eight European nations, with introductions and panel discussions featuring faculty members and advanced PhD candidates from Yale, Bard, University of Chicago, Columbia, NYU and SUNY-Albany.  All Whitney Humanities Center screenings and panel discussions are free and open to the public.  

Below is a complete list of the films, formats, times and dates, along with my program notes for the screenings.  "Films from the Darkest Hour" begins Thursday, December 2, with the screening of a subtitled, archival 35mm print of Manoel de Oliveira's first feature Aniki-Bóbó.  For more information, including a complete list of the speakers, please visit the Yale European Studies Council home page.

Aniki-Bóbó (Manoel de Oliveira, 1942, Portugal, 71 minutes, 35mm with English subtitles)
Screening: 7:00 PM, Thursday, December 2, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira’s extraordinary first feature Aniki-Bóbó, following a Soviet-inspired, silent documentary short made eleven years earlier, Douro, Faina Fluvial (1931), takes its name from an “eeny, meeny, miny, moe”-style nursery rhyme, frequently repeated by the film’s mostly child actors. Oliveira’s children’s film centers on the experiences of a group of primary school-age boys as they suffer their disciplinarian schoolmaster, navigate pre-pubescent romance and commit more and less routine youthful transgressions – with the specter of the avowedly pro-Roman Catholic Salazar dictatorship fleetingly apparent in the slogan on a book bag (“remember the golden rule”) and in the persistent police presence on the centuries-old Oporto streets. Prefiguring his future directorial signature, Oliveira guides his young leads to remarkably “theatrical” performances, as Gilbert Adair has noted, in clear contradistinction to the more naturalistic acting styles that would emerge shortly in the neorealist movement. Oliveira’s feature-length debut, however, would prove much closer to the spirit of neorealism in its reliance on location shooting: the Douro’s banks in the filmmaker’s hometown once again provides the setting, as they did in Douro, Faina Fluvial, and as they would in many of the director’s subsequent works, including his most recent feature, 2010 Cannes festival-favorite, The Strange Case of Angélica. It remains to be said that Oliveira, at age one hundred-one at the time of this writing, persists in being the last active filmmaker of the silent era.

Once at Night / Odnazhdy noch’yu (Grigori Kozintsev, 1942, USSR, 22 minutes, DVD with no English subtitles)
Screening: 10:30 AM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Raisa Sidenova's program notes are available here.

Ukraine in Flames / Battle for Our Soviet Ukraine / Bitva za nashu Sovetskuyu Ukrainu (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Yuliya Solntseva and Yakov Avdeenko, 1943, USSR, 80 minutes, DVD with English Subtitles)
Screening: 10:30 AM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Raisa Sidenova's program notes are available here.

World War II Newsreels (Presented on DVD with no English subtitles) 
Screening: 2:00 PM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Le Corbeau (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1943, France, 91 minutes, 35mm with English subtitles)
Screening: 3:15 PM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Produced during the Nazi occupation by Continental-Films, a company created and financed by Joseph Goebbels’s Ministry of Propaganda, Le Corbeau took as its subject a real-life incident that incurred in Tulle, France more than twenty years earlier: at that time, according to a 1922 New York Times report, a series of “poison-pen” letters were mailed that ultimately cost the life of a police official, the sanity of at least two others, and “the marital happiness of dozens of families.” In Clouzot’s update, the letters encircle the somewhat mysterious Dr. Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay), accusing the physician of providing abortions and of conducting affairs with a pair of attractive young townswomen, who likewise receive anonymous messages from “Le Corbeau” or “the Raven.” With the villagers of the fictional St. Robin accordingly beset by paranoid speculation, Clouzot expertly invites parallel suspicion in his viewer, introducing pieces of circumstantial evidence to implicate not only Dr. Germain’s proposed lovers, but especially the underage, if treacherous Rolande. In the words of one of Rémy’s colleagues “since this tempest of hate and calumny hit our town all moral values have been corrupted.” Le Corbeau provides just such a portrait of Provincial France, leading to the director’s censure immediately following the Liberation. Today, however, Le Corbeau is equally seen through the prism of anti-Nazi resistance, most recently garnering an affirmative quotation in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Day of Wrath / Vredens dag (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1943, Denmark, 97 minutes, 35mm with English subtitles)
Screening: 7:00 PM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Born the illegitimate son of a maid and Swedish factory-owner in 1889, Carl Theodor Dreyer is widely considered today to rank among the greatest of all film artists, despite a relatively modest fourteen features in forty-five years. Of course, the works themselves display no similar slightness, with such confirmed classics as The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Ordet (1955) numbering among the director’s unusually high proportion of masterpieces. Day of Wrath is certainly no exception with Dreyer providing an analogy to the Nazi persecution of the Jewish population (at least in the view of many Danish critics, according to film historian Paolo Cherchi Usai) through his treatment of religious intolerance in seventeenth-century Protestant Denmark. On a formal level, Dreyer builds causal ambiguity into his occult-focused narrative, while also constructing spaces wherein strong off-camera glances facilitate his viewers’ awareness of an invisible, off-screen field. From the outside looking into Dreyer’s visuals, the director extracts a mood of surveillance, again apropos of the period’s political situation, as well as a surfeit of suspense, though the diegetic source of the look, be it Rev. Absalon Pederssøn (Thorkild Roose), his mother, the townsmen or perhaps even a judgmental, wrathful God, remains uncertain. Indeterminacy likewise finds its way into the image in the expressions, or rather in the eyes of Absalom’s much younger wife Anne (Lisbeth Movin), with their piercing presence providing the film with its carnal core. Day of Wrath ultimately makes a strong case for being the very best of 1942-1943.

Torment / Hets (Alf Sjöberg, 1944, Sweden, 101 minutes)
Screening: 9:00 PM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven 

Jeremi Szaniawski's program notes are available here.

The Next of Kin (Thorold Dickinson, 1942, United Kingdom, 92 minutes, 35mm)
Screening: 9:00 AM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Commissioned by the British War Office as a training film for the benefit of counter-espionage efforts in the armed forces, Thorold Dickinson’s The Next of Kin dramatizes the wartime admonishment that “careless talk costs lives,” charting a series of small disclosures, both verbal and visual, that ultimately forge a causal chain leading to the film’s “very costly” concluding battle – and thus to the notification of the “next of kin.” Lacking both the “conventional big scene” and the “star performer,” Dickinson’s narrative doggedly pursues its central security conceit through a shifting series of social interactions – many of which prove romantic in nature – with each offering, in the words of the director, a game of “what is wrong with this picture.” The Next of Kin likewise breaks with convention, or rather, again in the view of Dickinson, anticipates a new set of postwar norms, both in the United States and Italy, through its procurement of a fact-based approach that would prove authentic enough to lead Winston Churchill to temporarily withdraw the picture ahead of the Allied raid on St. Nazaire.

Listen to Britain (Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister, 1942, United Kingdom, 20 minutes, 35mm)
Screening: 10:45 AM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Produced by the Crown Film Unit, Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister’s Listen to Britain discloses the film’s advocated method of spectatorship in its title, with an image track that frequently provides visual accompaniment to the documentary short’s aural content. Constructed of a series of sound motifs that emerge, disappear, and periodically reemerge, Jennings’s self-described “picture about music” scores a portrait of home front Britain, with the BBC Overseas Service and the chiming of Big Ben among the many recognizable symbols. Indeed, Jennings and McAllister articulate their nation’s specific identity through their soundtrack, with the film’s human subjects registering more often a familiar anonymity, a mirror for the wartime viewer. Then again, Listen to Britain does offer pivotal on-screen exceptions, with a uniquely indexical impact coming from the on-camera appearances of Flanagan and Allen crooning their war-era hit, “Round the Back of the Arches,” Dame Myra Hess performing one of her 1,700 lunch time concerts, and the future Queen Mother seated in Hess’s National Gallery audience. The image track here becomes as cardinal as the score, as it will remain with the pianist’s Mozart spreading out into the leafy capital, and with “Rue Britannia” juxtaposed over a luminous coal furnace and a windswept wheat field. Listen to Britain remains one of the uncontested masterpieces of the documentary mode, the short form and of the British cinema.

The Silent Village (Humphrey Jennings, 1943, United Kingdom, 38 minutes, 35mm)
Screening: 10:45 AM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

On June 10, 1942, under the orders of Adolf Hitler, the entire adult male population of Lidice, Czechoslovakia was murdered, with its remaining women and children sent to concentration camps as retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, deputy Reichsprotektor of the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. German and Czech radio publicized the event, claiming in addition that “the buildings of the locality have been leveled and the name of the community has been obliterated.” The Silent Village accordingly counteracts this attempted obliteration, superimposing the fate of Lidice onto the rural Welsh community of Cwmgiedd, where the events of 1942 are reenacted by the village’s population, who play themselves rather than the fallen and imprisoned former residents of Lidice. In this way, Jennings’s short film not only memorializes the victims of the Lidice massacre and the decimated village, but also reminds its British viewers of the stakes of the current war, in addition to providing a troubling counterfactual scenario of life in Britain had Germany been successful in their 1940 invasion. At the same time, there remains “a civilised reticence about Jennings’ treatment,” in the estimation of British critic Dave Berry. “Sometimes the approach seems distant and the film occasionally has a desiccated feel,” he continues, “but overall Jennings instinctively finds the right tone.”

Romance in a Minor Key / Romanze in Moll (Helmut Käutner, 1943, Germany, 98 minutes, 16mm with English subtitles)
Screening: 1:45 PM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Inspired by the Guy de Maupassant short story “Les Bijoux,” Helmut Käutner’s Romance in a Minor Key withdraws to late nineteenth-century Paris, a city under German occupation since June 1940, for its tragic retelling of Madeleine (Marianne Hoppe) and Michael’s (Ferdinand Marian) extra-marital love affair. Käutner’s film opens among the city’s chimney-tops, his camera craning as it moves toward Madeleine’s bedchamber. Pushing into the room, the female lead lies motionless, a pearl necklace around her neck and a vial of poison at her bedside, as her husband (Paul Dahlke) arrives home following a late night out. Unfolding thereafter through a set of flashbacks, Käutner’s narrative stages the married woman and composer’s initially and ultimately “minor-key” romance, with major-key moments emerging in between, beginning with Käutner’s elegant ellipsis linking Madeleine’s insistence that she will never be Michael’s mistress to her symbolically rich performance of her lover’s composition with his gift strung across her declitae. This latter object, the prompt for Dahlke’s discovery of his wife’s indiscretion, calls to mind German-Jewish-born auteur and fellow Maupassant screen-adapter Max Ophüls’s masterpiece Madame de… (1953), as does the crane-facilitated fluidity of Käutner’s mise-en-scѐne.

Desiderio (Roberto Rossellini and Marcello Pagliero, 1943-1946, Italy, 79 minutes, 35mm with printed subtitles provided at the screening)
Screening: 4:00 PM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Though it was begun in partnership with Ossessione screenwriter Giuseppe De Santis – much to the consternation of Luchino Visconti, who according to De Santis, “wouldn’t speak to me for some time and did everything to hinder the collaboration” – and though the film’s second part, if not significantly more, would be shot by Marcello Pagliero in 1945, Desiderio nonetheless emerges, in the words of Rossellini biographer Tag Gallagher, as “the most seminal of his early pictures.” Starring Elli Parvo as runaway cum prostitute Paola, “the first full-fleshed character in Rossellini,” Desiderio depicts its heroine’s chaste romance with horticulturist Giovanni (Carlo Ninchi), and her consequent attempt at shielding her profession from her new lover. This leads Paola to return to her rural home, where she is received coldly by her father and lusted after by her sister’s husband Nando (Ossessione’s male lead Massimo Girotti). Indeed, even in this setting, Paola remains unable to escape the unwelcome, coercive attention of men, compelling an act of desperation that will conclude the film as it had began, with an act of suicide. In introducing this particular motif, which Rossellini added in his rewrite, Desiderio significantly prefigures Germany Year Zero (1948) and Europa ’51 (1952). Together likewise with the director’s La paura (1954), these later works accordingly form a sub-corpus of despair for which Desiderio provides a clear template.

Gente del Po / People of the River Po (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1943-1947, 10 minutes, Blu-Ray with English subtitles)
Screening: 8:00 PM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Following a short stint as a critic at the publication Cinema in Rome, and work as an assistant for Marcel Carné (on Les Visiteurs du soir, 1942) and as a screenwriter for Roberto Rossellini (on A Pilot Returns, 1942), Michelangelo Antonioni began shooting his first documentary in 1943, based on an article he published in 1939, “Concerning a Film on the River Po.” With the Allied liberation of Southern Italy in mid-1943, Antonioni was forced to suspend shooting. After concluding production four years later, Antonioni lost seventy percent of his footage in a development accident. Even so, the truncating finished product displays interest for its disclosure of information “on purely visual terms,” according to Antonioni scholar Peter Brunette, and as the fount of the director’s consequent career, in the opinion of the director himself.

Ossessione (Luchino Visconti, 1943, Italy, 135 minutes, 35mm with English subtitles)
Screening: 8:00 PM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

The Milanese-born son of an aristocratic father and an extremely wealthy mother, Luchino Visconti began his work in cinema as a third assistant to French master Jean Renoir, after an introduction to the filmmaker by Coco Chanel. Renoir would subsequently furnish Visconti with the script for his first feature Ossessione, based on James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), with shooting conducted on location in Emilia-Romagna (the Po Valley) and Marche in 1942. The extraordinary resulting feature has frequently been credited as “the first neorealist movie,” due to its “hardscrabble look and focus on the have-nots.” However, as critic Philip Lopate has pointed out, “to the degree that Italian neorealism was a specific response to a historical moment (the end of the war and its aftermath), it would be more accurate to say Ossessione was pre-neorealist,” or as Millicent Marcus has described it, a “harbinger” of the movement. In fact, Ossessione has as much in common with the French cinema of the late 1930s as it does the Italian cinema after 1945, displaying the same planar organization of space as Renoir’s supreme masterpiece, La Rѐgle du jeu (1939), as well as the “sensual fatalism” of the earlier period’s “poetic realism” (again to quote Lopate). In this respect, Ossessione proves pivotal in the migration of Europe’s broader realist tradition from France to Italy, and for the introduction of a pervasive eroticism into the nation’s cinema that would find its most famous expression in co-screenwriter Giuseppe de Santis’s postwar Bitter Rice (1949).

Select Bibliography
Andrew, Geoff, ed. Film: The Critics’ Choice (2001).
Armes, Roy. French Cinema (1985).
Brunette, Peter. The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni (1998).
Gallagher, Tag. The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini: His Life and Films (1998).
Horne, Philip and Peter Swaab, eds. Thorold Dickinson: A World of Film (2008).
Jackson, Kevin, ed. The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader (1993).
Marcus, Millicent. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism (1986).
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, ed. The Oxford History of World Cinema (1996).