The Museo Reina Sofía devotes a month of its audiovisual programme to the history of film on art, organising a series that pivots on a set of formal lines stretching back to the 1920s. Although filming the arts goes back a long way, it would start to take shape in its own space from the aforementioned decade onwards, primarily in France, Belgium and Italy, with its outgrowth and debates still running today.
The end of the Second World War brought with it the consolidation of a specific free-standing genre, and its internal debates, controversies and the offshoots of different conflicting formal proposals — and a terrain par excellence that is non-fiction. In the mid-1940s, UNESCO believed film on art could be a key instrument for the cultural and political reconstruction of a decimated Europe, in a period which witnessed the proliferation of international encounters between artists, film-makers, composers, art historians and writers. Together these figures contemplated, in the context of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, what filming the arts could mean and which specific characteristics of shooting, editing and script-writing a film of this kind must possess. The implications of the decisions that followed this theoretical and practical ebullience have reached the present day via films that either develop or question those pioneering experiments, flowing out into essays, web-docs and installations. To survey this century-old line of experimentation in its different formal and conceptual options is the objective of this series.
With a history that remains largely obscure, and limited in its widespread perception to TV documentaries and a few isolated and decontextualised examples — Le Mystère Picasso Henri-Georges Clouzot (1956) being one — film about art is, nevertheless, one of the most fertile creative periods in the history of cinema. With good reason, it has been undertaken by some of the twentieth-century’s pre-eminent film-makers, such as Robert Flaherty, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Michelangelo Antonioni and Agnès Varda, and supported vehemently by some of the most relevant art and film theorists since the 1930s, for instance Pierre Francastel, Siegfried Kracauer and André Bazin. The aesthetic and political importance of film on art, its role in the reinvention of the documentary genre, on one side, and the cultural reconstruction of Europe opposite fascism and in the aftermath of the Second World War, on the other, was quickly foregrounded by figures such as Italian art historian and critic Giulio Carlo Argan, who in 1948 declared:
If the purpose of the art critic is to understand an artwork of the past with the appreciation of a modern man, then the films on art are, in fact, art criticism; and if, as I believe, the art critic has a social purpose, then it can certainly be said that, from a social point of view, films on art are the most alive and effective system of criticism.
In essence, it is an autonomous creative field which stands alone both from films made by artists and purely experimental works with a focus on essays of perception and concerns related to light and colour. It also possesses its own critical literary tradition, which is internationally demarcated in being dubbed film sur l'art, or film on art: films created by film-makers with a background in documentary or fiction who explore how to use the expressive tools of the medium to translate the visual arts into film. They share a clear idea of conceiving films that are not mere reproductions of the source films, but, rather, reveal their essence through another artistic medium. As critic and theorist André Bazin defined it: “A new aesthetic being, born from the conjunction of painting and film”.
Therefore, this programme plots out the cartography of different trends in the field across the breadth of a century, eschewing more mainstream and less revealing examples from fiction film and underscoring the relentless experimentation produced from non-fiction. Each session will start from one of these pioneering experiments to then show a series of films that modify, from a range of forms, this initial idea, thereby looking to shed light on the degree of complexity in each genre, even current ones, which are able to broaden the meanings of art from the film medium.