BEAUTY ON THE GUARDIAN
Why bringing the world’s most sensual paintings to life kills them
What does it take to get a 21st-century audience excited about oil paintings? Well, they are all a bit … still, aren’t they? Walking through an art museum, you pass so many landscapes and portraits that sit there in unmoving passivity.
But what if they moved? Rino Stefano Tagliafierro‘s film Beauty begins with slides of 19th-century landscape paintings. Then a couple of birds fly over a painted lake. Uh-huh. From there, we are taken on a rollercoaster ride through pre-20th century European art, fromBouguereau‘s waxy nudes – animated so that they actually cavort – toCaspar David Friedrich’s desolate winter vision of a ruined abbeywhose sun, in this version, eventually sets.
Since the theme is beauty, we see some of the most sensual paintings in the world start to move uncannily. Titian’s Venus of Urbino gracefully turns her head. Correggio’s Jupiter, disguised as a blue cloud, moves his misty paw up and down on Io’s pale back.
Meanwhile, Caravaggio’s Judith – painted in a moment of eerie stillness in the act of beheading Holofernes – finishes the job and severs the head.
It’s not the first time animators have taken on art, but usually it has been done for laughs. Terry Gilliam’s cartoons for Monty Python madesurreal, hilarious use of the classics – the foot that comes down in the Monty Python title sequence is from a Bronzino painting in the National Gallery.
What’s freaky about this film is that, unlike earlier such appropriations of fine art, it is not a joke – it is a meditation on beauty with not a belly laugh in sight. Or at least not an intentional one.
It makes for a strange and striking hymn to culture. All art worth its salt begs to be remade and reinterpreted – from Shakespeare to the Three Musketeers. Filmmakers have restaged Caravaggio’s paintings with actors playing his models. Why not animate them and see what happens when Judith finishes her bloody work?
It’s only putting on screen what our imaginations do when we look at powerful works of art. We are all film directors or novelists in our heads, imagining worlds inside the paintings, telling ourselves the stories incited by the pictures. Beauty makes those imaginative encounters luridly visible.
Yet in the end, the stillness of paintings is not a lack or a failure – it is not something we have to digitally put right. The power of Caravaggio lies in his creation of moments of intense drama that are suspended forever – the dynamism and danger is all the greater for being arrested in a fraction of time.
It is entertaining to see Judith actually chop off Holofernes’s head, but it misses the whole point of Caravaggio, who makes us contemplate one moment of moral choice for all eternity. What a hard thing it is to kill a man, you think in front of the painting. Oh, it’s quite easy, you think while watching the animated version.