Art in Motion...

So.  If you thought I was done talking about Downton Abbey, you were incorrect. Of course I found another twist on the appeal of "period dramas" for me. I know little to nothing about cinematography, except I know what looks pretty and is effective visual storytelling. But that's about it. I am beginning to learn that how a movie is shot adds to the narrative and sometimes the emotional aspect of the plot. Cinematography lets the viewer into how characters think and feel, as well as reveal the director's vision.

While watching the mini series, the cinematography, setting, and blocking also struck a chord with my art history junkie self...

This moment taken from the show, reminds me tremendously of a painting I have studied numerous times by the British painter, Thomas Gainsborough. Gainsborough started as a landscape artist, but evolved to include human elements. Gainsborough is mostly known for his portraiture, and was recognized for being a lead painter of the Grand Manner of Portraiture, which elevated the sitter by demonstrating elegance and the all important quality of refinement.

Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs. Andrews, 1748-49
Although the subject matter is not the same, there is a kind of reminiscence of composition and emphasis. Both images are not only about the human sitters and subjects of the frame, but also the natural context that they inhabit. Much of the space is filled by a natural background, creating an atmosphere of the country, and what the land has to offer, especially in the Gainsborough painting. This is an early double portrait of Gainsborough, where the technique and styling is still developing into what art historians remember him by.

Gainsborough, Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1787
This later portrait executed by Gainsborough, speaks to his more mature style, emulating Watteau's Rococo brush strokes in the landscape background breathing sweetness and refinement into the subject. It is apparent that the artist was looking to match the natural beauty of the unblemished landscape, with that of the lady sitting. I think his more mature style is more relevant to the still taken from Downton Abbey. The foreground takes more precedence than the nature in the background that becomes hazy through the deliberateness of the camera. Though the foliage of the background plays up the sitter's beauty and forces her to stand out.

 This still from the mini series evokes a different kind of genre in the realm of painting. Rather than a portrait, bringing the sitter or sitters into the foreground of importance, this image is focused on the nature and composition, making it fall under the category of landscape. The human subjects are small, dwarfed by the natural elements of the landscape. Also the hardly coincidental framing created by the tree and the horizontal backdrop echoes trends prominent in landscape painting. This kind of framing and the shrinking of human presence, is reminiscent of the landscape masters of  the 17th century, Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin

Lorrain, A Sunset or Landscape with Argos Guarding Io
This landscape by Claude Lorrain, does in fact depict people, mostly in efforts to elevate the image from the lowly landscape genre into a higher level of painting, such as history or genre. During the 17th century and even before then, paintings were categorized, each category were given a level of importance or deemed to require a certain level of skill. Still life sunk to the bottom just under landscape, while genre (everyday life scenes) and history paintings (those depicting myth or stories from the Bible) were at the top, requiring more knowledge and skill to execute. The landscape though, becomes the focus, the highlight of the artist's skill and compositional technique. The way the trees and the ruins creep up the edges of the canvas, creating a kind of frame for the central action, is mimicked in the still from Downton Abbey.

The last example of a still moment from the tv show, brings to mind a more modern era of art for me, Impressionism and its successor Post Impressionism. These movements in art, are even closer contemporaries of the time portrayed in the movie, starting in the 1870s with Impressionism. This kind of scene of every day life, depicting moments of the modern life, echoes the goal of the impressionist artists, living against the rules of the Salon in Paris. This still recreates the lifestyle of the wealthy inhabiting London, and their pastimes.

Even the foliage of the park repeats the same kinds of brush strokes present in the Impressionist works of Claude Monet and Pierre Auguste Renoir.
Monet, Madame Monet
Renoir, Bal au Moulin de la Galette, 1876

 The subject matter and composition however made me think of....

Caillebotte, Paris: A Rainy Day, 1877
Seurat, Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884-86

These paintings epitomize the kind of leisure time of the upper classes, during a time of industrial revolution. Though the clothing is more old fashioned in the paintings than in the still from Downton Abbey, there is still a kind of familiarity between the two, creating an even closer resemblance. The couple in Caillebotte's piece is just walking, taking in the scenery of a more modern and urbanized Paris, like the two women in the still, meandering through the park, wasting time in their aristocratic lives. The people pictured in Seurat's Pointalist, Post- Impressionist style painting, are escaping from the hectic and chaotic city, on a vacation day, similar to the two ladies strolling through a park in the middle of a growing London. Even though they do not compositionally look the same, when I was watching the show, I thought first to La Grande Jatte, just because of its colors and the content of the piece, as well as the umbrellas.

These examples only emphasize that film is like a moving painting, and every moment and angle counts even though to the viewer it is continuous. I think this is also relevant to paintings, as a painter expects the viewer to imagine what happens before and what follows the moment they have decided to depict. I find that period dramas very much play into created art historical time lines, mainly because they are set in times that are not currently our own, as many of the great art works that have been studied and continued to be admired are.

I am going to warn you right now... Downton Abbey, will not be the last "period drama" I write about. They are just one of those things... I relish. xx

1 comment:

  1. Period dramas...story of my life. Please don't stop writing about them! If I could go back in time I would. Victorian era fashion was amazing. But I would be property...so maybe not.


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