Browsing through the bookshop of the National Portrait Gallery, trying to make sense of its superb and revelatory exhibition on Giacometti’s work, ‘Pure Essence’, I stumbled on a lovely object: Grey Tiger Books’ edition of Jean Genet’s essay on the artist, The Studio of Giacometti, in a new translation from the French by Phil King. It’s got a photograph of an abstract image — bits of white seeping through different shades of brown with a lashed layer of purple at the bottom — glued onto stone grey paper, with the title overlapping both the grey frame and the image itself. Inside, the pages are, appropriately, a lavender pink. More striking abstract images, all credited to Marc Camille Chaimowicz, break up, interrupt, and accompany Genet’s essay, itself a kind of kaleidoscope composed of brief bursts of inspiration on art in general and Giacometti’s in particular. It caught my attention almost immediately:
‘There isn’t any other origin for beauty than that of a wound’ Genet writes, ‘singular, different for each, hidden or visible, that all mankind keeps within itself…To me Giacomettis’ art seems to wish to discover the secret wound of any being and even that of any thing, in order to illuminate them’.
The book is a beautiful object, a mise-en-scène for allusive and eloquent writings that themselves become part of but exceed the object, on that which starts as a wound, sets out to illuminate and ends up being beautiful.
As a teacher, I sometimes wonder if one spends too much time thinking of doing things for students rather than with them; or even better, with them and for others. This point was brought home to me when Nicky Smith and I visited the NaFilM exhibit at the Montanelli Museum in Prague. NaFilM is a project that was begun three years ago amongst students and friends of the Department of Film Studies at Charles University in Prague with the aim of setting up a Museum of Czech Cinema. Whilst researching the best way of exhibiting film and its history, the project grew to encompass staff and students from other universities in the Czech Republic as well as critics and other interested individuals. The current exhibition is designed as a ‘trailer’ for what a possible National Film Museum could be like. I found it thrilling and inspirational.
The first part of the exhibit deals with sound in cinema in all its aspects and right up to the 50s but begins by countering the widely held notion that early films were silent. Thus, we are shown an exciting clip of a chase sequence and then guided through the various ways in which sound effects were created as well as given the appropriate ‘noise props’ through which to supply them: the sounds of horses’ hooves created with sticks, a machine that gives the sound of wind, etc. These instruments, as well as a ‘noise walkway’ made of various materials, thus help the visitor create a diversity of sounds such as wind, storm, the rustling of leaves, a galloping horse, a moving train etc. It was clear that kids and the curious of all ages delighted in the interactive dimension of this and the museum gave ample opportunity to participate and to witness the results.
The film is full of exciting gadgetry: you can see how the sound of your voice gets visualised and added to celluloid; there’s a room where you can try out different types of lighting effects on a moving train; another one has a gadget where you encase your head in darkness as you’re told aurally of a script which you’re asked to imagine visaully; and so on. The idea is to get the visitor to think about all the different aspects that have historically gone into and comprised filmmaking and learn from the various exercises whilst having fun. It is an unqualified success.
The other areas of the exhibit focus more tightly on Czech cinema. The second part of the exhibition highlighted the role of the avant-garde in the national culture and is shown by a selection of key short films, including documentaries — often shot in Prague — that were delightful and thought-provoking. The exhibit also explains the role of the Dev˘etsil literary club in propagating ideas from French Surrealism into the Czech avant-garde movement known as poetism. The poetists used the principles of collages and free association to create unexpected meanings. Thus the poetists made a very marked contribution to the Czech national film culture and to European avant-garde cultures even though they themselves did not make a single film. It’s a fascinating aspect of the exhibit.
Also on display were a set of gorgeous posters from home and abroad, of which the one that meant the most to me was the beautiful poster for Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade (USA, 1929) advertising that it was showing in what surely must be one of the most beautiful cinemas in all of the world, the Lucerna.
The third and last section of the exhibit dealt with the events of 1968 and beyond; how they affected cinema and in turn how cinema dealt, narrated, imaged and reflected the effects of the Soviet Invasion on the national culture. On exhibit are a series of very beautiful short films as well as a series of ‘imagined’ postcards from some of the most celebrated Czech filmmakers in exile.
The exhibit is selective, a teaser or trailer for the potential National Film Museum. It’s not only interactive in terms of the visitor and the curators, but will be interactive at each stage, including consultation on site and design of the potential museum. It makes the strongest case possible for the construction of such a museum. It’s a model of a pedagogic exercise; generating, exchanging, accruing and distributing knowledge; which,through preservation and exhibition, in turn instigates a dialogue with the visitor to the museum that potentially generates and begins the whole cycle again; and it does this with a focus on the local and the national. This is what this great exhibit does and why it so forcefully makes a case for a future National Museum of Film in the Czech Republic.