Films portray artists' backgrounds

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Dr. Judith Wechsler, author and lecturer in art history at Harvard University , realizes the importance of making an artist accessible to the public. Perhaps the most exciting and effective medium she has used in portraying the lives and works of artists is film.

Through film, Dr. Wechsler has poignantly portrayed the lives and works of three artists: Camille Pissarro, Paul Cezanne, and Honore Daumier. The films were made to accompany major museum exhibitions of the artists' works at the Louvre in Paris and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. They provide viewers with a focus point, emphasizing the primary aspects of the artist's technique and approach to his subject matter.

Dr. Wechsler took a different approach to each artist. In preparing the Pissarro film (entitled ''Pissarro: At the Heart of Impressionism''), she had several objectives in mind. ''The first,'' she explains, ''was to show Pissarro's relationship to his contemporaries, particularly the mutual influences of Degas and Gauguin.

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''Pissarro was at the heart of Impressionism. He was the mentor of Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Cezanne. Yet he claimed to have learned as much from them as he taught to them. Perhaps this is why Cezanne referred to him as the humble and colossal Pissarro.''

The narration, comprising excerpts from Pissarro's letters and diaries, effectively augments the images depicted in the film. The viewer learns that Pissarro was also extremely devoted to his large family and that he was a man of deep political convictions.

On the basis of this information, Dr. Wechsler intended to show that Pissarro's paintings were more than pretty pictures. She quotes his words, ''Painting is bound up with its time.'' His work reflects the significant changes that were taking place in 19th-century France at the height of the Industrial Revolution.

Many of these changes are dramatized in the film as the camera moves from a sympathetic rendering of peasants picking apples in a sun-filled orchard to a penetrating depiction of a traffic-congested bridge in the industrialized city of Rouen.

Pissarro's thick application of paint to canvas is detailed by the camera and explained in one of his letters, ''Substitute optical mixtures for the mixture of pigments. In other words, break down tones into their constituent elements, because optical mixture creates much more intense light effects than the mixture of pigments.''

In making the Pissarro film, Dr. Wechsler portrays him in an almost paternal light, as a man who was as much concerned with the development of people as he was with the progression of his own art.

In the film on Cezanne, however, who is referred to as ''the father of modern art,'' Wechsler deemed it more appropriate to focus strictly on the artist's innovations as a painter. Consequently, the film does not digress from the art of Cezanne. With a variety of provocative camera angles, Dr. Wechsler emphasizes the complexity of Cezanne's compositions; the repeated contours, the multiple perspectives, and those yellows, reds, and oranges that make Cezanne's still lifes such a delicious visual feast.

Cezanne's work has a fresh immediacy about it. The apples and peaches look ready to be eaten now, the lines are sharp and the colors bold. Through Ms. Wechsler's direction the film picks up the staccato cadence established in Cezanne's art, a cadence that is echoed by a superb musical score.

Dr. Wechsler explains that ''I wanted people to become aware of the complex principles behind Cezanne's art and understand visually how they function. I have been looking at Cezanne for years and I am still fascinated by the complex compositions, the multiple perspectives, and the fabulous paintings that he has built out of patches of color. After seeing his wall of Montagne Saint-Victoire and the apples and figures, it is clear that Cezanne meant what he said - 'Nature is the starting point.' ''

With the insightful 19th-century caricaturist, Daumier, not nature but the city was the starting point. Satire, generally, was the end result.

Dr. Wechsler says, ''Daumier intended to convey a sense of time and place through his art. Through caricature he picked up the salient aspects of 19 th-century Paris - the politics, culture, and everyday life.

''In a historical context, Daumier's work is of particular interest because he was working at a time when so many transformations were taking place, most notably, the great influx of people into the city.''

In the film ''Daumier, Paris, and the Spectator,'' the viewer is whisked through 19th-century Paris as it was seen through the eyes of this artist, who often displayed as little mercy with his pen as Ivan the Terrible did with his sword. Politicians were always great sport for Daumier, as his drawings depicting long-nosed but presumably shortsighted legislators suggest. He also lampooned overdressed dandies posturing at the theater or strutting like peacocks along the boulevards.

Yet, Daumier was not a cynic; he was a reformer vitally concerned with the political and social issues of his time. He took a playful poke at the vanity of the upper classes or a swipe at corruption in city hall, but he also championed many of the progressive concepts and causes of his day.

The advent of photography, for example, was controversial, particularly among artists. It was hardly thought of as a legitimate art form and its utilitarian value was still unknown; yet Daumier saw the potential in photography and, as Dr. Wechsler's films clearly indicate, that potential has been beautifully and productivly realized.

'Film is educational - it provides information and suggests a context,'' says Dr. Wechsler, ''In some respects, film conveys ideas more immediately than books. The camera can quickly and vividly indicate a way of looking at a work of art. Rather than merely explaining a technique or theme used by an artist, it can show the relationship of specific details to the whole composition, call attention to brushstrokes and other aspects of the artist's work.''

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