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The Relationship Between Film And Other Art Forms

July 15, 2011 | By

Peter Greenaway’s film The Draughtsman’s Contract seems to me like a motion picture absorbing other forms of art.

The Draughtman’s Contract of Peter Greenaway

The Draughtsman’s Contract

The whole of scene of the film The Draughtsman’s Contract is set in 1694 in the vast estate, were young and modern painter Mr. Nevill signed a contract with Mrs. Herbert about 12 drawing of her husband’s estate.
(Pic: Youtube)

Before the opening sequence of The Draughtsman’s Contract (dir. Peter Greenaway, UK, 1982) we can hear a baroque song of castrate. Then the song goes on more or less loudly, together with the credit sequences surfaced on the mystical black frames with red and white letters on it and then follows the openings sequences.

Peter Greenway’s film shows us a dramatic episode which takes place in England in the seventeenth century. The film begins with the opening scenes of the close-up face of an old man and then a group of people, who talks and listens. Each scene remands the old noblemen’s portraits in baroque.

The first sequences of the film are like frames or framed images. They outline the main characteristics of the whole film: theatrical costumes, a lot of talking, frames, painting and correspondence to the depicted time’s music. In his first full-length film produced in 1982 Greenaway applies explicit or implicit almost to each of the art forms – theater, painting, photography, architecture, sculpture and of course music.

The Draughtsman’s Contract – Opening scene

The film is rich in allegorical signs in dialogs and in the images. It tells a story that is why it makes sense to talk also about poetry and literature. In spite of this a film is a thriller by genre which contains a murder mystery. Before I analyze this film in details, I would like to take some notions about the relationship between film as an art form and other arts in the theories and methodologies.

One of the influential books in film theory is Bordwell and Thompson’s Film Art.  David Bordwell belongs to “neo-Formalism”[1] school and he argued against so-called New Criticism and semiotics, which he called “SLAB theory”. Semiotics theories, in books of Saussure, Lacan, Althusser and Bathers were defining film and how it is different from the others mediums. The book appeared in 1979 and had nearly 10 publications by now. Among the other issues of the book

it argues that films should be evaluated along formal lines, according to internal criteria such as unity, coherence, complexity, originality, and intensity. Given this advice, we have not moved as far as we might think from the New-Critical ideal of the “well-wrought urn”. [2]

Film Art represents a systematic introduction to film aesthetics and puts film art in the context of changes through its history. It thinks over the types of films, principles of narration and non-narrative form, film techniques and analyses the films. Bordwell was criticized by some scholars, in particular by Ira Braskar for the polar position in his theoretical works about film language and concerning to “making meaning” in film theory.

Another work about film, which took some aspects of film genres, narration, editing, reading and writing about films, is Corrigan and White’s book The Film Experience. Of course we can find some of the sources about art forms in classical aesthetics of Hegel in Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, 1820, in Lessing’s Laocoon about temporal and spatial arts from 1766, in Emmanuel Kant Critic of Judgment, 1790. Some of the thoughts from this works became a ground for the modern film theories.

The discussion about film as an art form did not start from the very beginning of the time when this medium appeared. During the first two decades film was not considered as an art form. Rather it was an entertainment or attraction which was divided to the different genres.

Film became accessible to the masses and was thus considered as a social phenomenon. This last statement which took to his attention German philosopher Walter Benjamin shows us a basic difference between film and the other art forms such as: architecture, sculpture, paining, music and poetry (according to Hegel’s aesthetics) or literature as stated by the later theories.

Traditional art forms were produces for and consumed by elite, upper class and the bourgeoisie until the beginning of the 20th century. “Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art”[3], – asserted Walter Benjamin in 1935. He defined an essence of photography and film in his article The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction and described film as a photographic media.

Social significance of film was immediately noted by the communists in Russia who were constructed a new country during 1920th.   Lenin proclaimed that film was the most important of all the arts for them.[4]

Film as Art by Rudolf Arnheim is available on Amazon

Film as Art by Rudolf Arnheim

Some of the soviet film makers and theorists as Eisenstein, Vertov, Bachtin described montage, shooting, editing, work with diegetic materials, constructing frame, etc., which underlie to the formalist school in the film theory. In particular, one can find it in the work Film as Art by Rudolf Arnheim.

In the first decade of the last century some early theories of the film were written film theories, which was inseparable from the modernity. Such kinds of works are Riccioto Canudo’s The Birth of Six Arts in 1911 and The Art of Moving Picture in 1915 by American Vachel Lindsay. Canudo called cinema “plastic art in motion”[5] and discussed the absorbing of this new art form the spatial (architecture, sculpture and painting) art forms and the temporal (poetry, music and dance) arts.

Peter Greenaway’s film The Draughtsman’s Contract seems to me like a motion picture absorbing other forms of art. Greenaway was not only influenced by the history of painting and composed references and allusions to this art form in his film, but he was also the author of the script and drawings. The last circumstance is not surprising because of well known background of Greenaway as a painter but it is very impressionable for the film viewer. I suggest that the perception of the narration and the plot of this film is integral because we have a “triple author” and thus an auteur film.

The drawings themselves are the meaningful elements of the narration, the center of the plot and more over the finished drawings became the important evidences in the end of the film. The end has a tragic and unexpected upshot. There are many things in common between painting as an art form and the representation of it in The Draughtsman’s Contract. One of the specific characteristics of this film is framing which related to painting.

But in difference to painting it is known that film is a collective medium. In spite of this after an appearance of the New Wave Movement in European cinema and particular in France, in the theory of film it becomes appropriate to talk about the author of the film like an author in painting and in other classical art forms.

After it’s origin in sixtieth in France this auteur theory extended to other countries in Europe and to America. An American film theorist Andrew Sarris proposed for example three criteria for recognizing an auteur:

“(1) technical competence; (2) distinguishable personality; and (3) interior meaning arising from tension between personality and material”.[6]

I suggest the concept of “author” is applicable to this film, which produced by Greenaway in 1982. The concept of auteur is related to the debate over the film’s status as an art form.

The whole of scene of the film The Draughtsman’s Contract is set in 1694 in the vast estate, were young and modern painter Mr. Nevill signed a contract with Mrs. Herbert about 12 drawing of her husband’s estate. An action of the film never goes out from the area of estate and it seems like cutting from twelve painting which are all together created a whole picture and the plot resolution in the end.

The Draughtsman’s Contract – Trailer

In the beginning of the film Mr. Nevill didn’t want to deal with this drawing because of there was a time limitation of 12 days while he was busy enough. Moreover, he said that he preferred the life of idleness in general. He is playing a self-confident owner of the situation and he agrees to make contract with some indispensable terms such as private meetings for his pleasure with Mrs. Herbert and keeping the garden clean from people and sheep while he will be drawing there. But unfortunately the landscape and the garden around the houses are full of servants, gardeners, and sheep.

Nevill wanted to freeze the life by framing it, but in spite that he did it well, the price for that was his life. Mr. Nevill created the drawings with the photographical accuracy. Some strange objects appeared on the drawings. These details indicated that it was a murder of Mr. Herbert in the garden and he would never come back from his 12th day’s trip. The suspected person is Mr. Nevill. Painting in this film is equal to photography and to the particular documentary photography, which is useful in criminalistics.

He became the victim of a frame-up. His drawings frame him into an accusation of murder. By trying to clear himself from the charge the draughtsman signed another contract according to which he should give a sexual pleasure to the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert.

The theme of the film, which we learned only at the end, was about the property, the wished pregnancy of Mrs. Herbert’s daughter and about who will be an heir of the estate.

But Greenaway left the audience with an open end. The sexual encounter between Nevill and Mrs. Herbert followed one more time when she was explaining to him the semiotic of the pomegranates fruit. Here again we have one more connotation. I am not going to analyze a great number of the allegories and connotations in the Greenaway’s film, because there are so many of them. However the repeating of the number twelve, which grows to thirteen (plus rejected one), forced me involuntary to think about Christianity and Twelve Apostles.

The visual look and visual images of the film are not related only to painting and photography, but also to architecture. The viewer is in immersion to the geometrical forms of the garden and to contemplation of the buildings and that is why he/she distracted from the dialogues and conversations of the characters.

The sound which consists of conversations and music written by Michael Nyman could be considered as an implicit narrator which is as well important to understanding the plot of the film as visual images, watching the geometrical lines of the garden and even evidences which were reflected on the drawings.

Michael Nyman. Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds

As a film viewer I was so fascinated by images that it was not always easy to follow the narration. According to the newest theory of Tomas Elsaessar and Malte Hagener concerning senses, I suggest that The Draughtsman’s Contract is a film of “closed” form, “in which the universe depicted in the film (its diegeses) closes in upon itself in the sense that it contains only elements which are necessary because internally motivated.”[7] The editing style of the film is related to the formalist theory.

The Draughtsman’s Contract applies to a whole number of representations between mediums: painting, photography, literature and music, between reality and fiction, art and nature, time and space.

The film is also concerned with politics, ethics, culture and of course with aesthetics. Greenaway constructs the cinematographic world by forcing it into artificial and pretended categories.

There are some absurd notions in this film. One of them is a naked man, who was sometimes with make up as a sculpture. He looks free against a background of the others grotesque dressed and acting characters. He was the only one who broke the whole representation of the self-confident characters of the film and the geometrical rightness of the park, where the film is setting.

I think that the relationship between film and other art forms in this film were shown mostly on the example of painting medium, which plays the role of documentary photography. Greenaway tried to use the main rules of painting in the narration and film shooting, such as: composition, sun light importance, symmetrical symbols of classicism and so on when he created the film. It seems to me that it turned out well! 


[1] Stam, Robert, Film Theory, An Introduction., Oxford: Blackwell Publication, 2000, p.122.

[2] Naremore, James, Authorship, in: A Companion to Film Theory: Blackwell Reference, edited by Toby Miller and Robert Stam, Online, p. 7.

[3] Benjamin, Walter, “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), in: Continental Aesthetics. Romanticism to Postmodernism, An anthology, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, U.K., 2001, p. 173.

[4] Stam, Robert, Film Theory, An Introduction., Oxford: Blackwell Publication, 2000, p. 32.

[5] ibid, p. 28.

[6] ibid, p.89

[7] Elsaesser, Thomas and Malte Hagener,  Film Theory: an introduction through the senses, London: Sage, 1999,  p.16.

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Helena Tomasson, born in USSR, has been living in Sweden from 2007. Previously, she studied the sociology of culture and media and worked as a marketing chief in a printing company in Kiev, Ukraine. Presently, she is studying Visual Culture at Lunds University where she is researching Bergman's film in particular. She writes nonfiction, fiction and poetry. Selected poetry were published in the collections. The ironic lyrics of the new century, Russia, St.Petersburg, 2005. From the heart to heart, Malmö, Sweden, 2011. She is an author of the fiction book Georgian Novel, Kiev, Ukraine, 2011.
All Posts of Helena Tomasson

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