In 1984, the Getty Trust and the Metropolitan Museum of Art launched the Program for Art on Film. Its mission: to explore ways of producing more interesting, more effective films about art and stimulating productions that would encourage public interest in the visual arts. Between 1985 and 1992, the Program hosted an experimental Production Lab that produced 15 short films and videos. Nadine Covert joined the Program in 1984 and became its manager in 1992. She is interviewed by arts editor Susan Delson, who was on staff at the Program in the early 1990s.
Susan Delson (Rail): How did the Program for Art on Film come about?
Nadine Covert: It was a brainchild of Karl Katz, then director of the Metropolitan Museum’s Office of Film and Television, working with his colleague Wendy Stein. They pitched the project to the Getty Trust, which had just received an immense fortune and was looking for constructive ways to use it. I was brought in to begin an inventory of existing films about art. The idea was to evaluate what had already been made, how well the existing productions worked, and what areas still needed to be expanded and explored.
Another underlying agenda of the Program was to bring together art historians and filmmakers, who spoke completely different languages, and to get them to communicate. All of our film evaluation panels included art historians, filmmakers, and programmers from museums, libraries, television stations, and other institutions that exhibited films about art.
Rail: How soon after the Program was established did the Production Lab begin?
Covert: The Production Lab got underway in 1985. Joan Shigekawa [currently acting chair of the NEA] was hired as the coordinator—really as a producer. By 1991, 15 short films were realized. It went pretty quickly because the films were fully funded.
Rail: And what were the ground rules for the Production Lab films?
Covert: It was decided that the Production Lab would focus on art before 1900. Each project had to be a collaboration between an art expert and a filmmaker, with the subject expert having an equal voice with the filmmaker in the production and final cut. The artwork was the central focus, rather than a biographical profile. The films were to be approximately 20 minutes in length.
One of the first films commissioned was the David Hockney and Philip Haas collaboration [A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China or Surface is Illusion but So is Depth], in which Hockney guides viewers along a 17th-century Chinese scroll painting as he contrasts its multiple-viewpoint perspective with the later Western vanishing-point perspective. This film was controversial with the managing committee because it came in at something like 45 minutes. But it has actually been the most popular of all the films.
Rail:Why do you think that is?
Covert: Because Hockney is so at ease on camera and has such a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. And he really studied this scroll. The film is as long as it is because the scroll is about 72-feet long, and it takes time to travel through it.
Rail: It’s a good example of what moving-image media can do. At a museum, you’re lucky to see five feet of a scroll—never the entire work.
Rail: What about Leonardo’s Deluge? Who had the idea to animate Leonardo’s drawings?
Covert: I think that came from the filmmaker, Mark Whitney, who’d been inspired by the art expert, Carlo Pedretti, an internationally recognized scholar on Leonardo. As an animator, Whitney recognized that Leonardo’s water drawings dealt with time, space, movement—they could be placed in sequential order and animated. They got permission to use the drawings, courtesy of Windsor Castle Royal Library. Then the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, this fabulous scientific facility, worked with them to animate the drawings using very costly supercomputer time.
Rail: What were the experimental aspects of some of the other projects?
Covert: Several were made by film- and videomakers whose work is essentially avant-garde. Working with art historian Jerrilynn Dodds, video artist Edín Vélez made A Mosque in Time, using complex layering of images to deconstruct the architecture and the intermingling of Islamic and Christian symbols in the Great Mosque of Cordoba. De Artificiali Perspectiva or Anamorphosis was made by the Brothers Quay, who had a major retrospective at MoMA last year, and art historian Roger Cardinal. They used animation and a whimsical puppet figure to demonstrate the principles of anamorphosis, which uses the rules of perspective to distort an image that must then be viewed from a certain angle to reveal its meaning. In Painted Earth: The Art of the Mimbres Indians, avant-garde filmmaker Anita Thacher and art historian J.J. Brody worked with cameramen who specialized in shooting “tabletop” commercials to dive into pottery bowls and reveal the stories in the designs. Taka Iimura, a Japanese video artist, made Ma: Space/Time in the Garden of Ryoan-ji with the architect Arata Isozaki. The brief in that project was to explain the particularly Japanese concept of ma, which has to do with the spaces between, as illustrated in the famous Zen garden. The letters of a poem by Isozaki fade slowly in and out as the camera glides across the isolated rock formations in the garden.
Rail: Do you have a favorite from the project?
Covert: I think my personal favorite is 1867 by Ken McMullen, with art expert Michael Wilson, which takes a dramatic approach to a work of art. Manet made four versions of a painting about the execution of the Emperor Maximilian in Mexico. McMullen’s approach was to create what appears to be a very fluid single shot, starting from the grouping coming down from the church on the hill through Manet’s studio, where you see the works of art that inspired him—Goya and others—and also see how Manet experimented with various approaches to presenting this subject. Inside, we’re in Manet’s studio in France; outside the window, the execution is taking place in Mexico. It’s a visually elegant way to give insight into the creative process.
I also like The Fayum Portraits, by Andrea Simon and Bob Rosen with art historian Richard Brilliant, which experimented with pairing simple visuals against a complex sound track. Here, only the ancient Egyptian funerary portraits appear against a dark background, but they are accompanied by a rich aural track of historical texts and original music composed by Meredith Monk—a haunting pairing of ancient art with a very modern score.
Rail: Seeing the films again, I was struck by how verbose some of them are. There are a lot of on-screen text crawls and spoken narrations.
Covert: I’d say that’s largely thanks to the managing committee. They were not that comfortable with images alone.
Rail: The pacing is also very deliberate—not what we’re accustomed to now.
Covert: Today these would all be digital productions, and they’d be much shorter. Now, people are making chunks of material that can be viewed on iPhones or shown on the wall as part of an exhibition.
Rail: Since the Program ended in the mid-1990s, you’ve remained in the field, particularly as a consultant to the Montreal International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA)—the only North American festival devoted exclusively to the arts. What have you seen lately that’s impressed you?
Covert: I seem to be seeing more films about architecture lately—the moving image can take a viewer through a building so effortlessly. The award-winning film Unfinished Spaces, for instance, about the Cuban schools of the arts, is about changes over time, both in the lives of the architects and the buildings themselves.
One thing I’ve noticed at the Montreal FIFA over the years is that the balance between visual arts and performing arts has shifted—fewer films about the visual arts and more about music, dance, and theater.
Rail: Why do you think that is?
Covert: I suspect that media gatekeepers underestimate public interest in art. Museums and galleries continue to attract viewers, and if given a chance, I think the public would also be receptive to films about art.
The interesting thing is that these Production Lab films have held up. They still work, in the sense that they make you focus on the art. And that was the main goal.
The Production Lab films have been released as the 5-DVD series Art on Film/Film on Art, available through the UCArt distribution project of MUSE Film and Television (musefilm.org/ucart). The Art on Film critical inventory, with entries on some 30,000 productions, is searchable online through the Getty Research Institute (getty.edu/research/tools/article_databases/art_on_screen/). The final iteration of the Program for Art on Film website is also still accessible (artfilm.org).