The Politics of Possession: Hitler, Vermeer and The Art of Painting

Who ultimately owns a work of art: the buyer, the artist, the museum or the person appreciating it?

Jan_Vermeer_-_The_Art_of_Painting_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe Art of Painting by Johannes Vermeer (1666)

This story is about a man and a woman, alone together. The master’s servants had left his private quarters, leaving him to enjoy his beautiful new conquest in solitude. Night was falling across the bedroom, a crepuscular gloom which only served to intensify the rich palette of the canvas. Europe’s most powerful man closed in on his prize, running his fingers across the three-hundred year old pigment, weaving flirtatious circles around the pretty face at the picture’s centre.

She was dressed up as history, and was now in the iron possession of a man making history. Power was his life’s pursuit. He loved to subjugate things, bend them to his will. And this latest trophy was another sure-footed step on his mission to control the world’s finest culture. Together they would reside in a grandiose museum near his hometown, the artistic heartbeat of an empire that would rule the globe for a thousand years.

This is a painting about how audiences participate creatively in the interpretation of art. And it’s also a picture about ownership, about privacy, the role art plays in history and vice versa

Art had always been a cherished project. In his younger days, before he’d stamped arrogantly onto the world stage, he’d yearned to be a painter. And it was in part the cruel rejection of his work by the arbiters of taste in Vienna which had triggered his new career path, one which now saw him bestride Europe like a colossus, the figurehead of a remorseless chariot turned by the wheels of rage and injustice. Painting would play a different role now. No longer a livelihood but more a glorification of his supremacy, a reminder of what he could have been before destiny forced him to seize greater glories.

The date was November 1940. The location was the Berghof, a palatial retreat near Berchtesgarden in the Bavarian Alps. The man was Adolf Hitler. And the picture in his clutches was Johannes Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, which the Führer had purchased for 1.82 million reichmarks. Those are the facts. But it’s worth noting at this point that I’ve completely invented the scene of the dictator caressing the image. The choice is both an aesthetic and symbolic one. Because this is a painting about how audiences participate creatively in the interpretation of art. And it’s also a picture about ownership, about privacy, the role art plays in history and vice versa, and the mysteries of a seductive craft which forever eludes definition and control.

A voyeuristic experience

The first thing to say about this 17th century Dutch masterwork is that it’s classic Vermeer. All his stylistic hallmarks are there: the stillness, the domestic setting, the sense of peeking in on privacy, the milky daylight flooding in from the left. Yet it’s very unique among his work too: the only one in which he turns the lens onto his own livelihood. Complex symbolism and iconography make it more of an intellectual experience than an emotional one like The Lacemaker or Officer and Laughing Girl. And even when facing destitution at the end of his life, it’s the one picture Vermeer steadfastly refused to sell.

Vermeer 1

From a distance, we see a well-dressed man sitting at his easel painting a young lady’s portrait. Dominating the left side of the canvas is a curtain, pulled back by an unseen hand. The emotional atmosphere is voyeuristic, as if we’re enjoying a privileged eavesdrop of a maestro at work. The curtain has another insinuation too, imbuing the scene with a sense of theatricality, a tone underscored by the contrived positioning of the props.

Yet its true masterstroke lies in Vermeer’s subtle articulation of the limits of making, seeing and understanding works of art. The Art of Painting is true to its title in the way it deliberately draws attention to its own artifice.

The largest of these is the political map on the far wall, which shows the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands as they were thirty years before the picture was painted. The model is dressed in blue, awkwardly bearing a trumpet, laurel wreath and book, the signature accessories of Clio, the muse of history in Greek mythology. On the table is a death mask. But this is a picture that pulsates with life, Vermeer’s exceptionally vivid colours making the image feel more real than real itself.

Despite its painstaking naturalism, we only ever get part of this picture though, and it’s this sense of omission that makes it all the more powerful. On one level, The Art of Painting can be read as a sophisticated celebration of painting itself. Vermeer positions the artist as a well-to-do man (his luxury doublet), political commentator (the map), illustrator of history (Clio) and portrayer of the human condition (death mask).

Yet its true masterstroke lies in Vermeer’s subtle articulation of the limits of making, seeing and understanding works of art. The Art of Painting is true to its title in the way it deliberately draws attention to its own artifice. All the props in the picture are representations, synthetic recreations of actual things. The map, crinkled, worn and already out of date, reminds us power is temporal. The death mask is another variation on the same theme, as is the chandelier which shows the crest of the Habsburg Empire, a political entity in decline at the time the picture was painted.

Vermeer 2

Crafting your own narrative

The lady is a fiction too: we feel the pretence and discomfort of her unnatural pose. Only part of her will make it on to the artist’s portrait too, a picture within a picture that tells us art is only ever an edited, subjective view of reality, a subtext reinforced by the fact that we only glimpse part of the studio. Both painter and poser are wonderfully inscrutable too. We can’t see their eyes and must guess at what the man may have said to elicit that tantalising, coquettish look from his subject.

No other picture says so much about the open-endedness and dead ends of art, and no other picture quite has that sense of its creator being both present and absent, his back turned so he gives nothing away

In The Art of Painting, as in any painting for that matter, the onus is placed on the viewer to look, interpret and imagine. Absorbing the picture is a quintessential exercise in art appreciation, and a lesson in how we as audiences are coaxed into piecing symbols and images together, filling in the blanks to craft our own satisfying narrative. Maybe that’s why an empty chair is pulled up in the foreground, as Vermeer invites us to sit down and become part of the scene, an offer made all the more poignant by the fact that he kept it in his studio as his own enjoyment. For all its sense of disclosure, the ultimate meaning is remote, the domain of the artist, and we feel on the cusp of something we’ll never truly understand.

So it’s sweetly ironic The Art of Painting was eventually owned by a man who failed at art and tried to compensate by conquering. He would ultimately lose control of both picture and empire, transporting Vermeer’s work to the German salt mines of Altaussee as the net closed in on the Third Reich. There, it was recovered by the Monuments Men of the US Army and returned to the Austrian Government. Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum is its home today.Yet there is still a tussle over its ownership, with members of the Czernin family (which relinquished the picture to the Nazis) issuing legal requests for its return.

Private chemistry

A futile dispute, perhaps. To me, The Art of Painting will only ever be owned by one man. No other picture says so much about the open-endedness and dead ends of art, and no other picture quite has that sense of its creator being both present and absent, his back turned so he gives nothing away. Maybe that’s what Vermeer intended all along. His family may have been forced to sell the property after his death, but he is still the only man in possession of its secrets. And my interpretation is just another subjective and mutable reading that will be displaced by time. As great art gets bigger we get smaller: a lesson every human eventually learns, even Hitler.

Vermeer 3

In that spirit, let me start where I began, with a retreat into the realm of personal invention. The man and woman are alone together, and always will be. I imagine the artist is sharing a joke with the lady at our expense, subtly mocking all the people who queue up to gawp at their private chemistry. The model lowers her gaze to the floor and can’t look us in the eye, even though she knows we wouldn’t have heard.

This tender exchange is immortalised on the canvas – a singular moment between two people never to be repeated or forgotten – and which serves as a gentle reminder that some secrets are best left unshared. And that we as voyeurs will forever be on the fringes, spellbound witnesses to an unspoken magic that reveals nothing except its own sublime sense of wonder.

The Links

An interactive study of The Art of Painting Essential Vermeer 2.0

Will Austria part with Hitler’s Vermeer? E. Randol Schoenberg, LA Opus

Ten Famous Pieces of Art Stolen by the Nazis Bryan Johnson, TopTenz

My Blue Heaven: A Brief History of the F-Word in Cinema

Frank, freeing, and fabulously to the point, the f-word is hugely pleasurable when done well. Some movies swear blind by it…

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Saying it may be wrong on occasion, but sometimes it just feels so right. The jaw retracts, the bottom lip curls in, the teeth spring forward, and the fricative consonant gives way to a guttural vowel sound finishing with a firm, resounding ‘ck’. With it can come all manner of emotions, from joy to rage, pleasure to pain, passion to desperation, plus a lacerating blast of good old-fashioned offence.

The F-word blossomed in cinema in the early 1970s. Since then it’s been deployed with gratuity and ingenuity by filmmakers searching for shock, realism, comedy and irony. Coarse it may be, but this four-letter intensifier (and its myriad derivatives) is a wonderfully versatile linguistic tool: a noun, verb, adjective and compound that paints a rich palette of colourful meanings and, if used skilfully, never fails to deliver dramatic bite.

The fog of adolescence

The Exorcist was one of the first films to make hay from the F-word. Four decades on, William Friedkin’s horror show feels like a shallow, preposterous construction as soulless as the evil spirit lurking within Regan. But it’s also one of the great sound films: the taut musical score, grinding sound effects and increasing profanities building a cold, excruciating atmosphere of nastiness.

The Exorcist (1973)

The devil certainly has the best tunes in The Exorcist, which delights in dropping F-bombs on its audience through the cherubic lips of a sweet and innocent 12-year-old. Because although it’s ostensibly about demonic possession, much of the film’s power derives from the way it taps into parental anxiety about losing children to the fog of adolescence, where they’ll soon discover the pleasures of the F-word in all its forms.

Fast forward ten years to 1983 and by then, the F-word was rattling across the movie landscape like machine-gun fire, short-hand for strutting machismo in an era when action cinema was blooming. That was the year of Scarface, in which swaggering Cuban upstart Tony Montana (Al Pacino) swills the word around his mouth with the boundless confidence of a Reaganite capitalist, before spitting it out so you almost feel the hot saliva spraying your face.

The F-word reached blistering new heights in 1990, when Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas broke the record for the number of times it was used in one movie (300 in total)

Movies became ever more creative in their use of the expletive as the decade continued. The Terminator systematically selects it from his programmed drop-down menu to threaten a nosey janitor, mild-mannered executive Steve Martin unleashes it with great comic gusto on an incompetent car hire clerk in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and Die Hard’s Bruce Willis bastardises the famous lyric of singing cowboy Roy Rogers to taunt his adversaries.

Naturalism and menace

The F-word reached blistering new heights in 1990, when Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas broke the record for the number of times it was used in one movie (300 in total). Here, it didn’t so much add spice to the sauce, but become a base ingredient for the meal. For Goodfellas is a feast of a film: the incessant use of the F-word – delivered most memorably and with lip-smacking relish by pint-sized potty mouth Joe Pesci – serving up a sumptuous combo of naturalism and menace.

Goodfellas (1990)

The gangster genre turned postmodern four years later in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, where scripture-reciting assassin Jules Winfield (Samuel L Jackson) strolls through the LA underworld wielding the F-word as poetically as his 9mm handgun.

Preferring to use the prefix ‘mother’ wherever possible (he even has it branded on his wallet), Jackson and partner-in-crime John Travolta curse with an easy gravitas that made the F-word seem profound and effortlessly cool. You’d cross the street to avoid Joe Pesci’s character, whereas you’d probably ask Jackson to join you for a beer.

The word comes out of nowhere, yet feels like a flash of authenticity in a film where the truth feels forever guarded and elusive

More recently (and on the smaller screen), the equally-lovable double act of Bunk and McNulty in HBO’s The Wire decipher a complex crime scene by only ever saying the F-word. It’s a brilliant setpiece, every profanity bringing a fresh nuance as the booze-loving cops methodically uncover the truth. And in many ways, the truth is what really lies behind the F-word’s enduring appeal.

A flash of authenticity

Take Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which sees cult leader and awe-inspiring bullshitter Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) crack under the tenacious grilling of a journalist, exploding the F-word (sublimely prefaced with the word ‘pig’) into the laps of his quaint middle-class companions. The word comes out of nowhere, yet feels like a flash of authenticity in a film where the truth feels forever guarded and elusive.

The Master (2012)

Like a coiled spring, The Master creaks with inner tension as its pent-up protagonists struggle to cope with trauma, emptiness and, above all, carnal desire. In a way, the F-word is omnipresent throughout the story, so much so that when sex-obsessed World War II veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) enjoys a playful tumble with a young lady in the final scenes, it feels like sorely-needed catharsis.

Much like the act it so bluntly describes, the F-word is hugely pleasurable when done well: delivering an explosion of energy, a satisfying emotional release and a mutually beneficial way for human beings to communicate with each other and say what’s in their hearts. Like a good friend (with benefits), the F-word is frank, freeing, and fabulously to the point. So thanks very much F-word – and fuck you too.

The ‘Funny Guy’ scene, Goodfellas, 1990

‘F*** the Diaz Brothers’, Scarface, 1983 

‘The middle of f***ing nowhere’, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, 1987

The ‘pig’ scene, The Master, 2012 

Surrender to the void: Sci-fi, symbolism and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Its futuristic predictions didn’t come true, but history hasn’t tarnished the timeless appeal of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey


That was the year that was. Apple launched the iPod, scientists published their map of the complete human genome and, in the defining moment of our generation, religious extremists slammed commercial airliners into New York and Washington DC. The world felt smaller, more inward-looking and more interdependent than ever before in 2001, and the playful thrill of space exploration and astral harmony conjured up by the film of the same name seemed light years away.

Sci-fi buffs will tell you the best examples of the genre are not those films which accurately predict the future, but those which reveal most about the times in which they were made. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, at the height of the space race. The first moon landing was a year away, monolithic computers were arriving in corporate America, cult phenomenon Star Trek was entering its third season on NBC and futurology, which in 2001’s case envisioned a world of sexy space hostesses and suit-and-tie stratospheric travel, was definitely in fashion.

Progress is one of 2001’s signature themes. Shifting operatically from apes to astronauts, it’s a hugely ambitious narrative journey, powered by revolutionary special effects and the prodigious talents of a single-minded maverick director who had broken the movie-making mould, acquiring both creative independence and the financial largesse of a major Hollywood studio.


Conventions of time

In many ways, 2001 is a film from the Sixties and for the Sixties. Marketed with the strapline ‘The Ultimate Trip’, its inspired blend of psychedelic light show and philosophical meditation entranced broad-minded hippies seeking a higher plane of consciousness, while those of a more conservative bent will have been chilled to the marrow by computer HAL 9000, a cold, red, authoritarian machine slowly taking over, at a time when Communism was engulfing south-east Asia.

An updated version of Frankenstein’s monster, HAL 9000 turns on its creator with cool, efficient menace, yet remains the film’s most sympathetic character. The panic and fear in its robotic voice during shutdown elicit far more gravitas than those two-dimensional planks of space debris, Bowman and Poole.

Time is both elongated and condensed, or, in the case of the film’s cheeky intermission, ceasing to exist altogether

Add to that the graceful, balletic movements of anthropomorphic spacecraft set to Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube – which provide some of the film’s most stirring moments and a disproportionate amount of screen time – and it’s easy to see why many people think 2001 is the work of someone more fascinated by technology than by the moral quandaries of man.

Cold, clinical and controlling have all been descriptions levelled at Stanley Kubrick. Responsible for helming the longest shoot in cinematic history (Eyes Wide Shut), and notorious for subjecting actors to hundreds of takes for seemingly minor inconsequential scenes, the director’s obsession with minutiae and his blissful disregard for the conventions of time finds full expression in 2001, his first and only science-fiction film. The narrative pace is slowed to near-tedium, technology is fetishized, humans are reduced to banal ciphers and time and perspective are blown apart.

The symphonic shift from prehistory to interplanetary exploration – breathlessly articulated by that jump-cut – coupled with the mirroring micro-dramas of the apes’ territorial face-off and the Bowman-HAL showdown, creates a dramatic tension that sees time both elongated and condensed, or, in the case of the film’s cheeky intermission, ceasing to exist altogether.

Like Bowman surging through the Stargate, we’re passengers rather than explorers in 2001,an ignorant species hurtling into the great unknown.

Spatially, Kubrick pulls us in opposite directions too. He delights in going large (the planets, the spacecraft, the grand historical sweep) and then small (the bone, the floating pen, Bowman’s bedroom), a bold combination of portentous philosophising and light satire which relishes the triviality of man within an inconceivable cosmos. Monumental significance is counterpointed by trite insignificance, and the cumulative emotional effect is one of vulnerability and wonder.


The inscrutable void

Like Bowman surging at interstellar overdrive through the Stargate, we’re passengers rather than explorers in 2001,an  ignorant species hurtling into the great unknown. We feel like we’ve come full circle when the film ends, having spent more than two hours orbiting something we never truly understand.

In that sense, 2001 is more about revolution than evolution, a motif underscored by the recurrent circular patterns, from the spaceships and HAL’s Sauron-style eye to the interplanetary alignment and the Starchild himself, who floats serenely within a spherical womb, a not-so-subtle allusion to the continual cycle of existence.

The mystery of that existence, and of the movie itself, is visually embodied in the monolith, that eerie, implacable presence which unites the film’s disparate elements, triggers change (without changing itself) and leaves apes and astronauts equally perplexed. To some it’s the work of extra-terrestrials. To others, it represents the fingerprint of the Almighty. To this writer, this huge slab of black symbolises so much of what fascinates us about the inscrutable void of space.

In 2001’s closing moments, we’re swept along in the monolith’s trajectory for the final time and see that same void spectacularly illuminated by an image of birth. Then the screen fades to black, and we’re left with the exhilarating feeling that things have only just begun, and that we’re in the infancy of a cosmic journey that’s wonderful, baffling and pregnant with limitless possibility.

The Links

2001: A Space Odyssey, Wikipedia

‘Open the pod bay doors, Hal’, YouTube

‘Close to tears, he left at the intermission’, The New Statesman, 8 January 2017

Divine Transcendence: War, Francisco de Goya and The Third of May 1808

In an era when the death toll of war is narrated so casually and quantitatively, an early 19th century Spanish painting reminds us how much we lose when just one person is killed.

The Third of May 1808 by Francisco de Goya (1814)

The poor, plainly-dressed labourer has only moments to live. His arms are held aloft in a final, defiant assertion of his humanity, while his face droops downwards, more out of resignation than fear.

Nothing will save him from joining the tangled heap of corpses which lies on the ground to his immediate right. Within seconds, he’ll be just another victim of the cold, efficient massacre that’s taking place on Madrid’s Principe Pio hill at 4 o’clock on an icy black morning in May.

Time is a dominant presence in Francisco de Goya’s most famous painting. Its title is a time itself – The Third of May 1808 – and the picture was intended to commemorate a specific event in Spanish history. On that date, hundreds of Madrilenians were shot dead by Napoleonic insurgents, whose usurpation of the city the previous day had provoked the populace to rebellion. Goya’s painting depicts the savage reprisals that followed: a systematic mass execution of civilians at point blank range.

Six years later, after the French had finally been vanquished, Goya proposed a sequence of paintings to the Spanish government that would remember the sacrifices his fellow citizens made that night. The Third of May 1808 was the second of two delivered, prefaced by its companion piece The Second of May 1808, which portrays the pandemonium of the uprising itself in the city’s Puerta del Sol, where ordinary folk set about Napoleon’s crack Mameluke troops with knives and fists.

Facing the implacable void

There is a powerful journalistic feel to The Third of May 1808; such is the reportage style there was even speculation (now discredited) that Goya himself was an eyewitness. Its lack of artsy contrivance and in-the-moment dynamic gives the picture an unpolished immediacy that’s antithetical to the grand, aestheticized historical paintings of contemporaries like Jacques-Louis David.

Goya’s vision is hyper-gritty and bleak, especially for a canvas designed to invoke nationalist pride (perhaps this was one of the reasons it was discreetly placed in storage by the powers-that-be). The protagonists are neither knights or noblemen, princes or politicians. They are commoners, victims of circumstances, supporting players in history’s drama – and there is no epic grandeur or compressed narrative characteristic of early 19th century commemorative pictures like The Battle of Waterloo.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David (1801)

Instead, it feels like you’ve turned a street corner and stepped unwittingly into a crime scene. A group of civilians huddle together near a bloodied pile of bodies, cowering against a nauseatingly-coloured hill. Opposite them and exceedingly close – as if Goya deliberately squeezes the spatial field to heighten the drama – are a faceless group of Napoleonic riflemen, ready to discharge the fatal blasts. Above them all is the heaviest and deadest of nights, an implacable void oppressing the gruesome scene below.

We can’t help but watch with uneasy familiarity at the grey, sharply delineated, Napoleonic automatons, a huge compact killing machine stretching endlessly into deep space

Graphic horror was Goya’s stock-in-trade. After a successful spell as the Royal court painter, he suffered a serious illness (most likely due to poisonous vapours emanating from his pigments) and became stone deaf. Troubled, withdrawn and operating on the margins, Goya responded to his disability by producing a visual arsenal of shocking intensity. Absorbing pieces such as Yard with Lunatics, an unforgettable image of madness, and his infamous engraving The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, is like watching a mind unravelling before you.

A visceral and spiritual experience

This culminated in his illustrative series The Disasters of War, a sequence of 82 prints that together constitute an indignant scream at the stupidity of conflict. The Third of May 1808 was produced during this same period, and it marks the high point of Goya’s violent, extremist art. The painting’s emotional power lies in how it replaces the gothic surrealism of The Sleep of Reason with a kind of vivid, abrasive hyper-reality, and in its contemplation of a new kind of military terror being unleashed on humanity.

In the 21st century, we’re now so desensitised to murder on an industrialised scale – the Somme, Auschwitz, Sarajevo, Rwanda – that we can’t help but watch with uneasy familiarity at the grey, sharply delineated, Napoleonic automatons, a huge compact killing machine stretching endlessly into deep space.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937)

These tightly-focused assassins form a radical contrast to the crumbling chaos of the victims, a grisly knot of limbs accentuated by a sly shift in perspective which sees the dead man face down in the foreground almost tip out into the viewer’s space. Goya’s painting is the artistic equivalent of a thump on the nose; he grinds the scene into your consciousness in the same way he applied the wet-on-wet painting technique to cake red onto his canvas, making Spanish blood an indelible feature of the sun-scorched earth.

There is darkness a-plenty in The Third of May 1808 – but there is light too. For a painting about imminent death, it pulses with a strange, life-affirming energy. Chief counterpoint to the executioners is the image’s central figure, a humble labourer bathed in the light of the soldiers’ lantern. Goya illuminates this figure with all the tools at his disposal – space, composition, colour, shape – the X pattern of his spread-eagled posture drawing your eyes towards the intense luminosity of his clothing.

The genius of Goya’s painting lies in how it masterfully dramatises this resurgent effect, audaciously swinging the energy away from the aggressor to the sufferer

Here, the artist’s deafness proves his trump card. Depriving someone of one sense tends to intensify the receptivity of the others, and there’s no question Goya makes you feel the contrasting visual effects of light and dark more than most painters. The chiaroscuro effect is not simply a visceral device though: it imbues the picture with spiritual overtones that elevate it to a whole new level of resonance.

Sporting white and yellow clothes (the heraldic colours of the papacy), the central figure is as much holy martyr as he is salt-of-the-earth. His arms are spread wide as if being crucified and his palms bear the scars of stigmata, a gesture that would be reimagined by Picasso in Guernica, where two outstretched hands reach skywards from the Fascist-inflicted cubist rubble.

Everyman and Superman

Elsewhere, the glowing lantern recalls the Roman soldiers capturing Christ in Gethsemane, a light source so aggressively bright that it makes the victim seem almost supernatural, other-worldly, as if he is about to rise Saviour-like to a higher plane of existence. The effect is compounded by a spectacular breach of proportion. The labourer is kneeling down, but if stood up would tower over his assailants. Both Everyman and Superman, he transcends himself at the very moment of death.

In Christian doctrine, this is what’s known as transfiguration, named after the episode in the Gospels when Jesus transforms before his disciples so ‘his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light’ (Matthew 17): that moment before death when we metamorphose into a more spiritual, beautiful state.

The genius of Goya’s painting lies in how it masterfully dramatises this resurgent effect, audaciously swinging the energy away from the aggressor to the sufferer; capturing a pure drop of divinity as it ripples through an ocean of depression. The ordinary turns extraordinary, the anonymous becomes the archetypal – and The Third of May 1808 transforms into a potent symbol of tragedy, a single image of iconic status similar to the scorched nakedness of Phan Thi Kim Phuc seeking refuge from napalm.

Phan Thi Kim Phuc (left of centre) fleeing a napalm attack (Nick Ut, 1972)

“Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire,” says the Talmud, a sacred text of Judaism. In an era where the death toll of war victims is talked about so casually and quantitatively, Goya reminds us how much we lose when just one person is killed. That’s why whenever I look at The Third of May 1808, I feel humbled, blessed, glad to be alive – and savour how my life’s troubles fade into the background before it, like shadow being gradually extinguished by light.

For the journey of Goya’s labourer is the journey of the artist and the viewer. When faced with the penury of death, the peasant achieves true spiritual wealth and immortality. When all sound had died away, Goya channelled this emptiness into a supernova of light. And when we gaze upon this scene of squalid murder, and reflect on the competing energies raging within it, we appreciate more than anything life’s preciousness and beauty, and hope that when our time comes, we can strive to be as bold, as brilliant, as divine.

The Links

A Guide to The Third of May 1808  Official Website of the Museo del Prado, Madrid

The Complete Works of Franciso de Goya,

Iconic War Photography The Guardian, 26 April 2013

The Great Unsaid: Time and transition in Yazujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story

Unspoken pain is part of the furniture in Yazujiro’s Tokyo Story, a majestic study of family life and what it means to be human.

Tokyo Story (1953). Pictures courtesy of The Shochiku Company

It’s called the tatami shot. The camera is fixed on a short tripod, the lens positioned at waist height and the actors sit on the floor, level with the viewer’s eye line, to give the impression we’re sitting among them. The depth of field is increased, the camera doesn’t move and our perspective stays fixed and unwavering as the drama unfolds slowly before us.

Named after the traditional mat found in Japanese living rooms, the tatami shot is a stylistic hallmark of film-maker Yazujiro Ozu. Voted by movie directors in 2012 as the greatest film of all time, his 1953 work Tokyo Story is the tatami film par excellence, an immersive, penetrating study of an elderly Japanese couple who visit their grown-up yet ever-busy children in the capital. Treated as an inconvenience and ushered coldly from house to house, the parents eventually return home before the movie’s sad final act plays out.

It’s a simple story but a complex drama. Thanks to Ozu’s stationary, static style, our appreciation of the domestic events in each home is somewhat restricted. We never get a total sense of where we are and what’s happening, receiving only partial glimpses into the characters’ interior lives and regularly having to make sense of the action based on what’s not said or done.


Action is the wrong word, for precious little happens in Tokyo Story. The threadbare plot unravels sedately, major events are omitted, the performances are understated and dialogue is often confined to awkward social pleasantries. Together, they cloak an undertone of disappointment and indifference that aches throughout every scene, resulting in a beautifully-crafted vision of dysfunctional family life. Unspoken pain is part of the furniture, all of it captured in a sober cinematic style that feels both curiously immersive and detached, a stillness exacerbated by the fact that only one tracking shot is deployed in the entire film.

Instability and uncertainty

Despite that, there’s movement everywhere, and in the most profound sense of the word. From the opening shot of the pupils walking to school to the closing shot of the boat cruising through the harbour, Ozu’s film is one about transition – a couple’s train journey to a city, the transformation of children to adults, the relentless modernisation of society, the increasing demands of professional life, the inexorable dissolve of familial bonds, the regression of adults back to childlike dependency and the final, inevitable move from life to death.

Tokyo Story forces us to sit, reflect and come to terms with what we’re watching. When the movie ends, you realise there’s so much more to it than first meets the eye

Through it all, Ozu forces us to confront those difficult, eternal questions. Can families survive the passage of time? What obligation do children owe their parents? How do we best prepare ourselves for the end? And what’s the best way to remember and dignify those who are gone? For a film so overtly calm and austere, Tokyo Story is replete with instability and uncertainty, a mood revealing itself in subtle ways – the disappointed glances, the growing spatial distances between characters, the feeble social rituals that fail to articulate what’s really going on, and, most of all, the long, thick silences, which Ozu creates by lingering his camera on a scene long after the talking has stopped.


Tokyo Story forces us to sit, reflect and come to terms with what we’re watching. When the movie ends, you realise there’s so much more to it than first meets the eye – and that you’ve spent two hours under the spell of a true cinematic master. With remarkable patience and tenderness, expressed through judicious editing, delicate writing and a love of the human face in all its wonderful complexity, Ozu’s worldview is brilliantly elucidated, the sadness of his scenario bearing down on you with all the quiet force of gravity.

There’s nothing special about this family though. As the title implies, this is just one story among millions in the world’s most populated city

Tokyo Story isn’t a pessimistic film though. Rather it’s a wise film, and that wisdom seems born out of time itself. Time is everywhere – in the family heirloom of the watch, in the changing landscape, in the characters’ anxiety about the past and the future, and in their inability to find more of what is life’s most precious resource.

Conflicted and unknowable

Moving both surprisingly quickly and excruciatingly slowly, time changes people, moves them apart, brings them back together and pushes them away again. Time is a relative concept to Ozu, and relative is the operative word here, with time strengthening and weakening family ties in ways we can all identify with.

There’s nothing special about this family though. As the title implies, this is just one story among millions in the world’s most populated city. But the experience of this group of people feels so unique and vividly etched that you can’t help recall the opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’.

Tokyo Story is equally as great a work of art, and has a similar sense of life as conflicted, tragic and, in some ways, unknowable. Yet it is majestic too, and in the face of all the pain and disappointment, Ozu teaches us to look, to imagine and to feel this quality – and to remember that this life, and this family, are the only ones we’ll ever have.


The Links

Tokyo Story Official Trailer, YouTube 

The Pillow Shots of Yazujiro Ozu, British Film Institute 

Ozu vs Avatar, David Thomson, The Guardian