Johan van der Keuken:
Film and art, art and film: it was hard to escape that
duo in Paris in mid 2006. On the big screen, Raúl Ruiz’s Klimt, starring John Malkovich, reinvented the stale formula of the
artist biopic – aiming neither to faithfully chronicle Klimt’s life nor
slavishly transpose his modernist pictorial techniques into cinematic language,
but rather to find a free, inspired, dreamlike way of rendering both topics.
Wandering around the small-gallery belt of the 6th arrondissement
revealed not only a space devoted solely to the works of Emmanuelle director Just Jaeckin [1940-2022]
– tourists stand outside, gawking at the wall-size photos of Jane Fonda or
Serge Gainsbourg in the ‘60s – and a Portraits exhibition by the infamous David Hamilton [1933-2016] who made a handful of
feature films, but also an impressive 50-year select retrospective of the
vigorous abstract-expressionist canvases of Jean Miotte – whose painting techniques were the subject of an up-close documentary, Miotte by Ruiz (2001).
But it was in a concurrent series of large, elaborate,
thoughtful shows that art and film really got a mutual workout in Paris that
year. I have discussed Jean-Luc Godard’s Centre Pompidou epic, Voyage(s) en utopie, JLG, 1946-2006 here. More modestly
mounted and promoted, but more coherent and impressive, was Johan van der Keuken: Photographie et cinéma at the Maison Européene de la Photographie between 15 March and 11 June 2006.
This was an outstanding exhibition – the best of its
kind I have seen. The curatorial premise – that van der Keuken’s work in these two media constantly crossed over in decisive, fruitful ways, to
the point where he could continue exploring certain problematics by switching
from one to the other – was vividly brought to life in an ingenious sequence of
displays and projections.
Beginning in the 1950s at the precocious age of 17
with his startling images of teenagers, and moving through several photo-book
collections to his enrolment at a French film school (and the somber
publication Mortal Paris), van der Keuken had already established what would be the driving
impulse of his long, prolific and varied career as a filmmaker (he died in 2001):
to find a regard, a position in
relation to his subjects, that is both objective and subjective, dispassionate
and compassionate, analytical and spontaneous, political and curious.
Van der Keuken’s work in
film and video partakes of a hybrid form that seems to be peculiarly Dutch:
beginning from a documentary pole, passing by way of the chronicle, diary,
travel-report or essay, he ends up at the severely rigorous, formal structures
of avant-garde cinema. Or vice versa. (One of the only local comparisons to
this fusion or hybrid that I can think of is Dirk de Bruyn – a Dutch-Australian.) Thomas Elsaesser’s book European Cinema Face to Face with Hollywood (Amsterdam University Press, 2004) contains an excellent essay on the director
and his methods.
Inspired and open at the moment of filming the world
(and especially its poor, struggling and dispossessed castes and classes), van
der Keuken was equally brilliant at creating
interrogatory forms and structures on the editing table. His preserved conceptual
notes are sometimes bewilderingly complex, as in his theory of shot distance and scale (as viewed, he suggests, ‘from
above’). His work, if sampled at random, can seem hard, cold and conceptual –
but, as this exhibition movingly demonstrated, taken in its whole evolution it
offers a precious record of an individual life constantly turned towards the
complexity of relating to others (friends, family, co-workers, those who are
part of one’s community or nation as well as those who will forever be strangers).
The simple, elegant ideas in the presentation of this
exhibition – a digital screen to allow the virtual ‘turning pages’ of his
books, multi-monitor assemblages comparing different kinds of camera movements
in his work (for a fuller description of this, see here),
edited video or DVD extracts alongside specific ‘cinematic’ experiments in his
photography – put to shame the dull, inert, white elephant which was the grand Stanley
Kubrick show that toured the world and landed in 2005 at ACMI in Melbourne,
Alas, compared to that facile wallow in auteur
celebrity – which managed to illuminate almost nothing about the director’s
work, with its tantalising documents untouchable
under glass, and its familiar anthology clips indifferently unreeling on plasma
screens – this indispensable exploration of cinema and photography would likely
get ruled out of a berth in Australia by that single, killing question: “Who’s
ever heard of this van der Keuken guy?” But it’s high
time we all heard and saw a lot more of him.
© Adrian Martin June 2006