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Art&Seek on Think TV: Butchers, Dragons, Gods & Skeletons

by Stephen Becker 20 Jul 2009 9:04 AM

Philip Haas, the director of the Oscar-nominated film, Angels & Insects, approached the Kimbell Art Museum about adapting five paintings into elaborate film installations in which the paintings “come to life.” The astonishing results have taken over the entire museum: We walk into a room-sized skull to view painter James Ensor’s life or immerse ourselves in a Baroque hall of living gods. Jerome Weeks talks to Haas about taking that trip from 2-D to 3-D.


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  • WRR video of the exhibition tour by Philip Haas and Malcolm Warner

Director-screenwriter Philip Haas has a remarkable talent for adaptation. He has created documentaries on living artists (David Hockney, Gilbert & George), and he made his reputation with a series of intelligent art-house feature-film versions of literary works — notably A. S. Byatt’s Angels & Insects, but also John Hawkes’ The Blood Oranges and Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance.

So developing elaborate film installations based on five of the Kimbell Art Museum’s paintings seems a perfectly logical step — it even draws on his theater background in the way several of the installations amount to giant stage sets. The results are anything but merely logical — breathtaking, provocative and sumptuous. Butchers, Dragons, Gods & Skeletons is difficult to describe in simple terms because each of the five works is unique, each takes off from its source in a different manner. They do not simply ‘re-enact’ the paintings by having actors dress and pose like the artists’ models. Each offers its own narrative about the artist, the artifice of painting, the sources of creativity (some dark and cruel, some magical). What’s more, the Kimbell has clustered period works around them to provide context, but it’s as if they, too, could share in the transforming process, bask in the light.

In the simplest piece, The Butcher Shop by Annibale Carraci from the 1580s, viewers sit in a darkened room between two screens, one featuring the butchers, the other the artist peering “across the room” carefully at the men and the carcasses they’re working on. In effect, we are in the shop with the painter and his blood-splattered, knife-sharpening subjects. With Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Apollo and the Continents (1752), we enter a glorious, full-fledged Baroque room with walls and ceilings turned into giant video projections (when they aren’t real architectural details, columns and cornices).

Everywhere we look in the Tiepolo, gods and goddesses, models and animals, swirl and pose and fidget. By the end of the Kimbell exhibition, we are entering James Ensor’s skull — it’s a room-sized construction holding four screens featuring nightmarish scenes from the Belgian painter’s life.

Haas talks about why he chose the Kimbell, why he chose these works and how he worked up to these complicated setpieces — creating one of the most ambitious projects the Kimbell has ever undertaken.

  • Yolette

    Haas’s work is exquisite, even from the little I can see here. To think about extending the expression of an Archaic Greek vase painter is remarkable. I can’t wait to see the installation.
    Thanks for the interview, Jerome.