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Review: Butchers, Dragons, Gods & Skeletons at the Kimbell

by Jerome Weeks 27 Jul 2009 9:31 AM

The Kimbell’s new digital show — ‘Butchers, Dragons, Gods & Skeletons’– is a jaw-dropper and an eye-dazzler. This is cinema and theater, painting and puppetry.



In Butchers, Dragons, Gods & Skeletons, the current exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum, director Philip Haas immerses viewers in miniature worlds — ancient Greece, a Chinese Buddhist temple, the splendor of a Baroque hall, a dark stroll through James Ensor’s brain. Haas selected five period paintings from the Kimbell’s permanent collection and built film installations around them. He’s extended the painted works into elaborate, theatrical experiences complete with stage sets and cinematic narratives about the artist, the surfaces and purposes of painting, the sources of creativity.

In chronological order, the five works that Haas chose to reinterpret are:The Death of Pentheus, a Greek wine cup from the 5th century B.C.; Arhat Taming the Dragon, a painted Chinese scroll by an unknown artist in the 14th century; Annibale Caracci’s The Butcher Shop (circa 1582); Giovanni Tiepolo’s canvas, Apollo and the Continents, from 1739 (one of several versions of this subject he did as a ceiling fresco) and James Ensor’s grimly funny 1889 oil, Skeletons Warming Themselves

Haas has transformed these paintings into magic lantern shows, into shadow plays and puppet theater, and he has brought them all — even the Kimbell itself — into our hi-def, stereo-surround, digitally projected age. Butchers & Dragons is more than a Pygmalion project; it doesn’t simply “bring the paintings to life.” The installations continually shift, they play with the two-dimensional turning into the three-dimensional — and back again.

smaller carracciConsider the simplest piece: Carracci’s The Butcher Shop (above). It’s not easy to explain these installations in a few sentences, so a year and a half ago, after Haas pitched his ideas to the Kimbell’s deputy director, Malcolm Warner, Haas was given seed money to develop a more complete presentation. Rather than craft a PowerPoint demonstration, Haas took the money to London, where he has worked for years on such films as Angels & Insects and where he knows theater and film professionals. Haas created The Butcher Shop as a stand-alone solo work, a seven-and-a-half-minute short. It has proved a very effective calling card; it was hailed last year at both the Toronto and Venice film festivals.

The Butcher Shop appears on two screens in a darkened, fairly conventional projection room. But viewers sit between the two screens with the butchers and the hanging meat on one side, the artist and his easel on the other. In this way, Haas puts us in the shop with Carracci himself (above, left) and his subjects, a situation that he jokingly underscores when he has the young butchers clowning around. Carracci walks over — essentially walking past us — to admonish them, “No more jokes.” (Video recommendation: Because the video clips are beautifully detailed but sometimes rather dark, if you can run them in the  “full screen” mode, you get a better impression of what they’re like.)

Scene from Arhat Taming the Dragon

That’s actually one of the simpler bits of cinematic sleight-of-hand and fourth-wall breaking that Haas pulls. Butchers & Dragons is an ambitious and skillful piece of work, one that keeps topping its own technical challenges, brilliantly succeeding in entertaining, enlightening and exciting. To be blunt: It’s a jaw-dropper and an eye-dazzler. The exhibition takes over large portions of the Kimbell’s gallery space (and more). The five works stand in different corners (and the auditorium), while many of the Kimbell’s other works are clustered around the appropriate installations, providing context and comparison: Ancient Greek vases stand near The Death of Pentheus, Chinese scrolls are next to Arhat Taming the Dragon, Giovanni Tiepolo’s other paintings are displayed alongside his Apollo and the Continents.

Scholars and museum purists may find this multi-media folderol a distraction, just more easy-access Hollywood treatments of art. After all, Butchers & Dragons features a “bio-pic” of James Ensor’s gothic life, haunted as it was by skeletons and masks and a drunken father. The Death of Pentheus, based on a Greek wine cup, includes a demonstration of how Greek pottery and wine were made — like a History Channel re-enactment — while the faded scroll, Arhat Taming the Dragon (above), is transformed into a colorful little Chinese fable staged with painted backdrops and cardboard waves.

So why aren’t the paintings themselves, alone, enough? They are — as paintings. But there are different ways to interpret and experience a work of art. And this way often feels utterly new. The installations, for instance, offer a feast of art-history references, illuminating their painted inspirations in a richly “knowing” fashion. Carracci’s bare-chested young butchers pose with the carcasses — clearly, a joke about beefcake and beef but also a homage to Francis Bacon’s portraits-with-meat. The adolescent Ensor is taunted by a line of masked revelers, an image quoting one of his own adult paintings, Masks Confronting Death (below). On one wall in Apollo and the Continents, Tiepolo himself appears at his easel, echoing his 1726 work, Alexander the Great and Campaspe in the Studio of Apelles.

smaller MercuryOne hardly needs to catch the inside jokes to enjoy Butchers & Dragons. The shorts are gorgeously filmed, and the installations also provide a vividly direct, sensual contact with the art of painting itself — as in The Butcher Shop, when Haas cross-cuts between the butchers and the painter, between the gutted meat and Carracci’s palette, thick with blood-red paint. Tiepolo’s Apollo and the Continents, becomes, here, a droll commentary on the place of art patrons: It seems they ascend into heaven.

In particular, Arhat Taming the Dragon is a delightful, “mirroring” fable. The Buddhist monk-painter paints the scroll — magically causing the dragon to come to three-dimensional life. It’s a comic, highly artificial fable with a puppet hawk and puppet dragon (courtesy of Blind Summit Theatre). And the entire story appears on a thin film screen, hanging in the Kimbell gallery from the very same shrine that appears in the short. (It was filmed using a Cinemascope, or anamorphic lens, and the camera was placed on its side. Hence, the long, tall, scroll-like shape.) So we stand before a temple-within-a-temple, watching a scroll-within-a-scroll.

In all this, Haas hasn’t plucked any low-hanging fruit. Excluding Ensor’s Skeletons Warming Themselves, Haas didn’t select the better-known Kimbell masterpieces, dramatic scenes like Caravaggio’s The Card-Sharps. He’s amplified ‘lesser-known’ works. He’s found all of this humor and drama and death in works that most of us have passed by.

Or at least, I have, anyway. The Tiepolo, for example, isn’t really a ceiling painting; it’s a proposal for one, a drawing. So Haas decided to realize Tiepolo’s planned fresco by re-creating the Milanese painter as a wired-up master of cinematic trickery. Apollo and the Continents is a Baroque piece of godlike showmanship. It’s an entire room of projections, walls and ceiling, all the surfaces full of tromple l’oeil and foreshortening effects with real columns and cornices topped by a video-screen pantheon of topless goddesses and satyrs. Some are in the flesh, some chalk-white as though they’re stone statues. Over here’s a live owl; over there’s a stuffed ostrich. What is real, what is false, what is alive, what is theater, what is film, what is art: These are much the same games as in Arhat Taming the Dragon, but they’re done in a way that puts us inside the puzzle box as the entire cosmos is created by Apollo. It’s as grand and as fake as an operatic set, yet we stand in Apollo and the Continents, letting it flow over and around us, transported.

Scenes from Skeletons Warming Themselves

Much like both Apollo and The Butcher Shop, Ensor’s Skeletons puts us inside the work, too — but this time, inside the artist himself, inside his imagination. Haas has fashioned a room-sized skull as the projection room, a skull made to look as though it were constructed of papier-mache — just like one of the carnival masks sold in Ensor’s parents’ store in Ostend. On four screens inside the skull, we witness Ensor’s life flash before him as he dies, a life glimpsed as a series of nightmarish vignettes: a childhood incident of a giant bird attacking Ensor in his cradle, Ensor’s father providing one of the models for both his 1885 oil, The Drunkards and his 1883 painting, The Scandalized Masks, and so on.

While the other installations’ concerns are aesthetic, historical, even cosmological, the Ensor is the only one whose focus is psychological. In most of the installations, revelry and death appear in some form — as do food and paint (and even monkeys). But here, the revelry and death are foregrounded in Ensor’s macabre humor. Death is a childhood chum, a cackling mask, a night terror, a satiric folk figure japing at the Belgian grotesques all around it.

A pity that Butchers & Dragons will come down Oct. 25 — a few days before El Dia de los Muertos would suit the Ensor so perfectly.

The only weak point in Butchers & Dragons is The Death of Pentheus. Haas trips himself up with his own cleverness. He has teased out narratives from these paintings and he’s tried to make the story and the overall film and set construction suit each artist, each work. But he also tries to up the ante, to do something more (or different) each time. And the challenge of transposing a Greek vase painting to film and to fill in the mythological background of Pentheus’ death has led to a fussy work.

Perhaps that’s because, ironically, the Douris wine cup is the only one of these painted items that already had its own narrative — from Euripides’ play, The Bacchae. King Pentheus attempts to suppress the growing new cult of Dionysus, which involves seeking the divine, the anti-rational, through bacchanalian frenzy. But Pentheus has insulted the god, and Dionysus allows his followers, including Pentheus’ own mother, to think he is a deer and tear him apart like a cannibal sacrifice.

The Pentheus installation is also the only one displayed in a room designed for film presentations (the Kimbell’s auditorium). Yet The Death of Pentheus doesn’t have nearly the impact it should. That’s partly because, compared to the immersive experiences of the other installations, Pentheus remains distant and stage-y. Haas wanted to find some contemporary, cinematic equivalent to the way Douris related Pentheus’ story around the circumference of the wine cup. But the floating, disk-like image that’s projected on the auditorium stage requires viewers to get up very close to catch anything going on, and it still seems more of a curiosity, a minor piece of magic.

Scenes from The Death of Pentheus

For Friedrich Nietzsche, the story of Pentheus’ death in a bacchanalian frenzy is one of the two, originating myths, one of the forces behind ancient Greek culture — balanced by the shining beauty and reason of Apollo (who appears, naturally, in the Tiepolo ceiling).

But to the legend of the Bacchae, Haas adds all of the silhouetted wine-making and pottery-firing. He neatly details similarities between the two arts  — just as he did with painting and meat-cutting in The Butcher Shop. Yet Pentheus is the only instance in Butchers & Dragons that — in adding materials and background references and a digitalized interpretation — Haas actually detracts from the graceful simplicity of the original. He overreaches, over-complicates.

Still, taken as a whole, Butchers & Dragons is a splendor — audacious, challenging, gorgeous. And it’s free. It’s a big, bold, smart move, a much smarter multi-media extravaganza than the touring King Tut, which used videos to prop up an exhibition that lacked some major pieces and clearly aimed to cash in at all costs. By all rights, Butchers & Dragons should be the real blockbuster; it’s a benchmark for what a small, classically-based (and well-funded) collection like the Kimbell can do.

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