Decisions, Dreams: Giotto, Fra Angelico, and John Ford

The Vision of Pope Innocent III; Saints Peter and Paul Appearing to Saint Dominic

The pictorial strategies developed in the Trecento are most generally appreciated for their innovations in the representation of geometric space. Unlike flat byzantine mosaics, Trecento pictures started to become a plane, space began to recede outwards. Paintings were becoming something like a window through which the beholder witnessed the depth of his world expanding out, drawing him in. Panofsky writes that this was “an objectification of the subjective [experience].” And yet, at the time Cimabue, Giotto, and Gaddi were experimenting, the emphasis of a painting wasn’t on the representation of a frozen moment in time. This pictorial demand came later. In the Trecento pictures worked in the service of narrative, what Alberti called the Istoria. And for this reason they’re very economical; everything has to move quickly, to imply the before and after. They use quotations and summarize as much as possible. It strikes us how multiple events can happen simultaneously in these panels. People can appear twice, performing different acts in different places, and this isn’t a contradiction.

 

The Vision of Pope Innocent III; Saints Peter and Paul Appearing to Saint Dominic

Fra Angelico,“The Vision of Pope Innocent III; Saints Peter and Paul Appearing to Saint Dominic“, Tempera on panel, ca. 1452–55

 

A few frescos and predella-panels by Giotto, Gozzoli, and Fra Angelico depict a story called „The Dream of Pope Innocent III.“ They were all commissioned by Franciscan orders to visually imagine the community’s most important foundational story. Pope Innocent III had initially denied St. Francis’s request to form an order of monks. The church was then in crisis, and Innocent III was trying to hold it together by maintaining a central papal authority. A legend claimed the Pope dreamt later that night of the Lateran Basilica falling, and of St. Francis propping it up. It was then that he changed his mind. Le Monnier recounts; „‚Truly,‘ cried the Pontiff, ‚this is indeed the man who has been called to sustain and to repair the Church of God.'“

 

Giotto, "Legend of St Francis: 6. Dream of Innocent III", Frescoe, ca. 1297-99, in the San Francesco, Assisi

Giotto, „Legend of St Francis: 6. Dream of Innocent III“, Fresco, ca. 1297-99, in the San Francesco, Assisi

 

These works show the pope sleeping, dreaming. His dream is conveniently always shown right next to him, in the very same panel. These artists weren’t forced to create a panel for the dreamer and another for the dream. In Giotto’s fresco in Assisi the Basilica is about to fall on Pope Innocent III, though it doesn’t seem to have any weight. Most other renditions of the scene show the church cracking somewhere, but this basilica is completely in tact. Even its foundation tilts, or is raised above the ground level by Francis’s confident right arm. There is something unbelievable about the threat. It looks less like Francis is supporting the church than he is lifting it off the ground with one hand, as if it were a nearly life-size model made of foamcore. And note the entrance; it’s too small for Francis to enter. To give Giotto a bit of license, though, we all know how malleable space can become in our dreams.

 

Giotto, St. Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, Tempera and gold on panel, ca. 1295-1300

Giotto, „St. Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata,“ Tempera and gold on panel, ca. 1295-1300

 

A portico’s pillar splinters in the predella to his “St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata.” The church seems to fall as much in the direction of the viewer as it does onto the pope. Here Francis does not seem so confident, using both hands and an outstretched leg to brace it. Our eyes don’t only read left to right, as in the fresco, but from foreground to background (note the receding line of pillars inside the church). There’s a black void where it’s foundation should be. As in his fresco, the floor is tilted at the same angle as the rest of the church. But there’s no ambiguity, here, as to whether or not St. Francis is lifting the church. He’s most certainly breaking under it, about to snap like the pillar. He was not a super-human miracle-worker but a humble saint. When asked by Brother Messeo why the brothers should follow Francis he responded; „Wouldst thou know why all men come after me? Know that it is because the Lord, who is in heaven, who sees the evil and the good in all places – because, I say, his holy eyes have found among men no one more wicked, more imperfect, or a greater sinner than I am; and to accomplish the wonderful work which he intends to do, he has found no creature more vile than I am on earth; for which reason he has chosen me, to confound all strength, beauty, greatness, noble birth, and all the science of the world, that men may learn that every virtue and every good gift cometh from him, and not from any creature, that none may glory before him; but if any one glory, let him glory in the Lord, to whom belongeth all glory in eternity.“ This predella always appears first in the series, it is both the cornerstone of the order’s identity and the architectural cornerstone upon which the entire panel rests. St. Francis holds the Basilica in place in the Pope’s dream as this composition holds the panel in place. To witness this act is not to behold an imagination of the miraculous, like the great mysterium of theology in Angelico’s Annunciations, but rather it demands its viewer conjure in faith the fortitude to not bow under the pressure of the world.

 

Fra Angelico, „Coronation of the Virgin,“ ca. 1434–1435

 

Angelico’s versions, made a century and a half after Giotto’s, are more nightmarish, the predella to the „Coronation of the Virgin“ in particular. It was an early work. (The other two versions Angelico made follow Gozzoli’s composition, which more strictly demarcate the space between the dream and the dreamer.) In this first predella the open view from the Pope’s bed turns the drama of Francis’s brace into a theater. The flowers of the meadow which have been so carefully rendered will get smashed if Francis grows tired (Pope Innocent will remain outside the path of destruction, though). Angelico elongated the distances between things in a creepy, expansive way. This is intensified by the details of the pink Basilica. Just look at its molding, the flutes of the engaged columns and their faint ornamentation. They’re going to imprint themselves into the soft meadow if he falters. And there is yet another grouping of flowers we can see to the left of Pope Innocent III’s chamber, and just beyond them there is a slim view of an entry way, maybe its a passage to the tall cylindrical tower in the distance. Why all of these details in such a small predella, why so many places for the eye to run away to? Amidst these distractions, St. Francis maintains his focus. The threat of an architectural catastrophe is held confidently in all these images; their economy is so well suited against the threat of disintegration. They don’t make a spatial appeal to us the way Masaccio will, who becomes a victim to the precision of his schemata, a delicacy always on the verge of being shattered. No, these pictures of St. Francis are allowed to set their own rules. They express a confidence in their logic, a certainty that the myth of Francis of St. Francis holding up the Laterna Basilica in Pope Innocent III’s dream will endure the tests of time.

 

Fra Angelico, Detail of the predella with the Dream of Innocent III, in "Coronation of the Virgin," ca. 1434–1435

Fra Angelico, Detail of the predella with the Dream of Innocent III, in „Coronation of the Virgin,“ ca. 1434–1435

 

While looking at all these early renaissance paintings John Ford kept coming to my mind. „When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.“ Ford’s films often tell two stories at the same time; they create a myth and break it apart simultaneously. They don’t ‚deconstruct‘ myths so much as they provide insights on the ways we create them, the ways we depend on them. Like Giotto and Angelico, Ford shows us the dreamer and the dream in a single work. 

How Green Was My Valley? is an exemplary case; the main character Huw narrates his childhood in a mining town on the coast of Wales with a nearly pathological idealism. Like his family and his fellow townspeople he cannot adapt to change. This ineptitude ultimately tears his family apart, destroys the church, forces his brothers run away to America, and climaxes with his fathers death inside the mine. And in the face of all this Huw maintains a myopic fantasy. The film begins as the mine has dried up and Huw is literally forced to leave his hometown of barren economic necessity. Nonetheless his narration begins; “I am leaving behind me fifty years of memory. Memory… Who shall say what is real and what is not? Can I believe my friends all gone when their voices are a glory in my ears? No. And I will stand to say no and no again, for they remain a living truth within my mind. There is no fence nor hedge around time that is gone. You can go back and have what you like of it… So I can close my eyes on my valley as it was.”

 

John Ford, How Green Was My Valley?

John Ford, How Green Was My Valley?

 

Lesser interpreters have condemned this film as Ford’s idealization of proletariat life, painting a pretty picture of industrial misery, saying that life is all a matter of the attitude you take towards it. Nearly the entire film is in a first-person narration (Tag Gallagher notes that only Max Ophüls Letters to an Unknown Woman employs this radical narratorial format), and perhaps this is why so many viewers have mistakenly viewed this film as pessimistic naivety. This is because they identify Ford’s vision of the world with Huw’s. But Gallagher shows how clearly Ford isn’t identifying with, nor subjecting his audience to an identification with, Huw’s idealism. Rather, the film looks over his shoulder. We see Huw’s attempt to idealize his life in a critical relief to the brutal events transpiring. Huw witnesses his father die in the mine, and yet a few scenes later the father is walking with him through the valley, greeted by his brothers who left for work in America long ago. We empathize with Huw’s ideation but are not absorbed by it. The subjective is objectified. We see the dreamer dreaming and we see his dream. 

 

John Ford, How Green Was My Valley?

John Ford, How Green Was My Valley?

 

How Green Was Huw’s Valley? It might have been quite green, but it has long since been buried beneath layers of soot. Ford’s genius is his ability to show the grass and the soot.  And like these pictures of St. Francis and Pope Innocent III dreaming, in Ford’s films duality isn’t a contradiction, it is their realism. 

Industrie und Fotografie

He who worked at the drill engaged in conversation with our guide.

I was up very early so I walked in the sun along the Rhine instead of taking the U-bahn to the cinema. As I got there Professor and the projectionist were in the middle of a conversation; Professor told me the projectionist was claiming a lone Canadian goose had driven out the previous inhabitants of a shelter floating in the Alter Hafen we overlooked from the balcony outside the cinema, only he wasn’t anywhere to be found that morning. Apparently an invasive species of Canadian geese had been displacing the local population in recent years. The projectionist said that he had read in the newspaper earlier that week that most species of birds go through a yearly phase called ‘Schwingemauser’, which he didn’t know how to translate into English, wherein they regenerate the majority of their wing-feathers used for flying and gather together under bridges and over-passes to make use this phase of vulnerability and down-time by mating. Canadian geese do not go through this phase but regenerate their wing-feathers all year long, the projectionist told us, and so they’ll settle in nesting grounds they assume to have been abandoned, or at least unoccupied, which is what probably happened with the shelter we were looking at. He seemed impressed with himself for knowing so many details about this matter, but also as if he wanted to play it down, to not show us how surprised he was that this bit of knowledge he’d picked up had proven relevant, preferring to think of himself as the kind of person who just ‘knows things’ and could talk with the same authority about any number of issues, and in fact does so all the time, so he briskly hung his kimono on a hook near the railing and went in to prepare the days screenings. As the other students began showing up the projectionist’s brother, who worked at the ticketing booth, came out to the balcony and when Professor asked him if he knew anything about this goose the brother laughed and said it was probably all made-up; where was this supposed goose anyways? This only further piqued Professors interests in the matter. Although it was time to move on and begin the day, Professor’s smirk gave the impression that this controversy wasn’t necessarily settled for him, that if he’d continue investigating it more inconsistencies would come up and point towards further lines of inquiry, but that for now these questions would just have to serve as a happy reminder of the many disclosures life opens up when you poke around a bit. After the others arrived and we had shuffled into the screening room, after placing our phones in a cardboard box, Professor began the day with an obituary he’d written a few years back; “The stated function of this archive was disarmingly simple: the study, through comparison and contrast, of the history or development of the architecture of industrial production. Such a clear statement of purpose. Such well-defined use-value. But for whom? To whom is this archive useful?”

The film began with fuzzy audio and without an image either, and we sat in the darkness for a good fifteen minutes before the tutor realized something was wrong and knocked on the door of the booth to notify the projectionist. The digitized film began playing again, this time without complications. The malfunction we witnessed, however, would later seem to have been an intended part of the program as we screened two different versions of D.W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat, both of which showed a scene we all assumed at first to be a single negative stuck in the shutter without burning, of frozen sharecroppers waiting in line to buy bread at the bakery. It was only in the second version, the fidelity of which both clarified and complicated this phenomenon, that the seven-something seconds which had previously appeared to be a single frame repeating did in fact show the movement of time, of bodies having been directed to wait and stay incredibly still as though posing to be photographed by an insensitive plate-negative that necessitated a long exposure time. A sign near the cashier’s table read; “Owing to the advance in the price of flour the usual 5ct loaf will be 10cts.” It seems quite literal in hindsight, that Griffith must have staged this tableaux to monumentalize the immobility felt by the residents of whatever made up midwestern farm-town this story posits as the rural district in its microcosm of the industrial, capitalist economy, who could no longer afford the product they themselves grew on account of its price being determined by its value on the global stock exchange via Chicago. Though I wonder now what it would have been like in 1909 to have seen this in theaters when many of Griffith’s more well-known techniques hadn’t been adopted repeatedly enough to become the conventions of cinema, when his and all forms of filmic story-telling were still foreign, what experience was then possible and not foreclosed upon by the accumulated expectations every following generation had inherited and passed down. Having been the one-hundred and twenty-fifth film Griffith made that year, working with an absolute ferocity to pioneer all of the yet untested potential in the medium, he was bound to invent such oddities. It was our inability to experience this one as anything other than a mechanical mistake that seemed to me, in the times I later reflected upon my experiences that day, so bleak. This apparently frozen frame, seven seconds of time as though yet unfurled, never again to be re-used, must have once aimed like a forking path towards the unrealized possibilities of a cinema composed of such techniques not able to be instrumentalized amongst others equally unprecedented, lying in wait, to represent time not just as past but as potential. On that morning the stuttering could only be traced backwards, down along that seemingly inevitable and necessary chain of events that have condemned this medium to focus all its energies on reinventing the same formulaic dynamism captivating enough to resolve the contradictions and placate the discontents yielded by the very system of production and exchange Griffith aimed to represent in his film about the growing and selling of wheat when this was all then in its infancy and it was still possible, I imagine, to dream with films.

As Harun Farocki’s Industrie und Fotografie began playing through the once more plugged in cables, before the choreographed caesuras in Griffith’s film echoed the days first malfunctions, the possible significance I might have tried giving this moment of stillness was swiftly surrendered to his tour de force of narration. How this author, under the commission of the German mining industry, could weave together such a tightly-bound web of texts, images, technical knowledge and histories seemed to me supra-human, as though his life had up to this point been destined for such activity. The significant information about the history of mining in the Rhineland, the evolution of different methods of extraction and processing coal and steel, the typological study of furnaces and cooling towers, the industry’s effect on the local population, and so on and so forth were all rendered a poetic romance of causality and ingenuity. Its coherence and organization were likewise so compelling that later, in trying to process this experience, I found myself asking who his precedents were, whose films he could watch the way I wanted to watch his, breaking down every detail, transcribing the scripts, going through the source material, trying to find how each element functioned in relation to one another, what logic was organizing it all. So unprecedented, it seemed Farocki had reinvented the medium the way Griffith had, only not from an aesthetic disposition towards that which could still be invented but with a retrospective gaze backwards, to rediscover in it a method of analysis. Despite his films essayistic program, I experienced in it an echo of what the French painter Paul Cezanne had said about his landscapes in the Aix Provence, a quotation Farocki’s professor Jean Marie Straub was so fond of; “There is fire in those boulders, I want to release it.” Before Griffith’s film showed us the labour of tilling the topsoil, Farocki took us deep down into a subterranean network of slowly chiseled out passageways, illuminated only by the workers sodium headlamps and frozen in images by magnesium flashes, where workers sought out veins of solar activity preserved in veins of coal, bringing out into daylight the petrified sunlight of a million years past. And so this is a way to say Farocki’s work is a matter of practical industry interacting with something very superhuman like aesthetic contemplation. Deep down the camera was seeing things for the first time, and so Farocki was seeing it as though for the first time, and showing us how to see it as though for the first time. Yet the only thing that was new in this world was the setting, the atmosphere. Because as in the world above deep down in the mines below the order of industrial production and factory labor had reinstated itself; the workers task was to oversee the machines transformation of nature. From this drudgery unfolded the contradictory dialectic of modern industry; its unceasing capacity to outmode its own productive powers, a permanent revolution in which we venture to evermore remote locations, in this instance deeper into the earth, making contact, as though for the first time as a species, with cosmic time like Titans. But we are unable take credit for or feel an accomplishment from these achievements. On the contrary, in the face of these explorations we feel only ever further estranged from ourselves, as though in direct relation to the colossal magnitude of what industry has made possible, and anyways the metric of every achievement comes with the near certainty of its being outdone in the not-so-distant future, a gain which will again be witnessed as though by conflicted bystanders.

As capitalism imprinted itself in both seen and unseen places, Farocki’s self-assigned agenda with this film was not only to explore the network of mines in mountains but also the network of social relations that, like the conventions of Griffith’s techniques, had become so omnipresent as to be invisible and forgotten. Farocki had to mine the industry of culture, to travel through the time in space of textual and photographic documents, to assemble them in such away as to allow their formation to speak through his film. The profundity of my experience of his film was that the industry of mining was speaking to me, not Farocki. The German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher (it was in tribute to Hilla’s passing that Professor had written the obituary he’d begun the day with) spent their lives photographing the industrial architecture Farocki was studying in this film, and like him they, too, were not interested in the possible artistic reception of their work, nor in the possibility of its archival function, claiming these were both just byproducts. Rather, they labored with the same urgency as Farocki to preserve the world and the economy disappearing before their eyes because of some intuitive certainty it was of grave importance. So it is only fitting that Farocki discusses them at some length in his film while describing the different mechanisms in blast furnaces, using their photographs as case studies to demonstrate aesthetic and mechanical variations in the different structures and processing plants. I think he felt a great affinity and solidarity with their work. The second subject of his film had been, as its title tells us, photography, which always looks back as industry moves forward. Being an industrial, chemical method of picture making, photography was modernities answer to the crisis of memory, and ended up serving to replace this discarded function with its fidelity and exactitude. What bound Bernd and Hilla and Harun together was working in the shadow of this paradox, having to look at the world being left behind and knowing that it wouldn’t be remembered because it couldn’t be, because it is industry’s nature to move ceaselessly on without looking back. Farocki used the Kölner Dom as an example of something being photographed so often that it becomes meaningless; a supra-historic cypher turned every day into an empty sign. Conversely, the Becher’s aim had been to photograph as many similar, pragmatically-built objects as possible, such that they could each appear to be variations of an imagined ideal, achieving a meaningful difference in subtle variations. The precision of their work following a typographical organization seems to invoke photography’s antithetical disposition towards memory, which is not divided and stored and then applied according to scientific or taxonomical orders but by some quintessentially human faculty the romantics and then Proust tried so hard to understand, activated not by a determined choice but evoked in the face of danger, joy, and the great and true emotions, which were all susceptible to changing course by this involuntary relation.

Towards the end of the forty minute long film, again unaware to the projectionist, the laptop’s battery warning light signaled and a few minutes later the film stopped running. After it was charged back up there remained less than a minute left in the film; a single shot made from a car wandering out of a processing plant campus into the hills of the Ruhrgebiet, showing vistas of the once fertile landscape now off limits to industry. A few weeks after this screening I read, by chance, another story about mining in the Rhineland, this one by Johann Peter Hebel called Unverhoffetes Wiedersehen, originally published for a German Almanac to be read on the Thirteenth of December in 1811 alongside valuable information about the arrival of new seasons, the waxing and waning of the moon, its effects on the tides, the likelihood of rainfall, and other vital information of serious consequence to farmers, whose life-preserving activity had to be kept in sync with our planets movement through the cosmos. A young man engaged to be married dies trapped in a mine, only to be unearthed fifty years later looking as if he’d fallen asleep just an hour ago, his body preserved in the deoxygenated chamber by the naturally abundant sulphate salts and iron vitriol. To describe the passage of time in which the young mans body had died but not decayed Hebel wrote, “Unterdessen wurde die Stadt Lissabon in Portugal durch ein Erdbeben zerstört, und der Siebenjährige Krieg ging vorüber, und Kaiser Franz der Erste starb, und der Jesuitenorden wurde aufgehoben und Polen geteilt, und die Kaiserin Maria Theresia starb, und der Struensee wurde hingerichtet, Amerika wurde frei, und die vereinigte französische und spanische Macht konnte Gibraltar nicht erobern. Die Türken schlossen den General Stein in der Veteraner Höhle in Ungarn ein, und der Kaiser Joseph starb auch. Der König Gustav von Schweden eroberte russisch Finnland, und die Französische Revolution und der lange Krieg fing an, und der Kaiser Leopold der Zweite ging auch ins Grab. Napoleon eroberte Preußen, und die Engländer bombardierten Kopenhagen, und die Ackerleute säeten und schnitten. Der Müller mahlte, und die Schmiede hämmerten, und die Bergleute gruben nach den Metalladern in ihrer unterirdischen Werkstatt.” After his exhumation nobody in the town but his former bride could recognize him; all his relatives had died long ago. Upon seeing him she was finally able to grieve her loss. This corpse kept young, if in appearances only, alone sealed deep beneath the earth while fifty years of world historical events unfolded, only to be dug up and beheld as a cypher indexing time having changed because it had not at all, seemed then like a perfect analogue to Farocki and the Becher’s projects to chemically preserve foreclosed industry in silver-gelatin, if only for the sake that our memories wouldn’t hold them otherwise. These archives then began to appear to me to have value in relation to our society’s ability make sense of itself through them, only negatively, by asking what is now not going to be held onto, what of the world we make will be outmoded by the progress of the coming generations ingenuity and will be forgotten by them too. A certain desperation ensues, a confusion and deep uncertainty. The lack of an archival function and the pre-determined aesthetic program to their works then became not more than a backdrop for the lyrical excess spilling out of their images’ rigorous fixation on what can be seen in industry foregone; of leafless tree branches, of rusting security gates, the Rhineland’s softbox sky, of concrete solarized by the acid rain their smoke stacks had once fed. Because if one were to rewrite Hebel’s story with the archive of the Becher’s and Farocki’s works being the young mans body, an index preserved through the passing of 50 years, the series of events necessary to describe the passing of time wouldn’t be a drama worthy of Hebel’s account, but could only befit the hollowed-out homogeneity their archives drown in; the gradual dissolving of all forms of international workers solidarity movements, endless proxy wars by geo-political competitors in poor countries, the reorganization of industry to ever-further ends of the earth, increasingly automated methods of production, the liquidation and investment of all forms of capital, the algorithmization of trade, the planet-wide exhaustion of natural resources (and more wars in more poor countries because of this), the further extension of the police state into every aspect of what was once considered our private lives… in short, ever-more ingenious ways of concretizing the current forms of social relations as the sum-total of all human activity cycles itself out into the ether. Unsurprisingly this situation has resulted in a society very poor in experience, unable to transmit its way of life to the next generation except in bad faith by reciting it all like parodying a technical manual.

After the film ended we left this windowless box and broke for lunch. I walked through the sunny foyer down to the basement to the restroom, which was lit with these blue-purplish tinted fluorescent tubes I’d noticed being installed in public places. The light reflecting off all the glossy ceramic tiled walls and flooring, matted by residual streaks of cleaning product indexing clockwise orders, created an ethereal, shadowless ambient. One might think this otherworldly luminescence was installed to make something unseen visible for inspection, like the ultraviolet lights television programs show us detectives using at crime scenes. But the purpose of this light, I already knew, was the opposite. It floods the room with blue to prevent anything blue from being distinguished as such, specifically veins. This tint renders the whole exterior surface of the human body a homogenous, glowing alabaster to dissolve the naturally occurring contrast between the fleshy tone of our skin and the purple veins circulating blood just beneath it. Such a cold and anonymous deferral, so gentle and unspoken it can pretend to hardly exist, this method of drug prevention seems to have been inspired by nightmares where no amount of struggle will free a dreamer from his peril because certain fundamental laws of nature like gravity suddenly stop functioning the way they used to. This new form of passive-aggression, knowable only by those whom it addresses by way of dismissal, I imagined to be a literal blueprint for the further diminution of what remains of our sensual coordination, set in place to control a minority of the population we don’t even hardly ever think about. Not even practical, those desperate and dopesick enough will attempt to inject and cure themselves in the privacy of these rooms regardless, only without coordination and so tearing themselves up in the process. Like the boarded up adits in the hills of the Ruhrgebiet closed off to the milling of industry, everything here seems to go on in spite of itself, as if cynically, just to show what isn’t possible anymore.

 

for China and Molly Maguire