Preparatory drawing for The 39 Steps (1935) by Alfred Hitchcock
I’m always fascinated by the double artistic lives of established directors, people with a significant skill in an art form that requires the assistance of sometimes hundreds of technicians, artists, and actors. But what about their private, personal pursuits? A new book published in the UK, Art by Film Directors, is a glossy coffee table book that offers a taste of the non-film artwork by several notable filmmakers.
At 200 pages with large photos and plentiful use of white space, it’s not even remotely a comprehensive summary of the offscreen creative pursuits of even the filmmakers it addresses, much less the field in general. And reading through it, I was struck by the fairly superficial tone of the writing; a basic career summary of each director and a few paragraphs generalizing their artistic interests. Then I noticed the author, Karl French, is credited as “a writer and journalist specializing in cinema and popular culture” who has published in Esquire and written Cult Movies and This is Spinal Tap: The Official Companion. I’m sure these are fine publications and French is certainly not a bad writer, but the field is so open to serious scholarship and artistic analysis that I would have preferred a more rigorous, critical approach.
Nevertheless, this is far from fluff; the selected art works and notoriety of the directors are genuinely sound. From graphic artists like Sergei Eisenstein, Terry Gilliam and Satyajit Ray who graduated to filmmaking, to draftsmen like Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, to directors with legitimate art careers like Jean Cocteau, Mike Figgis, Peter Greenaway, and Dennis Hopper, the book includes works by 23 people in all. To his credit, French is quick to admit the book’s limitations: “[other material] could even warrant a second volume, with the inclusion perhaps of the sculptures of AndrÈ de Toth, the early paintings of John Ford, and the ceramics of Jean Renoir. . . . There are other images that one would like to have included but that have been destroyed or are otherwise unavailable–for example, the paintings that Jean-Luc Godard made when he was a teenager in Switzerland, and similarly Robert Bresson’s paintings.”
But the book includes many standout examples of mature art-making. I was particularly surprised with Hitchcock’s production sketches, not typical director storyboards (Martin Scorsese’s energetic scribbles are also included here), but fully-rendered and atmospheric drawings. Eisenstein’s sketches for Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible Part I (1945) are detailed realizations etched with a sure hand. John Huston’s lifelong love of painting produced some magnificent pieces, including the brilliantly-hued, cubist “The Spirit of St. Clerans,” which evokes his beloved hunting and fishing trips in the region. Perhaps the greatest contribution of the book is its three beautiful oil paintings (two cityscapes and a still life) by Josef von Sternberg, which it claims have never been publicly exhibited or published in any form.
Art by Film Directors is definitely an interesting and at times relevatory book that sheds light on an important and neglected subject, even if it’s easy to wish it had been more.