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Aesthetic Differences between Brakhage Representational and Non-Representational Films

Aesthetic Differences between Brakhage Representational and Non-Representational Films

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19 May, 2017

Introduction 

Film is not all about storytelling; it is sometimes about light. This is expressed by Stan Brakhage (1933–2003) in his films, where all of his work is based on painted, scratched, hand-processed, and mostly experimented in every aspect with the intent of giving the film-viewer a new set of eyes. According to Bergan (2003), the prolific American filmmaker aimed at liberating the eye itself via the creation of an act of seeing that was previously undefined and unimagined by conventions of representation. To him, film is more than a narrative form with a start, a middle, and an end. The Brakhage films, as they are commonly referred to, are experimental, and they were presented in abstract forms. Potter (2012) contended that the rapidly moving figures and shapes of his most abstract works significantly approximate closed-eye vision. Aesthetics describes the theory of beauty and the centre of art or a film. Thus, aesthetics in representational and non-representational films represent the actual and hidden imagination of the beauty of art and photographs. The paper is based on two Brakhage films: Text of Light and The Dante Quartet, and it takes into consideration the aesthetic differences between his representational and non-representational films. 

The Films 

Both Text of Light and The Dante Quartet are Brakhage films. The Text of Light was produced in 1974, and The Dante Quartet in 1987. The Dante Quartet is a hand-painted film, whereas the Text of Light is made entirely of images of light that are refracted in a glass ashtray. Brakhage’s experimental films have provided the viewers and audience with the possibility that a world is composed of mystery and beauty, or the primordial wonder (Kashmere, 2005). Potter (2012) pointed out that “Text of Light (1974) is a 68-minute-long exploration of the light refracted through a glass ashtray—about as far away from Hollywood narrative filmmaking as one can get” (p. 1). Thus, The Text of Light is a film that is based on experimentation on how light is refracted, and to some extent, this was a paradigm shift from conventional Hollywood narrative filmmaking. 

Kashmere (2005) has explained that The Dante Quartet is composed of four distinct parts that mirror Dante’s descent into Hell. For instance, he was created through painting on celluloid, a technique that is strange and distant from cinema, resulting in rhythmic, colourful, and emotional constructions used to evoke both the apocalyptic sublime and transcendent quest. The four parts are the existence of song, purgation, Hell Spit Flexion, and Hell itself.  Each of the four frames is considered to be an abstract masterpiece on its own. The visionary possibilities of the filmic medium are, according to Sitney (2002), pushed beyond the limit. For instance, the film is without a script, actors, or soundtrack, and pure light is what is left. Brakhage is a preeminent American independent filmmaker who used the processes of layering, accumulations of details, repetition of elements, juxtapositions of unconnected images, and non-narrative series in his experimental films. For example, in The Text of Light, Brakhage used light refraction via a glass ashtray. The colour was moved and changed, and the light offered the viewer a motion picture that permeated vigorously. 

Representational and Non-Representational Films

Films can be divided into the categories of figurative (representational films) and abstract, also referred to as nonrepresentational films. Representational firms are based on figurative art, and they describe artwork, mostly paintings and sculptures, derived clearly from real object sources, which makes them representational (Lopes, 2014). The term figurative is used to imply any form of contemporary art that maintains strong references to the real world. Representational is a term used to mean figurative, descriptive, and symbolic. It is used in the film industry to depict something that is easily recognised by the majority of people. For example, both Text of Light and The Dante Quartet are Brakhage films that could, to some extent, be described as figurative or representational films. Representation is a form of communication whereby an artist is able to express his thoughts via a painting and set them in motion to produce a film. Denson (2014) contended that “an aesthetic interest in the painting is an interest in the representation as such and for its own sale—not an interest in the object represented but in the thoughts that the representation communicates and essentially is” (p. 42). Thus, the manner in which a picture is represented is the aesthetic interest of the artist. 

Non-representational films The same suggests they are not a representation of the real world. They are based on abstract art. The aim of non-representational films is to simply take the audience away from reality but at the same time present them in a manner that is different from the way in which we view them in our reality (Lopes, 2014). In some cases, they do not necessarily represent or depict a place, being, or thing as seen in the natural world. Non-representational films are based on artistic content instead of pictorial representation. For instance, Brakhage used “unnameable” non-representational forms in his films through the direct application of paint onto film stock, and in some cases, sometimes in thick impasto, in order to produce diverse fields of “pure” imagery, which he referred to as Abstract Expressionism in Motion (Elder, 2005). Thus, while non-representational films are based on abstraction, representational films often describe a physical object as it is clearly expressed in the real world. The aesthetic interest is only a representation of art if what it represents is what the audience is interested in. Scruton (1983) noted that aesthetic interest is achieved when photographs are treated as representational art.

Text of Light and The Dante Quartet: Aesthetic Differences Between Representational and Non-Representational Films

Brakhage released the film The Dante Quartet in 1987, which only runs six and a quarter minutes. Brakhage spent years studying the Commedia in order to have a concept that would be used to develop this film. Elder (2005) found out that “the painting is entirely abstract, and though its visual dynamism reminds many viewers of a Jackson Pollock painting come to life, its spiritual character suggests a closer kinship with the paintings of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Adolf Gottlieb” (p. 1). Thus, the film adopts both representational and non-representational art to create an aesthetic sense. For instance, in The Dante Quartet, Brakhage was able to express his ambition by creating an artistic vision of “moving visual thinking (Elder, 2006). As an artist, he envisioned what the majority of poets and painters have longed to achieve, which is the possibility of conveying “primordial elements” based on images rather than words. 

The Dante Quartet is complex and yet a representation of a cinematic approximation of abstract expressionism that uses hand-painted concepts to bring into motion a story. Elder (2005) contended that “as an image combining representational and nonrepresentational elements, it may not be typical of the film as a whole, but I dare say that it is what most people are likely to recall after seeing the work for the first time” (p. 28). Based on this observation, The Dante Quartet is not a typical film but one that combines both presentational and nonrepresentational elements of art. In reference to the representational aspect, Brakhage pointed out that few representational forms are present in The Dante Quartet because they are congregations of nameable forms (Danks, 2004). There is an increasing representational content found in the final parts of The Dante Quartet, such as the volcano’s lava and the planet’s horizon. This was applied to signify the return to the earth. Similarly, the text has snatchers that appear four times, and they were used to explore the world of Dante’s writing, hence making the film a representational realm (Danks, 2004). On the other hand, the layered drips and washes of colour, accompanied by scratches as well as graphic patterns, are part of the non-representational art that gives aesthetic value. 

The aesthetic potential of films, according to Elder (2006), can be achieved “only when the inherently nonrepresentational sensuous qualities themselves can be independently varied, as it is only under this condition that purely aesthetic factors can determine these relationships” (p. 30). For instance, Brakhage created non-representational forms achieved through the direct application of paint onto film stock to form pure imagery. This is a form of abstract expressionism expressed in motion (Elder, 2005). The Dante Quartet is based on photographic imagery, which is adequately used to avoid any form of depiction.  Elder (2005) further pointed out that “as an image combining representational and nonrepresentational elements, it may not be typical of the film as a whole, but I dare say that it is what most people are likely to recall after seeing the work for the first time” (p. 26). Thus, the Dante Quartet has both representational and non-representational elements that are used to produce aesthetics. For instance, in The Dante Quartet, the non-referential character is used as part of representations of congregations of nameable things. The memorable construction of the representational art provides a layer of expressionist painting, which is an expression of extraordinary beauty. For example, underneath the image, there appears to be footage of a sequence of fiery explosions. Brakhage used flames to portray the imagery of the heavenly section of the film and to keep up with the iconography of Paradiso (Elder, 2006). 

In reference to The Dante Quartet (1987), Kashmere (2005) explained that the film was “made by painting on the celluloid, a technique so strange and so far removed from what we normally consider cinema that the results have to be seen to be believed” (p. 7). For instance, the frames are a Turneresque masterpiece, and together with the texts, the darkness of hell is conveyed, while the bright lights of heaven, accompanied by an unearthly glow, are represented. As noted by Scruton (1981), this is a form of nonrepresentational film because it does not depend on nemesis to any extent. In the film, Brakhage made us depart from reality as depicted through imagery in art. Ultimately, The Dante Quartet evokes interior states and is the cinematic equivalent of closed-eye vision (Elder, 2005). The film is more about the approximation of vision, whereby Brakhage attempts to render the material world via the subconscious of the viewer through the eye. Thus, the elements of the artwork represented in the form of shape, space, and lines portray the aesthetic value of the film (Scruton, 1981). The Dante Quartet provides an obscure, idiosyncratic, and off-centre perspective that is hard to conceive. It is one of the Brakhage films that is impossible to describe or adequately remember because of its abstract nature. As a viewer, one can easily have a memory-splash of colours.

In The Text of Light, the film is almost filled with images that provide close views of refractions found in a crystal ashtray. The Text of Light (1974) is composed entirely of abstracted patterns of light that were photographed via thick, deep-green ashtray. The nature of the film is founded on a non-photographic abstract, whereby the photography is reduced by light on a photographic emulsion. Graf and Scheunemann (2007) pointed out that the film is a “frame-by-frame recording of minute changes in sunlight refracted through a large glass ashtray and other objects of glass and crystal plated in and around it” (p. 190). Thus, the filming concept and technique by Brakhage created denser and more textured images to create a story. The nonrepresentational art, according to Brakhage, produced images in an attempt to tell a kind of creation story that involved rivers, volcanoes, and mountains. The film is based on abstraction, which is pushed to unimagined extremes, thus challenging all conventional modes of perception. Graf and Scheunemann (2007) further contended that Brakhage’s aesthetic endeavours in The Text of Light go beyond modernist concerns to embrace representational art.

Light acts as intelligence, and it is on this basis that Brakhage used the concept to make The Text of Light. In addition, Brakhage, who was ‘photosensitive’, explored all the visual registers associated with light across a spectrum and used them to derive both physiological and emotional manifestations. The Text of Light has been referred to as ‘cathedrals of light’ by different authors (Elder, 2006). The Text of Light is based on the refraction of light, which is filmed via a crystal ashtray to generate an abstract representation. According to Philips (2009), “the artistic merit of the medium is the principle that the subject of a painting need not be some particular, existing thing; the subject of a painting may be fictional… fictional competence is the most important feature of representational art” (p. 324). Based on the description provided, The Text of Light was based on fictional competence, which is an important aspect of representational art. For example, in The Text of Light, Brakhage was able to peer clairvoyantly into the crystal ashtray and establish the basic makeup for the universe of shape and colour. Subsequently, Brakhage was in a position to produce a representational film and express aesthetic value via the use of lines. 

Light can be treated as a spectrum of physical phenomena and a corresponding state of consciousness. Given that aesthetics is used to imply things perceptible to the senses, light has been used to show the psychological, physiological, and cinematic significance of Brakhage’s visual aesthetics. In making the Text of Light, Brakhage placed more emphasis on the effect of light on the physiology of perception. According to Wees (1992), light flows, pools, falls in streaks, shoots upwards, and eventually follows innumerable forms in an ambiguous space that is open to infinity. In the film, some of the viewers see cities, others landscapes, forests, oceans, faces, and sunsets, while others see color, t texture, light, and rhythmical movement in the same film. Thus, as a representational film, Brakhage’s aesthetics emerge in The Text of Light

Conclusion 

Brakhage released the film The Dante Quartet in 1987, which only runs six and a quarter minutes. Brakhage spent years studying the Commedia in order to have a concept that would be used to develop this film. Elder (2005) found out that “the painting is entirely abstract, and though its visual dynamism reminds many viewers of a Jackson Pollock painting come to life, its spiritual character suggests a closer kinship with the paintings of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Adolf Gottlieb” (p. 1). Thus, the film adopts both representational and non-representational art to create an aesthetic sense. For instance, in The Dante Quartet, Brakhage was able to express his ambition by creating an artistic vision of “moving visual thinking (Elder, 2006). As an artist, he envisioned what the majority of poets and painters have longed to achieve, which is the possibility of conveying “primordial elements” based on images rather than words. 

The Dante Quartet is complex and yet a representation of a cinematic approximation of abstract expressionism that uses hand-painted concepts to bring into motion a story. Elder (2005) contended that “as an image combining representational and nonrepresentational elements, it may not be typical of the film as a whole, but I dare say that it is what most people are likely to recall after seeing the work for the first time” (p. 28). Based on this observation, The Dante Quartet is not a typical film but one that combines both presentational and nonrepresentational elements of art. In reference to the representational aspect, Brakhage pointed out that few representational forms are present in The Dante Quartet because they are congregations of nameable forms (Danks, 2004). There is an increasing representational content found in the final parts of The Dante Quartet, such as the volcano’s lava and the planet’s horizon. This was applied to signify the return to the earth. Similarly, the text has snatchers that appear four times, and they were used to explore the world of Dante’s writing, hence making the film a representational realm (Danks, 2004). On the other hand, the layered drips and washes of colour, accompanied by scratches as well as graphic patterns, are part of the non-representational art that gives aesthetic value. 

The aesthetic potential of films, according to Elder (2006), can be achieved “only when the inherently nonrepresentational sensuous qualities themselves can be independently varied, as it is only under this condition that purely aesthetic factors can determine these relationships” (p. 30). For instance, Brakhage created non-representational forms achieved through the direct application of paint onto film stock to form pure imagery. This is a form of abstract expressionism expressed in motion (Elder, 2005). The Dante Quartet is based on photographic imagery, which is adequately used to avoid any form of depiction.  Elder (2005) further pointed out that “as an image combining representational and nonrepresentational elements, it may not be typical of the film as a whole, but I dare say that it is what most people are likely to recall after seeing the work for the first time” (p. 26). Thus, the Dante Quartet has both representational and non-representational elements that are used to produce aesthetics. For instance, in The Dante Quartet, the non-referential character is used as part of representations of congregations of nameable things. The memorable construction of the representational art provides a layer of expressionist painting, which is an expression of extraordinary beauty. For example, underneath the image, there appears to be footage of a sequence of fiery explosions. Brakhage used flames to portray the imagery of the heavenly section of the film and to keep up with the iconography of Paradiso (Elder, 2006). 

In reference to The Dante Quartet (1987), Kashmere (2005) explained that the film was “made by painting on the celluloid, a technique so strange and so far removed from what we normally consider cinema that the results have to be seen to be believed” (p. 7). For instance, the frames are a Turneresque masterpiece, and together with the texts, the darkness of hell is conveyed, while the bright lights of heaven, accompanied by an unearthly glow, are represented. As noted by Scruton (1981), this is a form of nonrepresentational film because it does not depend on nemesis to any extent. In the film, Brakhage made us depart from reality as depicted through imagery in art. Ultimately, The Dante Quartet evokes interior states and is the cinematic equivalent of closed-eye vision (Elder, 2005). The film is more about the approximation of vision, whereby Brakhage attempts to render the material world via the subconscious of the viewer through the eye. Thus, the elements of the artwork represented in the form of shape, space, and lines portray the aesthetic value of the film (Scruton, 1981). The Dante Quartet provides an obscure, idiosyncratic, and off-centre perspective that is hard to conceive. It is one of the Brakhage films that is impossible to describe or adequately remember because of its abstract nature. As a viewer, one can easily have a memory-splash of colours.

In The Text of Light, the film is almost filled with images that provide close views of refractions found in a crystal ashtray. The Text of Light (1974) is composed entirely of abstracted patterns of light that were photographed via thick, deep-green ashtray. The nature of the film is founded on a non-photographic abstract, whereby the photography is reduced by light on a photographic emulsion. Graf and Scheunemann (2007) pointed out that the film is a “frame-by-frame recording of minute changes in sunlight refracted through a large glass ashtray and other objects of glass and crystal plated in and around it” (p. 190). Thus, the filming concept and technique by Brakhage created denser and more textured images to create a story. The nonrepresentational art, according to Brakhage, produced images in an attempt to tell a kind of creation story that involved rivers, volcanoes, and mountains. The film is based on abstraction, which is pushed to unimagined extremes, thus challenging all conventional modes of perception. Graf and Scheunemann (2007) further contended that Brakhage’s aesthetic endeavours in The Text of Light go beyond modernist concerns to embrace representational art.

Light acts as intelligence, and it is on this basis that Brakhage used the concept to make The Text of Light. In addition, Brakhage, who was ‘photosensitive’, explored all the visual registers associated with light across a spectrum and used them to derive both physiological and emotional manifestations. The Text of Light has been referred to as ‘cathedrals of light’ by different authors (Elder, 2006). The Text of Light is based on the refraction of light, which is filmed via a crystal ashtray to generate an abstract representation. According to Philips (2009), “the artistic merit of the medium is the principle that the subject of a painting need not be some particular, existing thing; the subject of a painting may be fictional… fictional competence is the most important feature of representational art” (p. 324). Based on the description provided, The Text of Light was based on fictional competence, which is an important aspect of representational art. For example, in The Text of Light, Brakhage was able to peer clairvoyantly into the crystal ashtray and establish the basic makeup for the universe of shape and colour. Subsequently, Brakhage was in a position to produce a representational film and express aesthetic value via the use of lines. 

Light can be treated as a spectrum of physical phenomena and a corresponding state of consciousness. Given that aesthetics is used to imply things perceptible to the senses, light has been used to show the psychological, physiological, and cinematic significance of Brakhage’s visual aesthetics. In making the Text of Light, Brakhage placed more emphasis on the effect of light on the physiology of perception. According to Wees (1992), light flows, pools, falls in streaks, shoots upwards, and eventually follows innumerable forms in an ambiguous space that is open to infinity. In the film, some of the viewers see cities, others landscapes, forests, oceans, faces, and sunsets, while others see color, texture, light, and rhythmical movement in the same film. Thus, as a representational film, Brakhage’s aesthetics emerge in The Text of Light

References List

Bergan, R (2003). Stan Brakhage’, The Guardian, pp. 1-2. 

Denson, S. (2014). Postnaturalism: Frankenstein, film, and the anthropotechnical interface. Bielefeld: Transcript.

Elder, R. B. (2005). Moving Visual Thinking”: Dante, Brakhage, and the Works of Energeia. [Online] Available at: < http://rbruceelder.com/documents/writing/bibliography/poetry/DanteBrakhageAndTheWorksOfEnergeia.pdf/> (Accessed May 19, 2017).

Elder, B. (2006). Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture. Wilfrid Laurier Univ.

Graf, A., & Scheunemann, D. (2007). Avant-garde film. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Kashmere, B. (2005) Adventures in Perception: Stan Brakhage’s Dante Quartet and the Romantic Tradition”, Splice, pp. 6-9.

Lopes, D. (2014). Beyond art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Phillips, D. (2009). Photography and Causation: Responding to Scruton’s Skepticism. The British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 49(4), pp. 327-340

Potter, B. (2012) Visionary Film: The Apocalyptic Eye of Stan Brakhage. [Online] Available at: < http://www.transpositions.co.uk/visionary-film-the-apocalyptic-eye-of-stan-brakhage/> (Accessed May 19, 2017).

Scruton, R, (1981) Photography and Representation. Critical Inquiry vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 577-603.

Scruton, R, (1983) The Aesthetic Understanding: Essays in the Philosophy of Art and Culture. South Bend, Indiana: St Augustine’s Press.

 Sitney, P.A. (2000). Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wees, W. C. (1992). Light Moving in Time: Studies in the Visual Aesthetics of Avant-Garde Film. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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