The Exhibition on Screen series has earned a stellar reputation for its documentaries, and rightly so, with portraits of a number of artists and art movements that have managed to delve deep while remaining accessible to beginners. In this episode, Phil Grabsky explores depictions of the Easter story in art. It’s a film that will particularly appeal to those already planning to celebrate Easter, for whom it provides an emotional bridge with the artists who have done so over the centuries, but there’s still plenty here to fascinate art lovers who belong to other religious traditions or nothing.
It takes a different approach to previous films in the series, sticking very closely to the biblical Easter narrative and using artwork (mostly paintings) as illustrations, reflecting on their approach to communicating the story rather than d deepen the individual works. It was pointed out early on that this was the cinema of their time – and more than that, because for centuries most Europeans had no access to art outside their churches and did not know read, so beyond their own imagination, art was their only way to visualize a story. Spectators are indirectly invited to imagine themselves in this space. The sheer number of works on display is impressive and helps communicate the overwhelming nature of such an experience, but when it comes to analysis, quantity inevitably detracts from quality.
Anyone who pays serious attention to this will have many questions. Some are specific, related to choices made regarding the direction the characters face, their clothing, or the symbols woven into the background. Then there are perceptible themes – the eroticization of Christ, his depiction as a white male with no perceptible Middle Eastern features (most of the time), the estrangement of women in some themes and their closeness in context in others. – which are significant in such a large proportion of the images that it seems strange that they are not processed. It would be unfair to fault the film simply for choosing to do things differently, but some of these omissions make it difficult to connect with the images (as opposed to the story), which means that while it may retain a emotional relevance, there are places where it lacks intellectual depth.
The parts of the film that break from this pattern are where it gets really interesting. The crucifixion itself is explored in greater depth, examining, for example, what it meant to artists to have the opportunity to paint so much bare flesh, exploring skin texture, muscle structure and injuries through a variety of techniques. There is also more emphasis here on how particular artistic interpretations influenced those that came later, with a prominent place given to true innovators such as Matthias Grünewald and Salvador Dali.
Throughout, the focus is on the Easter story as an opportunity to explore the complex emotions on the faces (and, in later paintings, the body language) of its various characters. It’s a context in which film really excels as a medium. It may not offer quite the maneuverability of direct viewing, but it does get much closer, and Grabsky directs our attention by moving from one part of an image to another as it goes. as he picks out those details. They show us something less dependent on a specific historical context and reveal how art has supported a particular way of interpreting the emotional aspects of this story over time.
If you approach this film as a believer, you’ll likely find that it enriches your experience of the season. If you already have a good grasp of the larger context of the art, you will find this to be an enjoyable curation. It is, however, less accessible to newcomers than other films in the series, so if you don’t have either of these backgrounds, there is a risk that it will impact you visually but not much more.
Reviewed on: Apr 02, 2022