By promising a new approach to a director whose work has been and still is – as the author himself admits – largely discussed by film scholars, the title of Ivo Blom’s book may sound a bit pretentious. But after a closer acquaintance with its contents, the title turns out to be rather modest: the book is much more than a multilayered overview of the Italian director’s work. It is not simply about its art references, primarily pictorial and theatrical; consequently its topic is not only film and art (as the subtitle suggests), but rather, it provides a unique history of film as art. Reframing Visconti’s work through various theoretical and historical concepts, methodologies and discourses, the book uses the Italian director’s cinema itself as a frame through which the whole history of the European cinema preceding it is situated in a wider art historical context. This original perspective is mainly due to Ivo Blom’s professional profile: an art historian, a former film archivist and restorer at the Eye (the Dutch Filmmuseum), he is also an academic and film scholar actively present in the forums debating the topic of film and other arts, most recently in the framework of Intermediality studies. Accordingly, the book labelled by Blom as a “parallax historiography” (that is, revisiting and interpreting older media or earlier forms of cinema from the perspective of newer media) or “media archaeology” relies on a wide variety of discursive practices, from (art) historical contextualisation, through theoretical conceptualisation to in-depth analyses, artfully managing to keep a balance between them and providing a real adventure to the reader engaged in the “meaning-making” process promised by the book. Only a relatively small number of films by Visconti are proposed for analysis in the book – Ossessione (Obsession, 1943), Senso (1954), Rocco e is suoi fratelli (Rocco and his Brothers, 1960), Il gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963), La caduta degli dei (The Damned, 1962), Death in Venice (1971), Gruppo di famiglia in un interno (Conversation Piece, 1974) L’innocente (The Innocent, 1976). But their iconographical correlations with the cinematic and pictorial tradition are far exceeding Visconti’s work, resulting in a continuous re-framing of the films in focus. The classical, art-historical approach, deploying the terms “appropriation,” “pictorial citation” or “reproduction” is complemented by a semiotic, metapictorial perspective represented by Victor Stoichita’s 1997 work The Self-Aware Image (which, as Blom claims, has greatly influenced his approach to the films under analysis) and by the theses and categories of intermediality theory.

In fact, it seems to me that the book is built around the two categories of “intermedial references,” a term coined by Irina Rajevsky in 2005, initially coming from a literary perspective, and defined as “meaning-constitutional strategies that contribute to the media product’s overall signification.” “Individual reference” denotes the “use of own media specific means of a certain media product when referring to “a specific, individual work produced in another medium” and “system reference” to refer to a medial subsystem (another genre) “or even a medium qua system.”1 Accordingly, the first part of the book titled “Pictorial Citations, Art Directions and Costume Design in Visconti’s Films” greatly relies on individual painterly references either as “the literal presence of the paintings in the sets themselves” (Greuze’s Le Fils Puni, 1778 in The Leopard and Zoffany’s conversation pieces in Conversation Piece) or as re-staging on screen of individual paintings (most prominently the Il bacio by Francesco Hayez, 1852, in Senso). As the author argues, these individual references are used to link the narrative, the characters and the films themselves “to specific political events and aesthetic movements in contemporary European history.” (p. 28) The chapters of the first part, also revealing individual references to portraits (especially from photography, as discussed in chapter 4) and various paintings from the academic, genre tradition, as well as artistic photography serving as source of inspiration for the costumes and settings (chapter 5 and 6) primarily show how these references enriching the signification of cinematic scenes are themselves reframed by the perspective of the newer medium. It is valid for the whole book that the exhaustive descriptions of film scenes and paintings characterise by an outstanding ability to grasp the details (colours, the fashion of costumes, the function of accessories in Senso, for example) through which big cultural, historical and social correlations can be revealed and understood. The last chapter of the first part, providing one of the most inspired comparative analyses of the book on “veiling, unveiling and revealing,” besides providing sensitive, psychologically accurate interpretations of the signification of veil types and ways of using them (primarily in The Innocent, 1976) already prepares the discussions of the metapictorial, self-reflexive significations of transmediatic tropes, the focus of the second part.

The trope of veiling in The Innocent (Luchino Visconti, 1976)

While in the first part the line of thought is mainly structured along the individual references (and the system references to painterly genres and photography are secondary), the second part focuses on system references to self-reflexive pictorial and cinematic traditions of framing and mirroring. This part greatly relies on Stoichita’s aforementioned book on the metapictorial gesture of inner framing (through windows, doors, niches, mirrors), playfully reflecting upon representational techniques and traditions, stretching from the 1400s to the early modernity of 17th century Dutch painting. Cinematic in-depth staging achieved either by framing or by the representation of foreground elements (coined as parergon by Stoichita) which has the role of commenting on the background elements, thus showing much in common with the repoussoires or depth cues (objects, people or other devices meant to draw the viewer into the composition, pp.144-145) is demonstrated in a large number of examples from Visconti’s work (mainly from Obsession, The Leopard, The Damned, Senso and La Terra Trema [The Earth Trembles, 1948), but also in other  European films from the silent era (Murnau’s Der letzte Mann [The Last Laugh, 1924], Jean Renoir’s La bête humaine [1938] and Une partie de campagne [1936] or Marcel Carné’s Quai des brumes [Port of Shadows, 1942], just to name the most relevant).

The Bouquet of Flower as repoussoir in The Leopard (Luchino Visconti, 1963)

A medium-specific application of this pictorial practice, “mobile framing” is the foucs of a subsequent chapter, which deals with cinematic meaning-making strategies of various types of tracking shots in Visconti’s films, greatly indebted to Jean Renoir, whose films are also included in Blom’s historical, palimpsest-like overview. The book closes with situating the par excellence self-reflexive trope of the mirror in both Visconti’s work and the wider (classical) art and film history, starting with the paradigmatic example of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) and closing, after a series of inspired analyses of (inter-)personal confrontation types mediated by mirrors, with the case of the mirror itself as a character.

A dialogue by mirror in La terra trema (Luchino Visconti, 1948)

In the concluding chapter, trying to account for the motivation of his enormous work, Blom names it as a drive pushing him to discover the sources of Visconti’s pictorial images.  This confession reveals a thoroughly personal commitment to the task also entailing a personal gaze that guides us through art history and film history preceding Visconti. As if the Italian director’s cinema were a cathartic summing up, a sublimation of the European visual culture of many centuries. In this respect, the publishing of this book in 2017, the result of research work that has taken decades, could not be more timely: at a time when new media technologies appear almost every day, this contingency needs to be more than ever counterbalanced with the message of the eternity and stability of classical art, as well as with a testimony of its survival across media, through appropriations, referencing or convergence. Blom’s book primarily strikes with its aspiration of totality, a desire to provide a description of Visconti’s visual magic, as complete as possible. This commitment foregrounds the chosen methodology: while defining Visconti’s films as ekphrastic in a wider sense of the term – that is, using the signifiers of other media (painting, sculpture, photography, theatre, opera and literature) in illuminating the meaning of a medium (in this case the films analysed that, on their turn, shed a new light on their art references), Blom’s analyses can also be regarded as ekphrases themselves, involving a complexity of discourses, from personal accounts through historical, documentary sources to categorisations and theoretical conceptualisations. This wide variety of genres and amount of data, while impressive, can be overwhelming at times for the reader. However, at the same time, it may also attract and satisfy readers with very different backgrounds: cinéphiles, film scholars, art historians, and ultimately teachers and students, for whom the richness of examples and the accuracy of categories can provide a unique educational tool. And we have not mentioned yet the illustrations of the book, stills from films, painting and photograph reproductions: their high number and quality (also in colour), as well as illustrative value adds up to a parallel, visual historiography besides the one provided by the text. They reveal a personal history of the author’s eye mesmerized by Visconti’s visual artifice, attracting the reader into the maze of the same obsession for beauty.

Ivo Blom, Reframing Luchino Visconti: Film and Art (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018).

This work was supported by the exploratory research project Rethinking Intermediality in Contemporary Cinema: Changing Forms of In-Betweenness, code: PN-III-ID-PCE-2016-0418, funded by the UEFISCDI (Executive Unit for Financing Higher Education, Research, Development and Innovation), Romania, 2017-2019.

Endnotes:

  1. See Irina O. Rajewsky, “Intermediality, Intertextuality and Remediation: A Literary Perspective on Intermediality”, Intermedialités 6 (2005), pp. 43-64, p. 53.