The Artist’s Choice

Published September 11, 2020 on Degree Critical.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818), oil on canvas, 37.3 in × 29.4 in. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The Wanderer looks ahead. The tails of his dusky green frock coat ruffle in the wind as he summits a hilltop, his left leg forward and his knee slightly bent, casually holding a walking stick in his right hand. The sharp, craggy edges of the cliff are wet and lustrous under his feet. One can only imagine the expression on the Wanderer’s face––his back is turned and so it is hidden from the viewer’s eye. Maybe it’s an expression of a conqueror’s victorious joy, or maybe one of solitude, isolation, or inconsolable melancholia. He is looking ahead, through an endless sea of mist, the hills of Bohemia along the Elbe Sandstone Mountains peeking through the murk, and the invisible horizon lost within the fog.

The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, completed in 1818 by Caspar David Friedrich, the German master of Romantic landscape, centers the Wanderer standing on the high peak of the Kaiserkrone in Saxony, with a somber North European landscape below him, peaks and lowlands in the vastness ahead. Friedrich compiled the composition from his sketches of mountains and hilltops around Germany, Switzerland and Czechia into this idealized scene. It shows nature as a sublime force in all its glory, overwhelming and terrifying. The Wanderer’s hidden gaze and the veiling fog further obfuscate its depths. Figures like the Wanderer in German Romantic painting constitute a compositional device—particularly associated with Friedrich himself—called a Rückenfigur, a person seen from behind. The Rückenfigur opens up a secondary perspective on the landscape, a similar, but not identical, point of view than that of the viewer. The figure’s presence at the same time reveals and conceals the artwork’s meaning. His stance on the rock symbolizes the viewer’s own gaze, signifies nature’s grandeur by virtue of his diminutive presence, provides a glimpse into humankind’s relationship with both solitude and the future unknown, and represents an explorer of new physical and mental territories. The Wanderer materializes the connection between the viewer, the artwork, and all mysteries the artwork contains, sharing his view without spoiling its meaning or emotion.

Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), film still, duration: 120 minutes.

The Wanderer’s act of looking ahead is a choice, one reminiscent of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In the story, Orpheus the Poet visits Hades in the Underworld after his wife Eurydice’s early death, hoping to take her back from the Land of the Dead. Hades fulfills his request with only one condition: Orpheus must not look back at his beloved Eurydice as they make their way out of the Underworld until they have emerged. Yet Orpheus makes a choice only steps away from the end: “afraid she was no longer there, and eager to see her, the lover turn[s] his eyes,” and loses her forever.

The story of Orpheus and the act of looking are also central to Céline Sciamma’s 2019 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The film is a genuine, heartfelt love story between Marianne, a painter commissioned to paint a portrait and Héloïse, her subject, in late 18th century France. Along with the love story itself, the film also delves into the sincerity of female companionship, illuminating the effortless harmony between three women—Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie the housekeeper—that challenges the class systems and structures of the story’s time period. At the beginning of the film Marianne arrives at an isolated Medieval castle by the beach on the invitation of a countess, instructed to paint her daughter Héloïse. But it must be without her knowing, for this is a promissory portrait for an arranged marriage, and Héloïse does not want to marry. The artist looks at Héloïse in secret as the two establish a relationship, stealthily sketching her gestures and painting after hours alone in her studio. Marianne eventually destroys the finished work, finding her model’s likeness inadequate, and it is only then that Héloïse agrees to willingly model for her. Marianne and Héloïse are left alone in the estate for the short duration of the new painting’s completion, and they soon become lovers. Along with Sophie, they also develop a serene routine that forms into a friendship. One scene shows the three women in the kitchen, Marianne and Héloïse preparing dinner while Sophie peacefully works on her embroidery. Their relationship evolves into a profound alliance as they share an intense experience when the couple accompanies Sophie to a back-alley abortion from an older woman in town. The woman performs the operation in her small, dimly lit house, the camera showing Sophie from directly above while she lays on the old woman’s bed, holding back tears from the pain, as a baby plays with her hair. Marianne and Héloïse bear witness to Sophie’s ordeal as true friends, and care for her afterwards. That night as Sophie rests in Marianne’s bed, Héloïse gets up and says: “it’s time to paint.” They reenact the scene from the abortion as Sophie takes the same position and Héloïse poses as the old woman; Marianne sketches the mise en scène with her oil colors. It’s a vision only they can see.

Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), film still, duration: 120 minutes.

Even with scenes so difficult to convey, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is written and shot beautifully; every sentence is carefully spoken, every frame meticulously composed. Except for three, delicately curated moments, there is no score. Like Freidrich, Sciamma has a great respect for nature, especially when shooting outdoor scenes. She treats the surroundings as considerately as the individuals—the restless sea, the white froth of crashing waves, the massive, sharp-edged boulders the women walk amongst, three times their size, the soft sand beneath their feet. The director uses colors as meaningful manifestations throughout, especially the colors of the women’s clothes: the bright sienna attire of the painter, the radiant green dress of the model, Héloïse’s faded white wedding dress and deep black cloak. These speak of their wearers’ personalities: the fierce Héloïse in cold tones, the calm and confined Marianne in red. In her minimalist cinematic language, Sciamma makes various references to famous artworks and historical narratives throughout the film, often with the use of light. Scenes with candlelight are visual references to Rembrandt and Johannes Vermeer, master painters of natural and candlelit scenes in art history. The faint candlelight on Marianne’s hands and face when she works on her painting after dark, hidden from Héloïse behind drapes and curtains, evokes a pastiche of Francisco Goya’s self-portraits. A scene of the three women standing apart from each other in a large field of wheat is a small but compelling homage to Andrew Wyeth and Gustave Courbet. Finally, Marianne and Héloïse meeting for the first time recalls The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog: Marianne beholds her in a black cloak as a mere shadow and follows her unknowingly towards the shore. Right by the cliff Héloïse stops and turns around breathless, and only then does Marianne see her face: lips parted, cheeks blushed, her blonde hair tousled in the wind. “I’ve dreamt of that for years,” she says. “Dying?” asks Marianne, to which she answers simply: “Running.”

Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), film still, duration: 120 minutes.

One evening in the kitchen, the three women dine together and read from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. After reading about Orpheus looking back, Marianne says, “He chooses the memory of her. That’s why he turns. He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.” Héloïse reads the final sentence as if in a trance and adds: “Perhaps she was the one who said, ‘Turn around.’”

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is Sciamma’s description of love; the attraction, the affection, the flourishing of a relationship, and then the letting go. Sciamma tells a story of two women in love, looking at each other. Sometimes their gaze meets between the seat of the model and the painter’s easel, or over the piano when Marianne plays Vivaldi’s Storm for Héloïse. Attending a bonfire one night, with a sorority of women chanting around them, they stare at each other over the fire so intently that Héloïse’s skirt catches fire unbeknownst to her, her gaze fixated on Marianne. Sometimes Marianne looks at Héloïse from behind a scarf that covers her face, and sometimes the viewer sees only her likeness within coats of paint. In heartbreaking moments Héloïse appears as an apparition in a white dress. And a few special times she appears from behind just like the Wanderer, the camera eye following her as a companion to Marianne. A scene towards the end shows Héloïse as a Rückenfigur, having run away from the house to the seashore in her emerald green outfit. Standing by massive rocks and pearly, breaking waves, looking ahead towards the sea, her back is turned to the camera. The wind sweeps her long, heavy dress and her fair hair. One can only imagine the expression on her face.

Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), film still, duration: 120 minutes.

When the lovers say their final goodbye, parting ways to meet separate futures, Marianne rushes out of the castle in pain, only to hear her lover’s voice saying, “Turn around.” It all becomes clear then. She looks back. There stands her Héloïse wearing a white, flamboyant wedding dress, an apparition come to life. As the door closes, her image fades away in the darkness. In the end, the boundaries of life and myth, the painter and the portrait, the poet and the lover blurs. The Portrait of a Lady on Fire shows what happens if the Wanderer turns around to look back, to reveal the secret of the figure, to unveil that they were Orpheus, Marianne, Friedrich, all of them, all along.

Caspar David Friedrich and Marianne, both artists like Orpheus the Poet, have no choice but to make the artist’s choice—to look. Friedrich looks at the Wanderer as he depicts nature, desolation, and the vagueness of the future while Marianne has to look at the abortion, she has to paint the scene as it happens, to witness. At an opera house in the devastating final scenes of The Portrait of a Lady on Fire, she has to look at Héloïse, the love of her life she lost so long ago, whom she has glimpsed in the audience and, because she is the artist, and she just can’t look away. Sciamma similarly doesn’t move her unique, feminine gaze away from the ugliness and beauty of her story and its surroundings. Along with the painter, the viewer watches for almost three minutes as Héloïse listens to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, her face revealing every emotion with silent gasps, smiles, and tears. It’s impossible to look away.