Andrei Tarkovsky: Film and Painting

Over a 25 year period, Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky made just seven feature films and three student shorts, yet his cinematic work stands out as one of the most significant contributions to moving image history. In films such as Solaris, Mirror and Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky dealt thematically with the notion of memory, childhood and dreams and became a master of the long, unedited shot and distinct formalistic approach to filmmaking. Many studies of his work have also observed the links between his films and the visual arts. Black Dog Publishing is behind a new, comprehensive volume dedicated to his life’s work and we have an exclusive extract to present here on the CR blog. The following essay, by Mikhail Romadin (the art director on Solaris), looks at the relationship between Tarkovsky’s films and painting.

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Over a 25 year period, Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky made just seven feature films and three student shorts, yet his cinematic work stands out as one of the most significant contributions to moving image history. In films such as Solaris, Mirror and Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky dealt thematically with the notion of memory, childhood and dreams and became a master of the long, unedited shot and distinct formalistic approach to filmmaking. Many studies of his work have also observed the links between his films and the visual arts. Black Dog Publishing is behind a new, comprehensive volume dedicated to his life’s work and we have an exclusive extract to present here on the CR blog. The following essay, by Mikhail Romadin (the art director on Solaris), looks at the relationship between Tarkovsky’s films and painting.

Rublev
Still from Andrei Rublev

Film and Painting by Mikhail Romadin (translated by Maureen Ryley). Extract taken from Tarkovsky, edited by Nathan Dunne, Black Dog Publishing; £29.95

Every time Tarkovsky came to visit us I would spread out a heap of books in front of him, monographs on various artists. At that time, after a prolonged nomadic existence in rented rooms we finally moved into our own apartment. We had hardly any furniture. Our books were stacked on the floor or on shelves which I had put together with my own hands from frames for stretching canvas and boards which I found in the courtyard. Our walls were hung with my paintings. We had no money and therefore each monograph was very highly valued. It was pure ecstasy to be able to buy a new volume from the Skira publishers, and if we managed to get hold of a monograph on Salvador Dali or René Magritte, the news made the rounds of all our friends. Each new book was scrupulously examined and then the reproductions were each covered, in turn, with a sheet of paper with a one and one-half centimetre opening cut in the centre. We then tried to guess who the artist was “by his stroke”. Andrei loved to play this game.

At one time he had studied in that art school which in the 1950s was located on Bolshoi Chudov Lane. I later studied there with the same instructors. Tarkovsky considered the painter’s profession to be a happy one since it was the only profession where the artist was one with his work in his studio and wasn’t tied to a film studio, a publishers or a concert hall.

Tarkovsky’s interest in painting was quite broad but not without limits. It included Russian icons, Giuseppi Arcimboldo, Georges de Latour and even the Surrealists and Saul Steinberg’s cartoons. Preference was given to the classical traditions over romantic ones. In terms of contemporary art, he liked those artists who, in their works conduct a sort of dialogue with the old masters: Salvador Dali, René Magritte, Henri Moore and Ignazio Jacometti.

Romadin
Mikhail Romadin’s graphic illustration of the set design in Solaris, featuring the interior of the dacha on Earth

And still, in spite of the fact that Tarkovsky considered painting with great interest and knew it well, he felt its influence only indirectly. He avoided drawing parallels between art forms and attempted to isolate the language of film. He didn’t believe that this language was somehow secondary to that of either literature or painting. He never considered that filmmaking was a synthesis of various art forms. He intensely disliked the term “poetic film” which the critics had attached to his early pictures.

It is here that we find the basic difference and juxtaposition between his film aesthetics and those of Pasolini and Fellini. Pasolini raises the language of film to that of literature, writing, with its syntax, semiotics, etc. Fellini’s method, where each scene is put together in the same way as a painting is on canvas, was even more unacceptable to Tarkovsky. What will you have if, instead of a figure drawn on canvas by the artist we see a live actor? This is a surrogate painting, a “live picture”.

When, together with the cameraman Yusov, Tarkovsky and I had just begun work on Solaris, we had a chance to see Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. We suddenly wanted to do something completely contradictory to it. After all, each scene in Kubrick’s film is an illustration from a science-fiction magazine. That is, that very same graphic art which has been transferred to the screen. And it isn’t even good quality graphic art.

It wasn’t direct connections between painting and film that Tarkovsky found, but ones that were more remote. For Solaris he suggested creating an atmosphere which would be similar to that which we see in the works of the early Italian Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio. The picture is of the embankment of Venice, sailboats. There are many people in the foreground. But the most important thing is that all these figures seem to be wrapped up in themselves. They don’t look at each other or at the landscape; they in no way interact with their surroundings. A strange, “metaphysical” atmosphere of non-communication is created. In the film, in order to produce the equivalent of this, the device of “being aloof” was used. For example, the scene where the cosmonaut is bidding the Earth farewell. There is a table in the garden at which the cosmonaut (the actor Donatas Banionis) is seated. It’s raining. It pours over the table, the cups filled with tea and down the cosmonaut’s face. The latter should not react to the rain, but should act as if he was in another dimension, in order to create an atmosphere of irreality. But Banionis involuntarily shuddered in the rain. “The scene is destroyed. What a shame,” said Andrei. This is just one small example of the influence of painting on Tarkovsky’s film language. The image, born in painting, had to undergo a powerful metamorphosis before it could become a film image.

Solaris
Still from Solaris

We were helped in our work on the film, first of all, by those few years of friendship and almost daily contact which preceded our joint efforts. We understood each other without having to spell things out and we didn’t have to waste time on long explanations. I am sorry that our paths later diverged. Secondly, we were united by a dislike for science fiction as a genre. Tarkovsky had lots of ideas. He dreamed of doing a film about deserters, or making a film version of Dostoyevsky’s An Adolescent. “And imagine how great it would be to shoot a film of all the rumours and stories about Stalin. Imagine what kind of image of the tyrant we would get,” he said. But his trips to Goskino with these numerous suggestions got no support at all. Therefore, all our ideas about future films boiled down to talk in an empty Moscow apartment. It’s too bad there was no tape recorder around so that we could have recorded all our plans for those future films, with their incredible finds and detailed mise en scènes, that were never made. All that’s left of this time are a few amateur photographs.

Goskino turned down Tarkovsky’s ideas one after another and only in relation to science fiction was their attitude different. They viewed it as a genre which was hardly serious and intended for youngsters, so it was possible to entrust it to Tarkovsky!

Tarkovsky had yet a second reason for choosing to film Solaris. This was the theme of nostalgia which is present in the novel. All our work on the film turned into a struggle with the genre. Tarkovsky wrote a new, director’s script where two-thirds of the action takes place on Earth and the trip to outer space is only a small episode in the film. Stanislav Lem vigorously opposed this idea. We were faced with a choice of either abandoning the picture entirely, or consenting to the basic design of the novel.

I then suggested transferring the Earth’s conditions to outer space and creating a space station that looked like a familiar Moscow apartment with square rooms and bookshelves. Instead of portholes it would have windows with fortochkas1 and icicles on the outside of these fortochkas. Both Tarkovsky and Yusov found this idea unacceptable. They were afraid of those comic effects which might arise is such a situation. However, an echo of this idea was preserved in that “Library”, which reproduced conditions on Earth.

Nostalghia
Still from Nostalghia, where Gorchakov delivers a sermon on Western materialism in a sunken
cathedral, engaging the curiosity of a young girl, Angela

Tarkovsky was always interested in the theme of nostalgia and it is present in nearly all of his films. He even has one film by that name. In one instance it is a longing for home, and in another, for the homeland. In Solaris it is a nostalgia for earthly civilisation in general.

In Lem’s novel, the heroes fly into the planet Solaris which is nothing more than an enormous living being called The Ocean. The Ocean itself is searching for contact with the cosmonauts. And for this reason it materialises their subconscious’s and produces doubles, the phantom representations of their dreams, their sins and their fantastic ideas.

Solaris2
Still from Solaris

In order to produce a sense of nostalgia for the Earth, Tarkovsky got the idea for having The Ocean materialise various objects of earthly culture as well. A long empty corridor on the space station, in whose depths there appears the figure of Saint Sebastian, from the painting by Antonello da Messina. In the background the balconies are hung with rugs, as in the picture. Arrows fly and the image is destroyed. To my great disappointment, Tarkovsky himself later refused to use this episode which was reminiscent of the painting because it contradicted the basic concept of his film language. This language of “living pictures” was unacceptable for him.

Hunters
Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (not shown in this chapter in the book)

But realising that here he couldn’t get away without painting, he shot the episode in the library with a picture by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, “Hunters in the Snow”, as something actually in the space station. This beautiful scene, full of longing for the Earth, is contained within the framework of his aesthetics.

Solaris3
Still from Solaris, where Kris discovers the body of Dr Gibarian after his suicide. In Gibarian’s recorded
message to Kris he says: “We are only seeking Man. We don’t want Other Worlds. We want mirrors”

In each of Tarkovsky’s films there is, without fail, present a painting which, as it were, in concentrated form expresses the idea of the entire film. In Ivan’s Childhood it is Albrecht Dürer’s “Apocalypse”; in Andrei Rublev, Rublev’s icons; in Solaris, Brueghel’s painting and in Nostalghia, the “Madonna” by Piero della Francesca. In his final film The Sacrifice there are paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci and Russian icons.

Thus it is that the film’s image, which is so infused with a sense of painting and then transformed into the language of film, returns to the screen in its primary form, that of a painted picture.

This essay, Film and Painting by Mikhail Romadin, is taken from Tarkovsky, edited by Nathan Dunne, Black Dog Publishing; £29.95. Text and images reproduced with permission

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