Art

Visual Abstraction: Velázquez, Picasso and Klee

Let’s take a look today at a section of a very famous painting:

 The Infanta Margarita Teresa from  Las Meninas , Diego Velázquez. 1656, oil on canvas. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Full, high-resolution picture available on the  Prado Museum's website .

The Infanta Margarita Teresa from Las Meninas, Diego Velázquez. 1656, oil on canvas. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Full, high-resolution picture available on the Prado Museum's website.

This is part of Diego Velázquez’s 1656 masterpiece, Las Meninas.

Look at the detail in Velázquez’s painting: the brushstrokes in the hair, the shadows of the folds of the Infanta’s skirt the way light comes off the red cup and off the Infanta’s face. Naturally, the technique to create these effects were well-understood by Velázquez’s time — it’s not as if he was the only painter capable of rendering life-like figures — but I want you to pay attention to the sheer amount of work needed to produce this painting in comparison to the homage made by a much later Spanish master, also considered to be on the vanguard of art for his time:

  Las Meninas (Infanta Margarida Maria),  Pablo Picasso. 1957, oil on canvas. Museu Picasso, Barcelona. Picture taken from Museu Picasso's blog post,  The chronology of  Las Meninas  of Picasso .

Las Meninas (Infanta Margarida Maria), Pablo Picasso. 1957, oil on canvas. Museu Picasso, Barcelona. Picture taken from Museu Picasso's blog post, The chronology of Las Meninas of Picasso.

There are some obvious differences, of course. Picasso’s rendition of Las Meninas restricts itself to white, black and grey (other versions of Picasso’s Las Meninas are available in colour, but you probably shouldn’t be looking at a Picasso if life-like colour is what you want). The Infanta’s face is now characteristically Cubist: angular planes in different shades, rather than the smooth boundaries between light and shadow in Velázquez’s painting. Gone are Velázquez’s fine, blended brushstrokes — instead, we have Picasso’s broad bold lines.

It’s easy to deride modern art as lacking technique and craftsmanship compared to the masters of old. Which raises the question: what is it that Picasso’s version offers us, really?


Two posts ago, I looked at abstraction in computer engineering. Broadly speaking, abstraction in this sense is about isolating structure from operations. Transit maps show you the structure of the transit network while abstracting away the actual running of the buses and trains. In my last post, I laid out the distinction between icons and symbols in semiotics, and compared it to representation and abstraction in visual arts. An icon is more representational: it resembles its real-life counterpart in some meaningful way. As icons become more symbolic, they become more abstract, and they lose that representational quality. What these symbolic images gain, however is a greater clarity of structure.

If we go too far to the symbolic end of the scale, that structure becomes entirely arbitrary — recall that Charles Sanders Peirce characterised the relationship between “symbols” and their objects as being of an “imputed character” — but between those two extremes, there are plenty of possible ways to represent real-world objects in structurally interesting ways.

Let’s return to Velázquez and Picasso for a moment.

EC Visual Abstraction Infanta Velazquez
EC Visual Abstraction Infanta Picasso

Picasso has abstracted away a number of dimensions here. He isn’t concerned about the direction of light and shadow. The delicate folds on the Infanta’s skirt have been replaced by broad grey vertical brushstrokes that recall, but do not represent, shadow. In Velázquez’s painting, the sides of the Infanta’s torso are in shadow; Picasso effectively abstracts away shading (and the perspective that shading provides) by painting two fields of grey and black on the sides of the Infanta’s chest. Her cheeks receive a similar treatment. Neither does Picasso seem concerned about curves: the gentle arcs of the dress and skirt of Velázquez’s Infanta is replaced by direct and straight lines; the bulbous shape of the cup in the Infanta’s right hand transforms into an angular vessel.

By abstracting these elements away, Picasso reveals, essentially, a wireframe of the Infanta.

In fact, his sketches reveal an even more abstracted version of Las Meninas, including an even more brutally abstract Infanta:

 Crop of the Infanta Margarita Teresa from  Sketch for "Las Meninas",  Pablo Picasso. 1957, blue pencil on paper (page from a sketchbook). Museu Picasso, Barcelona. Picture taken from Museu Picasso's blog post,  The chronology of  Las Meninas  of Picasso .

Crop of the Infanta Margarita Teresa from Sketch for "Las Meninas", Pablo Picasso. 1957, blue pencil on paper (page from a sketchbook). Museu Picasso, Barcelona. Picture taken from Museu Picasso's blog post, The chronology of Las Meninas of Picasso.

It looks like a child’s drawing, doesn’t it? That’s perhaps one of the greatest mysteries of the human mind — that children, looking at a scene or a painting, even one as intricate as Las Meninas, will instinctively isolate shape and colour, and abstract away everything else. Never mind the actual substance of the pigment on the canvas! We don’t see blue crayon on paper or ochre on canvas — the structure of the image exists in our minds as something independent of the individual brushstrokes. And that’s part of the genius of Picasso, Braque, and the rest of the Cubists: they painted not according to the perception of the eye, but according to the perception of the mind.

Going Further: Isolating Colour

Colour has taken possession of me; no longer do I have to chase after it, I know that it has hold of me forever… Colour and I are one. I am a painter. — Paul Klee, 1914

What happens when you remove shape from the equation, and leave only colour?

  Feuer Abends (Fire in the Evening) , Paul Klee. 1929, oil on cardboard. Museum of Modern Art, New York City (picture taken while the work was on loan to the Fondation Beyeler, Riehen).

Feuer Abends (Fire in the Evening), Paul Klee. 1929, oil on cardboard. Museum of Modern Art, New York City (picture taken while the work was on loan to the Fondation Beyeler, Riehen).

Paul Klee’s Fire in the Evening is a painting that, without its title, is difficult to anchor to the real world. Nonetheless, there are things we can read from it, if we know what to look for. Klee’s paintings has shapes, of course, but no representational shapes. Even Picasso’s Infanta is recognisably a girl wearing a dress, but all Klee gives us are rectangles. That does not mean that Klee has completely left the realm of representation. He just happens to have abstracted away much more than most artists.

The painting features two keys axes of contrast. First, there is a series of horizontal bands of colour, broken by a series of implied vertical lines. Secondly, there is the fact that this painting’s colour palette includes a variety of dark or dull shades, and a single field of bright, scarlet red.

Klee’s innovation here is not the use of red for fire — that is trivial. Instead, it is in his recognition that in a fire scene, it is not the colour per se that the eye is drawn to, but the contrast. The most arresting images of fire are created not by the colour of fire itself, but by the contrast of light against dark, which is why you rarely ever see great photos of fires taken during the day. Klee tapped into the fundamental structure of fire imagery, and abstracted away nearly everything else.

We don’t know where Fire in the Evening is set, and yet there is an unshakeable feeling that the painting we are looking at is a landscape. Why? Here’s my theory: the dominance of the horizontal lines is a primal expression of the structure of the landscape. All landscape compositions are constructed relative to the horizon.

So, instead of painting a landscape, Klee paints a proto-landscape, an underlying representation (sorry, linguistics joke) of all landscapes, with brown and green bands dominating the lower third of the painting representing the land, and blues and pinks dominating the upper two-thirds. The vertical lines that interrupt this horizontal composition, then, represent objects that interrupt the horizontality of landscapes, such as buildings or trees.

The title Fire in the Evening, at least, gives us a visual image we can use as a territory to map Klee’s painting onto. In some other cases, though, the object of Klee’s painting is not a landscape, but a feeling:

  Blühendes (Flowering),  Paul Klee. 1934, oil on canvas. Kunstmuseum Winterthur (picture taken while the work was on loan to the Fondation Beyeler, Riehen).

Blühendes (Flowering), Paul Klee. 1934, oil on canvas. Kunstmuseum Winterthur (picture taken while the work was on loan to the Fondation Beyeler, Riehen).

Here, Klee again uses a contrast of dark and light colours. Unlike Fire in the Evening, however, the contrast isn’t representational. Nobody goes looking for blooming flowers in the dark. Instead, the relationship between the technique — colour contrast — and the subject matter of the painting is indexical and metaphorical: light, spreading from the centre of the canvas to its edges, as a visual metaphor for spring after winter, and for creation out of darkness. The fractal-like quality of the small squares expanding outwards and into the larger squares contributes, too, to the sensation of growth. This, too, is an abstraction: Klee has found a way to express the structure, the form of the idea of “flowering”, rather than a representation of it.

Contrast is not the only technique that Klee used. Klee was an accomplished musician, and he understood that harmony was just as valuable a tool as contrast and dissonance:

  Harmonie der nördlichen Flora (Harmony of the Northern Flora) , Paul Klee. 1927, oil on cardboard. Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern (picture taken while the work was on loan to the Fondation Beyeler, Riehen).

Harmonie der nördlichen Flora (Harmony of the Northern Flora), Paul Klee. 1927, oil on cardboard. Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern (picture taken while the work was on loan to the Fondation Beyeler, Riehen).

In Harmony of the Northern Flora, Paul Klee arranges his rectangles of colour such that they create an impression of vibrant coherence. It isn’t the case that he hasn’t used contrasting colours — we find blue next to orange, green next to red, yellow next to purple — but unlike Fire int he Evening or Flowering, the colours have been arranged not to draw immediate attention to one particular section of the canvas.

The arrangement of rectangles, too, contributes to this coherence. While Fire in the Evening created the bracing contrast of horizontal and vertical, and of bright red against dark tones, Harmony of the Northern Flora does not generate this effect. Somehow, the black lines outlining the rectangles serve to pull the different colours together, drawing attention to their geometric unity rather than inviting contrast. The differently-coloured and differently-sized fields create visual interest without creating tension.

What is it that Paul Klee has done here?

Let’s take a look at the master painter of northern flora:

  Großer Blumenstrauß (Big Bouquet) , Jan Brueghel the Elder. 1606/7, oil on wood. Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Picture taken from the  Pinakotheken collections website , used under a CC-BY-SA-4.0 license.

Großer Blumenstrauß (Big Bouquet), Jan Brueghel the Elder. 1606/7, oil on wood. Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Picture taken from the Pinakotheken collections website, used under a CC-BY-SA-4.0 license.

Jan Brueghel’s still life of flowers is representational and iconic. It resembles a bouquet of colourful flowers as they might exist in real life. Klee abstracted away everything but colour and geometric composition.

Recall that in the evolution of the Chinese writing system, the iconic logograms, with their curved lines and emphasis on shape, slowly became more abstract and symbolic, with lines becoming rectilinear and the relationship between the lines taking precedence.

That is what Picasso did to Velázquez, and what Klee did to flowers.

The Difficulty of Abstract Art

This is the challenge of abstract art. Because abstract art does not readily recall real-world scenes and images, it demands more of us as viewers. The work does less of the showing, so we have to do more of the seeing. And because abstract art seems to require less of the technical skill that representational art does, it is easy for us to dismiss it as juvenile, lazy or unskilled, when in fact it takes a supremely conditioned eye and mind to put on the canvas exactly enough to convey a sensation or an image, and no more.

The more abstract a signifier is, the more arbitrary its relationship with its signified, and the more malleable the sign. This is what makes abstract art so pliable and so famously “subjective”. Precisely because it is divorced from its real-world referent, abstract art allows us — invites us, even — to impose our own meanings upon it.

This is not a bug, but a feature: it forces the viewer to take part in the act of meaning-making.

Well -- at least this is the meaning I've constructed out of abstract art, anyway. This is the only way I've managed to approach abstract art in a way that makes sense to me.

Writing Systems: Signs, Icons, Symbols and Abstraction

In my last post, I wrote about abstraction in computer engineering. In today’s post, I want to start laying the foundation for looking at abstraction in two other fields, in visual arts and in linguistics. To do that, we’ll start in a place where the two fields overlap: writing systems.

First, we need to define our terms. The study of writing systems falls within the field of semiotics, which has two intellectual fathers, Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce. In his Course on General Linguistics, Saussure articulated his concept of the “linguistic sign”:

For some people, a language, reduced to its essentials, is a nomenclature, a list of terms corresponding to a list of things... This conception is open to a number of objections... A linguistic sign is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a concept and a sound pattern. (trans. Roy Harris)

EC Writing Systems Linguistic Sign.PNG

Several paragraphs later, in order to avoid the possibility of a “sign” being conflated with its constituent “sound pattern”, Saussure replaces “concept” and “sound pattern” with signifié”, “signified”, and signifiant, “signifier” (Roy Harris’s translation renders these as “signification” and “signal”, but I’ll go with “signified” and “signifier”, which is the more well-known rendition.)

EC Writing Systems Sign.PNG

Note that Saussure’s definition of a sign here is restricted to what he calls linguistic signs. He acknowledges that his approach can be used in semiotics, but his chief interest (at least in the Course) is in applying the concept of the sign to linguistics.

For Saussure, the linguistic sign has the particular property of being arbitrary. Saussure in fact asserts that “the link between signifier and signified is arbitrary,” and contrasts signs with symbols:

... it is characteristic of symbols that they are never entirely arbitrary. They are not empty configurations. They show at least a vestige of natural connection between the signifier and the signified. For instance, our symbols of justice, the scales, could hardly be replaced by a chariot.

EC Writing Systems Saussure Symbols.PNG

Here we run into a problem of terminology. The other founding father of semiotics, Charles Sanders Peirce, used the term “symbol” in an entirely different way:

... There are three kinds of representations. 1st. Those whose relation to their objects is a mere community in some quality, and these representations may be termed Likenesses [the more common term is “Icons”]. 2nd. Those whose relation to their objects consists in a correspondence in fact, and these may be termed Indices or Signs. 3rd. Those the ground of whose relation to their objects is an imputed character, which are the same as general signs, and these may be termed Symbols. (from On a New List of Categories)

Maybe it’s because I’m more familiar with the substance of Saussure’s work than with Peirce’s, but I find Peirce’s language very opaque and hard to grasp. Peirce’s theory is expansive and detailed, but I’m not trying to lay out an entire theory of semiotics here. I just want to define the terms “sign”, “icon”, “index” and “symbol” for our purposes.

So, to make life easier for everyone...

Signifier According to Peirce According to Saussure What I’ll Call It
Apple an icon of an apple: the signifier shares a Likeness with its signified a symbol of an apple: the signifier has a natural relationship to its signified an icon
Fork and Knife an index of eating: the signifier does not depict eating itself, but instead depicts the instruments of eating, which point to the act of eating. a symbol: the signifier has a natural relationship to its signified, even if one step removed a symbol
Scales of Justice an index of justice: the signifier does not depict justice itself, but instead depicts a metaphorical instrument of justice, which points to justice. a symbol of justice: the signifier has a natural relationship to its signified, even if metaphorical. a symbol
Danger Traffic Sign a symbol of danger: the signifier has no natural relationship to its signified. If we think “danger” when we see the signifier, it is because we have imputed the signifier with the character of “danger”. A sign of danger: the signifier has an arbitrary relationship to its signified. If we think “danger” when we see the signifier, it is because we have associated it with this signifier purely by convention. a symbol

This is an analysis of Peirce through the lens of Saussure, which is perhaps unfair to Peirce. Peirce defined “signifier” more precisely than Saussure did, and included an “interpretant” in his model, which Saussure left out. We don’t have to go there. (Yet.)


What do these signifiers represent?

EC Writing Systems Chinese Logogram Evolution.PNG

This charts the evolution of the Chinese writing system. Oracle bone script and bronzeware script were contemporaneous, as are large seal script and small seal script. Regular script is what modern Chinese writing looks like.

From left to right, the logograms are the words for "water", "tree" or "wood", "moon", and "mountain". In all of these cases, the logogram begins as an icon and evolves to become a symbol.

You might argue that 木 and 山 still have iconic qualities, and given our definitions of “iconic” and “symbolic”, that’s not an unreasonable argument. Icons and symbols, as we have defined them, exist on a spectrum, not as binary states.

Icons are primarily representational: their relationship with their signifieds is that they resemble their signifieds in some recognisable way.

Symbols, on the other hand, are primarily abstract: their relationship with their signifieds is not necessarily recognisable, and the meaning of symbols is one established through repeated, collective use.

Representational art and abstract art are often contrasted with each other, but our definitions of icons and symbols suggest that representational and abstract art, too, exist on two ends of the same scale:

EC Writing Systems Representational Abstract.PNG

(Note that in this model, the symbolic is abstract, but the abstract is not always symbolic — think about Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, for instance. Additionally, in this model, art that is rich in symbolism is not necessarily abstract. For all its symbolism, Dalí’s _Persistence of Memory_ falls on the representational end of the spectrum; his tree looks like a real-world tree and his melting clocks look like real-world melting clocks.)

Remember the characterisation of programming languages as being either low-level and “close to the metal”, having a low level of abstraction, or high-level and having a high level of abstraction? A low-level language shows you — and makes you take care of — every little detail of what’s happening at the level of the CPU. A high-level language removes various aspects of what’s happening at the CPU level from your field of view — it abstracts them away, so that you can work more efficiently.

That’s what happens with icons and symbols, too. As icons are used more and more often, they morph. All the irrelevant details are removed, leaving only what is essential for communicating the intended meaning, and edge towards the symbolic, the abstract end of the spectrum.


In the case of the Chinese writing system, the movement away from the representational to the abstract was an entirely organic process. As each generation of calligraphers followed another, the calligraphic style of the Chinese writing system evolved and arrived at the current system (whether the “current system” is Traditional or Simplified is a different matter, and the evolution and differences between the two are worth exploring another time.)

Now the question is: as representational, iconic signifiers gradually become abstract, symbolic signifiers, what exactly is it that gets abstracted away?

A writing system differs from visual art in one key respect. If I draw a river, my drawing of a river is the signifier, and the thing it signifies is the idea of a river that looks reasonably similar. Looking at it, my river drawing will bring to your mind an image of what such a river might look like in real life.

 Does it? Does it??? (I had to draw something myself instead of choosing a Turner painting because it's not clear if photographs of old paintings are considered to be in the public domain.)

Does it? Does it??? (I had to draw something myself instead of choosing a Turner painting because it's not clear if photographs of old paintings are considered to be in the public domain.)

Now, when it comes to writing systems, here’s what Saussure has to say:

A language and its written form constitute two separate systems of signs. The sole reason for the latter is to represent the former. (emphasis mine)

With a writing system, the signified is not an image of the thing that exists in the real world. The signified is the sound pattern of the word, the set of sounds that make up the spoken word. The sound pattern of the word, if you remember Saussure up top, is itself a signifier that refers to the concept that’s brought to mind when you hear the word. (You could say that a writing system is already one level of abstraction removed from drawing. Ba-dum-tss!)

EC Writing Systems Orthography Phonetics.PNG

If we look at the progression of the Chinese writing system, the signifiers start out with curved lines. The strokes can move in any direction. It is the shape of the signifier that matters; the relationship of individual strokes to one another is less important. Even then, there’s already a clear difference between the oracle bone script and the bronzeware script. The writing medium probably has something to do with this: the bronzeware inscriptions were made on wet clay molds before the bronze was cast, allowing for a greater level of detail and the use of more curved lines. On the other hand, oracle bone script tends to favour straight lines and simplified logograms (my preferred term for Chinese characters). The process of abstraction is already visible, even at this early stage.

 I saved you the trouble of scrolling up.

I saved you the trouble of scrolling up.

A writing system needs to have certain properties. It needs to be easy to reproduce, and easy to parse visually. The Chinese writing system has thousands of logograms, all of which have to be distinct from one another. The vast majority of them are not iconic or ideographic (they’re modified rebuses — another type of abstraction that we’ll discuss in a moment), but they still need to be visually identifiable at a glance. If you tried to create a writing system that oriented itself towards creating hundreds, if not thousands, of iconic shapes, readers and writers would spend an inordinate amount of time in the nitty gritty of ink and paper, trying to distinguish one shape from another.

Well, once the logograms are widely known and recognised as corresponding to a spoken sound, the link between the iconic signifier and its eventual signified can be broken. No longer does a logogram have to recall its real-world referent: readers and writers of the language only need to associate the logogram with the corresponding sound in the spoken language. This gives the writing system room to evolve in a more abstract direction. Logograms need not be iconic. This turns out to have a major effect on the Chinese writing system, as we will see in a second.

We can see that as the writing system evolves, the lines straighten and become rectilinear. That makes sense: straight lines are easier to reproduce consistently than curved lines. Moreover, it’s not the shape of the logogram that matters now, it’s the strokes and their relationship to one another. That makes it possible to create thousands of logograms that are easy to distinguish from one another.

Effectively, the rectilinear scripts abstracted shapes and curves into lines, angles and hooks. This prefigures the kind of abstraction we later see in abstract art.


Rebuses and Modified Rebuses

Consider the numbers 1 to 4 in Chinese:

EC Writing Systems 1234.jpg

It’s easy to see how the logograms 一,二,三 came about: they’re visual ideographic representations of the concept of 1, 2 and 3. What about 四?

It turns out that 四 is a rebus. Here’s the historical evolution of the written form of “four” in Chinese:

EC Writing Systems Four Evolution.jpg

The reconstructed Old Chinese pronunciation of 四 is *hljids (if you’re curious about what that sounds like, as I was, you can listen to the Old Chinese numbers here. The Chinese languages have a large number of homophones and near-homophones, different words that share the same pronunciation or are similar-sounding, and this proved to be a key factor in the development of their writing system. As far as we know, *hljids is also how the Old Chinese word for “nostrils” was pronounced.

四 was originally a logogram, probably iconic, for the homophone *hljids, meaning “nostrils”. Oracle bone script and bronzeware script were contemporaneous, and we can see that the Chinese used four horizontal lines 亖 in the style of 一,二,三 when writing on the hard oracle bone, but opted for the homophone 四 when writing on the more forgiving soft clay. Presumably, the difficulty of distinguishing 三 from 亖 at a glance led writers to favour the use of the logogram 四 for 4 instead wherever possible, and eventually 四 became the standard form while 亖 fell out of use.

The appearance of the rebus is significant. Just as a high-level programming language abstracts away entire layers of nitty-gritty computational data that slows humans down, rebuses in the Chinese writing system abstract away the need to create an iconic or ideographic logogram to represent each concept. We can think of this in terms of layers of abstraction, too:

EC Writing Systems Layers of Abstraction.PNG

The sound pattern layer is an abstraction sitting on top of the concept layer, and the logogram layer sits on top of the sound pattern layer. The presence of the sound pattern layer between the logogram layer and the concept layer is what allows the logograms to be divorced from the concepts they ultimately signify. It allows all the signs in the chain to be purely arbitrary.

How would a reader differentiate 四 the number and 四 the body part, then? At first, there was no visual distinction made, and readers simply relied on context. This introduces a different difficulty — ambiguity — but that is mitigated by the fact that “four” is a far more common word in most languages than “nostrils” is.

EC Writing Systems Mucus Evolution.jpg

Over time, two things happened. One was that the word *hljids “nostrils” underwent semantic change and came to mean “mucus”. The other was that the association between 四 and “four” became so strong that when it was necessary to write “mucus”, writers started to disambiguate the logogram by adding 水, “water”, (氵in clerical and regular Chinese script) to the left of 四 to indicate the intended meaning of “mucus”. This created the logogram 泗, a modified rebus: the rebus signifies the sound pattern, and the modification (usually called the radical) indicates which of many possible concepts is intended. (Note that because of the rebus component, the resulting modified rebus is still an arbitrary sign.)

The average educated Mandarin speaker knows about 8,000 logograms, and the overwhelming majority of them are modified rebuses like the above. Interestingly, modern word processors have obviated the need to remember how to write all of them. People typing in Chinese type a romanised form of what they want to say, and a choice of logograms pops up; they only need to know how to recognise the logograms they want to use. Without regular handwriting, a phenomenon known as character amnesia occasionally surfaces, where the writer forgets how to write the logogram they meant to write. That’s not surprising, since the modern computer-based workflow effectively creates an alternative written layer, based on Mandarin’s relatively simple and constrained phonology, that competes with the expansive logographic system:

EC Writing Systems Character Amnesia.PNG

Writing is not a natural linguistic facility for humans. Children who grow up around language will learn to listen and speak, or to sign and understand sign language, but reading and writing have to be expressly taught. Somehow, the human brain can maintain a lexicon of tens of thousands of words in the form of sound patterns, but it cannot maintain a library of tens of thousands of separate written icons or symbols to represent those sound patterns. It has to reduce that written inventory to a few thousand at most, and even then vanishingly few writing systems have that many (remember, English has just 26).

Abstraction, which allows us to remove entire dimensions of temporarily irrelevant information, is what helps us do it.

Writing the Essay, Progression Three: The Unbelievable Truth

This was the third essay of my college career, written in Fall 2010 for what is now EXPOS-UA 5 Writing the Essay: Art in the World, under Professor Victoria Olsen. At the end of my college career, I can now see that what we had in Writing the Essay was a luxury: five to seven weeks of actively working on and refining one essay. I note elsewhere that the opportunity to spend this much time developing an idea is a rarity in most college classes, and precision of thought gets sacrificed in favour of expediency. I have Victoria's feedback from this essay but have, in the main, not modified the essay save for issues of punctuation and formatting, and in a couple of places, word choice.


As far as raw documentary material goes, it is hard not to feel that Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe hit paydirt with Lost in La Mancha. The film, documenting the “un-making” of Terry Gilliam’s failed epic The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, began life as a typical making-of documentary. Their role as documentarians was not to dig below the surface for factual or psychological truths not readily apparent, but simply to document, to get out of the way and let the material make its own case.

In such films, the filmmakers work with the understanding that the spectacle in front of the camera is more salient than anything the camera can create. This is true regardless of whether the documentary in question is a making-of or an unmaking-of documentary, because either way, an extraordinary drama will play itself out. As Philip French remarks in his review of Lost in La Mancha in the Guardian, “the business of making films is as interesting as the films themselves.” To mount a film production is an enormous undertaking involving not just huge sums of money over a long period of time, but also a considerable amount of faith.

In the case of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, the stakes were ratcheted much higher: the combination of a great director tackling great material so suited to him bred high expectations, attracting an investment of $32 million that would make it one of Europe’s biggest films, yet an investment that – as Gilliam himself says in Lost in La Mancha – was “way below what we would normally need to make a film like this.” As if that knowledge was not enough to deter him from such an undertaking, there was the specter of Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a similarly adventurous production that stretched both its crew and its budget to extremes, then failed spectacularly at the box office for mysterious and mythical reasons.

Moreover, there was the small matter of the number of people who had attempted to adapt Don Quixote and failed. In The Impossible Musical, Dale Wasserman lists four major failed Quixote adaptations, including Orson Welles’ cursed production which he caustically describes as “an in-joke of sorts” in which “money ran out, actors died, and film had to be re-shot” (24). Philip French considers this one of the many advantages Fulton and Pepe had in the making of Lost in La Mancha, describing the history of cinema as “marked by the bleached bones of unmade or unfinished versions of Don Quixote,” conveniently setting the stage for Gilliam’s valiant attempt at defying historical precedent.

French also adds, “it’s as if some curse were transferred from its mad, idealistic hero to those attracted to bringing him to the screen.” What is especially curious about the spate of failures to adapt Don Quixote is that right at the end of the lengthy text, embedded in the narrative of Quixote itself, is the following warning:

For me alone was Don Quixote born, and I for him… let the weary and crumbling bones of Don Quixote rest in the grave… to mock the many [journeys] undertaken by so many knights errant, the two [journeys Don Quixote] made were enough. (Cervantes)

So, simply by taking on the challenge of adapting Don Quixote, Terry Gilliam was not just testing faith, he was tempting fate.

From the moment Gilliam began his project, it could only have been an epic success or an epic failure. When tempting the gods, there is no middle ground: either one tempts the gods and wins, from which we get the quintessential Greek comedic or epic form, or one tempts the gods and loses, from which we get the quintessential Greek tragic form.

Lost in La Mancha opens with goblin-like creatures dancing with fire torches laughing hysterically. The next thing we see is Terry Gilliam, rapt with childlike wonder, putting his little camcorder to his eye. The telephoto effect of Fulton and Pepe’s long lens gives us the impression of being close to and intimate with the action. We are close up on the devilish figures, then close on Gilliam, always enraptured by the dream being realized right before his eyes. Right from the beginning of the film, Fulton and Pepe present us with an image of a man enamored of the notion of staring gods in the face.

However, this does not explain why the film proves so effective. Even though the film obeys a traditional tragic form, this form only dictates an overarching structure – it tells us which elements constitute the story, but not how the story should be told. It does not explain why we are so engaged in the drama, so compelled to keep watching. Like an oft-heard, well-told joke, we want to hear the story even though we already know the ending, because there is joy in the telling, in the delivery of the joke itself. The tragic structure of Lost in La Mancha is not a sufficient explanation for the strength of the film: we also need to look at why the story works, why it can draw us in over and over again, why we can experience the tragedy of Gilliam’s failure afresh each time.

Ancient Greek dramatic practice provides a framework we could use as a starting point for exploration, but the specificities of the ancient Greek theater are very different from those of modern dramatic practice, and much of ancient Greek dramatic theory is no longer applicable in its original incarnation. What strikes the modern scholar or practitioner when studying Greek drama is the stringency of the form: the rhythm and cadence of the text, the role of the Chorus, the use of masks, and even the physical stage space itself are all highly stylized to fit to a rigid form.

Peter Hall, in his book Exposed By The Mask, argues that all drama requires a form that serves as a channel through which the artist can express emotion at an intensity beyond what is acceptable in daily life:

Any actor will tell you that if you wish to move an audience, you must not cry. Do not cry. If you cry, the audience will not. The actor must exercise restraint… a child who comes towards you trying not to cry (but who is filled with suppressed tears) is incredibly moving. (Hall 23)

Hall refers to such restraining, channeling forms as “masks,” invoking the masks used in ancient Greek theater. A mask is a containing, strict, almost unnatural form of expression that serves as a contract between an artist and his audience. Once the audience accepts the form, be it blank verse, sung dialogue or a physical mask, the audience also agrees to suspend their disbelief and to experience all the dramatic events presented to them as if they were real while in the full knowledge that they are not, in order to experience much more intense emotions than can be experienced in day-to-day life. The tension between the confining form of the mask and the vast extremes of emotion the mask hides creates a paradox that is infinitely engaging to experience. This is how, Hall argues, an audience can be made to live an event as horrific as Titus Andronicus cutting his hand off without having to believe that the actor has just severed his hand (27). Epic drama demands a mask. Without one, we cannot suspend our disbelief to experience drama on the epic scale. With one, we are liberated from the constraints of mundane reality.

So what is the mask of Lost in La Mancha? Why are we so engaged in the drama of Gilliam’s failed Quixote, when Lost in La Mancha does almost exactly what Hall advises against – presenting an extreme reality without a restraining form?

Everything that can go wrong goes wrong. I mean everything. Everything. Everything. Everything. I mean if you write a script and you think of the worst possible situation, you can’t make it up. – Nicola Pecorini, director of photography for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, in Lost in La Mancha (2002)

On the second day of production, a storm approaches the shooting location. The sky has transformed from a pale blue into a sheet of billowing cloud, then abandons all pretense and turns aggressively dark. Yet principal photography continues, despite all better judgement. Jean Rochefort delivers his lines: “Yet according to the duty of my profession, I have no choice.” He follows this shortly after with, curiously enough: “Yield to heaven’s command!”

Thunder rumbles. Phil Patterson, the first assistant director, instructs the crew to secure all the equipment and to get under cover.

Terry Gilliam, in a moment of sardonic frustration, yells: “Yes! Whoa!” as the sky looms dark over the production and the lack of light casts a pall over the scene Fulton and Pepe present us. We are close up on Gilliam, but even the size of Gilliam in the frame cannot make us forget or ignore the enormity of the storm, or the futility of Gilliam’s madness against the force of nature’s madness.

As if to drive the point home, Terry Gilliam turns to Pecorini, his director of photography, and asks a dry, pointed, ironically self-aware question:

“Which is it, King Lear, or Wizard of Oz?”

A better script could not have been written.

Philip French of the Guardian describes a scene in which the film’s investors “get to see a frantic Gilliam direct Johnny Depp as he struggles with a fish beside a waterfall” as “scarcely believable in a fictional movie.” Indeed, in an article for Landmark Theatres, even Fulton and Pepe themselves wrote that if Lost in La Mancha had been fictional, no one would have believed it.

That is exactly it. A better script could not have been written, because it would not have been believed. A well-known director, making a high-stakes film destined to become a classic, has his equipment washed away by a freak storm the day after his audio recordings are ruined by the sound of NATO planes flying overhead and a week after his lead actor unilaterally delays his arrival on set due to back pain: that is exactly the kind of drama too indulgent to be taken seriously, without a restraining form to channel the sheer ridiculousness of the events towards a satisfying climax. If such a script were to be written, it would not be a drama or a tragedy as Lost in La Mancha is – it would be a comedy, akin to David Mamet’s State and Main or Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain. The comedic form is a contract in which the audience agrees to abide by unrealistic rules of engagement, to suspend their disbelief, in exchange for a big comedic payoff at the end. In a documentary there is no need for the audience to suspend their disbelief, because they are prepared to watch something as long as it is true.

If the contract of most drama requires a rigid and unnatural form, then the contract of the documentary requires veracity. The audience agrees to be engaged in the material on the condition that the events portrayed did happen, that everything that happens in front of the camera has some basis in reality – not simply an emotional or spiritual reality, but a factual reality that can be independently verified. That is a documentary’s mask, perhaps the most rigid and unbending mask of all – the material must be rooted not only in truth, but in fact.

Within the constraints of this form, any scenario is acceptable, however extreme or impossible it may seem. If the paradox of the theater and of fictional film is that audiences engage with the truth in the unbelievable, the paradox of the documentary form is that audiences engage with the unbelievable in the full knowledge that it is true. For this reason, documentary audiences feel violated when they discover they have been tricked into believing something that is not true, the same way audiences are repulsed by excessively theatrical drama. In both cases, the artist has broken the formal contract and reminded them that the story they are watching, that they are living, is untrue. This is why Pecorini says in Lost in La Mancha, “You can’t make it up.”

In the light of this understanding, one could perhaps argue that Fulton and Pepe would have been able to tell a fine story regardless of what actually happened with Gilliam’s production. Like a fully-wound wind-up toy, all the parameters for an extremely dramatic story had already been set and all that was left was to watch the drama unfold. It did not matter exactly how the drama of the production played out – it was always going to be epic, with or without their direct involvement. All they had to do was to get out of the way and let the material make its own case. Most importantly, it was always going to dare the viewer to disbelieve its account of an epic drama, and turn out to be unbelievably true.


Works Cited

  • Cervantes, Miguel. Don Quixote. Trans. Edith Grossman. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. Print.
  • French, Philip. “Down the shoot.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. 4 Aug. 2002. Web. 30 Nov. 2010.
  • Fulton, Keith and Louis Pepe. “A Curse of Mirrors.” Lost in La Mancha. Landmark Theatres. 2003. Web. 30 Nov 2010.
  • Hall, Peter. Exposed By The Mask. New York: Oberon, 2000. Print. Lost in La Mancha. Dir. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe. Perf. Terry Gilliam, Jeff Bridges and Tony Grisoni. Quixote Films, 2002. Film.
  • Wasserman, Dale. The Impossible Musical. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2003. Print.