Published  07/09/2016

Judith Wechsler: ‘Film allows, even invites, inclusivity of media. It’s one of the reasons I love making films’

Judith Wechsler: ‘Film allows, even invites, inclusivity of media. It’s one of the reasons I love making films’

The American film-maker and art historian discusses her remarkable body of documentaries on art, including her latest project, a suggestively melancholy portrait of Aby Warburg


In both her academic writing and her film-making, Judith Wechsler (b1940) is particularly attuned to the relationships between things: art and science, painting and film, caricature and physiognomy, and the ideas that underpin them. From her early collaborations with Charles Eames and Hans Namuth, Wechsler has made 28 films on subjects as diverse as Jasper Johns, Honoré Daumier, Aaron Siskind, Claude Monet and Harry Callahan, intuitively modulating her cinematic tone and structure in response to each artist. Her more recent, and ambitious, films take on the eccentric and fascinating intellectual historians Walter Benjamin and Aby Warburg, figures who lend themselves well to Wechsler’s adroit traversing of disciplines and manipulation of image, text and sound. In recognition of her work, in 2007 the French government made Wechsler a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Angeria Rigamonti di Cutò: You began your art film career when Charles Eames invited you to co-direct two films, one on Daumier, the other on the late work of Cézanne. Were these subjects suggested by you – you later became a Daumier scholar – or were they chosen by Eames? Charles and Ray Eames produced many films, perhaps a slightly lesser known aspect of their work. How did working with him shape your approach to film-making?

Judith Wechsler: Charles Eames invited me to explore making films on art, and generously suggested that I propose a topic. At the time, I was an assistant professor in the department of architecture at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], while Eames served on the visiting committee. My scholarly work was on 19th-century French art, particularly Daumier. I had begun doing research towards a book, which was subsequently published as A Human Comedy: Physiognomy and Caricature in 19th Century Paris (1983). So I suggested to Charles that we make a film on Daumier, which became Daumier, Paris and the Spectator (1976). It was wonderful working on the film with Charles. I learned so very much about the visual presentation of ideas. About the time we finished that film, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Grand Palais in Paris had a major exhibition on the late work of Cézanne. Charles asked if I’d like to make a film with him on the subject. My doctoral dissertation had been on the critical interpretations of Cézanne, so I was thrilled to have a chance to work with Charles again on a subject I loved.

We photographed all the works in the Cézanne exhibition and returned to the Eames’s studio in Venice, California. There I wrote a script. Charles read it and threw it into the trash. “What’s wrong?” I asked. He said: “This is art history, not a film. The image has to drive the film, not the words.” I overcame my shock and went back to the light table to play with the slides of all the works using the many details we had shot. In a couple of days, I had constructed sequences in nine scenes which constituted the film. Charles looked at the images on the table and said: “Now you have a film. If you want you can add words.” But I no longer wanted to add a narration. Rather, I selected passages from Cézanne’s letters and quotations from his sayings.

Charles introduced me to film-making. From him, I learned about the relationship of image, text and sound: designing camera movements on the image, the importance of transitions from one image to the next, the creation of sequences using juxtapositions, and the use of music. I continue to apply what I learned 40 years ago from Charles.

ARC: You’ve also collaborated with Richard Leacock, one of the godfathers of direct cinema, along with DA Pennebaker, Robert Drew and Albert Maysles. Did that kind of observational cinema affect your film-making?

JW: Ricky Leacock was an innovative, perceptive and generous film-maker. We were colleagues at MIT and had become friends. I asked if he would work with me on a modest film I was making on three American painters living in Paris: Biala, Zuka and Shirley Jaffe. And then again, a few years later, for a film about another painter who was a mutual friend, Flora Natapoff, filming in London and Umbria. Ricky was a brilliant cameraman, capturing more than first meets the eye. He had a way of disappearing behind the camera so the subject forgot about his presence. Ricky believed you should make films without encumbrances – just do it. From him, I learned to make films with minimal means. That’s what I’ve done in my last three films and my current film.

ARC: Overall, which film-makers, whether of documentary or fiction, have had an impact on you? You’ve also said that your earlier training in dance had an effect on your film-making?

JW: Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis had a deep impact on my work as a scholar and film-maker in the way he evoked time and place, the popular theatres of early to mid 19th-century Paris, with such richness and imagination. Alexandre Trauner, the great art director of the film, generously shared material with his great friend Charles Eames, and me, for our Daumier film.

The work ethic of Frederick Wiseman, who lets his subject unfold without commentary and edits masterfully, impresses me. After Charles Eames’s death in 1978, I wanted to continue making films, but didn’t know whether and how I could do it. Fred was encouraging and said, what you basically need is ideas; the rest you can learn.

My early training and performance as a dancer gave me a sense of rhythm, so necessary both in “choreographing” camera moves and in editing. Timing, pacing, transitions are critically important both in dance and in film. Also, [it gave me] the experience of pushing myself to the limit of my energy and concentration.

ARC: One of your films offers a rare portrait of Jasper Johns at work. In this instance, you co-directed with one of Jackson Pollock’s mythologisers, Hans Namuth. How did you encounter Namuth?

JW: I wanted to use excerpts from Hans Namuth’s historic film on Jackson Pollock painting in two films I was making, The Arrested Moment (1988) and Abstraction (1986-87), as part of a television series, The Painter’s World: Changing Constants of Art from the Renaissance to the Present (WGBH and Channel 4). I went to see Namuth to ask his permission, and we talked at some length. When his film partner of many years, Paul Falkenberg, died, Hans asked if I would work with him making a film on Jasper Johns, building on what he had begun with Falkenberg some 18 years earlier. It was a wonderful experience working with Hans. We hoped to do more together, but he died within a year of our finishing the Johns film.

ARC: An interesting aspect of this film is that it spans an 18-year period: you started with some old footage produced by Namuth, to which you added new filming of Johns working on his Seasons etchings. We see him at work in the studio, quietly authoritative with his assistants, listening to Janis Joplin; scenes that are interwoven with John Cage hypnotically intoning Johns’s artist statements, almost in the manner of an incantation, as well as a voiceover reading of Samuel Beckett’s Foirades/Fizzles, his collaboration with Johns. It’s a potent and poignant use of different media that works particularly well with Johns’s art. Do you think that only film can so successfully convey that kind of assemblage of art forms?

JW: Film allows, even invites, inclusivity of media. It’s one of the reasons I love making films. Here, it was a combination of Johns’s paintings and etchings, photographs by Namuth of Johns, Johns’s words as read by John Cage, Beckett’s words as read by Christopher Ricks, and the music of John Cage, and coincidentally a Janis Joplin song, which was playing on the radio while Johns was working in his studio on his Dymaxion map painting of 1967 [Map (Based on Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Airocean World].

ARC: Johns is notably introverted, but in one of his statements declared that one must eventually “drop the reserve”. Certainly in your film there’s a real sense of intimacy, with Johns’s somewhat hermetic seriousness occasionally offset by a rare smile and gleeful laugh. Was it easy to establish a rapport with him?

JW: Jasper Johns treasures his privacy. An old friend of Hans, he was generous in allowing us to use any of his work and to film him making etchings of The Seasons. I thought we should not ask him questions as he worked, but be as unobtrusive as possible.

We did ask if he would be willing to have a radio (lavalier) mic, so we could pick up whatever he might say to his assistants, as well as sounds of making the prints. During the lunch break, I asked Johns if I could ask a few questions in regard to an essay I was then writing on the illustrations to Samuel Beckett and his work on Foirades/Fizzles. He said he didn’t think he had much to say, but didn’t object. The responses were very informative. Later, I asked if I could use portions of what was recorded in that conversation in the film and he agreed.

It was a great honour and pleasure working on the film. Johns was gracious throughout.

ARC: Your films are strikingly varied, not only, most obviously, in terms of their subjects, but also in the way the structure and tone shift. To cite another of your films, your portrait of the photographer Harry Callahan is quiet, restrained, with a more lingering camera that suggests the contemplative quality of his images. Are you consciously responding to your subject’s style in your film-making?

JW: Thank you for noticing that! In all my films, I try to respond to the style of the subject in my film-making – the pacing, the rhythm, the use of detail. For example, in the film on Jasper Johns, I wanted to convey the fragmentary quality and the repetition of forms, in the juxtaposition of images and in the use of text from Johns, his terse statements and then the reorganisation of the words according to a random procedure.

ARC: Your two most recent films are on two major thinkers of the 20th century, Walter Benjamin and Aby Warburg. Both are ideal subjects for film, partly because of their dramatic, novelistic biographies that involve, among many things, great wealth and poverty, mental illness, controlled drug experimentation, war, antisemitism and suicide, but also because of the idiosyncratic, against-the-grain scope of their approaches. Is it more difficult to portray historians of ideas – particularly such sui generis ones as Warburg and Benjamin – than artists?

JW: It is definitely more difficult to portray historians and histories of ideas. With films more explicitly on art, the image drives the film. In these films, my editors, Erika O’Conor and Ben Reichman, and I had to construct images and sequences, using new video technology in a number of scenes. It was very exciting to find/create the forms for these films. Benjamin has been very important for my scholarly work on 19th-century Paris, and Warburg for his interest in [what were] then considered marginal aspects of visual culture, such as physiognomy and gesture. These films, made à la Leacock, in complete independence and with a minimal budget, allowed me to bring together so much of what concerns me intellectually.

ARC: Benjamin’s poetic thinking, as Hannah Arendt termed it, that recounted history as surrealistic tableaux of scraps of reality, seems so perfectly suited to the medium of cinema. Again, your technique in the film reflects your subject, with its selective use of moments of Benjamin’s life, audiovisual montages and quotations – Benjamin himself said quotations were like “bandits” leaping out on the road brandishing weapons to rob idlers of their certainty. What was the nature of your selection process, considering Benjamin’s life and oeuvre is so expansive and can be divided into so many subcategories while defying categorisation?

JW: Making a film on Benjamin was daunting. From the start, I knew I would focus on his Arcades Project, his incomplete magnum opus on 19th-century Paris. So while there is reference to some of his other work, such as on Proust and Kafka, and his friendship with Gershom Scholem, Hannah Arendt and Bertolt Brecht, the body of the film is from his monumental study of modernity, with its emphasis on Baudelaire.

The two major archives of Benjamin’s work, in Berlin and in Jerusalem at the National Library, were most cooperative in allowing me to use images from their collections, mostly photographs, letters, documents. I am particularly grateful to Erdmut Wizisla, director of the Benjamin and the Brecht archive. The Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris was very helpful in granting me access and permission to film the great sets of albums of 19th-century Parisian prints and photographs that Benjamin consulted.

As I couldn’t afford permission fees for photographs from other collections of 19th-century Paris, I went around Paris taking some 600 photographs of extant 19th-century structures: arcades, flea markets, book stalls, iron works, train stations, the Eiffel Tower, which we used in the montage along with quotations from Benjamin’s texts.

ARC: In his ambitious attempt to trace a universal history of image, Warburg shared with Benjamin, among other things, an attentiveness to irrational elements of culture and ways of recounting the history of culture. On the other hand, materially, their lives couldn’t have been more different: Benjamin condemned to increasing destitution and bad luck while Warburg enjoyed the luxury of financial independence, having traded with his younger brother the running of the family bank in exchange for unlimited funds for his book collecting. Did you think of Warburg and Benjamin comparatively since they were the subjects of your last two films, and did the making of the first inform the second?

JW: Benjamin had come from a haut bourgeois family as well and never earned much of a living apart from journalism and occasional translations and essays. Like Warburg, he was a bibliophile, collecting books avidly, though not on the same scale. While Benjamin suffered terrible poverty and loneliness in his exile in Paris, Warburg suffered greatly because of his mental illness and years spent in sanatoria.

I do think of the two in relation to each other. Neither finished their magnum opus, Benjamin’s Arcades Project (Passagen-Werk) and Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas. While both were rather overlooked for decades, in the past 30 years or so, with publications and translations of their works into English and French, they have become very influential across disciplines. Having dared to make the film on Benjamin, I was encouraged to make the film on Warburg.

ARC: Why do you think Warburg and Benjamin continue to exert such a pull? Does their undogmatic, even eccentric, disregard for boundaries, whether of nations, scholarly disciplines, historical periods or artistic genres play some part in their ever growing allure?

JW: They each thought in new ways about visual culture, incorporating anthropology, philosophy, religion, Warburg expanding the approach to art and cultural history, and Benjamin to literary and cultural critiques. They both broke down the barriers between disciplines.

Now there is an industry of publications on each of them, with more than a thousand publications on Benjamin in many languages.

ARC: You’ve also made a film on your father, the distinguished Jewish literary scholar Nahum Glatzer, like Benjamin and Warburg an enemy of National Socialism. What difference did your close tie to your subject make to the project, and what were the additional challenges of portraying a scholar of a literary rather than visual medium?

JW: Nahum N Glatzer exemplified scholarly integrity and the revivification of Judaic studies in a time of exile. The film explores the context of German Jewish learning in which he developed, and the theological, literary and philosophical worlds to which he contributed. His life is a paradigm of forced movement from culture to culture and an emblem of what lives on in the transition.

This film on my father is the first of what I now think of as a trilogy on German-Jewish intellectuals of the Weimar period. It began as a personal film. I speak to camera about my father, as does my daughter. As I am the literary executor of my father’s estate, I had not only many letters, but also photographs, documents and relevant books out of which we would construct a montage, alongside interviews with other scholars and former students.

ARC: Films on art often depend on the collaboration between film-maker and art historian. In your case, you take on both roles, which is unusual. Do you find it surprising that film isn’t used more in art history, particularly now that technology makes it more accessible than ever? Why do you think art history often continues to be so bound to written forms, including the persistent dependence on literary theory? It’s interesting in this respect that Warburg’s last project, the Mnemosyne Atlas, was a purely visual story.

JW: On the whole, art history remains a rather traditional scholarly discipline, though in recent decades it has become much more inclusive in its consideration of what was once considered marginal, such as photography, posters, etc. I’d like to think that in the past ten years or so, there has been less dependence on literary theory and a return to the artist and the art object. Though there is this broadening, I think film is thought of as more populist, and so is somewhat denigrated by scholars. My students, to whom I have shown many films, liked seeing films and felt they learned from them. But I always had to say, don’t take notes, something is happening on the screen every second and you have to pay attention to it visually. I think film is not regarded seriously enough by art historians. I see my films as an extension of what I do as an art historian and teacher. The films are a more visual interpretation of visual material.

ARC: Do you have any new film projects planned?

JW: Yes! A film on the Russian-born literary and cultural critic Svetlana Boym (1959-2015). A brilliant writer of ambitious scope and great imagination, combining personal memoir with philosophical essay and historical analysis, she explored motifs of exile, nostalgia, the diasporic imagination and different forms of freedom in Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Brodsky, and many others, in a total of six books. She was also a photographer, media artist and novelist, who was a much-loved professor of comparative and Slavic literature at Harvard University.

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