Blow-Up—Between Form and Formlessness
We know that underneath the displayed image there is another one more faithful to reality, and underneath this second there is a third one, and a fourth under the previous one. All the way to the true image of that reality—absolute, mysterious—that nobody will see. Or all the way to the dissolution of any reality.
– Michelangelo Antonioni
If a work is to be of any value it must convey something of which transcends material.
– Alan Davie
Our present age is no longer concerned with the static, Cartesian division between mind and body. Rather it is the dynamic Nietzschian dialectic of the Apollonian and the Dionysian which is now at the heart of human and social experience. We are all, consciously or not, in continuous negotiation between the epistemological and the ontological—or, as Antonioni puts it: ‘I work in a way that is both calculated and intuitive.’ This also very much echoes Alan Davie’s description of the artist as ‘two separate beings - the intuitive creator and the intellectual spectator’.
This fundamental distinction in the way we react to, and act on, our contemporary reality began way back with the separation of time into the mythic and the historic. There we moved from the edenic cyclicality of Eternal Return to the linear conveyor belt of past, present and future. The chronological system of historical time then had to be chopped up into manageable proportions, eventually evolving into mathematical units such as millenniums, centuries, decades, etc. Everyone realises these rationalised temporal divisions are purely arbitrary in relationship to our individual, free-flowing sense of the passage of time, but that does not prevent the collective memory from selecting out and characterising certain eras and decades with distinctive associations. Thus, we get the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Victorian age, the Naughty Nineties, the Roaring Twenties and the Swinging Sixties.
Although their art was informed and formed by the previous post-war period, Antonioni and Davie both became iconic figures who very much characterised the radical cultural concerns of the 1960s. They shared many similar attitudes, especially in their commitment to open, creative intuition and improvisation in their art practice. They may appear to have been separated by different mediums of expression—one a film director, the other a painter—but as Antonioni said of himself: ‘I am not a painter; I am a film-maker who paints.’ In fact, he is also a painter: many of his works are displayed in the Antonioni Museum in his home town of Ferrara. Not surprisingly then, he visited a number of artists’ studios during the preparation for his most celebrated film, Blow-Up, 1966. This reconnaissance included a special trip to see Alan Davie; not only to film the painter at work, but also to acquire one of Davie’s recently finished canvases for the set representing the flat in Blow-Up. Yet, even though Davie’s distinctive picture appears in a number of scenes – and its presence, I am sure, is of crucial thematic importance to Antonioni’s cinematic discourse on the nature of reality, art and illusion—it seems to have gone unnoticed until now.
Such lack of visual perception, leading to symbolic, physical and spiritual blindness, is the meta-narrative of Blow-Up, in which, in Antonioni’s phrase, he is ‘questioning the nature of reality’. Forty years on, the critical interpretation of Blow-Up has shifted markedly. It was initially regarded as an outsider’s wry critique of London’s hedonistic pop society and its superficial, materialistic values, but is now read as a Kafka-esque allegory of philosophic investigation into how we make (non)sense of the world, through the aegis of film, photography and painting. The mid-1960s was undoubtedly the most opportune moment for Antonioni to take on this self-appointed task. This was the radical period of transition when, he felt, there were ‘no more taboo topics’ and categorical divisions in art, as well as in society, were falling apart. This rebellious, anarchistic, Dionysian attitude is represented by the mysterious mime group who enigmatically appear at the beginning and end of the film. On the other hand, the narrative core of Blow-Up—in which the bemused protagonist tries to prove that a murder took place within the image of one of his voyeuristic photographs—echoes the ubiquitous paranoia which permeated that Cold War decade. Ironically, this was the brave new era that began with the close shave of the near apocalyptic Cuban missile crisis, only to be plunged into the labyrinth of the endlessly unanswered question ‘Who shot JFK?’ and then was left to spiral towards the ultimate Heart of Darkness with the poet, Adrian Mitchell, pleading on behalf of his generation: ‘Tell me no more lies about Vietnam.’ These traumatic events seared deep into the collective unconscious of the age, and yielded up their (mis)representations of history through the photographic image, of which Kafka himself wrote: ‘Photography concentrates the eye on the superficial. It obscures the hidden life which glimmers through the outlines of things like a play of light and shade.’
Blow-Up’s macho photographer (played by David Hemmings), with his phallic camera and toys-for-boys technology, believes he can still penetrate the superficiality of the photographic surface and reveal the answer to that great mystery that lies at the core of all histories: what actually happened. Yet despite his conviction that ‘something fantastic happened’, his quest for the holy grail of positivism merely disintegrates before his eyes. His ‘blow-up’—a detail of what he thinks is a dead body —ends up ‘looking like one of Bill’s paintings’. This is a reference to the painter character in the film, who also believes his impenetrable pointillist/cubist pictures contain a meaning, ‘like a clue in a detective story’. This deductive approach to art and life is the antithesis to that embraced by Davie, who declared at the outset of his artistic life that ‘art is purposeless, aimless’. Thus the truly mysterious presence of Davie’s dazzling painting within Blow-Up resists solipsistic enquiry and so misrepresentation. Instead, it offers a light on spiritual, rather than rational, reality, where the photographer might break through and ‘reach the point of oneness by the abandonment of reason, desire and ambition’, as Davie himself, in true Zen fashion, put it.
Finally, right at the end of the film, the photographer does reach that point of total self-abandonment and literally disappears. Still seeking an answer to his detective story mystery, he returns to the park and the scene of the ‘crime’. However, he becomes distracted by the mime group, who again inexplicably appear—this time silently playing tennis, but minus racquets and balls. His initial scepticism gives way to genuine fascination and eventually he is completely enthralled by the game as though he were a child. And it is precisely at this moment of imaginative empathy and spiritual epiphany that he becomes ‘at one’ with himself and the cosmos. Instead of finding a physical body and a rational answer to his mundane questions, the photographer—named Thomas, like his doubting biblical counterpart—experiences a spiritual resurrection through the miraculous power of the poetic imagination and the intuitive, creative play of his freed spirit.
Alan Davie’s painting went missing after the filming of Blow-Up. If anyone knows its present whereabouts please contact the editor of Map.
Bill Hare teaches at the University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh College of Art
In the Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson describes Antonioni as ‘the world’s greatest living film-maker’. Born in Ferrara in 1912, he began working in the cinema during World War II, and his early work is linked to Italian Neo-Realism. He began to gain international renown in 1960 with L’Aventura, but his reputation was greatly enhanced by his first English language film, Blow-Up, in 1966. Antonioni’s distinctive cinematic style is widely admired as the quintessential expression of the psychological experience of alienated modernity.
For many, including the renowned critic David Sylvester, Francis Bacon and Alan Davie were the two most important British painters of the postwar decades. Davie was born in Grangemouth in 1920 and studied at Edinburgh College of Art in 1937–40. In 1948, he showed his work in Venice, where he was ‘discovered’ by Peggy Guggenheim. She invited him to show in New York, and his exhibition was received with much enthusiasm by both the critics and the American abstract expressionists. Since then he has continued to work and exhibit his unique expressionistic symbolist paintings all over the world. Davie is regarded internationally as one of the great modern masters.