Hockney and Francofonia: Art and Artists at the Gene Siskel Film Center

Chicago cinephiles are lucky to have a number of cinemas that show indie and art house films. The Gene Siskel Film Center is one of our favorites and one of the few that still projects actual film. (Most of the multiplexes project digital only.) May at the Siskel features two strong films about art and artists: Hockney, a doc about the British artist, and Francofonia, about the Louvre in World War II. (Both will be in digital projection.)

FRANCOFONIA, directed by Alexander Sokurov. 2015, 88 minutes. Russian, French, German and English with English subtitles. Screenings at Siskel through May 19.

Sokurov’s Francofonia, a meditation on art and war, focuses on how the Louvre museum and its works of art survived during World War II. Sokurov is director of the single-take masterpiece, Russian Ark, which takes us on a long tour of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, guided by a fictional 18th century character.

Francofonia is not the Parisian version of Russian Ark. It meanders through time, using both wartime documentary footage and a reenactment of the 1940s relationship between Jacques Jaujard, the director of the Louvre (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, the cultural overseer during the German occupation, played by Benjamin Utzerath.

Metternich, charged with preserving the art of the occupied country, arrives in occupied Paris and visits Jaujard. (In fact, the actual Kunstschutz was more interested in looting than preserving art.) Metternich learns that the Louvre staff has packed and moved virtually all of the art to castles and chateaus all over France. Only some sculptures remain. (German officers discuss this and one observes, “They transported 6,000 crates. Did they expect we wouldn’t notice?”) Jaujard and Metternich visit one of the castles to inspect the art. At one thrilling moment, they stand in front of Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa,” a disaster scene symbolic of the horrors of war.

The film works as a poetic and dreamlike essay on the importance of art to civilization and the conflict between art and bureaucracy, as Sokurov’s voiceovers keep reminding us of the reality of the period.

A ghostly apparition of Napoleon wanders the galleries, occasionally stopping to pose in front of a painting of himself, announcing “C’est moi.” Sometimes he’s accompanied by Marianne, who symbolizes the liberty and reason of the French Republic.

Solurov has a tendency to ramble, as in the visits to deathbed scenes of Tolstoy and Chekhov. And the film opens and returns repeatedly to a present-day Skype call between Sokurov, hunched over his Mac, and the captain of a ship with a cargo of valuable art.

Despite these quibbles, Francofonia is notable for its loving cinematography (by Bruno Delbonnel) swooping over the city of Paris, the Louvre exterior and its galleries, its art and place in French culture. “What is France without the Louvre,” Sokurov asks in voiceover, and “What would we be without museums?”

HOCKNEY, directed by Randall Wright. 2014, 108 minutes. Screenings at Siskel May 20-26.

Hockney is a more traditional documentary, making use of the private archives of the artist David Hockney and interviews with many of his friends and colleagues. The film takes us chronologically through Hockney’s life and career, beginning with his childhood in Bradford, England, and his time in art school at the Royal College of Art in London in the 1960s. He leaves art school, drawn to New York and its lively Bohemian art scene.

One of his friends, artist Mark Berger, tells the story of watching TV with Hockney and another friend. A new Clairol commercial comes on, the one with the tagline, “Blondes have more fun.” Hockney and friends are inspired to go out and buy Clairol and color their hair in Berger’s living room. Thus Hockney became a blond and remained one for the rest of his life, or at least until his hair turned white.

After New York, Hockney moved to Los Angeles, where he fell in love with the climate, the energy and freedom of the area. He got his first driver’s license, bought his first car, and is rapturous about the thrill of driving. He also painted his first iconic swimming pool pictures. Los Angeles has remained one of his home bases ever since. He also lives in London and for a time, lived in Paris.

Hockney was endlessly curious, an articulate spokesman for art and the artist’s lifestyle, and a flamboyant dresser. He came out as gay in the 1960s, when it was not easy to do so.

His art was initially considered part of the Pop Art movement of the late 1960s and ‘70s. But he is a workaholic artist, who has never stopped working, experimenting and exploring new forms of expression and new media. Most of his work is in the form of paintings, and he was a brilliant portraitist and figurative painter. Later he took up photography and photo-collage, and also created set designs and costumes for opera, ballet and film.

The film is a charming look at Hockney, with many interviews with the artist himself at various periods in his life. Patrick Duval’s excellent cinematography does justice to his work and its inspirations.

The friends and colleagues who are interviewed are without exception fond of Hockney and fans of his work. What the film is missing is a critical voice as well as an evaluation of his work and its position in British and world art.

You can see Hockney and Francofonia this month at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. Tickets are $11 general admission and $6 for members.


Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.