Duel against a stormy landscape - Barry Lyndon (1975) Warner Bros.
Duel against a stormy landscape - Barry Lyndon (1975) Warner Bros.
Barry Lyndon (1975) Warner Bros.
Stories & Ideas

Thu 08 Sep 2022

Painting on film: Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon

Art Craft Film Light: Works from Tate's Collection Preservation Retrospective
Matthew Watts - Tate - photo by Phoebe Powell

Matthew Watts

Assistant Curator, Tate

The legendary director was inspired by the artists who harnessed the elemental force of light in their works.

Light: Works from Tate’s Collection explores the ways in which artists have responded to, and been inspired by, the ephemeral effects of light over the past 200 years. Examining pivotal moments across art history, the exhibition includes pioneering artists such as John Constable. Presenting himself as "an innovator" who transformed visual art, Constable claimed to introduce to our visual vocabulary "qualities of Nature unknown to it before". His work continues to inspire visual culture today, and importantly remains relevant to modern cinema. Carrying on to explore the advent of modern film technologies, Light also explores the emergence of what Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy called a ‘culture of light’ [1], with photography privileged as a medium equal to painting and sculpture for the first time.

This would go on to inspire Stanley Kubrick, who similarly sought to use new technologies in experimental ways, while taking inspiration from historic visual culture when developing his films. His 1975 adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon­­ references the innovation of painters such as Constable. In particular, the contextualisation of the body in space is notable in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, with carefully constructed tableaux that seek to provoke critical audience engagement [2].

Barry Lyndon seems a conventional story at first. The protagonist, Redmond Barry, misled by Byronic notions of male heroism engages in a duel and becomes a fugitive from the law. He turns to the army for glory, before becoming a deserter, fortune hunter and libertine in turn. The first part of the film details Barry’s developing sense of social standing as he moves from Ireland to join the British army and fight in the Seven Years’ War. Barry’s ‘rise’ and emergent class consciousness is highlighted by Kubrick's isolation of Barry’s form within the picture plane. In many scenes, Barry stands alone, with us as the spectator amongst the action with others gathered around in groups looking on in judgement [3]. Kubrick positions us as the viewer looking in, not unlike visitors to an art gallery; observing the beauty of the painterly compositions while reducing Barry to a ‘pictorial figure’, ambiguous and impersonal within his overwhelming setting [4].

Barry Lyndon (1975) - dramatic sky over a landscape and lone figure on horseback

Barry Lyndon (1975) Warner Bros.

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Barry falls into the service of the Prussians having been discovered as a deserter, and then meets a gambler and aristocratic pretender, the Chevalier de Balibari. Determined to ensconce himself within the aristocracy, Barry pursues Lady Harriet, Countess of Lyndon having seen off her elderly husband who dies after being goaded by Barry. This passage of the film is famed for its authentically candlelit scenes, a first in cinema history. Artists including Adriaen Brouwer (1605–38), Gerard ter Borch (1617–81) and Johannes Vermeer (1632–75) were all inspirations for the night settings. The heavy chiaroscuro effect of contrasting shadows and light emphasises the illusory nature of the film’s three dimensionality; in effect the lighting creates further distance between viewer and subject to heighten our perception of the distance between present and past [5]. The ground-breaking cinematography, while aesthetically rich, dissuades us from looking too deeply. The superfast Zeiss lens designed for NASA and used by Kubrick for the candlelit scenes had to be kept open to capture the little light in the room such that the images have almost no depth of field, flattening the picture and deepening a sense of unease [6]. This scene also features the shot-reverse-shot technique, with Barry shown in the same medium range shot occupying the frame with a domineering presence. Lady Lyndon however is shown in long-shot, residing in the background and problematising the power relations of Barry’s seduction during the candle lit scene [7]. Audiences must observe from a distance, while any tension is eliminated by the narrator who flattens the plot by anticipating the action [8]. The contrivances of the unreliable narrator highlight the mediated nature of the story being told, inevitable and at times omniscient, the narrator exists in tension with the reality of the story, the period and the audience experience [9].

Ryan O'Neal in Barry Lyndon (1975) - lit by candlelight
Murray Melvin and Marisa Berenson in Barry Lyndon (1975)
Nora and Barry - Barry Lyndon (1975) Warner Bros.jpg
Duel near lakes - Barry Lyndon (1975)
Lake and estate - Barry Lyndon (1975) Warner Bros.jpg
Boating - Barry Lyndon (1975) Warner Bros
Lady Lyndon and Children - Barry Lyndon (1975) Warner Bros.jpg
Final duel - Barry Lyndon (1975) Warner Bros.jpg

Stills from Barry Lyndon (1975) Warner Bros.

In the second part of the film, Kubrick calls attention to the inequalities Barry perpetuates. His behaviour quickly degenerates into the tyrannical. He adopts the aristocratic Lyndon name and attempts to gain a title by spending his wife’s fortune. Lapsing into infidelity and extravagance, Barry is frequently placed in expansive outdoor settings while Harriet is confined to the indoors with only her domestic duties to occupy her [10]. Kubrick is famed for his obsession with authenticity, and critics anticipated Barry Lyndon would not just resemble the late 1700s but recreate the period itself [11]. The film is not just lit from sources appropriate to the period, but is shot on location in period houses, with fabrics and costumes matching portraits from the time, while characters often wear white mask-like makeup [12]. In between the dramatic action, Kubrick’s establishing long shots serve to ground the character driven story within the landscape, and often take inspiration directly from painters contemporary to the story. These painterly landscapes throughout underline the tension inherent between the flat painted images taken as inspiration, and the three dimensionality of the film. These scenes often dwarf the characters, with key points in the film communicating a sense of isolation and enclosure, hemmed in by the carefully composed settings [13].

Artists often associated with the visuals of the film include William Hogarth (1697–1764), Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88), and John Constable (1776–1837), but Kubrick drew on a much wider range as inspirations to the look of the film including Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610), Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875), and Adolph Menzel (1815–1905) [14]. Using these references Kubrick subverts the audience’s expectations by presenting an authentic image of the time, with none of the interiority of the novel. The film is notoriously frustrating for many critics due to Kubrick’s insistence on distinguishing between the knowable visual culture of the time, and the unknowable private lives of his characters. Ultimately Barry Lyndon explores the paradox of all historic undertakings; wanting to know and understand the past, but unable to escape the modern perspective we bring with us [15].

Explore painterly landscapes in Light: Works from Tate's Collection

The narrative progress of the film follows the well-worn trope of the ‘rake’s progress’ satirised and popularised by Hogarth, whose work inspired one of the film’s best-known scenes; Barry collapsed in a chair in a display of moral decline. His profligacy ultimately destroys him, and defeated by his stepson in a duel, he returns to Ireland as a penniless outcast [16]. The events of Barry’s private life coincide with significant public socio-political upheaval throughout the late 1700s. The revolutionary background of the story shapes both the public and private behaviour of the characters, generating a sense of dislocation between the traditional aesthetic of the film, and the sense of building usurpation [17]. The Seven Years’ War saw thousands of lives wasted to secure the stability and hierarchy of the old order, and the film ends with the advent of the American Revolution. Barry funds the red coats using his wife’s money, supporting the established class structure to serve his own ends in accruing social capital. This trope is one common to Kubrick’s work, highlighting the futility of the rigid social mores and gendered roles which read flat and empty on the screen [18].

Taven scene from Barry Lyndon (1975) Warner Bros.

Barry Lyndon (1975) Warner Bros.

Historic visual culture continues to influence modern cinema, as well as challenging our relationship with the past. Within the moving image, Kubrick forms a contested space using techniques inspired by the painted canvas. Scenes of containment and expansion, heightened by the interplay of light, are common visual motifs for both Kubrick and Constable, however the expectations of the modern viewer are often left frustrated by Barry Lyndon. The cinematic techniques in the film resist any reading of interior personal motivation, much like a historic painting presents only a mediated version of the subject matter. Kubrick encourages us to consider that when viewing the past it remains, in many ways, unknowable.

– Matthew Watts; Assistant Curator, Tate

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Reference

  1. Notes from 'School of Light', Light: Works from Tate's Collection
  2. Melia, Matthew, 'Altered States, Altered Spaces: Architecture, Space and Landscape in the Film and Television of Stanley Kubrick and Ken Russell'. Cinergie 6, no. 12 (December 1, 2017): 139–52. DOI, p. 139.
  3. Miller, Mark Crispin. 'Barry Lyndon Reconsidered'. The Georgia Review 30, no. 4 (December 1, 1976): 827–53. EBSCO, p. 828.
  4. Miller, Mark Crispin. 'Barry Lyndon Reconsidered'. The Georgia Review 30, no. 4 (December 1, 1976): 827–53. EBSCO, p. 829.
  5. Pezzotta, Elisa. 'Slowness and Time Expansion in Long Takes: 2001: A Spacey Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, and Eyes Wide Shut'. Cinergie 6, no. 12 (December 1, 2017): 41–52. DOI, p. 48.
  6. Branch, Jana, and John Izod. 'Barry Lyndon and the Limits of Understanding'. Kinema: A Journal for Film and Audiovisual Media; Fall 2003, January 1, 2003. DOI, p. 2.
  7. Maarten Coëgnarts. 'Stanley Kubrick and the Art of Embodied Meaning-Making in Film'. Cinergie 6, no. 12 (December 1, 2017): 53–71. DOI, p. 64.
  8. Branch, Jana, and John Izod. 'Barry Lyndon and the Limits of Understanding'. Kinema: A Journal for Film and Audiovisual Media; Fall 2003, January 1, 2003. DOI, p. 2.
  9. Branch, Jana, and John Izod. 'Barry Lyndon and the Limits of Understanding'. Kinema: A Journal for Film and Audiovisual Media; Fall 2003, January 1, 2003. DOI, p. 2.
  10. Branch, Jana, and John Izod. 'Barry Lyndon and the Limits of Understanding'. Kinema: A Journal for Film and Audiovisual Media; Fall 2003, January 1, 2003. DOI, p. 2.
  11. Branch, Jana, and John Izod. 'Barry Lyndon and the Limits of Understanding'. Kinema: A Journal for Film and Audiovisual Media; Fall 2003, January 1, 2003. DOI, p. 1.
  12. Branch, Jana, and John Izod. 'Barry Lyndon and the Limits of Understanding'. Kinema: A Journal for Film and Audiovisual Media; Fall 2003, January 1, 2003. DOI, p. 2.
  13. Melia, Matthew. 'Altered States, Altered Spaces: Architecture, Space and Landscape in the Film and Television of Stanley Kubrick and Ken Russell.” Cinergie 6, no. 12 (December 1, 2017): 139–52. DOI, p. 144.
  14. Matthew Melia. “Altered States, Altered Spaces: Architecture, Space and Landscape in the Film and Television of Stanley Kubrick and Ken Russell.” Cinergie 6, no. 12 (December 1, 2017): 139–52. DOI, p. 142.
  15. Branch, Jana, and John Izod. 'Barry Lyndon and the Limits of Understanding'. Kinema: A Journal for Film and Audiovisual Media; Fall 2003, January 1, 2003. DOI, p. 1.
  16. Miller, Mark Crispin. 'Barry Lyndon Reconsidered'. The Georgia Review 30, no. 4 (December 1, 1976): 827–53. EBSCO, p. 828.
  17. Heffernan, Julián Jiménez. '"At the Court of Bellona’": Political and Libidinal Usurpation in Barry Lyndon." Journal of Narrative Theory 44, no. 2 (July 1, 2014): 183–211. EBSCO, p. 184.
  18. Branch, Jana, and John Izod. 'Barry Lyndon and the Limits of Understanding'. Kinema: A Journal for Film and Audiovisual Media; Fall 2003, January 1, 2003. DOI, p. 5