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The Getty Museum made a splashy announcement last month when it revealed that it had acquired Werner Herzog’s multimedia artwork, Hearsay of the Soul, which was created for the 2012 Whitney Biennial, and will place it on view from July 23 through Jan. 19. Herzog’s piece is a five-channel video installation that focuses on the intricate landscape etchings of Dutch Golden Age painter Hercules Segers (c. 1590-1638), and is accompanied by the music of Dutch cellist and composer Ernst Reijseger, a longtime Herzog collaborator.
Herzog’s disinclination to classify the mediums of art means that the piece is an unbelievably rare instance of the legendary film director working outside of the usual feature-length film milieu and within a gallery setting. In fact, Herzog’s wife, Lena — an art photographer in her own right –needed to prod the director to pursue the work after curator Jay Sanders of the Whitney reached out to him. Herzog, whose next film is biopic Queen of the Desert and who achieved fame with groundbreaking films like Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and Heart of Glass (1976), seems genuinely pleased with the final product, intoning perfunctorily in an e-mail interview, “My wife is always right.”
The piece, which zooms in to give details of Segers’ sprawling yet intricately rendered landscapes, is the result of Herzog’s decades-long fascination with the mysterious and largely unsung painter. Segers’ landscapes are shadowy, beautiful expanses straight out of Middle Earth, gloomed by portentous clouds, creating an ominous, otherworldly panorama. “He always felt like a family member, a brother,” says Herzog, underlining the influence Segers’ work had on Herzog’s own. These works were collected by Rembrandt in his lifetime, but Segers’ biography is patchy at best, and his legacy is limited, with just under 200 etchings and about 15 paintings (Segers’ work is so rare, in fact, the Getty doesn’t have one in its collection).
Arpad Kovacs, a curator in the photographs department at the Getty, describes the challenges in presenting a contemporary work that feels in tune with the museum, given its quite sophisticated tradition. “Video is rather new territory for the museum,” Kovacs tells The Hollywood Reporter. “The Getty Research Institute does have a fairly robust collection of videos, especially from the 1970s, but for the museum, this is actually our third video piece in the collection. Because of the theme that it deals with — looking back towards 17th century or Old Master tradition, which of course the Getty has really strong holdings in — it seems be an appropriate place for this work to end up. The location where it’s going to be installed is going to be right across from the manuscript gallery and quite close to our sculpture, decorative arts and paintings galleries. I think that the connection, in terms of the proximity of the location, is going to be evident and in a way quite poetic.”
Herzog echoes Kovacs’ interest in the work’s interplay between past and present. “Art, sometimes, can be outside of history,” says Herzog about Segers’ place in history. “He is a visionary who was 400 years ahead of his time.” The abstract quality to Segers’ landscapes does, in fact, make them seem far more modern than the realism depicted in other Dutch Masters’ work. His work can be seen as a precursor to expressionism, despite being so criminally overlooked. Herzog’s artwork, in giving Segers’ etchings and paintings a contemporary context, illuminates the gestural prescience of this singularly mysterious historical figure.
This isn’t the first time Herzog has delved into art history: his 2010 documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, deals with the Chauvet Caves of Southern France — the world’s earliest known manmade pictorial representations — in a similarly historical, yet extremely personal, way. But it is the first time Herzog has delved into something that is not made for a theater screen. “There are five screens, and the form of attention has to be different than that of a cinema,” says Herzog. “The installation is simply a result of a vision which is outside of my regular work in film or literature.”
Kovacs adds: “This is an interesting example of a filmmaker doing something quite different, but out of his comfort zone, quite successfully.”
Kovacs is also quick to note that the sonic element of the work is integral to the piece. “Particularly one of the things I’d like to stress, and certainly something Mr. Herzog wants to stress, is the importance of the audio of the piece. He really does feel that audio component and the visual are equals.”
The result is a deeply moving experience: awash in imagery and sound, the viewer truly enters Segers’ landscapes. As Herzog previously wrote about the work: “Hercules Segers’ images and my films do not speak to each other, but for a brief moment, I hope, they might dance with each other.”
Herzog and Reijseger will discuss their collaboration on Hearsay of the Soul and the other films they’ve worked on together Aug. 3 at 5 p.m. at the Getty Center’s Harold M. Williams Auditorium.
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