by Ela Bittencourt
The End of Fear
Dir. Barbara Visser, Netherlands, 2018
Do we still get riled up about contemporary art? Occasionally, perhaps, as with the Brooklyn Museum’s show Sensation, back in 1999, when New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani famously objected to artist Chris Ofili’s applying cow dung to the image of the Virgin Mary. Yet so much of that show and the media scandal that followed were fueled by extra-aesthetic considerations, not the least of which was the relentless promotion of the Young British Artists, as the generation of those exhibited and collected by Charles Saatchi since the 1990s came to be called. (That relentlessness has since led to a partial devaluation of at least one of the group, Damien Hirst, who has since given us endless dead animals in formaldehyde, skulls, butterflies, and dots.)
What of art then? Is its thrill ever about aesthetics alone? This question is just one of many raised by Barbara Visser’s smart, approachable, and entertaining documentary The End of Fear, which premiered at CPH:Dox Film Festival in Copenhagen, and plays opening night of the series Panorama Europe 2018 at Museum of the Moving Image. Implied in the film’s title is the notion that art has long ceased to evoke the awe—or the visceral protest—it once did. Visser then resuscitates that awe by recapping the bizarre fate of one particular abstract expressionist painting, Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III (1966/67), which suffered an act of baffling vandalism and then was submitted to a prolonged, ultimately botched restoration. Partly talking-heads documentary, with sporadic fictionalized elements, The End of Fear is an art history lesson cum cautionary tale on art’s material, physical vulnerability.
Visser begins the film with the flash of recognition—or, for some, visceral repudiation—that met Newman’s work. To reconstruct this initial response, she interviews art experts (including Rini Dippel, a Dutch curator of modern art) and visual artists. “It was like a slap in my face,” recalls one interviewee about his initial encounter with Newman’s provocatively named painting, which in the film stands as a prime example of abstract expressionism’s complexity as well as the bafflement it instilled in viewers. “Ruthless” and “overwhelming” are other adjectives used. For abstract expressionism, as Visser makes clear by quoting some of the movement’s original artists in the voiceover, was about freedom above all—freedom from preconceptions of what art was, as much as the freedom to create.
Had Visser confined her documentary to merely exploring this premise, the result would have been a mild encomium to the art world, as exemplified in the careers of uncompromising artists such as Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and many others. Instead, Visser’s approach is threefold. First, she uses an image of a typewriter busily clicking away to create a sense of urgency, emphasizing that she's about to unveil a large investigative dossier on the attack and the restoration. Her approach in this early part is mostly chronological, with some archival images and film footage to set the stage—for example, of when Newman’s painting was first transported to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1969, after the initial sale, and when its first viewers pronounced their opinions on Dutch television, which range from predictably blasé (“My wife said I could do this too”) to decidedly more heated (“I even have slight feelings of hate sometimes.”)
To emphasize the fury with which the painting was met, Visser provides quotes from the letters that angry visitors wrote to the Stedelijk. She also quotes some of the attacker’s own writing, which she shows as a handwritten note, next to a box cutter, stored in a Ziploc bag. In the following shot, Visser also has an actor portray the attacker, who is identified throughout the film as “G.J. van B., destroyer,” and who delivers the lines from van B.’s notes seated in an empty studio. Meanwhile the studio space is demarcated with yellow lines, like a crime scene, and the film plays out in parts, like a noir, featuring more contemplative scenes depicting van B.’s state of mind.
Visser continues in the noir vein by recalling the slashing of the painting in 1986, based on the existing newspaper accounts, and on the memories of the museum staff. Though we never get to see the real-life attacker, we do hear him at one point, as Visser interviews him on the phone. Her investigation reveals van B. was not merely a disoriented young man, as he first appeared, but also a delusional artist in his own right, who took a knife to Newman’s famous artwork out of sheer frustration of being unknown (a darkly twisted homage, if you will).
If Visser’s method seems overly self-conscious at times, such as when she portrays herself while taping her phone interview with van B., it nevertheless enhances the melodramatic effect, pointing to the emotional high stakes that the drama’s various actors placed in the artwork. These stakes are further stressed in the subsequent storyline about the restoration, saddled with endless legalistic complications, and with the increasingly hostile exchanges between the Stedelijk Museum’s curators and the American art restorer Daniel Goldreyer, entrusted by Newman’s widow—with the Museum’s original blessing—with making the painting whole. Here, Visser arrives at some of her most nuanced questions: what is the very nature of the original painting? Where does its aura and value lie, and how is one to restore its glory? Visser, who trained as an art historian, films an instructor giving an overview of the restoration field in an art-school seminar, and includes images and quotes from the legal documents of the contentious arbitration between the Museum and Goldreyer. Much of the film’s tension comes from these exchanges, as we slowly come to realize that, in spite of Goldreyer’s assurances to the contrary, there is a good reason to believe that Newman’s painting has been seriously compromised.
Visser further complicates the picture by adding yet another twist: she has placed an ad in a newspaper seeking an artist who would be willing to recreate the famous Newman painting from mere descriptions. The ad has been answered by a young artist, Renske von Enckevort, who has volunteered to paint her own version of Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III. Though it’s the richest emotionally, this is also the film’s weakest part, due to the awkwardness of Visser’s dramatic contrivance, as Visser repeatedly cuts back to von Enckevort at work, studiously listening to Newman’s old recordings, mixing paints to get just the right tones that best imitate Newman’s own, and then applying them to the massive canvas.
The task’s thanklessness is in the end best expressed by von Enckevort herself. Here is a young female artist charged with recontextualizing the legacy of the formidable, deliberately defiant movement, whose ethos was ostensibly male. In keeping with the film’s brisk pace, surprisingly little is made of this gesture’s political resonance. In one of the film’s early scenes, we see von Enckevort biking to the studio, fresh-faced, her red hair blowing in the wind. There’s a hint of wholesomeness to this image, not to mention of idealistic and selfless dedication. By contrast, once von Enckevort completes her mission, she finds herself sitting at a table with Visser; the film’s producer, JeanMarc van Sambeek; and a lawyer, as the three debate dully what to do with the painstaking recreation. Does von Enckevort’s work have any status as art? To whom does this new work now belong? In the face of yet another legalistic quagmire, von Enckevort’s talent and participation end up being dismissed. Regardless of whether we buy into the emotional payoff of this finale, which rather neatly mirrors the legalities of the original Newman case, von Enckevort’s passionate protest at such a dismissal adds a poignant note.