Tuesday, June 02, 2009

A Portrait of the Outsider Artist: Seraphine

In the early Twentieth Century, terms like naïve and primitive were often used to describe Outsider Artists. Outsider was a truly fitting label for Séraphine Louis (a.k.a. Séraphine de Senlis), a lowly middle-aged cleaning lady, who shared with Picasso the distinction of making her first sale to the celebrated German art critic Wilhelm Uhde. Though celebrated in retrospect, her life was one of toil and tragedy, as dramatized by Martin Provost in the French César Award winning Séraphine (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York and Los Angeles.

By 1913, Uhde had become an acknowledged champion of Naïve Primitives, like Le Douanier Rousseau, whom he discovered. Yet Uhde was only seeking some peace and quiet away from the Parisian art scene when he rented a summer house in the provincial town of Senlis. However, when attending a dinner party at the home of a pretentious local family, his eye is caught by a small still life painting, seemingly cast aside by his hosts. To his surprise, the painter is none other than Séraphine Louis, his rather rustic cleaning lady.

Louis is a deeply devout Catholic, who finds equal spiritual inspiration in nature. Unfortunately, she is also a bit off, demonstrating a marked tendency for anti-social behavior. As a result, her genius has gone unrecognized until Uhde’s arrival. With the German dealer happily buying her paintings, Louis’s prospects would seem to be looking up, until outside events intervene. As World War I breaks out, Uhde must make a hasty departure from France and his new discovery.

Provost consistently resists the urge the pretty up Séraphine de Senlis’s story Hollywood-style. The misunderstood painter is never sanitized or romanticized to make her more sympathetic, and neither is Uhde portrayed as a noble savior. In fact, he essentially forgets her after his flight from France, only to rediscover her years later, still painting compulsively and eking out a less than subsistence living. Provost also refrains from even the slightest hint of romance between artist and patron, suggesting that even if Séraphine were more desirable, Uhde still would not be interested.

Yolande Moreau gives a brave performance as Séraphine, projecting the religious fervor that motivated her painting, as well as the painful vulnerability of a woman largely shunned by society. It is a decidedly unglamorous turn, featuring a distinctly unenticing nude scene. Ulrich Tukuar’s Uhde is also a fascinating picture of sophistication and willful self-deception, particularly with regard to his support for his discoveries, and the extent to which it conveniently coincides with his own self- interests.

Séraphine is an elegantly crafted film, capturing both the beauty and the meanness of her world. The Senlis countryside sparkles through the lens of cinematographer Laurent Brunet. While it is a quiet film, ECM recording artist Michael Galasso also won a César Award for his brief but stirring string themes.

A traditional period drama, Séraphine was clearly produced for adults, featuring characters well into middle-age. Wisely, Provost always brings his focus back to Louis’s art, showing her ecstatic creative process. Ultimately it proves to be a very effective showcase for her paintings, two of which are part of the MoMA’s permanent collection. Graced with a rigorous central performance from Moreau, Séraphine is an unvarnished portrait of an outsider artist is uncompromisingly honest. It opens Friday (6/5) at New York’s Angelika and Lincoln Plaza Theaters.