HomeFrom night scenes to nocturnes. Exploring the nocturne in film, photography and video

HomeFrom night scenes to nocturnes. Exploring the nocturne in film, photography and video

From night scenes to nocturnes. Exploring the nocturne in film, photography and video

Des nuits aux nocturnes. Expériences du nocturne au cinéma, en photographie et en vidéo

From night scenes to nocturnes. Exploring the nocturne in film, photography and video

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Published on Tuesday, January 19, 2021 by Céline Guilleux

Summary

What is the ontological status of the nocturne? Do artists exploit it as lighting or setting, as a motif or a device for the purposes of creating a particular atmosphere? What are its effects on the viewer? Can it be fully incorporated into the domains of photography, film and video? We must begin by asking the right questions.

Announcement

24 - 25 September 2021 at the NIAH, Vasari Room

Argument

Although the term ‘nocturne’ cannot claim to have a single, stable and consistent meaning, the nocturne itself is a relatively well-known and firmly established phenomenon in the histories of art, music and literature. In other areas, however, it remains largely unexamined, particularly in modern and contemporary visual arts. The definition of this ‘concept’, although broadly familiar in its most widely-used sense, is actually quite varied, and immediately gives rise to a number of questions and challenges, beginning with the matter of its status: does the term ‘nocturne’ refer to an ‘atmosphere’ or an ‘affective tonality’ (like Stimmung)? Is it a ‘genre’ (with its own frame of reference and codes)? Does it belong to a ‘form’ or a ‘style’? Is it a ‘device’ arising from the material conditions of media and their techniques? Is it a type of ‘aesthetic category’ that goes beyond the characteristics that define any particular art or medium? The complexity and range of these problems are indeed worthy of attention, and the aim of this conference will be to explore the pertinence of this concept in areas where it has hitherto been largely neglected. And while it will of course be necessary to look back to the origins of the nocturne (in literature, music and painting), given that ‘the life of forms’ is made up of transpositions and metamorphoses, the conference will focus primarily on exploring its ‘reinventions’ in photography, film and video. Interdisciplinary in orientation, it is ultimately seeking to understand the way or ways in which representation in film, video and photography revisits and perpetuates this long historical tradition, as well as to detect subversions and other contemporary reworkings of the nocturne.

In literature the nocturne is simply an atmosphere espoused by Romantic writers (Novalis, Victor Hugo and Edgar Allan Poe were among the first to rehabilitate the dark); in philosophy, it is associated with night and the starry dome: the paradigm of the sublime for Kant, whereas for Burke, nothing can equal ‘the force of a judicious obscurity’. However the nocturnal (in the ordinary sense) is not (quite) the same as the nocturne, which in the history of art has taken on a life of its own.

In music, the nocturne is for the most part a fixed form with specific features: a gentle rhythm, melancholic in expression, melodic embellishments, a lively central section etc. Chopin’s renowned 21 Nocturnes represent the most well-known (Romantic) apogee of this form. Although already present in classical music, in seventeenth and eighteenth-century chamber music for instance, the nocturne achieved its greatest development later, at the beginning of the twentieth century (with Liszt, Czerny, Borodin, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Fauré, Poulenc, and right up to Satie and Bartok) which saw the development of its modern form, and especially its introspective character.

In painting, the nocturne tends to be an aspect of style and/or theme, and refers to ‘night scenes’ characterised by particular effects of light and colour. The Dream of Constantine (c. 1455), by Piero della Francesca, which depicts a deep blue night-sky, is considered to be the first nocturne in the history of painting. Carvaggio’s nights and backgrounds are intensely black, while in the same period, Adam Elsheimer painted The Mocking of Ceres in shades of mauve. In the Romantic era, the nocturnal atmosphere of Caspar David Friedrich’s works tends towards blue. Other night scenes would follow: those of Van Gogh (Starry Night), which are full of colour or those, more recently, of Hopper, populated by nighthawks. The term ‘nocturne’ was in fact given currency by the Anglo-American tradition, with James Whistler (and his canvases inspired by Chopin: Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea), and then Frederic Remington and Winslow Homer.

As far as photography and film are concerned, the nocturne has yet to be conceptualised and described. It barely even exists – figuring only in the list of ‘effects’ (special effects, as in ‘day for night’) or within the vocabulary of lighting (‘exterior night’). It is a simple statement of appearance (creating ethos), reduced to the level of poiesis, of technique, of a way of making which has not yet attained the level of recognition as form, much less that of aesthetic category.

And yet, film has been exploiting the plastic and chromatic power of the nocturne since its beginnings. Around 1910, colour, added to black and white, was used in silent film to signal the transition between day and night scenes; this was done using shades of blue and mauve. Many fiction films later continued to experiment with night colours –  Stanley Kubrick and John Alcott’s icy blue nights, David Lynch and Peter Deming’s deep black nights, or, of course, the patently artificial blue, grey and red day for nights found in Coppola’s work. Documentary film, despite its ethical engagement, is not exempt from this technique; consider, for example, the garish, washed-out colour that envelops the unbearable testimony of the Indonesian gangsters in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012). But does preoccupation with ‘night colour’, however far it is taken, amount to creating a nocturne?

As for photography, night shots were able to emerge from advancing technical developments, as with Léon Gimpel’s autochromes in the mid 1920s, which preceded Brassaï’s rotogravures. There are photographs spawned by nighttime walks, such as Daniel Boudinet’s strangely coloured cibachromes and Gilbert Fastenaekens’s deserted cities, in shades ranging from grey to deep black but also, in contrast with these, the hypnotic and highly elaborated scenes created by Gregory Crewdson. As with fiction film or photography, numerous videographers seem to give central importance to night scenes, even to the point of making darkness the very basis of an original perception: Bill Viola, Cyprien Gaillard, Mark Lewis and many others, spring immediately to mind. Their works show that the nocturne raises fundamental questions about the art of images, whatever the medium.

What then is the ontological status of the nocturne? Do artists exploit it as lighting or setting, as a motif or a device for the purposes of creating a particular atmosphere? What are its effects on the viewer? Can it be fully incorporated into the domains of photography, film and video? We must begin by asking the right questions.

Tones and colour clearly constitute a major line of enquiry that will make it possible to draw in a significant corpus made up of film sequences (including documentary films), videos and photographs. However, chromatic effects are just one of many paths to explore.

The following ideas could be considered:

  • the relationship between night scenes and nocturnes (etymology, philosophy,literature, psychoanalysis)
  • the dialectic between real and artificial night scenes: daytime nocturnes (day for night) and nighttime nocturnes
  • the legacy, perpetuation, détournement, subversion of the musical or pictorial nocturne within contemporary representation
  • the creative process exploited by photographers, directors or artists in nocturnal scenes, the resources used, the primary techniques and technological advances, the range of special effects, the artificiality of the nocturne
  • night vision, the impact of the threshold of visibility, spatiotemporal aspects, nocturnal action
  • alterity, artificiality, melancholy and other night-time phenomena in photography, film and video
  • the ‘out of the ordinary’ night-time perception of works (for example, the role of movie theatres as an environment of the gaze, or the representation of night visits to museums found in numerous films)

Submission guidelines

Proposals must be no more than 2000 characters in length and should be accompanied by a short bio-bibliography. Send proposals to colloquenocturne@gmail.com 

by 31 March 2021.

Papers will last 30 minutes.

Organizing committee

  • Judith Langendorff (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3 - LIRA)
  • Barbara Le Maître (Université Paris Nanterre - HAR)
  • Macha Ovtchinnikova (Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne et Université de Picardie Jules Verne- CRAE)
  • Philippe Dubois (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3 - LIRA).

Scientific committee

  • Françoise Parfait (Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne - ACTE)
  • Rémi Labrusse (Université Paris Nanterre - HAR)
  • Michel Poivert (Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne-HiCSA)
  • Antonio Somaini (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3 - LIRA).

Date(s)

  • Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Keywords

  • nocturne, cinéma, photographie, peinture, musique, esthétique, histoire de l'art

Contact(s)

  • Macha Ovtchinnikova
    courriel : colloquenocturne [at] gmail [dot] com

Information source

  • Macha Ovtchinnikova
    courriel : colloquenocturne [at] gmail [dot] com

To cite this announcement

« From night scenes to nocturnes. Exploring the nocturne in film, photography and video », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Tuesday, January 19, 2021, https://calenda.org/835076

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