As the daughter of a painter, cinematographer Ari Wegner found inspiration from an early age in the portraiture of Lucian Freud. By Maddee Clark.
Ari Wegner is an Australian cinematographer whose film credits include Zola, The Power of the Dog, True History of the Kelly Gang and Lady Macbeth, for which she received the British Independent Film Award for Best Cinematography. Ari grew up in Eltham, Victoria, and when we speak she is in New York on a break from shooting a new work.
She has chosen to discuss Man’s Head, Self Portrait (1963) by Lucian Freud.
When did you first see this work?
My father’s a painter, so growing up there were always art books and catalogues in our home. I remember there were quite a few Lucian Freud books around the place, and one of them contained this work.
I’ve looked at this painting for so many hours, since I was very young, and as I’m looking at it now to the side of the screen, I still feel strongly about it. With Freud’s works, you can look at them as a whole, focus in on small parts, and then look at the whole again, see the parts and see them merge. His work constructs an atmosphere that’s set without any words or direction.
There’s a simplicity and a unity in this portrait that I think comes from a very reduced colour palette. A deliberate choice has been made to reduce it, but it doesn’t feel restricted or even overly stylised, it feels very natural, it even feels very diverse. He’s created a feeling of calmness with that.
Is your dad influenced by Lucian Freud?
Very much, both in the way he paints and in the subject matter. Freud’s portraiture works feel… not casual but almost domestic. He creates scenes that don’t feel set up or posed, but like you’ve just kind of walked into a room. Coming from my own family setting, I realised very early that a great work of art can take so many hours of work, but his image appears very fresh and alive, it doesn’t feel laboured on. My dad is fascinated by that realist beauty – not the mainstream idea of pretty, but things and faces which are not usually the subject of our gaze. In that authentic vulnerability is the beauty that I connect to. It’s that elevation of and adoration for imperfection.
I love how this painting is done in an unconventional angle for self-portrait. I imagine he would have perhaps done it using a mirror that was down low, because it’s kind of got this slightly odd angle to it that you wouldn’t get from looking in a mirror straight ahead. It’s traditionally not thought of as a flattering angle, not one we’d use in cinematography, but I love it.
This is an angle you would avoid?
It’s seen as a no-no in cinematography to look up at actors. I can’t articulate why I like it, but in The Power of the Dog [directed by Jane Campion] we used a lot of low angles of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, Phil. He’s a menacing figure who shows disdain for everyone that he sees as below him, and there’s something about this low angle that enhances that. I don’t think that’s the intention of Freud in this portrait, there’s
a lot more vulnerability there, I think.
All of Jane’s previous films have had a female protagonist, whereas this one had an incredibly hyper-masculine protagonist who has a more vulnerable interior. Man’s Head, Self Portrait feels like a very private moment. Maybe it’s in the angle, or the way the eyes look not fully open. There’s a sense of a deep looking into oneself, I think, and I knew that if we could capture that side of this protagonist that we would become more able to see more in him than just the hyper-masculine bully.
A lot of people ask me when I discovered film. Some filmmakers have this story that starts with them having a Super 8 camera when they’re eight years old or something, but our childhood was very analog – we were always drawing, painting and creating things. Cinema wasn’t kind of part of our vocabulary until high school. I had a wonderful media teacher – Ms Hughes at Eltham High – and one of the first things I remember watching was Jane Campion’s short films like Passionless Moments and Peel. I had the revelation that cinema is an art form, that it is malleable and able to express as personal a language as you can have in a painting or a drawing. What you’re sculpting is an experience for the viewer in the same way a painter does. I realised that it’s something beyond entertainment.
It’s wonderful that you then got to grow up and work with Jane Campion.
When Jane and I were preparing to shoot The Power of the Dog, we worked together for about a year, not only designing the shots but talking about the entire visual world of the film. Jane also has a fine arts background, so we connected over paintings more than films in our discussions. Freud’s painting was one of our big touch points in its design. We wanted to create something like what Freud has done in a film setting: a kind of visual unity and clarity. It’s wonderful to have a director that you can connect with on another level outside film, because there’s a whole other language available to you. I can feel quite envious of a painter, in that they can just put the paints on
a palette and decide which ones to use!
So we’d have these conversations which then inform the costumes, the production design and even the way the landscape is presented: the silvery grass, brown hills and very white skies, and then the colours of leather, animal fur, dusty corrals and floors, cowboy hats and chaps.
Something Campion said recently in an interview about watching you and Benedict Cumberbatch shoot the film made me realise the intense vulnerability between the actors and the cinematographers.
I have experienced watching my dad work. He does mostly portraits. There’s a similarity there in the act of allowing yourself to kind of be captured in film. In my job as a cinematographer, there are decisions made about how that person will be portrayed for the purposes of the film. Those decisions about how they will appear are made in the same way that [those for] sitting for a painting are made. The subjects don’t know what the outcome will be, yet they’re a very willing participant in the operation. So the relationship between painter and subject is really intimate, and I can see the correlation with cinema too – there’s something that happens between two people when you’re in close proximity for so long.
I don’t know if you can call it comfort, but familiarity and intimacy in the way that you go through something together. In the work I did with Benedict, there were genuinely physically and emotionally vulnerable scenes. You’re sharing a space with someone who’s given you this opportunity to portray them, which is hugely trusting.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 22, 2022 as "Ari Wegner".
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