Is the cinema the seventh art? The question, so often asked, is a classic problem of definition for the screenplays and artistic projects of the great filmmakers of all periods in all countries. From the very beginning the crucial difficulty was the codification of an independent language for the cinema, one which like that of music, literature, painting and the other arts could affirm its own identity through its freedom of expression.
Thus, if on the one hand theoretical and linguistic demands pushed the historical avant-garde movements towards experimental and innovatory cinema, on the other the cinema, including the most commercially orientated kind, was concerned to acquire some of the artistic dignity of the theatre, so that the new form could achieve the kind of cultural legitimacy which would attract the bourgeois audience of the early years of this century to the screen from the serious stage and the opera house.
Thus cinema and the figurative arts formed their first fruitful partnership at a cross-roads between the search for a specific language and that for a more than merely popular audience, and set in motion the history of the Art of the Century, with its interwoven patterns of artistic experiment: from the problems of perspective and image-framing to those of light and composition, from the new ground broken by dadaism and the French surrealists to the establishment of movements such as German impressionism and expressionism, so clearly linked to schools of painting. In some instances, such as both futurism in Italy and dadaism and surrealism, too, the cinema was not only drawn to the figurative arts, but even became a workshop for painters. Dalì, Man Ray, Duchamp all laid down their brushes for a time to take up the camera. The twenties were one of the most fascinating artistic moments of the century. They may also be identified as the period in which for the first time a tiny band of cultured and knowledgeable cinephiles began to gravitate around artistic centres and provide a public for art film screenings. The Ciné-Club de France was founded in 1924 and supported avant-garde directors and their work; the Tribune Libre du Cinéma began its activities at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in the same year. In 1926 the Studio des Ursulines opened its doors to "recruit an audience from the Latin Quarter's elite of writers, artists, intellectuals and from among the ever increasing numbers of those disenchanted with the poverty of certain programmes".
The partnership between cinema and the figurative arts did not cease with the passing of Europe's historic avant-garde, and although in many ways a repetition of that level of osmosis appeared unrepeatable, while relations between the two forms of language became more tenuous, nonetheless the mutual borrowings between the two arts continued in rich and intriguing fashion. The great cineastes of the thirties began to play with a stock of images derived from art history, and references and allusions to figurative art traced a syncretic pentagram for giving shape to an ever more complicated language of the cinema. A few illuminating examples may serve: Max Ophüls' The Bartered Bride (1932) recreated a circus in which Picasso's Saltimbanques cavort; in Une partie de campagne (1936), Jean Renoir recreated pictures between naturalism and impressionism, inspired by the paintings of his father Auguste, but also by those of Manet, Monet and Degas. The seventeenth century parable of Carl Theodor Dreyer's Day of Wrath echoed the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer, while Luchino Visconti faithfully reproduced a painting by Francesco Hayez, The Kiss, in his Senso (1954); in La ricotta (1963) Pier Paolo Pasolini produced a new version of Rosso Fiorentino's Deposition; Federico Fellini referred to the Dead Christ by Mantegna in his Satyricon (1969), while for Barry Lyndon (1975), Stanley Kubrick drew on the iconography of eighteenth century painting in Britain, from Fuseli to Gainsborough. Examples abound up to the present day - we need only think of any film by Peter Greenaway. But instead of continuing the list, it will suffice to repeat that there exists a two-way link between cinema and the arts: both have their differences and their independence, but both occasionally fall prey to a fascination with one another, whether by "borrowing" from the palette of the figurative arts for film or, like Francis Bacon in Three studies of the human head, by "stealing" the artificial movement of a cinema reel.

Matteo Pavesi