Review: Palmer and Me

On the evening of Monday 12th November in the Garnett Room, 57 pupils and six staff attended “Palmer and Me,” a 56-minute screening, produced and directed by BAFTA award winning Mike Southon. Before this, Mr Southon spent the late afternoon in the Art School discussing the importance and diversity of the moving image with our Sixth Form Photographers.

“Palmer and Me” came to fruition in 2016 after featured artist and our own Head of Art, Edward Twohig, suggested the 19th century landscape artist Samuel Palmer (1805-1881) as a subject but with an added twist; having contemporary artists respond and mirror to his compositions. Mr Southon introduced the screening with, ‘I’m always looking for a story’ and hence the production began. His film set out to document an exploration of the artistic process, following twelve contemporary artists with 4k cameras, and in doing so capturing not just their individual approaches but the artists direct association to the Palmer print they chose and build from over the course of a month; ‘Getting at the works with a camera almost reveals more than looking at them in person’, the producer proclaimed.

The only confines of the project were by physicality, only allowing the artist a 30x30cm square for work, later revealing the square has no hierarchy – there is an equal exit at all points. Southon himself reflected on this choice, revealing he came only then to ‘understand the power of small – it’s extended [him] as well’.

The most significant phrase spoken at the viewing was by the producer, ‘I started to see the world through Samuel Palmer’s works’. This was profoundly, although likely unintentionally, revealing. Admittedly, at first, I had not found the subject matter of particular interest, having never truly given his form of artistry it’s well deserved time of day. It was this statement that began the underlying question held throughout; is it about these works that allowed this kind of impact, not just on one but on all of the film’s protagonists – all of the featured artists, despite their initially differing views on Palmer’s etched compositions, confessed to being personally influenced if not captivated by the him and his process. And, suddenly the title of the film made sense.

Before this screening, I had dismissed landscape almost entirely, holding to the ungrounded belief that it simply had no emotive backing. This documentary, above all else, exposes the true spirituality and intensity of all I had never thought had much. As the scenes go on, you become more and more aware of the depth behind what I thought to be just idealised, Arcadian images. The more you understand of an artist, the more you understand of their work, and the more you understand their work the more attached to it and, in doing so, learn something about yourself in the process. As the audience learnt; artist’s prints, created for this “Palmer Project” are just as confessional as the sporadic, often disturbing works of, for example Francis Bacon or even the YBA’s (Young British Artist’s) that I would usually associate with personal revelation. Samuel Palmer’s etched works became darker with time, reflective of his trouble to shake the loss of two of his children, evident even though he was urged to paint in a more commercial style to feed his family. Only in hindsight, can I see that it was the spirit of the pieces the artists worked from fortified by the actual composition that inspired the contemporary “take” on Palmer.

“Palmer and Me” is a work that provides the viewer with more on reflection than one realises while watching. All snap-judgments made have been firmly cemented. The oddly fitting piano backing track and slight lack of aesthetic focus in the film itself were clarified by Southon afterwards. He explained that his career, to recent date, was about making films for money, and the Palmer film was about the joy in and of creativity; ‘I’m not really interested in whether anyone else is interested in it, in making film you learn something new and wonderful’, he asserted after being asked whether he cares about what an audience thinks. Further, it was revealed the film was finished only just before the Opening exhibition, so given a three month window “as artists problematically leave work just before the deadline.” Ultimately, this doesn’t just provide a glimpse into how the artist processes and produces, but implicitly and somehow fervently allows a broader understanding of its deep, intrinsic self, while still leaving room for expansion. As put by Paul Catherall; ‘each time you’re influenced your mind’s expanded – but only a bit’.

As we sat watching, I (and my fellow Marlburian pupils) gained an understanding of this area of Art, hitherto, I must confess, unknown territory to me. Huge thanks to Mr Southon for visiting and Mr Twohig, Mr Parnham and Mr Wilkins for hosting this memorable event.

Review by Mimi Ashmead-Bartlett (CO L6)

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