Dreaming of Light

On Víctor Erice’s El sol del membrillo

(1) El sol del membrillo [The Dream of Light] (Víctor Erice, 1992)

The text below is an edited excerpt from the chapter ‘Vasari in Hollywood: Artists and Biopics’ from Steven Jacobs’s book Framing Pictures. Film and the Visual Arts (Edinburgh Studies in Film: Edinburgh, 2011), in which he examines the way films “animate” artworks by means of cinematic techniques, such as camera movements and editing, or by integrating them into a narrative. He explores how this “mobilization” of the artwork is brought into play in art documentaries and artist biopics, as well as in feature films containing key scenes situated in museums. In this excerpt, he discusses Víctor Erice’s El sol del membrillo (1992).

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Over the years, an interesting intermediary genre developed that combines elements of the art documentary focusing on the artist at work on the one hand and elements of drama and narrativisation of the feature film on the other. Víctor Erice’s El sol del membrillo (1992), which deals with painter Antonio López García, is probably one of the most important and famous examples of this hybrid genre, in which the artist’s life and work are strongly interwoven. […] With its slow rhythm, focus on the mundane and struggle of finishing a single painting, Erice’s El sol del membrillo can be presented as a meditation on the passing of time, hovering between documentary and fiction. Its title, which was translated into English as Dream of Light (The Quince Tree Sun), refers to the sunny period in the autumn that coincides with the ripening of quinces. Both the filmmaker and his painter character attempt to capture the shifting light as it changes with the passing days. An intense interest in light had already characterised Erice’s earlier films El espíritu de la colmena [The Spirit of the Beehive] (1973) and El sur [The South] (1983), which has been described as “the story of a child’s suspension before the magic of light”.1 Moreover, Erice’s earlier films contain figures who emerge from the light in the manner of paintings by Velázquez, Zurbarán and Murillo. Moreover, a few years before El sol del membrillo, Erice started working on a film based on Velázquez’s Las Meninas but he abandoned the project after the release of Jaime Camino’s film Luces y sombras (1988), which also deals with the famous Velázquez painting.2 Ultimately, Dream of Light focuses on a contemporary artist. It features realist painter Antonio López García, who is particularly famed for his hyperrealist cityscapes of Madrid. López’s work is pervaded with the same sense of contemplation that characterises Erice’s cinema itself. Shortly before filming Dream of Light, in the summer of 1990, Erice had accompanied and recorded López on video during various work sessions in different places in Madrid. Later, he went back and set up the camera alone at the same viewpoints at the same times of day. With the help of these images, some of which were later put on DVD as Notes (1993–2003), Erice explicitly focused on the ways both painting and cinema deal with the fleeting passage of people and things.3 Confronting painting with video or film, both Notes and Dream of Light consequently deal with movement and time – two issues that are highly important for López, whose urban landscapes seem to suppress all that moves, as well as for Erice’s earlier feature films, which comprise painterly and tableau-like compositions, filmed photographs and other motifs and visual characteristics playing on the tension between movement and stasis.

Dream of Light was born of an image from a dream about rotting quinces under a strange light, both bright and sombre, which is told by the painter to the filmmaker, and which López also tells in voice-over at the end of the film. The film almost exclusively focuses on López’s attempts to make a painting of a quince tree in the small walled garden of his Madrid studio house. Linda Ehrlich has linked the film to the humble tradition of the Spanish bodegón, a term that was initially used in Spain for a rustic eating place but that later was applied to works combining genre and still life.4 One of the famous masterpieces of the bodegón tradition even includes the representation of a quince. Juan Sánchez Cotán’s Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (1602), which is part of the collection of the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery, enables the seemingly mundane to appear in a transfigured light. As in Cotán’s painting, everyday and familiar objects acquire a sense of mystery, eternity and monumentality in Dream of Light.

López starts working on the painting on 29 September 1990, when the sun shines the honey-gold light that was already so striking in The Spirit of the Beehive. He aborts the painting process on 10 December. In addition, the film also comprises footage that was shot on four days in the spring of 1991 when Erice found a quince on the ground carrying traces of paint that were still visible after six months of rain and snow. During the film, several visitors come to the courtyard: López’s daughters and his wife Maria Moreno who is also an artist, artist and old school friend Enrique Gran, a young painter who is a tenant, a Chinese visitor and her translator, and a few Polish construction workers who are renovating a part of the studio building. To critic Alain Bergala, it has become “impossible to distinguish between the real people (who play themselves) and the fictional aspect that turns them, despite everything, into film characters.”5 Their conversations on everyday events emphasise the thoroughly undramatic nature of Antonio López’s private life. In so doing, Dream of Light pointedly differs from most feature films about painters, such as the Van Gogh biopics discussed in the previous paragraphs. Dream of Light shows none of the flamboyant drama that should give the artworks a transcendental value and none of the psychological dynamics and clear contrasts that characterises the conventional artist biopic. Several critics have compared Erice’s film to Rivette’s La belle noiseuse, released a year earlier and which had already explored the limits of the genre’s conventions by emphasising the painter’s preparations. Rivette, for instance, elaborately shows how his painter protagonist assembles materials, makes preliminary sketches, experiments with different poses and struggles through false starts and changes of mind. However, Rivette’s film is still characterised by a sense of drama and romantic assumptions such as the painter’s reclusiveness, the pervasive sexual tension and the implication that the painting is too disturbing to display.6 Erice, by contrast, resolutely focuses on López’s both painstaking and mundane preparations. We see the painter positioning his easel with great care, measuring the distance between it and the tree and deliberating over the exact angle of the canvas. We see López setting up two posts, running a cord between them and hanging a plumb line midway. In addition, Erice shows the artist tapping long nails into the ground in front of his shoes. He also lowers his viewpoint by scraping away some earth with a little shovel. Each day, he stands in exactly the same position. Later, during long periods of rain that interrupt the meticulous painting process, López installs with the help of the Polish workers a large plastic-sheeted frame that covers both the tree and his easel. In addition, Erice elaborately shows us how López traces a horizontal line with white paint along the wall behind the tree and how he puts dabs of white paint on several leaves on the trunk and, later, similar dabs on the fruit. Sometimes, it seems as if the artist has put more paint on the tree itself than on the canvas. Arousing the viewer’s curiosity, Erice gives no explanation by means of titles or a voice-over about these actions, which are initially incomprehensible to most spectators. Are they mystical signs or are they part of a strange ritual? Or is López experimenting with a form of garden-sized Land Art? The simple explanation arrives in due course, however. As the quinces ripen, their increasing weight drags the branches down from their original marked positions as a result of which López has to adapt his viewpoint. López’s serenely meticulous procedure and careful attention to viewpoint and framing parallels Erice’s extremely reticent style, which is characterised by an insistence on a stationary camera and minimal use of the zoom lens. Erice frames his work much in the way that a painter never moves the brush beyond the edges of the canvas. What is more, Erice places his camera with equal care often in the same relationship to the painter that Antonio López assumes towards the tree.7 His meditative appraisal of López’s work generates a sense of wonder.

After weeks of work or days of waiting due to rain, López finds a quince fallen on the ground and shortly afterwards he simply puts the painting and his materials away. Unclear whether he considers the painting completed or unfinished, López is forced to abandon it after a month of intense labour. According to López, the process of undertaking and abandoning work is inevitable in painting from life where you can only paint for a few hours each day and a few weeks a year, because the light changes and that changes the character of the landscape.8

Painting, Erice demonstrates, does not necessarily imply the spontaneous action and physical grandeur that filmmakers love to register when they are focusing on the artistic act of creation. On the contrary, painting can be a process that involves elaborate preparations, mental concentration and mundane, undramatic moments. In some instances, Erice unmistakably compares the work of López to that of the Polish plasterers working in the house. López’s painting process is first and foremost time consuming. Furthermore, López’s oeuvre itself deals with time. According to Robert Hughes, the essential subject of Antonio López García’s work is “time – how to use it, how to slow its passage, how to testify about a fugitive world that changes as he looks.”9 To Erice, López’s favourite theme is the expansion of time, and that is something that can be captured by the language of cinema. In an essay on “the approximation of cinema and painting,” Erice stated that painting and cinema are two different languages with common elements: painting can express or represent time, but cannot contain it. This power to contain time is reserved for the cinema.10 This Bazinian dimension in Erice’s film is also emphasised by the theme of death that pervades in Dream of Light.11 The film tells the story of the decay of the fruit, changing from mellow gold to wrinkled residue, but also refers to the warnings of winter. In addition, political situations reported on the radio evoke deaths while López himself, lying in a heavy winter coat on a bed, takes a death-like pose on the painted canvas by his wife Maria Moreno. Last but not least, the film ends with the symbolic death of the painting of the quince tree itself. With his attention to the painter’s extensive preparations, the passing of time and a melancholy notion of death and decay, Erice creates an odd state of suspense, which charges the film with a strange tension as the viewer is forced to acknowledge the very limitations of both pictorial and cinematic representation. Reminiscent of the evocations of the cinema machine in his earlier films – the faces of children staring at the film screen in The Spirit of the Beehive or the line of light striking the eye of a little girl through a keyhole in El sur – one of the film’s final images shows an abandoned camera and an arc light looming over the tiny tree and fallen quinces. First, we only get to see the shadow of the camera and tree projected on a wall. Next, we see the camera on a tripod connected to a timer that also switches on the light – we wonder if perhaps the artificial lights used for filming have caused the fruit to go rotten before the painter was able to finish his picture. As the film process moves on, the subject of the image is changed because the camera, according to Erice, “rots the natural”.12 Given this perspective, Dream of Light is not only a film that deals with the media of painting and cinema, it also juxtaposes the act of pictorial creation and the act of cinematic creation and is therefore related to films such as Haesaerts’s Visite à Picasso, Namuth and Falkenberg’s Jackson Pollock or Clouzot’s Le mystère Picasso. Erice even emphasises this parallelism by using video in the film to document López’s work, making it analogous to the painter’s use of drawing.13 López is thus captured by a wide range of media. Apart from Erice’s film as well as his video “sketches”, there is the evocation of an old photograph (which we do not actually see) and the painting by López’s wife, which shows the artist sleeping and gradually moving towards death (which often plays an important role in the encounters between cinema and painting). 

  • 1Paul Julian Smith, “Whispers and Rapture,” Sight&Sound, April 1993, 29.
  • 2A detailed description of the Velázquez project can be found in Shigehiko Hasumi, “From Velázquez’s Mirror to Dream of Light,” translated by Ann Sherif, in Linda Ehrlich (red.), An Open Window: The Cinema of Víctor Erice (Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2000), 221-231.
  • 3José Saborit, “Looking in Time: Antonio López and Víctor Erice,” in Erice – Kiarostami. Correspondences (Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, 2006).
  • 4Ehrlich, “Interior Gardens: Dream of Light and the Bodegón Tradition,” in An Open Window, 194.
  • 5Alain Bergala, “Erice–Kiarostami: The Pathways of Creation,” in Erice – Kiarostami, 15.
  • 6William Johnson, “Dream of Light (El sol del membrillo) by Víctor Erice,” Film Quarterly (1993), 46 (3), 41–44.
  • 7Ehrlich, “Interior Gardens,” 194.
  • 8Michael Brenson, “Interview by Michael Brenson with Antonio López Garcia,” in Antonio López Garcia, red. Michael Brenson (New York: Rizzoli International, 1990).
  • 9Robert Hughes, “The truth in the Details,” Time Magazine, 21 April 1986.
  • 10Víctor Erice, “Cine y pintura”. See Ehrlich, “Objects Suspended in Light,” in Ehrlich, An Open Window, 9.
  • 11See Jean-Louis Leutrat, “Le songe de lumière”. Linda Ehrlich noted that Erice re-read Bazin while filming Dream of Light. See Ehrlich, “Objects Suspended in Light,” 19.
  • 12Erice quoted in Jean-Philippe Tessé, “On the Difference Between an Image,” in Erice – Kiarostami. Correspondences (Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, 2006), 26. Republished on Sabzian on 20 March 2024.
  • 13See Marsha Kinder, “Documenting the National and its Subversion in a Democratic Spain,” in Ehrlich, An Open Window, 208.

Images (1) and (2) from El sol del membrillo [Dream of Light] (Víctor Erice, 1992)

ARTICLE
20.03.2024
EN
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La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
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