VR Stories Behind Iconic Artists. Artemisia Gentileschi

by paradoxig

History tends to hide itself. Or do we tend to forget it? What we take for granted nowadays, sometimes in the (distant) past was different. Alongside writings of the time, paintings offer a glimpse into the history and can reveal much of an era. But do we truly understand them, what are the stories behind some paintings?
(Hi)Story of a painting: The Light in the Shadow reveals the story of Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the first women that forged a career as an artist, forgotten and rediscovered recently.
The VR experience blends her artistic achievement with her life story – the dramas she had to face and her determination to overcome them, positioning herself as a strong voice on the artistic scene. A remarkable immersive experience, with interactive elements, that provokes you to reflect on the story and condition of an iconic woman artist, while at the same time, offers one of the most absorbing art history lessons.

At SXSW2022, ”(Hi)story of a Painting: The Light in the Shadow” received the Special Jury Recognition for Immersive Storytelling.

We had the pleasure to talk with directors Gaëlle Mourre and Quentin Darras, and producer Charlotte Mikkelborg about the creative process, challenges in distributions, the interactive elements that disclose story bonuses, the Wishlist for the future (Hi)stories of Paintings, and…details that did not make it to the final VR experience. 

TVA: We were really impressed by the experiences, and the fact that you have tried to recover somehow a lost story – of a great artist, of a woman’s evolutions. And also the way you constructed her storyline – being aware of the period, of the difficulties faced by women – such as rape was considered normal – but also highlighted her work, her strong voice, her techniques, and her strength as an artist. So, all these elements and complexities were brilliantly combined.
If you could tell us more about the process of coming up with this type of storyline?
And why the choice of Artemisia Gentileschi,what impressed you?
Gaëlle Mourre: This is the series, and so, this project “The Light in the Shadow” is the second episode of our History of a Painting series.
The idea was that we realized that a lot of iconic paintings are visually known, but badly known, in essence.
No one really knows why these paintings are famous and why they matter. And so we started off with that idea that we wanted to create an engaging story that highlights why on earth are we even watching this painting in the first place. Because behind every iconic painter and painting there is an extraordinary and really interesting story. And that’s what we wanted to bring forward.
We wanted to build art historical stories that bridge the gap between education and entertainment, and make art history accessible, fun, and joyful for us. There’s this notion that art history is very highbrow; and in my opinion, the academy doesn’t necessarily do much to dismantle this notion.
So, we wanted to highlight that Art History is for everyone. It is part of everyone’s history and cultural heritage.
Quentin Darras: We thought it was very interesting to go with a painting that was very classical, because this is the type of painting that we’ve seen many times and we barely look at those in museums because we feel like ‘they all kind of look the same’. Actually, within 15 minutes you discover the entire story, why it makes sense and why it was actually groundbreaking at the time.
We felt it’s also very interesting to take a classical painting and see why at some points, it was very new.
As for the artists, Artemisia Gentileschi is really getting traction at the moment. She’s quickly being rediscovered, and is starting to become like a feminist icon.
We felt it was a good opportunity to seize that story. We did a lot of research and tried to not be biased as much as possible, and explore what she really was and her story in detail.
Charlotte Mikkelborg: Unlike Gaelle and Quentin, I don’t have an art historical background but that was a really interesting point that Quentin made. Many of us walk around the galleries and we see a lot of paintings from the Renaissance or Baroque eras with their dark, slightly depressing hues and unfamiliar characters, and we don’t naturally connect with them because they don’t feel relevant to our lives today. So, what was really interesting to me in the exploration of Artemisia Gentileschi’s story, was realising that this painting with its unfamiliar style was, in fact hugely relevant to me. While, in a gallery, I might have largely ignored this painting thinking it was just another painting of a woman by a man, I discovered that actually, the story of this woman in the picture is incredibly relevant to me in the sense her having met personal and career challenges because of her gender. It’s important because it shows that strong female role models have been present throughout history, and it’s heartening because, even if there are still obstacles to overcome, we have come a long way since Artemisia’s time.

©Photo credit: Quentin Darras Courtesy of SXSW2022

TVA: The XR experience has some interesting components – the use of puppetry technique and the interactive elements(dif. symbolic objects). Firstly, the interactive element is a kind of introduction of a soft-gaming element involved, how did you choose this type of interaction?
Quentin Darras: We think that VR allows you to have more input from the headset. So, we decided that we couldn’t just do a video that would play without you.
The idea was that the narrative is told to you, and we wanted to ground the viewer, as if they had an impact on the story.
We could not become a video game because obviously, then you would lose track to the narrative and stop listening. So it was finding the right balance between keeping the viewer grounded in the experience feeling like what they look at has weighed in the experience and at the same time, not diverge too much from the story.
As for the puppets, it’s also because we can, it’s mostly an animation medium and we wanted to add diversity and as many different elements as long as they were relevant with the experience.

TVA: …coming back a little bit with the puppetry, I find it like really interesting because the whole story, it’s the period between Renaissance and Baroque, meant a lot of discovery and innovation in science, in art, painting technique, regard to perspective with it in that period. So, from all these innovations you choose somehow Puppetry form of art using different typology and techniques to highlighting different history. You use the shadow siluete technique-puppeteers Bagattellieri, (technique of shadow siluete that came in Italy in15th-16th centuries from Asia) but also you use other interesting technique (in the moment when the table-scene turn) the traditional Sicilian Puppets. Why you choose puppetry as a binder?
Gaëlle Mourre: I was going to add that puppets are also fun, they are visually fun to look at. And as the Artemisia story is packed, it is full of drama and difficult things, we didn’t want to shy away from that. But we also didn’t want to be heavy handed and certainly didn’t want to traumatize our audience because watching anything in VR, intensifies the themes of a story.
We wanted to be sensitive around how we were bringing these stories forward. That was one consideration.
In addition, we were looking at the different kinds of illustration styles of the time. And we learned from Puppets because certainly there were wooden pallets as you saw in our story bonuses. And paper puppets became much more popular later in time.
But we made the decision that these paper puppets didn’t come from nowhere. They have been around for a long time. And just because they’re popular at one time doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist beforehand.
So we decided to go with a late motif of puppets to both illustrate the sort of more fun aspects, to add a little bit of lightness to our story, but also to create a visual grammar for this series.
Because this is our second episode, we hope to be making more episodes and so we have the idea that our story bonuses will officially be of the same style, the sort of pop -up puppet style illustrations. Lastly, there was a practical aspect to it.
Our project is created for an untethered headset – that means it’s much more widely accessible. And for that reason, we needed our projects to be light enough – we couldn’t create all 3D characters. We chose to highlight our protagonist as a 3D character and everyone else as a puppet 2D paper character, essentially.
Quentin Darras: Just to balance on that – one of the subtext of the puppet as well is the Artemisia’s story is very long, very complex, obviously a lot more complex than what we can do in 15 minutes. So I think the puppets are also a way to symbolize the fact that we’re not claiming this is exactly how it happens, and this is the truth. The puppets are a bit like caricatures of the characters and also the situation. So we had to isolate the main elements, but we’re not pretending that we are recreating history. We tried to stay true to the facts, but it’s obviously more complex.

©Photo credit: Quentin Darras Courtesy of SXSW2022

Charlotte Mikkelborg: When I was watching this piece for the first time- the work in progress – my perception was that the puppets were talking to the fact that obviously, as a woman living in that period, Artemisia was supposed to be the puppet of her male counterparts and the fact that she was represented not as a puppet, but as the only character with a 3D body (well, along with her daughter) , indicated her refusal to be. This artistic choice felt like it was giving back herself to her, while turning the men into the puppets. That’s what I had read as the subtext of the puppetry so that’s really interesting to hear the others talk about it.
Quentin Darras: That is what is beautiful also with the creative feast, you see things in many different ways. And I think there was definitely an idea of destiny with puppets and people like not being free of their movements and reversing that. It’s been a very long process. So yes, there was a lot of influence.

TVA: I’d like to talk about the challenges of the project. What challenges did you face during the production phase?
Gaëlle Mourre: How long do you have? 🙂 We were very fortunate to receive Grant Funding for both our first and second episode. And what that meant was we did have a very definite finish time – we had to finish episodes by a certain date – so, the production process has been quite intense. We made episode two, all in all, we made it in about 5-6 months.
The technical challenge that I’m thinking of right now was stamina, and just making sure that we delivered, not only on what we had promised, but on what we had promised to ourselves, what we wanted to achieve for ourselves, and just making sure that we didn’t just be burned out in the process. But in hindsight, it’s just a labour of love.
Quentin Darras: I think one of the good things of the project is also one of the bad aspects. Basically, it’s what we call a COVID-Baby. So it was born during COVID and it was born because of COVID.
One of the advantages that we have is that we are a very small team, so we can progress a lot faster because of that. But, we run the risk of being only relevant to us, because we couldn’t try and test the experience with a lot of people. Because we want to be educational, we had to be sure that it would talk to a lot of people, including the people who are not well-learned in art history.
So, that was definitely a challenge to make sure that we could get out of our own heads, and make mechanisms and stories that would be appreciated by everyone.

Gaëlle Mourre: We come from a production background, we make stories and we make them fast. Of course, there’s a lot of gestation for ideas, and you need to give that room but, but once that’s done, we can just go for it.
Working with Cultural Institutions, they work on a very different timeline. These are institutions that often have been around for a few hundred years. And so they’re not thinking about the next one to three years. They’re thinking about the long term future, and that’s how they operate. And so having these two rhythms come together has been a challenge.
TVA: Because it’s a very specific art history project, do you have more opportunities or interest to present it in art museums?
Gaëlle Mourre: I think it depends on the institution. Some institutions will want to be part of the creation process, if the ideation process even, from a very early stage in which case, “History of A Painting”, probably doesn’t fit with their remit.
We have found that other cultural institutions have been very interested in exhibiting the projects internationally. We’re UK-based and we found a great partner in the UK (soon to be announced). But we are also looking internationally.
For us, this means that this project really has a wide reaching resonance and potential. And from a practical point of view, the fact that our narrator is sort of bodiless, means that we can translate and re-record the narration according to different territories, which makes it that much more versatile.
Charlotte Mikkelborg: Absolutely, versatility is key because, unlike film and television that have their own established distribution frameworks, with VR you are having to tailor your distribution strategy to each piece of work. So, with (Hi)Story of a Painting we are largely looking at distribution within cultural spaces. We’ve secured our first location based experience installation for the experience in the UK over Summer 2022, which we will announce soon and we hope there’ll be more including in Taiwan and the US (though we can’t yet officially announce the dates and locations of those). Hopefully, there’ll be other markets as well. Obviously Gaëlle and Quentin are French, so we’d love to present this experience in France.

©Photo credit: Quentin Darras Courtesy of SXSW2022

TVA: So in terms of challenges. Having two directors can be a little bit difficult…so how did this collaboration develop?
Gaëlle Mourre: It’s been a very organic process. This is my incredulous baby essentially, we created this together and we have very complementary skills.
I come from a traditional directing background. Quentin comes from an animation background. And so melding together our skills and our experience made complete sense for this project.
We really found that actually, the decisions were all jointly made. And if we disagreed with each other, we know each other and understand each other so well that we were able to just talk them through and I can’t even think of any issue that lasted any amount of time.
Basically, they were just ongoing discussions. It was very organic.
Quentin Darras: The good thing is we’re not looking for compromise, we’re just looking for the best option. So it was not a question of ego. It was like ‘Okay, your idea is better. We are going for this’. It’s basically the common ground that we have in storytelling.
Gaëlle definitely comes with a story, I come from more visual storytelling maybe. So it was very complimentary. And it was a very easy process. Surprisingly easy, actually.

TVA: And the Future of History of Paintings, like a Wishlist of Paintings 🙂
Gaëlle Mourre: I would absolutely love to do something on Frida Kahlo. Jean-Michel Basquiat
Quentin Darras: Matisse….Basically, the good thing with VR is that we can explore worlds in a very different way.
Gaëlle Mourre: Alberto Giacometti…
Quentin Darras: I’d love to do Giacometti…Because we’re doing painting at the moment, but we’d obviously love to move a bit further to sculptures and even architecture with completely different ways of seeing art. That’s down the line. That’s a long term project.
But, basically every artist has a strong universe – which is most of them – it’s always very interesting for us to explore.
We’d like to switch eras, not being stuck in one period, we’d like to be as fast as possible because we’re very interested in diversity. So we’d like to explore basically, pretty much everything 🙂
Charlotte Mikkelborg: We particularly like the idea of focusing attention on artists that maybe haven’t perhaps had the attention they deserve, whether because of their race, gender or simply because their style was considered too innovative for its time. It’s a key goal of the series to remind people that a great artist can come from anywhere.
Gaëlle Mourre: Picasso has been explored, but what about his partner Olga(ed.note: ucrainian name Ольга Степанівна Хохлова) She was an extraordinary artist in her own right. And in Moscow in 2018 (Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts presents the exhibition “Picasso & Khokhlova.”), they opened up a joint exhibition, which was my introduction to her as an artist.
So yes, I’d love to also highlight the partners of artists and not present them as the partners of these artists, but as extraordinary artists in their own right.

© Succession Picasso 2018

TVA: That’s the last last question… Every creative process is with ups and downs, and sometimes creators want to put so much in, it is a lot of research than cuts, writing, and rewritings, etc.
What is the untold story from this story?(in the sense, if it was something you did not put in…)

©Photo credit: Quentin Darras Courtesy of SXSW2022

Gaëlle Mourre: There’s a lot that we can say about Artemisia Gentileschi . We needed to only present the top line story and inspire people to then find out more about it.
*One thing that I found interesting but in the end didn’t make its way into that story is a detail – that when she was attacked by Agostino Tassi, she fought him off with a knife. I think that’s actually incredibly interesting, because we play with this notion of victimhood, what does it mean to be a victim, and what does that mean as an identity, isn’t an identity? And that’s just a rabbit hole to go into. So we didn’t go there.
I think it speaks about her strength of character that she fought for herself. She’s always fought for herself, from what we can tell from her letters, from the legacy that she’s left us with.

Quentin Darras: I think as soon as you try to sum up a story, you have to leave things behind. By making choices you set the story, the way you tell the story, so it’s obviously biased.
I think what we really wanted to do was to, we felt like Artemisia Gentileschi ’s story is more important than her work, like what happened to her is almost more important than what she did. And so we felt like we really wanted her to be the hero.
Charlotte Mikkelborg: Yes, rather than letting the fact that she was the victim of a rape define her, instead it seemed she channelled the anger she felt into her work, using her art as a mouthpiece for what she felt about the patriarchal nature of the society she was living in.
Quentin Darras: She was the subject of her own story. That she reacted to these (events) and she did things on top of this. Obviously, we couldn’t not talk about the tragic events that happened to her. But, we really wanted to spend as minimal amounts of time as possible just to show the entirety of her story. Because yes… this is not just her.
Gaëlle Mourre: *And one other thing, we didn’t put it in, because we were told this was contested, but there is some scholarship that indicates that Artemisia was the first woman to be admitted to the Academy of painters in Florence, which is a huge deal. But so we didn’t put that in because essentially, we weren’t sure how verifiable that was, or certainly we didn’t come to that conclusion from what we can from the scholarship that we could find.
But if that is true, then that’s pretty damn extraordinary. And even if it’s not true, the fact that there is this rumor around her speaks to how popular and groundbreaking she was.

VR Experience will continue to be available on the SXSW platform until 9:00am CT on Monday, March 21. SXSW will continue running the Online Shift72 Screening Library through March 31, 2021, for those films that have opted-in to the extended timeframe

Created by Quentin Darras and Gaëlle Mourre
Narrated by Cerys Matthews
Written by Gaëlle Mourre
Animated by Quentin Darras
Production Company: Fat Red Bird
Produced by Gaëlle Mourre and Charlotte Mikkelborg
Music composed by Jasmin Kent Rodgman
Sound designed by Jack Hyde
Puppet Illustrator: Yeu
Production Assistant: Leo Mercer
Audio Producer: Larissa Miola
Narrator Voice Recording at Jungle Studios: Ben Leeves
Artemisia VO: Susanna Paisio recorded at LStudio
Art and Pedagogy Consultant: Dominique Darras
Art Consultants: Katie Hauser, Christopher Moock, David Jaffé
©Photo credit: Courtesy of SXSW2022 & Quentin Darras

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