Towards the end of his life, Andrei Tarkovsky decided to set down some of his ideas not only about film in general but also about his own artistic process. The resulting book – Sculpting in Time – is extraordinary in so far as it manages to be both lightly conversational and intensely theoretical without every seeming to break stride or shift emphasis. While the book covers a lot of ground, it is forever returning to these sweeping metaphysical proclamations about the nature of art and the quasi-spiritual role of the artist as a figure in 20th Century culture. As befits an artistic genius like Tarkovsky, most of his proclamations are in direct opposition to each other and yet themes and methods do emerge from the chaos.
One of the book’s recurring motifs is the idea of the artist as destroyer who does not so much create new meanings as remove extraneous in an effort to reveal hidden patterns of truth and meaning:
What is the essence of the director’s work? We could define it as sculpting in time. Just as a sculptor takes a lump of marble, and, inwardly conscious of the features of his finished piece, removes everything that is not part of it — so the film-maker, from a ‘lump of time’ made up of an enormous, solid cluster of living facts, cuts off and discards whatever he does not need, leaving only what is to be an element of the finished film, what will prove to be integral to the cinematic image.
The eccentricity of this worldview is perhaps best expressed through one of Tarkovsky’s own thought experiments: Imagine making a film that captures every detail of a person’s life. Imagine filming every last second of their life and doing so with a mastery of style and technique so flawless that you convey not only the objective facts about your subject’s life but also the nuances of their inner turmoil. According to Tarkovsky the resulting document could be beautiful, thought provoking, and compelling to watch but it could never be a true work of art. For Tarkovsky, art was not about capturing and reflecting objective truth but about simplifying reality to the point where it becomes comprehensible to the human mind.
The question we need to ask when watching the films of Tarkovsky is whether the truths uncovered by the process of simplification are supposed to be anything more than the reflection of our own prejudices. Was Michelangelo’s David literally present in the marble before he picked up his tools or did he simply hack at a piece of stone until it started to resemble our pre-existing ideas about men with huge hands and tiny cocks? Like many Soviet filmmakers of his generation, Tarkovsky understood the psychological processes involved in making sense of cinematic imagery and he understood that a series of evocative images would encourage audiences to leap to their own conclusions as to the ultimate meaning of the film. These questions become even harder to answer when you realise that Tarkovsky not only acknowledged the death of the author but viewed his audiences as active and equal participants in his own artistic process thereby ensuring that the truths we uncover in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky are always at least partially our own.
Given that the metaphysical and epistemological issues surrounding Man’s Search for Meaning are obviously present in mature works like Stalker or Mirror and obviously absent from his debut film Ivan’s Childhood, Tarkovsky’s second film Andrei Rublev can be viewed as an important transitional work in so far as it spends nearly three documenting the life of its subject without ever managing to secure a definitive meaning beyond those generated by the speculation of the audience.
Andrei Rublev was born at some point in the 1360s and died at some point in the 1420s. Little is known about his life beyond the fact that he was an Orthodox monk who went on to become one of the most famous artists in medieval Russia and a celebrated painter of icons and frescoes. In fact, the historical data regarding Rublev is so thin that art historians are still at pain to agree on a definitive list of his surviving works.
This near-complete lack of information meant that Tarkovsky had an almost blank canvas when it came to recreating moments from the life of his subject. However, rather than making the most of this creative leeway, Tarkovsky appears to have reacted to the lack of data regarding his subject by shifting his emphasis away from the artist and towards the (much better understood) institutions and events that would have defined the artist’s sensibility. The result is not so much a portrait of the artist as a detailed portrait of the room in which the artist stood coupled with an invitation to speculate as to the thoughts and motives of the artist.
The film begins with a team of men assembling a primitive hot air balloon outside what appears to be an abandoned chapel. As the balloon begins to fill, a load of villagers turn up and attack the men out of fear that their device might somehow constitute an affront to God. While some men are beaten and others are blinded with burning torches, the leader of the band manages to attach a harness to the balloon and spends several joy-filled moments floating over rivers and fields before coming down to Earth with a sickening thud.
Beautifully realised, this scene evokes the opening moments of Ivan’s Childhood when a young boy floats over sand dunes in a moment of pure, innocent, and impossible happiness. While the opening of Andrei Rublev ripples with the same dream-like energy as the opening of Ivan’s Childhood, the feelings of happiness and escape are complicated by the presence of the angry mob. Some critics take this sequence to be an evocation of the joys of artistic expression but it could just as easily be viewed as reflecting the difficulties and dangers involved in acquiring a unique perspective on the world.
Having opened the film with a scene stressing the haphazard nature of the path to artistic fulfilment, Tarkovsky presses on with a scene in which an Orthodox monk meets a great artist who happens to be at work painting a local chapel. While the monk is able to express his admiration for the artist’s work in complex theoretical terms, the monk himself appears entirely pragmatic and talks about liking to knock figures out quickly before he gets bored. When the monk expresses his admiration for the artist’s talent, the artist unexpectedly invites him to come and help him paint a cathedral. Initially reluctant, the monk only accepts to join the artist on the understanding that the artist will visit his monastery and request the monk’s presence in person. As the scene ends, we learn that the monk is not in fact Andrei Rublev but one of his contemporaries. In the very next scene, a drunken soldier arrives at the monastery and requests the presence of Rublev and not the monk who met the artist.
Tarkovsky never explains what happened between the two scenes but it seems quite plausible that either the soldier got drunk and muddled his orders or that the artist’s employers decided to ignore his wishes and hired the monk with the growing reputation. Either way, the implication is that Rublev owed his career to luck and the incompetence of others rather than the benign fates of meritocracy.
The precariousness of Rublev’s artistic career is elegantly juxtaposed with a couple of scenes highlighting the injustices of life in medieval Russia. In one scene, a local peasant entertains his fellows with a bawdy dance until a soldier turns up, assaults him, and carts him off to prison. In another scene, Andrei and his apprentice are collecting firewood when they happen upon a Pagan celebration. Curious, Andrei throws off his habit and tries to sneak into the village only to be discovered and tied-up by worshippers who promise to drown him at sunrise. In the end, Andrei manages to escape because he attracts the attention of a priestess who is later seen running from soldiers as they brutally suppress the local villagers. Now dressed in his vestments and surrounded by respectable friends, Andrei averts his gaze as the woman runs naked into the river in an effort to escape the soldiers. The group’s gazes may be averted out of shame at the woman’s nakedness but the true shame comes from the realisation that any of them could one day wind up naked and cowering.
Almost as soon as he secures a job painting a chapel, Rublev begins to struggle with his vocation. At first, we see him avoiding work to the point where his apprentices begin to wander off in disgust. Then we are witness to a conversation in which he expresses frustrating with the tropes of fresco painting and complains that he does not want to frighten the faithful into submission with images of the last judgement. The problematic nature of the images Rublev has been employed to paint are then reflected in the material reality of working artists as we are shown images of Rublev’s assistants being blinded out of fear that they will simply travel to another town and produce the same artwork for another wealthy master.
Rublev’s dissatisfaction with his own calling comes to something of a head when a local prince decides to join up with a bunch of Tartars and sack the city. As Rublev’s artwork burns and his colleagues are tortured, Rublev kills a man in an effort to prevent the rape of a mute woman. Horrified by his own actions and the fact that a Christian prince would participate in the rape, torture and murder of his fellow Christians, Rublev abandons his vocation and takes a vow of silence that is only broken at the very end of the film.
The film’s back end is dominated by the story of a young man’s whose approach to the creative life simply could not be more different to that of Andrei Rublev:
Right from the start of the film, Rublev is described as a man of great talent and yet we never actually see him pick up a paint brush. Rather than revelling in his talents, Rublev complains about the jobs he is given and spends what seems like years avoiding work, mourning his talent and generally behaving like a stereotypical special snowflake. In fact, the only time Rublev seems even remotely happy is when he is helping to make charcoal and looking out for his mute companion.
This vision of the artist as someone struggling to get out from beneath the crushing weight of his own talent is brilliantly juxtaposed with the story of a young man with no talents at all. Discovered in a field, the boy talks his way into the job of forging bells for a new cathedral on the grounds that, as the son of a bell-maker, only he knows the secrets of the craft. However, despite the boy’s claims to secret knowledge and rare talent, he is actually entirely ignorant of the bell-making process and compensates for his ignorance by working tirelessly to complete his mission: When he struggles to find the right kind of clay to cast the bell, he picks up a spade and goes digging. When he runs out of money to pay his workers, he rides his luck and demands that his patron pick up the tab. When anyone dares to question his decisions, he unleashes a wave of fury that washes away all traces of opposition.
These concerns seem particularly relevant given the fact that Andrei Rublev was the film that began the long, drawn out process of Tarkovsky’s alienation from the Soviet film industry. Tarkovsky delivered a 205-minute cut of the film in 1966 but the State Committee for Cinematography refused the film a release on the grounds that it was too long, too violent, and too unrelentingly miserable for Russian audiences. After a year’s worth of complaining, Tarkovsky delivered a 190-minute version of the film but his letters of complaint to the chair of the Committee seem to have made matters worse as the Committee responded with a request for further cuts. These cuts were duly refused until the Committee began turning down invitations to foreign film festivals and eventually Tarkovsky appears to have come to have settled on the 183-minute version of the film that is now commercially available in the UK.
It is interesting to consider this story in light of Tarkovsky’s much later assertion that it is the role of the artist to simplify reality. Andrei Rublev is not just a long film; it is a film that positively wallows in its long takes and non-sequiturs. In truth, it is genuinely difficult to imagine how the film could possibly be improved by the addition of twenty minutes-worth of additional footage. Watching Andrei Rublev is like sitting through that hypothetical film of someone’s life: We see every detail of the subject’s existence and it is filmed with such beauty and craft that we gain some real insight into what it must have been like to be a professional artist in medieval Russia. The problem is that, like life itself, the film does not come into focus until you begin to strip out the extraneous detail and simplify the image. There are many different ways in which to simplify Andrei Rublev but the one that spoke to me was the idea of it being a film about what it means to be an artist and how the process of artistic creation is influenced not only by society at large but also by the quirks of the artist’s personality.
It is the comparison between the experiences of Rublev and those of the bell-maker that really brought the film into focus for me. The landscape of Andrei Rublev is littered with different kinds of artists who all try to remain productive despite their personal eccentricities and the systemic violence that surrounds them. Thus, the film opens with the persecution of a scientific pioneer and then moves on to the brutalisation of a local entertainer before touching on the lives of different artists who prosper, whither and succumb to the varying realities of life in medieval Russia. Sometimes they have more work than they want, other times they struggle to keep themselves fed. Sometimes they wander off the job as a result of mismanagement, other times they struggle to find their inspiration. Sometimes they are sought after by wealthy princes, other times they are blinded by princes who worry that they may replicate their work for other masters. The film touches on all of these eventualities but despite lavishing attention on the comparison between the monk who abandoned his vocation and the peasant who claimed his vocation through sheer force of personality, I could not wrench my thoughts from the characters that are denied the luxury of an artistic vocation.
Tarkovsky viewed his audience as collaborators and accepted that the meanings they created for themselves were at least as valid as the ones that inspired him to make the films in the first place. Tarkovsky may have identified with the genius Andrei Rublev and he may have even identified with the peasant who fought the system to secure himself an artistic career. To be honest, I found both characters quite unengaging and the only characters who caught my attention and sympathy were the monk who wound up destitute and alone because he messed up his attempt at networking and the peasant who wound up disfigured and miserable because the powerful chose to break him rather than encourage his antics. I’m not sure how much attention Tarkovsky wanted us to pay to these quite peripheral characters but their stories resonated with me because their lives are the ones that best reflect the dim light put out by my own lived experience.
Andrei Rublev is a film about art that dares to present the artistic process as a product of systemic forces. In an unjust world, people will always suffer but some will also succeed. Those who benefit from the system we call genius, those who are broken by the system we call nothing at all.