Review: Séraphine

The great pleasure and responsibility of having received an education, at least when it is properly instilled, is the realization that there is so much to learn, and so much personal ignorance to attempt to overcome. Even if one is knowledgeable about history, literature, and the arts, the more one learns the more there is to learn. Cultural education should not end when you receive a slip of paper saying you have fulfilled a certain number of arbitrary, quantifiable measures. The educated man, if he is fulfilling his duty, is always coming across interesting information that was previously unknown to him, even if already well-known to others. Thus the work of Giovanni Segantini, which was new to me, became something I wanted to share with the readers of these pages.

So it is that another strange artist has come onto my radar screen, this time the French painter known as Séraphine de Senlis, born Séraphine Louis (1864-1942), whose biography was made into a 2009 French film called “Séraphine”. The artist lived in rural France her entire life, often in grinding poverty, spending her days cleaning people’s houses and washing their linens, while at night painting extraordinary pictures in a highly idiosyncratic style. Séraphine was a deeply devout Catholic, but she was also mentally ill; she was eventually diagnosed as suffering from a chronic psychosis, which ended her artistic career and led to her being permanently institutionalized. Fortunately, unlike some of her contemporaries in Germany, she managed to avoid being shipped off to a concentration camp where she would have faced certain death.

The important modern art dealer Wilhelm Uhde came across her when she worked as a cleaner in the country house he rented. He initially encouraged her work, but had to flee France when World War I broke out; before leaving, he told her to keep developing her skills as a painter. This she did and, upon his return to France years later, Uhde came across her again, finding that her work had matured, as he had hoped. This time he provided her with the tools to make her painterly fantasies a reality, and she produced works of breathtaking complexity, as shown below.

Séraphine’s mature work in particular is absolutely unforgettable once you have seen it and, I must admit, quite literally brought me to tears – something which does not happen often, at least for me, in the art world. Just LOOK at it. There is clearly evidence of an obsessive madness, but there is also a profound level of deep analysis, almost like a snapshot of what a microbiologist sees in looking at a microscope slide. And there is a sense of rich color and rhythmic complexity of pattern that puts one in mind of the intricate stained glass windows and manuscript illuminations of the Middle Ages.

The film “Séraphine” won numerous awards last year, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and five other prizes, at the César Awards – France’s equivalent of the Oscars. This in combination with the fascinating life of its subject matter would seem to be as strong an endorsement as one could wish for when considering whether to put a movie on the Netflix queue. It is a pity therefore that the film itself should prove to be so disappointing on first viewing, though it improves in the mind after having stepped away from it to reflect upon it further.

This is not to say that director Martin Provost takes too many liberties with the facts, or that Yolande Moreau does a poor job at playing the title character. What is unfortunate is that this languidly-paced movie seems at odds with the passions of Séraphine herself, and leaves many unanswered questions about the characters’ motivations. Of course, one could claim that trying to find rationality in the world of Séraphine is an exercise in futility, yet even the mad have their methods.

One important aspect of the title character’s motivations is her religious faith. Séraphine makes repeated gestures of piety throughout the film that Catholics will recognize. For example, before she starts to paint, she sings “Veni Creator Spiritus”, asking for the grace of the Holy Spirit to guide her brush; she continues to chant and sing hymns while she is working. As her landlady points out to a neighbor, when they go to Séraphine’s flat to find out if she is all right, something has been wrong for days because there has been no singing; Séraphine refuses to open the door and tells them she is painting, a statement which the landlady maintains is a lie. “She can’t be working right if she’s not singing.”

At the beginning, at least, there is in Séraphine more than a little of the “fool for Christ” character which we do not see much of in American film or fiction. Perhaps the best treatment I have seen in recent years is that of Father Anatoly in the profound Russian film “Ostrov”, which I have written about previously. In that film, Father Anatoly is cursed by a sense of unending guilt and shame because of his past; at the same time his deep faith allows him to quite literally work wonders on God’s behalf and to God’s glory, even while he thinks of himself as utterly unworthy scum.

Yet there is a great deal of difference between a monk withdrawn from the world, and an artist who may have seemingly monastic tendencies due to mental illness and poverty. Séraphine’s religious motives in her painting are called into question by the film as she begins to receive more attention and more money, and she grows increasingly materialistic and increasingly disturbed at the same time. Outwardly she remains a devout peasant Catholic, but inwardly she is beginning to see herself as more than just God’s servant, but some sort of a catalyst.

At one point for example, despite her devotion to the Virgin Mary, it is implied that Séraphine has defaced a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes in the local church. In another scene, the Mother Superior of the convent where Séraphine used to work comes to see her gigantic, 6-foot tall canvases, and tellingly asks Séraphine whether it is still her guardian angel who is guiding her work. Séraphine responds that the angels are talking to her more loudly than ever, and that something big is about to happen for her. By having the Church ask this question through the Mother Superior, Provost not only puts the motivation of Séraphine’s faith in doubt, bot also prepares us for what is about to happen when Séraphine has her final mental breakdown as a result of her plans being thwarted.

Unlike Father Anatoly in “Ostrov”, Séraphine has, from the beginning and all the way through the film, always had a high opinion of herself. For example, she never thanks others for their charity except on one occasion when she is told that she ought to say, “Thank you”; when this happens she only acquiesces very curtly. She also puts out the votive candles and steals their wax from the altar of Our Lady in her parish church, when no one is looking. In an early exchange with Uhde, Séraphine openly accuses him of thinking he is better than she is because she has to clean houses for a living, a claim which he himself repeatedly denies.

Over the course of the film we come to appreciate that better living conditions, attention, and funds do not make Séraphine better: they in fact make her worse. One thinks of the old adage regarding giving a man a fish vs. teaching him how to fish, but here neither option is a good one. The supposedly humble Séraphine, it turns out, wants to become famous. When Uhde gives her a monthly stipend so she can paint and not have to clean houses or do laundry, she thinks nothing of sending him lavish bills for the purchase of sterling silver tableware, signing a purchase agreement for a mansion (bill to Mr. Uhde, natch), and asking what kind of luxury car he drives so that she can get one for herself.

Unfortunately Provost does not give us a fully satisfactory reckoning as to what happens next. In a sequence late in the film between Uhde, his sister, and Séraphine, for example, regarding Séraphine’s problematic spending habits and the crash of the financial (and thereby art) market in 1929, we await a confrontation which is never fully realized, and which seems out of keeping with the kindness and frankness that had characterized the relationship between these three characters in the scenes leading up to it. Uhde upbraids his discovery for her spendthrift habits, but does a terrible job explaining why he cannot continue to maintain her, despite the aforementioned frankness which has characterized their relationship up to this point. It is a false note and leaves the viewer utterly confused.

When Séraphine finally goes off the deep end, her doctor advises Uhde that the best he can do for her is not to see her, but to try to make her life more comfortable. Yet as we have been shown, the more comfortable Séraphine became, the worse she became, and in the context of what has happened in the film by this point such advice seems a gaping hole in the plot. Provost leaves us in a kind of ambiguous, valium-clouded state, where the tormented artist is at last, seemingly at peace, but can no longer paint nor pray – she even ignores the crucifix over her bed.

In the end “Séraphine” as a film raises more questions than it answers, and though it is decidedly American and old-fashioned of me to state as much, I find it dissatisfying. That being said, it is a film to debate and discuss – if you are fortunate enough to have a group of friends willing to sit through the often torporific pacing – not only from a Catholic perspective but also as an exercise in understanding human motivations. Yet most importantly of all, the film is an introduction of the work of an extraordinary artist to a much wider audience: an artist whose staggering paintings are some of the best pictures to come out of the Modern Primitives.

The Tree of Life by Séraphine de Senlis
Musée Senlis

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