BY Dale McFarland in Reviews | 11 NOV 99
Featured in
Issue 49

Sergei Paradjanov

BY Dale McFarland in Reviews | 11 NOV 99

Sergei Paradjanov was born in Tiblisi, Georgia to Armenian parents in 1924. He studied film under the Soviet director Alexander Dovzhenko and is perhaps best known to a Western audience for his film The Colour of Pomegranates (1969), a highly stylised retelling of the life of the 18th-century Georgian poet Sayat Nova.

The film is a series of sumptuously staged scenes from Nova's life. Owing more to a desperately refined aesthetic sensibility than historical authenticity, it's a memorial to a gorgeous and mysterious past; a succession of set pieces in which everyone and everything is infused with Paradjanov's vision of beauty and myth. The actors hold poses like models in an excessive fashion extravaganza by Galliano or McQueen. Their gazes, as if lost in a delirious reverie, allow the viewer to appreciate the dazzling costumes and androgynous, dreadfully pale beauties who don't speak and barely move.

Paradjanov was inspired by the imagery of icons, tarot cards, Persian enamels, traditional dances and folklore. The delicate movements of the actors are heavy with a symbolism which is perhaps lost on those with a less than comprehensive understanding of near Eastern culture, but nonetheless captivating in their elegance and lurid exoticism. However, it is the costumes which are the stars of many of Paradjanov's films. Designed by 'the Maestro' (as he was known to his acolytes) they evoke the mood and style he needed to portray a fantastical past while combining seemingly incompatible elements: traditional costumes, often priceless family heirlooms (which, it is rumoured, were never returned to their owners), cheap costume jewellery, plastic flowers and a healthy measure of camp sensibility.

A mini Paradjanov festival in London celebrated the Maestro's life and works. A retrospective of his films was screened at the Institute Française, an exhibition of his drawings and collages shown at Leighton House and costumes from the Paradjanov Museum in Yerevan, Armenia (where the visitor 'is occasionally serenaded by recordings of Maria Callas or honoured by a lavish Caucasian feast') were displayed at Judith Clark Costume. The gallery showed a series of headresses entitled 'Hats in Memory of the Unplayed Roles of Nato Vachnadze' (1984-86), from the film Arabesques on Themes by Pirosmani (1986).

Pirosmani was a Georgian painter at the turn of the century whose picturesque landscapes and images of strange animals had a profound influence on Paradjanov's vision. The hats have a dusty Edwardian opulence, fashioned from painted fans, gloves, embroidery, mole fur and lace. For Paradjanov, the hat lent a distinctive mien to its wearer. He is reported to have given the following strict instructions to a friend for whom he had created one: 'Whiten your face, paint your mouth bright red and cover your face with a black scarf, tying it so that its ends flap like little wings. With the face thus half masked with black lace with a bitter smile playing on moist scarlet lips and the skin as pale as can be, place the hat on top.'

A selection of costume sketches made in 1967 for The Colour of Pomegranates recall the synthetic Cubism of Braque or Picasso, while their collaging of fabrics overlaid with drawing and mounted on wood veneers - as if they were made in the 20s rather than the late 60s - are reminiscent of Diaghelev or Chagall. The sketches are crude and elegant, but without the Byzantine austerity of the final film.

Paradjanov's flamboyant theatricality, his use of lavish imagery, and in particular his homage to the vanished ethnic cultures of the Soviet Union brought him into conflict with the authorities. He was jailed for a total of six years, for a number of charges including homosexuality. His attempts at filmmaking were constantly thwarted by a repressive regime and poor resources. He was an aesthete, a director, artist and performer; Wildean in his desire to transform the mundane into something exotic and rarefied. For Paradjanov, reality was always subordinate to beauty. At the Paradjanov Museum in Yerevan there is a recreation of the maestro's boudoir. Above the bed hangs a banner dedicated to the glory of his favourite actor: Lenin.