Saturday, 30 April 2016

Art Imitating Life: Calvary's Fake Masterpiece


2014's Calvary was an unexpected gem for those that saw it. Admittedly, the plot, revolving around a priest who is told he would soon be murdered, may seem a little off putting for some, but the film succeeds in its pitch black humour, much of it performed by some of Ireland's finest comic actors. Dylan Moran plays the role of Michael Fitzgerald, a curmudgeonly banker, who wants to pay an indulgence to the church for his sins. One scene sees Michael talking to Father James (Brendon Gleeson) about his vast wealth, and how he'll never get sentenced for his crimes during the Celtic Tiger. Michael looks up at a painting, stating that he's always liked it, before quickly dismissing that claim in annoyance at Father James refusal to take money. In a show of contempt, for his wealth and his self, he takes the painting off the wall and urinates on it. What's noticeable is the painting he defecates: Hans Holbein the Younger's 1533 masterpiece The Ambassadors.

This is not exactly an unknown painting. Brought in 1890 by the National Gallery in London, it hangs pride of place in Room 4, always with children seated at its base, lectured to by teachers and looking in amazement at the anamorphic skull. Amongst all the incredible art in the National Gallery, The Ambassadors is one the most popular. So yes, it was a little strange to see this famous painting in a private household. Also, its a fairly large painting, measuring in at 207 x 209.5 cm. The version in this film looks much smaller in comparison, and results in a expulsion of immersion in what had been a pretty gripping film. Why use such a famous painting? And why not make it to scale?


The painting itself depicts a landowner and a bishop and a broken lute, a medieval symbol if discord, a premise that mirrors Calvary exactly, as Michael cannot bring himself to connect with the church, and Father James can't take Michael's ill-gotten money. While the painting may depict the secular and the religious in brief harmony, Michael's defiant urination only goes to sever the ties between him and the church even more. The skull at the bottom of the painting, a popular memento mori, is also an ominous piece of foreshadowing towards Father James' impending death.

But of course, to anyone familiar with this painting, Michael whipping this priceless work of art off the walls looks more silly than anything, as it is quite obviously fake. While the dialogue in the film suggests that Michael paid a lot of money for this painting, whose to say that he didn't buy a forgery? As Michael has spent his whole life in the pursuit of money, isn't this the type of art that a nouveau riche would own? Something that looks classy, but without the knowledge to truly understand it? If we allow ourselves to believe that Michael has spent a lot of money on a fake, then his self-defeating defecation only adds another layer of tragedy to an already pathetic man, a man paralysed by his yearning for a punishment that he'll never receive.

Read my review of Calvary here (first published March 2015).

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