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Art History and Film Come Together at The Cloisters Museum

By Jason Hollander

An eerie morning fog gently blankets the medieval-style structure poised on the peak of Fort Tryon Park at the northern tip of Manhattan Island. Fallen leaves lie piled and still against the cold stone wall that lines the museum's perimeter. Deep inside the ancient chambers of The Cloisters, a crew of Columbia film students, directed by professor Stephen Murray, captures on film the interior vitality hidden within the building's gothic walls.

"We're creating the reflection of a kind of never-neverland," said Murray, chairman of the department of Art History and Archaeology and executive director of the Media Center for Art History. "It's a unique meditation on art, nature and Christian imagery."

The Cloisters is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art built on the banks of the Hudson in the 1920's and housing several original medieval structures transported from their original locations in France and Spain. A place of great spiritual calm, the mystical and historical significance of the location attracted Murray. "It has a very special gravity and sublimity that is really quite beautiful."

The project is an attempt to animate the spatial character of the building, especially focusing on recreating time and motion as experienced by a viewer within The Cloisters' halls. Portions of the film will be used on a new Web site currently in development at the Media Center for Art History. The site will provide the digital components of a course being offered this spring, to be taught by Murray, and entitled "The Medieval Millennium: Objects of Desire." The course will encourage students to study the architecture of The Cloisters both in person and digitally, by way of the Web site.

Murray wants the course to reflect the changing attitude of today's art students. "In the past, people often tended to treat art as some sort of an abstract thing with little purpose," he said. "Increasingly, students are ready to talk about the meaning of art and acknowledge that it has a real function."

Through the film itself, titled Transfigurations, Murray seeks to explain "what happens to a building when you move around inside it."

The film will feature 36 unique capitals, or column heads, surrounding the interior "Cuxa" cloister. Each capital will be morphed into another to illustrate their individual carvings. Murray wants to convey the effect of "keeping the type as a constant while the details of each capital turn soft and then harden again," as each new one is introduced.

The originality of each capital is significant to Murray for both artistic and social reasons. "We're paying our respect to the masons who carved them," he said, adding that the effort was also noteworthy because it shows "learned theologians and monks had enough in common with artisans to collaborate and produce works of great creativity."

It was this spirit that inspired Michael Hausman, adjunct professor of film, to help produce the film and involve students from his department. Hausman has produced such films as Amadeus, Ragtime, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon. Having met Murray on a flight to California, Hausman soon discovered they shared an interest in riding BMW motorcycles. As their friendship evolved, both professors explored the idea of working together and The Cloisters film project proved a perfect opportunity.

Hausman was attracted to the idea of helping create a "synergy between different schools and departments on this campus."

"This was a step in that direction," he said, "It was a marriage between the two schools. We were able to help put Stephen Murray's vision on celluloid, and it was a good experience for my students to work with a new director."

The biggest challenge for the filmmakers was a lack of real characters, said Maurice S. Luker III, the film's executive producer and associate director of the Media Center for Art History, "Here, the building is the star."

Published: Dec 20, 1999
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002


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