Jean Painlevé, a visionary filmmaker renowned for being one of the first people to begin to capture, and attempt to understand, life in the depths of the world’s oceans through visual images. Active between 1927 and 1978, Painlevé was driven by an abundant fascination with underwater fauna and the ecology of the ocean, his films are an attempt to understand the warped and confusing peculiarities of a world beneath the surface of the waves, but also how this peculiar world shares some similarities with our own. Currently on display in Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, his work – encompassing still image, film, and objects (namely jewellery) – clearly demonstrates Painlevé’s  interest in science and its idiosyncrasies.

Visitors are welcomed into the exhibition with a small but telling display of selected pieces of his still photography, through which one can immediately see that Painlevé had an eye not merely for exploring the unexplored, but also went out to display it in original and engaging ways. The conceptual angle of his images and the details he goes out of his way to emphasise are important to Painlevé’s broader attempts to engage a wider audience in his fascinations in a similar nature to himself, to see the wonder and he sees.

Painlevé’s intention to make the oddities of the ocean more accessible is evidenced by the collection of jewellery on display in the center of the room. Themed around his work involving seahorses (discussed in more depth below), Painlevé’s jewellery brings these surreal animals into the domestic sphere. Usually emblazoned with pairs of seahorses, these objects associate the bizarre, almost alien looking, seahorses with an idea of romance usually reserved for more traditional animalistic symbols of love and devotion.

Promotional photograph for Jean Painleve’s seahorse jewellery, 1936. Photo Philippe Halsman © Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris. Halsman Archive

Emphasising the strange features in his work, Painlevé uses this jewellery – which was made as an echo of his 1934 film L’Hippocampe shortly after its release – to signal his notions of there being a potential relationship between what lies above and below the surface of the sea. While these animals may be adapted to a completely different environment that those that live on land with us, Painlevé suggests through his work that we can find common affinities with them, as we do regularly in fiction with animals such as birds, dogs, or horses.

To Painlevé, it seems, it was not enough to capture something never before seen: his discoveries must also be portrayed it in a way that draws the viewer’s eye inward, into the centre of the image, and encourages one to study the image intently. The initial forced perspective of the some of his images give way to a wider perspective, something that at first feels alien and becomes more familiar as it is viewed for a longer period of time. Ventouses de la pieuvre (1927) or Pince de homard (1929) spring to mind in this case, as there is an evident centralised focal point that encourages the eye towards some of the intricacies of these, at the contemporary period, avant-garde images.

Many of his other images, particularly those portrayed through the lens of a microscope, also capture this necessity for detail, to encapsulate an audience within his own personal fascination. Rostre sur le nez de la crevette (1929) or Pale très grossie d’une queue de crevette (1929) show this acute fixation on the details of underwater life. In the early twentieth-century, when Painlevé was producing these particular images, they most certainly would have seemed ground breaking, even alien, monstrous and beautiful at the same time. In pairing his camera with a microscope, Painlevé made exceptional progress in depicting the microscopic elements of underwater organisms with a clarity and sharpness never before seen.

Whilst underwater photography had its first cinematic outing in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916), images like Painlevé’s ran parallel to a concerted effort that tried to improve and streamline the process. He adapted his camera by using a specialised waterproof box and his images were some of the first detailed depictions of some of the strangest underwater organisms he could find. For the Ikon to portray them not merely as works produced from a scientific pursuit but in an artistically driven space melds the two seeming opposites together, emphasising the fantastical within the real that Painlevé wanted to capture. In doing this, the Ikon also seems to recapture the original fascination with Painlevé’s work in what was coined as “scientific-poetic cinema”.[1] Inspired by the Surrealists he had contact with, such as Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, and actually acting as chief ant handler for Un chien andalou (1929), Painlevé’s  work was praised for it visual potency. His works, despite their underpinning in science, are still certainly artistic in nature.

The exploration of otherworldliness and its contact with a more human reality is touched upon more as you go around the exhibition’s screening of Painlevé’s films. The first likely to be witnessed (depending on your route round the Ikon) is Transition de Phase dans les Cristaux Liquides (1978), a filming of phase transitions of liquid crystals – the state of matter in between liquid and solid. While the product of a scientific experiment, the way in which it is filmed gives it a feeling reminiscent of the 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) “Star Gate” sequence: off-shoots of colour and quasi-organic looking movements spread across the screen before the viewer’s eyes.

Jean Painlevé, film still from The Seahorse (1934). © Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris. Image courtesy of Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris.

Moving through to L’Hippocampe (1934) you are once again ambushed by alien-like images. This time a seahorse. This may not be entirely the strangest thing one can imagine, but Painlevé brings an unusual edge to the process once more. The monochrome colouring and puppet-like movements of his subjects give the film an unreal feeling, making the entire sequence look rather staged – perhaps intentionally so. It is not until about halfway through the film until the realisation comes that this is not just a mere filming of seahorses but an exploration of the mating and incubating process of the creatures: a rather abnormal phenomenon if any of you are familiar. Painlevé’s film depicts the male seahorse incubating the eggs and actually birthing the baby seahorses, something that, if not exactly alien, is certainly unusual. The seahorse begins to dash around, convulsing and experiencing contractions until its babies burst out of its chest in something reminiscent of John Hurt’s woes in Alien (1979). While strange, you can certainly see the attraction Painlevé felt towards this behaviour with its stark contrasts to the human concept of reproduction.

This unusual distortion of the perceived natural process of reproduction is not the only curiosity of underwater life that Painlevé explored. The next film the Ikon has running is Acera or the Witches’ Dance (1978), the behaviour of small hermaphrodite mollusks as they dance to musical accompaniment. The spectacle is rather ensnaring, both for viewer and Painlevé as he dedicates an extensive amount of time to showing their revelries. Their small hoods wave around as they jump and spin, resembling dancers as their cloaks sway and react to their bodily movement.

In setting these films up next to each other, the Ikon emphasises Painlevé’s references both to his own belief of this behaviour crossing into the human world, and our own connection to a natural world that seems so separate to us – a theme arising across his photographic works earlier in the exhibition. In both L’Hippocampe and Acera or the Witches Dance, he splices scenes from our world world into the background of the submerged scenes he films. Horses race across the background with a seahorse in the fore in the former, and, in the latter, a human dancer pirouettes and fades into the dance of the acera, fading out once more.  In showing these films, along with Transition de Phase dans les Cristaux Liquides, and the unusual perspectives of creatures such as octopus, crustaceans, and shrimp, the Ikon sees to attempt to collapse the scientific focus of Painlevé’s work into an exhibition of seeming science-fiction, where the supposedly unreal becomes real, and the spectacles beneath the sea become both fathomable to, and brought into conversation with, the terrain where we walk.

Jean Painlevé is displaying at the Ikon Gallery until the 4th of June. More information can be found here.

[1] Bryan Thomas, “”Science is Fiction”: Jean Painlevé’s mesmerizing “scientific-poetic cinema””, Nightflight, 4th June 2017.