The Life and Death of St Bruno belongs to a portfolio of twenty black and white photogravures with etching collectively entitled The Russian Ending. The portfolio was printed by Niels Borch Jensen, Copenhagen and published by Peter Blum Editions, New York in an edition of thirty-five; Tate’s copy is the fifth of ten artist’s proofs. Each image in the portfolio is derived from a postcard collected by the artist in her visits to European flea markets. Most of the images depict accidents and disasters, both man-made and natural. Superimposed on each image are white handwritten notes in the style of film directions with instructions for lighting, sound and camera movements, suggesting that the each picture is the working note for a film. The title of the series is taken from a convention in the early years of the Danish film industry when each film was produced in two versions, one with a happy ending for the American market, the other with a tragic ending for Russian audiences. Dean’s interventions encourage viewers to formulate narratives leading up to the tragic denouements in the prints, engaging and implicating the audience in the creative process.
Dean’s interest in narrative and the mechanisms of the film industry are also evident in her other work. Her installation Foley Artist, 1996 (Tate T07870) depicts cinematic sound engineers recording acoustic effects for a short soundtrack. The Roaring Forties: Seven Boards in Seven Days, 1997 (Tate T07613) is a series of chalkboard drawings that use the conventions of the filmic storyboard to suggest dramatic events taking place in tempestuous waters of the southern Atlantic Ocean. The Uncles, 2004 (collection of the artist) is a film about the artist’s own family connections to the first two Chief Executives of Ealing Studios, Basil Dean (1888-1978; Chief Executive 1931-37) and Michael Balcon (1896-1977; Chief Executive 1937-59).
The photograph on which The Life and Death of St Bruno is based depicts two monks lowering a third monk to rest in a grave. They are all dressed in pale robes, and the dead man’s head is covered in a cowl. Rosary beads hang from his crossed arms. Next to the freshly dug grave is a large pile of earth that will cover the body. The photograph is taken from a high angle and is cropped so that a hand holding the shaft of a shovel is visible in the lower left corner.
Dean’s notes set the action in Chartreuse de la Valsainte, the French town where the secret recipe for the eponymous liqueur is still guarded by Carthusian monks. Saint Bruno was the founder of the Carthusian Order; he died in 1101. Dean’s notes describe the image as ‘a contemporary transcription of the eleventh century Dauphiné’. The Carthusian Order was not bequeathed the recipe for Chartreuse until 1605, but in Dean’s fictional version the founding brother is described as the inventor of the liqueur. Her tongue-in-cheek commentary suggests that he is ‘surely assured a place in heaven for inventing a liqueur?’ Additional notes specify plain song as the sound effects to accompany this scene in the fictional film.
Clarrie Wallis, Sean Rainbird, Michael Newman, J.G. Ballard, Germaine Greer, Susan Stewart, Friedrich Meschede, Peter Nichols and Simon Crowhurst, Tacita Dean, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London, 2001.
Dorothea Dietrich, ‘The space in between: Tacita Dean’s Russian Ending’, Art on Paper, vol.6, no.5, May-June 2002, pp.48-53, reproduced p.48.
Jordan Kantor, ‘Tacita Dean’, Artforum, vol.40, no.7, March 2002, p.138.