The Oath, like The Trial (T12342), is one of four collages in a group entitled The Trial that Stezaker created from a cache of film stills from a single 1950s film. Each collage consists of a black and white photograph altered by the addition of a postcard, which conceals a large part of the action depicted in the still, replacing it with an image of water. As in The Trial, the still used for The Oath is a scene in a French court room. Around the postcard, positioned in the upper centre of the still, the court is visible as a heavily panelled environment made up of wooden pews and partitions. In the foreground, on the right side, a smartly dressed woman stands at the dock, apparently about to take the oath of truthfulness required of all witnesses before they give evidence in court. Raised to head height, her right hand disappears into an image of ancient stone columns rising up the right side of the postcard. These are the foreground of a photograph of a ruined temple looking out onto the Mediterranean Sea, where rocks and small islands extend towards a landmass dimly visible on the horizon. The rising or setting sun silhouettes a row of five columns supporting a narrow pedestal of stone that extends back towards the columns on the right side of the image. The postcard scene is peaceful and idyllic – designed to advertise the location, it has become something of a tourist cliché. The calm blue water, the sun’s rays on the sea and its warm light on the weathered ancient stone speak of moments of stillness and elemental beginnings appropriate to the notion of the Mediterranean as the cradle of civilization and the origins of democratic justice. On the left side of the postcard, the columns lead to a group of three men standing behind a panelled wooden partition. The youngest of these has an unhappy expression, indicating that he is likely to be the accused. This is corroborated by the police officer’s French képi (cap) on the man behind him. An older man wearing glasses beside the accused is concentrating on something in his hands that is concealed behind the postcard. His professional appearance and proximity to the young man suggest that he may be a court official.
Stezaker’s collages develop through long and complex processes of collection and selection, isolation, juxtaposition, cropping and cutting out. He began collecting film stills in 1973 and first used them to make art in 1976. By this point acquiring them had become something of an obsession. He wrote:
By the mid 1970s many of the big cinema chains in Britain were in crisis (Gaumont, Odeon, etc) and the resultant closure of the big screen cinemas (and the subsequent development of multiplexes) meant that the informal archives kept locally in these cinemas of foyer film stills found their way into junk shops and second hand book shops. I had a small collection of film stills prior to this which had been the object of considerable meditation but the sudden abundance of (especially British) film stills became the material for a new phase of my collage activity.
(Letter to the author 26 October 2007.)
The artist’s collection of postcards dates back earlier, to his teenage years, to a fascination with the image of Big Ben, which generated The End, 1975 (T12340) and The End (the film), 1975 (T12348). The first phase of his film-still based collages were ‘incisions’, in which he cut out a part of the original image, leaving a white space, sometimes contained within the image and sometimes causing the margins to intrude into the picture. In the second phase, which he calls ‘inserts’ (a play on the graphic term inset), he superimposed a postcard onto the still. The title of the collage Insert, 1979 (T12343) refers to this. The artist continues to use this method to create images.
A student at the Slade School of Art in the late 1960s (1967-73), Stezaker was inspired by the Situationist International, in particular the seminal text Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord (1931-94) first published in English in 1970. For Stezaker cinema, like the urban environment described by Debord, offers a constant flow of imagery. Combining a film still with a postcard is a means of temporarily halting the flow. He has explained: ‘Initially I thought of the postcards as representing a spatial anchor to the temporal image of the film moment. Indeed the first were entitled “Here and Now”, though the postcard “inserts” tended to subvert this spatial/temporal union by themselves being “images of time”: firstly railway trains on perspectival tracks and then water-waterfalls or waves.’ (Letter to the author, 26 October 2007.) In the collages Insert and The Trial, the energetic movement of water of a wave and a waterfall evoke a turbulent emotional drama not given visual form in the film still. The Oath is unusual in that the watery scene depicted on the postcard is calm and motionless: the view over the sea towards the sun evokes transcendence. The position of the postcard on the still aligns the horizon and the ruined temple with the panelling in the courtroom, extending the still into the postcard scene as an alternative view of the narrative between the two characters that bracket it – the woman who is making the oath, and the accused whose fate depends on her words. Unlike the Surrealists, who created images to provide an opening or window to the unconscious, Stezaker uses found images – fragmented or combined – to make visible and therefore conscious aspects of the unconscious. The film still collages present visual allegories for an emotional subtext hidden behind the conventions of film.
Mark Coetzee, John Stezaker: Rubell Family Collection, exhibition catalogue, Rubell Family Collection, Miami 2007.
Michael Bracewell, ‘Demand the Impossible’, Frieze, March 2005, issue 89, pp.88-93 and front cover.
John Stezaker: Film Still Collages, exhibition catalogue, F.GG Frankfurt 1990.