The Trial shares its title with the group of four collages, created from a cache of film stills from a single 1950s film, to which it and The Oath (T12341) belong. (A later collage in this group, also titled The Trial, is reproduced in Coetzee, pp.51-2.) Each collage consists of a black and white photograph altered by the addition of a coloured postcard, which conceals a large part of the action depicted in the still, replacing it with an image of water. As in The Oath, the still used for The Trial 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. The action depicted in The Trial is more turbulent than that portrayed in The Oath. The camera has closed in to a near shot of the accused man in the dock where he is being physically restrained by the gentleman who was standing next to him in The Oath and two policemen wearing French képis or caps. In the lower dock, two figures wearing the costume traditional to lower court officials in France are turned towards the action. This is concealed by the postcard which is a picture of a waterfall cascading down through a woodland scene. It covers the head and upper body of one of the judges who is standing with his arms open wide and his hands gesturing expressively. The other judge, a woman, is seated but turned towards and partially shadowed by the standing judge. Her eyes are brightly illuminated above the shadow as she looks at the struggling men in the dock.
Stezaker refers to The Trial, The Oath and a related work made the following year, Insert (T12343), as ‘inserts’ – a play on the graphic term inset relating to their structure. He has explained:
The ‘inserts’ came about as a natural coincidence of my two main collections of images: post-cards and film stills. 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 (as in the two Tate examples).
(Letter to author 26 October 2007.)
While the calm sea in The Oath evokes a moment of transcendent stillness connected to the concepts of truth and justice, the waterfall in The Trial suggests a cascade of words or feelings affecting, involving or emanating from characters in the still. The starting point of the water is in the approximate centre of the image above the protagonists as though coming down from a higher place – from God in an art historical tradition. Although it is very different in scale and subject, Stezaker’s collage recalls such epic Biblical paintings as The Deluge, 1840 (T01337) by Francis Danby (1793-1861) in which sunlight breaks through clouds from the top centre of the painting to illuminate the raging waters of the flood below. In The Oath the waterfall, photographed from below, descends in two vertical tiers that terminate in a blurred mass of frothy spray blown diagonally across the picture. The placement of the postcard on the still positions this dynamic movement over the judge’s head, extending towards his outstretched hand and suggesting a troubled state of mind. Stezaker has written: ‘My collection of waterfalls, waves, streams and fountains I built up between 1972 and 1978 focused particularly on very early photographic images in which the long time exposure gave the water a blurred ghostly image, creating a spectral presence in the sharply focused images of movement in the film stills.’ (Letter to author 26 October 2007.)
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. His principal focus is British Cinema from the 1940s and 1950s, which he prefers, as he has said: ‘perhaps because it was this imagery which I first encountered on the outside of cinemas as a boy and from whose narratives I was excluded (by the ‘A’ or ‘X’ ratings)’ (letter to the author, 26 October 2007). Stezaker’s water images relate to the Romantic tradition of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when nature was viewed as sublime. His juxtaposition of this type of imagery – the idyllic sylvan scene of a waterfall cascading over rocks under dappled light in a forest – with the human drama depicted in a 1940s film still arouses a sense of the uncanny, a concept coined by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) relating to things that are familiar and strange at the same time. Freud based his notion of the uncanny on such Romantic literature as the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822). At the same time, Stezaker’s collages recall the Surrealist interest in the potential for images to open windows into the unconscious. Unlike the Surrealist openings, Stezaker’s additions to film stills may be understood as poetic visualisations of aspects of people and their relationships that are not normally visible to the human eye.
Mark Coetzee, John Stezaker: Rubell Family Collection, exhibition catalogue, Rubell Family Collection, Miami 2007, pp.12-13.
Michael Bracewell, ‘Demand the Impossible’, Frieze, issue 89, March 2005, pp.89-93 and front cover.
John Stezaker: Film Still Collages, exhibition catalogue, F.GG Frankfurt 1990.