The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting
In 1978, the Chilean filmmaker/writer, Raúl Ruiz, was commissioned by French television to make a documentary on the painter/writer, Pierre Klossowski. Over the course of its production, Ruiz abandoned this documentary to make The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting—a feature-length film which smuggled Klossowski’s theories of art into a neo-baroque portrait of an imaginary nineteenth-century artist, Fredéric Tonnerre, whose exhibition of a series of seven paintings caused a major yet mysterious scandal in the Parisian court. The scandal of this exhibition is further obscured by a missing painting, stolen by a petty thief, leaving no trace behind of its content or form. This gap in knowledge creates an enigmatic opening, a portal into off-screen space; a brooding, metaphysical investigation of hidden images, and of those “double images”—a term that Ruiz fondly attributes to eighteenth-century Breton sorcery manuals, which describe images of this world enveloping images of a parallel world, across corresponding places and times. In The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, we arrive closer to the missing painting’s virtual, secondary existence through a cryptic ritual of conjecture and the unfolding of multiple perspectives. Plot, pragmatic logic and linearity are suspended in favor of abrupt changes of scene, foggy chiaroscuro, the intricate staging of tableaux vivants, and fragmented, colliding dialogues. The boundaries between historical event and gossip dissipate, and the missing painting’s phantom double is venerated in occult detail.
In Poetics of Cinema, a book of transcribed lectures from 1992, Ruiz elaborates on his concept of doubles, drawing from the neo-platonic ideas of the 19th century Algerian activist and scholar Abd al-Qādir, whose notion of “the veiled vision of divinities” is transposed into the cinema. For Qādir, the divine is concealed within images of this world, whose images in turn, reflect secondary, invisible realities, realities that are imbued with divine sparks. According to Ruiz, an analogous process unfolds in the cinema, whereby every film conceals a hidden film, and every frame, a secret frame. The cinema itself is conceived as a grand, machinic mirror of veiled realities, realities that are semi-exposed in fractured form from film to film, erupting as fleeting apparitions in between the frame.
Throughout his films and writing, Ruiz conjured up vanished paintings of unknown and imaginary artists, as well as the forgotten figures who populated their canvases: in Poetics of Cinema there is the instance of the blind, anonymous Renaissance artist (a possible contemporary of Piero della Francesca), who dictated his paintings to his disciples by singing out unpredictable numerological formulae and algebraic equations. The Book of Disappearances / The Book of Tractions, an extension of Ruiz’s media installation from 1990, invokes an alternate history of Spain through an elaborate process of mirroring and speculation. The book is split into two halves, narrating a pair of imaginary episodes from the history of Islamic and Christian Spain. A cardboard mirror is inserted, and the reader must hold it up to read the back-to-front text of the “Islamic section” which features invented dialogues between Kabbalists, Sufis, and Christian officials. Among these tales there is one about Trajana, a Morisco sex worker, who purportedly modeled for Diego Velazquez’ vanished Expulsion of the Moors, a painting that won the competition in the royal palace, but was subsequently destroyed in a fire in 1734. This tale then detours to the trials and tribulations of Trajana’s son, Sigismund, who was expelled by the Holy Office of the Inquisition to Tunis, and there encountered a Sufi artist in the desert before going blind. These imagined scenarios become virtual possibilities, more real than their lived counterparts. In The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, the paintings themselves are unremarkable, even mediocre, inconsistent in style, theme, and form. They are characterised, rather, by their fragmentary incompleteness, and more significantly, by the spectral presence of the absent painting, which reigns with virtual splendour.
The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting is not merely postmodern pastiche or a Borgesian game (as some film historians have imagined), but part of a mystical Miscelánea—a 16th century Spanish literary genre that Ruiz cites as a major inspiration, characterized by its fragmentary nature, detours, doublings, mirroring, rumor, and gossip. A strain of ecstatic thinking frames his entire approach to the creative act. Between the wavering voiceovers and the tracking shots through the baroque mansion, we see the stolen painting as Ruiz would want us to see it: as a blind, nameless saint, intoxicated by the sideways sighting of a twin, subterranean world.