Coming to Glasgow Film Festival on Sunday 28th, before its TV premiere on BBC Scotland, Tony Cross watched Eye of the Storm, from Montrose Pictures ...
Eye of the Storm is a documentary about Scottish landscape artist James Morrison. It was filmed during the last two years of his life, as his failing eyesight meant that his career was ending. It also manages to be a retrospective, a tribute, an art lesson, and the power of art itself.
I found it both interesting and moving. There is something powerful in the process of artistic creation that even Morrison’s apparent gentleness cannot hide. One of the strengths of this documentary is that we hear a lot from Morrison himself both as a younger man, with the extensive use of clips from programmes he made for the BBC, and as he is now. Or was. We do hear from other people, but their contributions never drown out Morrison’s own voice. He is telling his own story, even as it is curated by the director, Anthony Baxter.
One concept that seems to come through is ‘truth’. There is, Morrison says, about another painter’s work “a rough truth” about it. The word ‘fakery’ comes up. And, in an echo of Leopold von Ranke’s quote that the job of history is to – and I paraphrase – “show how it actually happened”, Morrison says that he is “just trying to be true to what it looked like.” I am not sure Morrison would be as lofty to describe this as a philosophy but that does seem to be at the centre of his work. That and the fact that, as he says late in the film, after we get a tiny taste of the business part of art world, that he paints for only himself: “It’s for me. It’s my argument with myself.”
Anthony Baxter is both Director and Cinematographer and the film looks beautiful, which is only right in the circumstances. He is aided by animation from Catriona Black, which blends in superbly with Morrison’s own paintings. The soundtrack, which is partly music from Dominic Glynn, partly songs by Karine Polwart and partly classical music that Morrison plays when he is painting, also fits perfectly.
Morrison’s son, Professor John Morrison, is an art historian and we hear from him a couple of times in the film, but the focus is on Morrison as a painter not as a father. Indeed, Morrison’s personal life is touched upon only a couple of times and once that is to talk about how grief impacted on his work. The focus is very much on the Morrison as a painter, even as his failing sight and impending mortality are at the core of the film.
If you cannot already guess I enjoyed this film a lot. I knew of James Morrison, but this made me want to go and see more of his work. I could find a space for some of his paintings on my wall if I had the money. The Artic paintings, the creation and showing of which form a part of this film, are amazing. I used to think landscape paintings were boring, but the more of them I saw the more I realised this is not true. The power of James Morrison’s work really hammers that home.
The final thread, if such a thing was intended, is we get see how Morrison works (and worked) and you really feel for him when he says he can no longer paint outside, which was what he always did previously. He describes it as a “real loss”, and you know it is true.
BBC Scotland, as well as Montrose Pictures, are involved in this film and after its debut at the Glasgow Film Festival on the February 28th, 2021 it will get both a theatrical release – and I would love to see it on the big screen so you can see it in its full glory – and a BBC showing. If you are interested in art, creativity, and mortality – and who is not – you should see it.
Images - Top - Storm over the Grampians, 2015, oil on board, © James Morrison | Eye of the Storm., middle - James Morrison, Montrose Pictures