Reviews Short Documentary

Kemp-Barontini: Drawings and Pictures (2021) – 3 stars

Director: Cristiana Cerrini

Cast:  Lindsay Kemp, Claudio Barontini

Running time:  12mins

In the way distant past before the dawn of time, I went to see a production of Salomé at the London Roundhouse directed by the British dancer and choreographer, Lindsay Kemp. The shock and sensory overload of truly revolutionary art left me exhilarated and the feeling has stayed with me all these years. So it was somewhat of a thing, for your reviewer, to discover that Cristiana Cerrini’s enigmatically titled short documentary features Lindsay Kemp.

Kemp-Barontini: Drawings and Pictures is the story of a collaboration between Kemp and an Italian portrait photographer, Claudio Barontini, which began in January 2017 and ended abruptly with Kemp’s death in August 2018. Kemp had settled in the Italian port city of Livorno. It is not made clear in the film whether Barontini lives in Livorno, but this is where they met and worked together. The two were planning an exhibition together and this went ahead, after Kemp’s death, at the CAMEC museum in La Spezia, further north from Livorno, on Italy’s west coast. Footage of the exhibition is at the core of Cerrini’s film.

Livorno. English linguistic hegemony still involves the strangely pointless anglicization of Italian city names – Florence, Turin, and Rome. In ancient times, up until the mid-twentieth century, Livorno appeared on Brit maps as Leghorn – a bizarre and inelegant combination of syllables which has thankfully fallen out of usage.

Cerrini tells the story of the working relationship of Kemp and Barontini and the genesis of the exhibition intelligently and efficiently. We see some museum big wig making a speech at the opening which is almost sacerdotal in tone – high flying words about spirit and art overcoming death. We then meet Barontini who introduces us to Kemp’s work with an observation that made my heart sink – he was an icon of underground culture – an indication that we are entering the world of hagiography and monuments.

The director then inserts some regrettably short footage of Kemp performing and some interviews with Kemp where their playful, anarchic charm shines through. We get a brief idea of the importance of Kemp as an artist, but this is filtered through the influence Kemp had on more famous people that the audience is assumed to be more familiar with – for example, Bowie and Fellini. The rest of the film is pretty much about Barontini and the work of a portrait photographer – it tells us far more about Barontini than Lindsay Kemp. We learn that Barontini has published a doorstop of a book – one to leave in a hipster Airbnb living room to impress the guests – on, you guessed it counter-cultural icons and that Kemp was honoured to be included.

In a bizarre and deeply depressing sequence, we are shown three examples of Barontini’s portraits of celebrities and very iconic they are indeed. There is a fine and proud picture of an older Patti Smith still exuding fire and outrage. But Smith is weirdly juxtaposed with two images which would evoke scorn and derision in most audiences. The first is of the parasite formerly known as Prince Charles – an apogee of unearned privilege, in double-breasted suit and tie with martial poppy in buttonhole leaning on an ornate walking stick to give a bucolic air. The second is of Vivienne Westwood, renowned as both the purveyor of overpriced designer t-shirts to the masses, and the alleged serial exploiter of unpaid interns. In Barontini’s world, counterculture must be an extremely elastic concept.

The impression that the narrative is really about Barontini’s work and their preferred method of working – black and white photography – is confirmed when the director shows us Barontini making an extraordinary statement to camera. Barontini announces: Lindsay Kemp did not exist in colour. Your reviewer’s reaction was – well for you comrade obviously not. But for the rest of us? A bit later on in the film we see Kemp interviewed at their home and they are dressed in a swirling array of wonderful colours with the room behind them a kaleidoscope of colour. Anyone who has caught any of Kemp’s theatrical productions would have noted the importance of colour in their work. Kemp’s whole life was lived in outrageous, full-on technicolour. But in death…

Filmmakers can only work with what is at hand, and I assume Cerrini was following a brief from the CAMEC museum and Barontini to centre the film on Barontini’s reaction to Kemp’s work. However, I was somewhat puzzled by the fact that the exhibition included drawings by Kemp – the show’s title was after all drawings AND pictures – but Cerrini chose not to show us a single one of them. This was a strange decision.

Despite the, for me, regrettable focus on Barontini rather than Kemp, the last part of the film is in cinematic terms the most successful – here Cerrini shows us Barontini’s pictures of everyday life in Livorno and they are a beautiful elegiac invocation of the city. Very good too are the images from another of Barontini’s projects – they are apparently a bit of a hearse chaser; they did a similar number on Modigliani – picturing the artist’s model and lover and places where they stayed.  

With Kemp-Barontini: Drawings and Pictures, Cerrini has demonstrated they are an extremely talented filmmaker. The film looks great throughout and the editing by Cerrini themself is spot on. The director shows a fine sensitivity in the choice of soundtrack music – the standouts for me were the use of a Cesar Franck piano and violin sonata as an aural backdrop for the exhibition sequence and that of a delightful, wistful folk ballad to accompany the Livorno scenes. Both worked beautifully – unobtrusive but providing depth and atmosphere.

One piece of advice I would have for the filmmaker is to be wary of the use of extended metaphors. We are shown Barontini taking down framed photographs from the gallery walls. OK we get it – Barontini is taking down the images of their friend and collaborator who has died – the framed pictures are tombstones for the deceased, and the empty space is the void left after the human being has gone. The problem is the sequence goes on and on so almost our entire experience of the exhibition is one of watching Barontini striding around taking pictures down and carrying them to their car – all faintly ludicrous.

This misstep aside, Cerrini has given us an accomplished piece of documentary cinema. I would recommend Kemp-Barontini: Drawings and Pictures to anyone who has maybe heard of Lindsay Kemp and may want to find out some more about their life and work. If, after watching the movie, you want to get an idea of what Kemp’s theatrical productions were like – check out these clips of their take on Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream or on Jean Genet’s Flowers. Alternatively, if you are into black and white photography and icons of counterculture, this is definitely the film for you, plus it will give you an exhaustive introduction to Claudio Barontini’s work.

Leave a Reply