In Memoriam : Alain Resnais and Guy Peellaert, the Gershwin Frieze

Guy Peellaert, The Gershwin Frieze, 1991. Click image to enlarge.

With the passing on March 1st of Alain Resnais at age 91, yet another star in the decidedly far-reaching constellation of Guy Peellaert friends and collaborators has fallen. While the director of such indelible films as Hiroshima Mon Amour and Night and Fog is being honored as one of France's greatest filmmakers, this is also an opportunity to reminisce about Gershwin, a major project that brought Resnais and Peellaert together at the dawn of the 1990s. 

In 1991, Resnais embarked on a documentary short on the life and legacy of American music legend George Gershwin, making a return to the genre and format that had launched his career in the 1940s (Van Gogh, Guernica...). An explorer of trailblazing editing techniques, Resnais had Peellaert's acclaimed title sequence for "Cinéma Cinémas" in mind when he approached the artist and commissioned him to create a monumental painting to serve as the cornerstone of his entreprise. Resnais's camera would pan the imposing 33-ft work —realized in Peellaert's "Big Room" technique using a complex photographic base painstakingly reworked in pastel—  to reveal key scenes from the composer's life and introduce testimonials from personalities including Martin Scorcese and Adolph Green. 

The Gershwin Frieze was completed in late 1991, and was displayed in the entrance of the Palais de Tokyo after Resnais finished shooting Gershwin. The Frieze became the catalyst for Peellaert's "Monumental period" during which he produced several large-scale works fueled by a lifelong fascination for American cinema, a bond the artist shared with Resnais and which the filmmaker emphasized in a short film about the making of the Gershwin Frieze, recalling the days when, as a young man in the 1940s and 1950s, he had taken countless trips to art-house theaters in Brussels that specialized in rare American films shown in English (French cinemas had a much smaller selection and most films were dubbed). It turned out Peellaert, a native of Brussels, had spent his formative years in the same venues, absorbing the same films that were to become Hollywood classics.

A complete archive on the Gershwin Frieze will be made available when the new site launches.

Guy Peellaert and Alain Resnais examine details of preparatory sketches for the Gershwin Frieze in Paris, in a still from the documentary short on the making of the Frieze by Gilles Nadeau.

Guy Peellaert and Alain Resnais examine details of preparatory sketches for the Gershwin Frieze in Paris, in a still from the documentary short on the making of the Frieze by Gilles Nadeau.

Guy Peellaert (right) in his Paris studio, at work on the Gershwin Frieze with an assistant in 1991.