Truth is what we all believe

Barbara Visser on The End of Fear

By Young Film Critic Hectór Oyarzun Galaz

In 1986, a man entered Amsterdam’s Stedelijk museum to destroy Barnett Newman’s huge abstract painting Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue. After the attack, the museum commissioned American conservator Daniel Goldreyer a restoration. When it was presented, most critics agreed on the poor quality of Goldreyer’s work, turning abstract painting into a national public debate.

More than two decades later, Barbara Visser makes The End of Fear to explore deeper into the unfinished debate. Using several interviews and commanding her own brand-new restoration, Visser's film reflects on the originality of a work, Newman's history, and the polemic restoration process.

The film discusses the importance of the process of Barnett’s painting and its aura, but it also includes the film’s own making process. Why did you include these two different kinds of processes?
The end discussion is not so much about the aura but rather about artistic decisions. When I decided that this story would be good to be told in a cinematographic way, I realized that a painting and the copy look very similar on film. That is a problem, you could say, but on the other hand, I'm used to working in quite a conceptual way, so I also lifted myself above this and talked more about how we perceive things, and what interest all parties have concerning the painting. Everyone has an interest, and I wanted to make it very clear that I have an interest as a filmmaker in it, so I'm not a neutral person and I think it is important to remark that.

The film is very polyphonic, you include different interviews, but you also use newsreels, found-footage, and your own mise-en-scene. Why did you want your film to have different voices and resources?
This is usually called the “kaleidoscopic” way of telling a story. I’m always interested in this notion of truth, of what is the truth. Truth is what we all believe. When you show many different voices, speaking from very different perspectives, everyone has their own truth. Not so much that nothing is truth, which you could say it is a very post-modern way of looking at it, but I think everything that people say is true to themselves. If you are very rigid you tend to believe that everything you say is truth, if you are very open or soft you tend to be susceptible to other’s perspectives. In the film, you see how in a crisis people tend to lock themselves into their own positions, which refers to the fear of the title. When there is a conflict and there is fear, people become less open to being influenced or listening.

The painting became more famous after it was vandalized. Normally we wouldn’t have a public national debate on abstract painting. What do you think about this collide between a specialized people interest and the public eye?
When it was destroyed the discussion wasn’t so big actually. It was only when it was restored and lots of public money went to something that we couldn’t agree on being a good quality restoration. As banal as it may seem, the public debate gets eaten by power and money being spent from common means. However, it does lead to a discussion about what this art form means, and what would the artist wanted, because he is not alive anymore, he died shortly after making the painting. The choices that people make for the artist are interesting and difficult because we have to imagine what the artist would have wanted.

In one scene you call the restoration artist “an instrument” for the film. Most documentaries tend to hide that type of relationship. Why did you include this fact so directly?
Because I wanted to emphasize that our process of making a reconstruction of the painting started as a commission where she is a craft person working like a prop for the film. That is how she became involved. During the process, she really got attached to the painting. At first, she said: “I will make some cash, and goodbye”, but then she became very attached to it. We didn’t go through that process, we stayed more or less in the same mode of, “you work for us, we pay you and that’s it”. But living through making something means having a different relation to the artwork.

Photo in header: Barbara Visser at IFFR 2018 © Publicity IFFR