Through case studies of films that thematised art and Greek myths, this project offers a new critical mapping of post-war European cinema (1945-1950s). The relationship between post-war art films and Greek myths has been insufficiently researched due to the predominance of an ideological mode of analysis that associates the discourse of universalism with the ideological framework of the Cold War and specifically US liberal humanism. This project challenges this assumption. Through historiographical and empirical research, my study will explore what Greek myths stood for after the end of the Second World War. The project argues that a different analytical and historiographical approach is needed, which acknowledges continuities between the historical avant-gardes and post-war art films, and explores the historical specificities of the discourse of universalism as manifested in art films through the register of Greek transhistorical myths.
The term ‘art films’ and gradually ‘art cinema’ became prevalent in film and art criticism after the Second World War. The production and reception of art films were often entangled in the discourse of ‘universalism’; they were seen as allegories/agents of reconstruction and ‘international understanding’, with artists becoming symbols of ‘universal’ values, and ancient Greek mythology serving as a powerful vehicle of transnational and transhistorical symbolism. Undeniably, Cold War politics played a key role in Europe’s post-war art films and their appropriation of myth, but histories of that era’s culture too often focus exclusively on the Cold War as a set ideology, overlooking the fact that post-war universalism also emanated from the inter-war avant-garde’s political aspirations for internationalism in the arts, its mobilisation of Greek myths; these aspirations became more urgent with the post-war rhetoric for peace and reconstruction.
While ‘war films’, ‘propaganda cinema’ and ‘war artists’ are often discussed, the relationship between peace and cinema has been marginalised. This project argues that art films and Greek myths were aligned with manifestations of the post-war promotion of peace, such as in the ways UNESCO’s symbols and discourses appropriated ancient Greek myths and iconography. Upon its establishment, UNESCO adopted the icon of Parthenon as its emblem. Such manifestations are usually seen as Cold War propaganda that promoted aspects of a neutral liberal humanism in the arts, usually US driven, delineated as an opposition to the Soviet Union’s cultural propaganda. Instead of accepting this dichotomy as a given, new micro-histories need to be written, which will offer a more in-depth assessment of the aesthetics and politics of Western European art films, in which Greek myths function as mobilisers of reflection on the post-war modernity.
This project will focus on case studies of filmmakers working in post-war Europe, whose work mobilises Greek myths within the register of a post-war modernist project: Jean Cocteau in France (Orphée, 1950, Testament of Orpheus, 1960); Basil Wright in Britain (Greece: The Immortal Land, 1958; Greek Sculpture: 3000 BC to 300 BC, 1959). These films are conventionally studied either from auteurist angles or contextualised only in relation to national cinemas. However, there is much to be gained from a transnational map of these and other less-known films. The case studies will situate the films within the artistic, aesthetic and socio-political traditions they drew on.
The project’s scope is wide and also considers documentaries of cultural and political propaganda that evoked the relevance of classical antiquity for the purposes of post-war reconstruction. This is the case of the Marshall Plan documentaries about Greece (1949-52) that have never been researched before.
This project proposes a re-evaluation of the discourse of post-war ‘universalism’ under the light of Greek myths. Through empirical, archival research, and by drawing on cultural history methodologies, my study will historicise art films and analyse the potential they presented at specific historical moments. The publications (that will result from this project) will contribute to the literature on European Cinema and reception studies of the classical world, shedding new light on an era of intense interaction between film and myth.