The Passions, Bill Viola

Video still showing a line of grieving mourners with a man in a red t-shirt and orange shirt at the front

still from ‘Observance’, 2002
video installation, colour high-definition video on plasma display mounted on wall
Photo: Kira Perov
Accession No: WAG 2004.24

'Observance' is one of a series of artworks collectively called 'The Passions', amongst which it is regarded as the most significant, alongside the larger-scale 'Emergence'. 'The Passions' is a series of video works begun in 2000. Shown in silence and extreme slow motion, the videos explore the power, range and expressions of human emotion. They have developed out of Viola's interest in the devotional painting of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

To date there are some twenty works in the series. Like 'Observance', most of them are shot on 35mm film at very high speed and in continuous sequence. Viola employs none of the editing or shifts of viewpoint of conventional film-making. The footage is then drastically slowed, transferred to digital video and played on flat screens. This is crucial since it enables the minutest, subtle shifts in expression to be observed. The resulting quality is sharp and photographic rather than electronic.

'The Passions' series was first exhibited at the Getty Institute, Los Angeles, prior to its 2003 showing at London’s National Gallery. A departure from his earlier room installations with large projections and sound, the works in 'The Passions' series are silent and intimate. They are played mainly on small plasma screens in homage to the portable icons and devotional works by which they are inspired.

'Observance' and 'The Passions' are the culmination of a very particular artistic and spiritual journey for Viola. In the late 1980s his work came under the influence of his growing interest in the art of the past. He was particularly fascinated by the 'multiple screen’ images of medieval artworks such as altarpieces, and by the emotional extremes portrayed in the faces of their subjects. The capacity of these paintings to provoke powerful emotions in their contemporary viewers was something that captivated him. Viola’s 'Nantes Triptych' (1992), combining painful images of death and childbirth, was made during the year in which his mother died and his son was born. It was a starting point for his exploration of emotional pain, and of his personal conflicts of sorrow and joy.

Progressing from this, Viola aspired to show people in the throes of emotion. His intentions were profound. He wanted the viewer to linger on his images, and to contemplate what he describes as 'Sorrow with a capital S'. He sought to create a more direct empathy between the audience and his subjects. To pursue this he revived his earlier study of the old masters and introduced actors as a medium to deliver his themes. His aim was not to restage the paintings that interested him but to 'get inside these embody them, to inhabit them, to feel them breathe.' 'The Greeting' (1995), modelled on Pontormo's 'The Visitation', was his first work to employ the methods of traditional filmmaking, including actors and scenic designers. This was an approach he would return to five years later in 'The Passions', and which is at the fore in 'Observance'.

Viola's strong belief is that art has a function beyond the aesthetic. It is this fundamental purpose that he seeks to reclaim in his re-workings of historic, devotional masterpieces. He began work on 'The Passions' when his own father was dying five years ago: in a Chicago gallery he saw Dieric Bouts' weeping Madonna, 'Mater Dolorosa'. The painting moved him to tears – a surprising reaction to a piece of 15th century Dutch devotional art. He describes his response:

"For the first time in my life I realised I was using a piece of art rather than just appreciating it. Maybe it should have been in a church - where people share silent communion - but it happened in an art gallery. That is not what I was taught in art school...I was looking at paintings of the crucifixion and watching my father slowly slide."

In 1998, with several other scholars, Viola took part in a year of studies at the Getty devoted to the representation of 'The Passions'. The participants examined how artists in the past dealt with the challenge of arousing and depicting emotional extremes through their work. They also considered how contemporary artists could learn from this. Viola’s own research ranged from texts on Buddhism to the often dramatic visionary experiences shown in Spanish painting.

Increasingly drawn to the Getty's collections, his investigations into specific facial expressions, tears and extreme emotional states make frequent appearances in his notebooks of that time. Whilst there, he was commissioned by the National Gallery, London, to make a piece for its 'Encounters' exhibition. This came to fruition in 2000 with 'The Quintet of the Astonished', inspired by Hieronymous Bosch's 'Christ Mocked', in which Viola directed five actors to show specific emotions - sorrow, pain, anger, fear and rapture - with increasing degrees of intensity. Through further works he explored beyond simple facial expressions. The actors' faces and bodies were used to describe extremes of individual anguish and suffering, employing references to traditional classical and Renaissance poses.