By Jan Sjostrom
Not every actress would be willing to be filmed with a live lion, much less let one rest its
paws on her bare back. But Gloria Swanson insisted on doing so for the 1919 silent film
Male and Female, even after director Cecil B. DeMille discouraged her because he
considered it too dangerous.
Swanson’s determination and bravery riveted painter Judith Eisler’s attention when she
ran across a clip of the actress talking about the scene years later on YouTube - See more
“She was an amazing person, powerful and brave,” Eisler said. “I got obsessed with her
and started painting her.”
Eisler bases most of her paintings on still photographs she’s shot while watching movies.
“I’ll see something and think, what was that?” she said. If the moment interests her
enough, she pauses the frame and shoots a picture.
Eisler’s show at Gavlak Gallery features five oil paintings of Swanson derived from Male
and Female. They don’t depict the lion scene, but rather a moment when Swanson’s
character, a pampered rich woman shipwrecked on an island, concocts a fantasy that
develops into the lion scene. Swanson is crouched on the ground surrounded by tall grass,
her eyes fixed on the distance.
The monochrome paintings are virtually identical. What distinguishes them is color.
“The color changes the read — what dissolves and what becomes more apparent,” Eisler
A particular color might make the shadow on a cheek bone more apparent or the line of
the nose more prominent. In one painting, the character might look surprised, in another,
‘Study of light’
Dealer Sarah Gavlak likens Eisler’s Gloria series to Claude Monet’s serial paintings of
haystacks and cathedrals. “It’s a study of light and one thing, in this case, a person,” she
Light has been a prevailing theme in Eisler’s work. It animates the films that inspire her
and guides how she applies paint to canvas.
Eisler chooses the moments she paints for their emotional tension, but they’re also about
the nature of mediated images. Much of what we perceive to be reality today comes to us
through mediated imagery on computer, phone, television and movie screens, she said.
Establishing distance between her paintings and the original image - itself a
representation of reality - is important to her.
“It’s necessary to establish some kind of distance that’s in contrast with the emotional
content,” she said. “I’m interested in that dichotomy. Otherwise it’s too sentimental.”
In the YouTube film clip, Swanson says she insisted on filming the lion scene because
she remembered seeing a copy of Gabriel Max’s 1908 painting The Lion’s Bride, which
shows a lion with its paw on a reclining bride, in her grandmother’s house.
“What I find interesting is that she was inspired by a reproduction of a painting,” Eisler
said. “I am painting a reproduction of a film scene that was a reproduction of a painting.”
She achieves another layer of distance by turning the canvas upside down or sideways as
she works so that she can concentrate on mark-making rather than on reproducing what’s
in front of her.
Her goal is not to re-create a moment from DeMille’s film but to make something new
that viewers can interpret as they will. “Because it’s a painting, it’s a different narrative,”