Herman Pekel is a magician. Most of the commentary on this film is something akin to a running patter with occasional nuggets of wisdom (“Never let a sky dry until it’s finished”) dropped in apparently at random. In fact, it took me half the film before I had any idea how I was going to find anything to say about it. Part of the problem is that he likes unpromising subjects, but they are in fact the proverbial blank canvas, ideas on which a composition can be superimposed and a painting built.
The first two demonstrations take place in Herman’s native Melbourne and are complex street scenes that need careful marshalling of shapes, colours and structures. Spontaneity is Herman’s stock in trade and he allows the work to develop almost with a life of its own. The result is that, because he has no detailed plan, the audience is similarly in the dark and this can make viewing difficult.
Where the film comes into its own, however, is when we move to Faversham in Kent. A dull day, a flat landscape and a muddy river at low tide do not augur well. However, this is where the magic happens, because Herman pulls three amazing pictures from, quite literally, nothing, manipulating elements of composition, adding boats, vegetation and a church and working in cool colours that reflect the conditions without actually portraying them.
One of the things you also notice is that Herman is a fan of darks – “A dirty palette always has lovely greys”.
It’s in conditions like this that spontaneity comes to the fore and Herman really does create something out of nothing. A rabbit out of a hat, in fact.
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