The BFI in all its kindness have produced a handsome box set of the Christmas Ghost Stories, which is very nice of them, but why is there no DVD available of Schalcken the Painter. Like Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You, it is technically not one of the Christmas Ghost Stories but while Miller’s ghost story makes it into the box set, Schalcken doesn’t, which is a pity as it is a favorite of mine. Its a particularly creepy story that I remember seeing when it was first shown as a episode of the arts series, Omnibus, in the late 1970s (Miller’s ghost story was also made for Omnibus).
Based on a tale by Sheridan LeFanu, who also created Uncle Silas and the vampire Camilla, the story is used by Omnibus as a way of commentating on art and painting, and as a way of exploring how issues of style and theme are connected. The story is even shot to look like the paintings that it explores.
Of course, the story that it tells is absolutely fantastic and it was not (I assume) intended as a literal piece of art criticism – I don’t think that the makers actually believed the story or saw it as the key to interpreting the paintings. But the story did provide a way of dramatizing certain the themes and obsessions that they presented as central to the painter and his creations.
The drama starts with the young Schalcken, when he is still an apprentice in the home of his master, Gerrit Dou. At this time, he is in love for Dou’s niece, Rose. Unfortunately, Schalcken is too poor to be an acceptable suitor for Rose; and, into this awkward domestic scene, enters a strange, gaunt man of considerable wealth who offers Dou a fortune in exchange for his niece’s hand in marriage. Dou accepts the fortune and a contract is signed promising Rose in marriage to the stranger, despite Rose’s disgust at her ominous suitor.
Eventually, the wedding day arrives but, after entering the church for their wedding (the church where Rose’s suitor claims to have first seen his bride to be), neither Rose or her husband are ever seen again. Well, that is until, many years later, when Schalcken finds himself strangely drawn into the crypt of the church, where he seems to encounter Rose, who leads him to a bed within the crypt. After various lewd actions by Rose, she reveals that her gaunt husband is lying in the bed and, in front of a horrified Schalcken, she engages in a grim sexual performance with her husband.
The vision seems to shock Schalcken into unconsciousness and he awakens some time later to find that the bed is no longer where he had seen it, and that in its place is a tomb. The implication is clear: Rose has been sold to a corpse and her wedding bed is a tomb!
Elsewhere Derek Johnston has seen the story as one of ‘the tragic victory of commerce over love‘ but I read it somewhat differently. Rose isn’t simply sold to another man, but to death. The transaction converts Rose into property, into a lifeless commodity like cold, gold coins for which she is traded.
But Schalcken is not blameless here. Rose tries to persuade him to run away with her, but he says that he has no wealth to support them and that he will work so that he can buy her marriage contract back from her repulsive suitor at a later date – he accepts her marriage to another in the hope that he will be able to trade for her at a later date. In other words, he treats her like property, too; and he values wealth over love.
His vision is therefore interesting, because it disavows his own complicity in Rose’s destruction by suggesting that it is she who desires the repulsive coupling with the hideous stranger. In his vision, neither Dou, her gaunt suitor, nor Schalken are blamed and it is Rose’s sexuality that becomes questionable and even horrifying. Similarly, in his paintings (at least as the programme interprets them), Schalcken repeatedly displays his disgust at a world in which sex has become an object of commerce but, again and again, it is the women within these paintings who are presented as having commodified themselves, and chosen to trade sex for money.
But the story has show us precisely the opposite. Schalcken might choose to present himself as a victim and women as the cold, heartless marketeers of sex; but it is actually Rose who is the victim of a system of exchange between men, in which she and her sexuality are property to be traded, a system of exchange that only Rose has objected to, and with which Schalcken has remained complicit and from which he has hoped to profit. Even if he ultimately experiences disgust and alienation as a result.
In short, then, the programme is a beautifully put together little short story that is really creepy and rather disturbing. Oh, and Charles Gray as the narrator doesn’t hurt either!