The artistic vision of Orson Welles was always apparent in his films, but what few people know is that he was as creative on paper as he was on celluloid.
When Beatrice Welles asks you to come up and see her etchings, you do not refuse. She is the youngest daughter of Orson Welles and administrator of the great film director’s estate. The etchings in question – a treasure trove of doodles, sketches and paintings – were created by her father over the course of his extraordinary lifetime. Until now, few people knew of their existence and fewer still had seen them.
Naturally, when she invited Mark Cousins to look them over at her home in the Midwest and in a storage facility in New York, he didn’t hesitate. “We had a gin martini and then another gin martini,” says the filmmaker about the time they met at the Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan where some of her father’s work was on show. “After the second one, she said, ‘Would you like to make a film about my father’s drawings and paintings?’”
The encounter had two outcomes. First came The Eyes of Orson Welles, a “two-hour video letter” rapturously received at Cannes and the recent Edinburgh International Film Festival. It goes on general release in August. Second, an exclusive for the Scottish capital: ‘Orson Welles Drawings and Sketches’, a major exhibition of around 150 pieces.
“It’s so exciting,” says Cousins. “This is the first time that this art has been shown. Welles did not study filmmaking but he did study art at the Art Institute of Chicago. He drew out of frustration. He had a restless imagination and didn’t make as many films as he wanted to, so he needed a creative outlet. He drew everywhere around the world: on napkins, love letters and diaries and then, more formally, paintings and sketchbooks.”
Where his film has five themes, ranging from Welles’s passion for social justice to his love of Shakespeare, the exhibition groups the art more abstractly. Categories include “despair”, “cities” and “Christmas” – one surprise is that the collection includes around 50 hand-made Christmas cards.
“If you re-order material, you see unexpected connections,” says Cousins. “In the art, you can see someone who is off-duty, familial, remorseful – there are letters to spurned lovers where he draws himself or his wife crying. Some of it is remarkably intimate. If he’s feeling bad about something, particularly in the area of romance, then he’ll draw himself looking disconsolate or forlorn.”
After spending a year immersed in Welles’s work, Cousins is no less in awe of a man he calls “one of the great image-makers of the 20th century”.
“I see the mental energy of a Picasso or a Jean Cocteau,” he says. “That unstoppablility, that inability to control the flow of your own creativity. It’s like a volcanic thing. He was massively attracted to the Celtic world, the Latin world and the Arab world. In other words, worlds of excess, where the heart is worn on the outside. There’s something about his passion, his lust for life, that punky, unplugged energy that you can see in these drawings.”
WHERE & WHEN
Orson Welles: Drawings and Sketches, Summerhall, 2 August–23 September, free
The Eyes of Orson Welles, in cinemas from 17 August