Feature: “The poetic film-making of Margaret Tait”

35mm filmstrip Painted Eightsome © Margaret Tait 1970, courtesy LUX


The Orcadian artist, Margaret Tait (1918-1999), wrote prose and poetry, and made short films, usually shooting on 16mm with her clockwork Bolex camera. In her cinematic work she explored an array of highly experimental techniques, including painting and scratching on the film surface, from the beginning of her filmmaking career in Italy in the early 1950s.

Tait regarded her short films, of which she made over 30 across almost half a century, as “film poems”. Notable for her experimentation, improvisation, and innovation, she pursued a uniquely individual and independent engagement with filmmaking in relation to concerns and interests arising from her concern with the everyday. In her hand-painted works she engaged directly with the materiality of film and the creative potential of its physical properties.

Painted Eightsome, made over a period of 14 to 15 years and completed in 1970, combines music and painting within the artform of poetic film. The running time of the film, just over six minutes, is determined by the length of the accompanying music. The frames of the 35mm filmstrip are delineated with hand-drawn lines and have been painted with aniline dyes in a range of vibrant colours.

Tait described the film as:

An eightsome reel played by Orkney Strathspey and Reel Society, recorded in about 1955 – 1956, later transferred to 35mm optical stock with clear picture, and gradually painted over the years. Eights of different things – figures, antlers, or sometimes just blobs in tartan colours – dance their way through the figure of the reel.

The eightsome reel is both traditional fiddle music and its accompanying energetic dance, a complex combination of a Scottish reel and the quadrille. Intended for four couples to dance at social gatherings, such as weddings, the beat is fast and regular, driving the motion of the dancers ever onward as they twirl and interlink.

Tait’s film has received few public screenings, but a digitised version is freely available for viewing online at the National Library of Scotland’s Scottish Screen Archive website. Here, at the Full record for ‘PAINTED EIGHTSOME’ page, a doughy white face with a quizzical look peers from a small video window, pressed against an almost-square pane of tropical turquoise.

35mm filmstrip Painted Eightsome © Margaret Tait 1970, courtesy LUX
35mm filmstrip Painted Eightsome © Margaret Tait 1970, courtesy LUX

Despite the pixelation that presents the image as tiled, like a mosaic, I can discern that this is an image painted by hand with a brush using colours in liquid form. In the upper left corner, deep cerulean brushstrokes form the letters: PAI / NT / E.

An azure curl with an inner crotchet of orange-yellow curves around to make the left eye, the right eye a swirl of diluted orange squash. These shapes remind me of musical notes seen in a mirror, one crotchet or quarter note with its stem upmost, like the letter “b” makes the left eye; the other crotchet, the right eye, has its stem pointing down, like “g”.

The artist has left a dot of amber in the centre of each eye. Amber on cobalt makes greenish cheeks: slashes for the left cheek, a circular swab for the right. The muted peach hook of the right eye reaches down to suggest a nose, and the mouth sits on the windowsill as parallel strokes of pale gold and ultramarine.

Margaret Tait said of her film-making: “The kind of cinema I care about is at the level of poetry – in fact – it has been in a way my life’s work making film poems.” Her work explored the lyrical potency of the everyday, and sought to reveal the transcendence of the ‘ordinary’ she intuited through her deep connection to the things, places and people she loved.

She often quoted the poet Lorca’s notion of “stalking the image” to explain her own position as a film-poet. Tait practiced an acute observation of the world and her embodied and knowing psychic responses to being in place, patiently lying in wait, hunting ‘mind images’.

The imagery of Painted Eightsome is created entirely through colour, which is for Julia Kristeva, pure semiotic. The presence of the drive energies is a continual manifestation on the screen. Even where Tait has used a line to ‘contain’ an infill of colour, the line is itself coloured, a gestural mark rather than a controlling perimeter.

The pictorial forms are crudely sketched, the coloured squiggles suggest representation and their interpretation remains with the viewer – a wiggling hoop of reddish-brown becomes a worm, then the body of a writhing snake, as an exuberant kaleidoscope of carnival flags, bright yellow sun, forget-me-not blue sky, and swathes of rose pink, plays within the frame.

Tait was fascinated by the phenomenon of light and its perception. In her poem, “The Scale of Things” in The Hen and the Bees (1960), she refers to the “stunning frequencies” that are absorbed close to the ground so that the “full light of the sun” becomes calm, but not too blue.

She also possessed a “macrocosmic” understanding of the seasonal rhythms and cyclical changes of light, particularly on Orkney. In her long form poem “Cave Drawing of the Water of the Earth and Sea” in her collection origins and elements (1959), Tait wrote of making “an abstract picture out of magic water”, and how a rainbow can be “water particles, refracted light, curvature of space” yet still “irrefutably a miracle.”

In Painted Eightsome, nothing is still. Like the sea, there is change in each moment of consciousness, every frame, as it is eclipsed by memory. The film is a life lived, a linear event wound on a reel, energised by the revolutionary action of the projector, made visible by the light that shines through its frames.


Dr Kayla Parker

About the author:

Dr Kayla Parker is Lecturer in Media Arts at Plymouth University, where she convenes the Moving Image Arts (MIA) research group. She is an artist film-maker whose research centres around subjectivity and place, embodiment and technological mediation, from feminist perspectives, with an interest in the interface between still and moving image, and expanded cinema. Kayla also curates programmes of artists’ moving image, for screening in the gallery and cinema, and on fixed and mobile urban screens.



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