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In Memoriam: Peter Wollen

Peter Wollen in San Francisco, 1986. Photograph: Leslie Dick
Peter Wollen in Barcelona playing pinball while researching locations for The Passenger, c.1969–70. Courtesy Leslie Dick

Peter Wollen died on 17 December 2019 after having Alzheimer’s Disease for many years.

With seminal publications such as Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969), Wollen will be justly remembered as a central figure in the establishment of academic studies in film and visual culture. However, the fact that Signs and Meaning was revised many times and took on many forms gives evidence of Wollen’s restless and uncategorisable intellect. He was a cinephile, of course, with an enormous range of interests, from experimental film to classical Hollywood cinema, European art cinema and beyond, and an important critic, whether writing under his own name or a pseudonym, Lee Russell, for the New Left Review. He was also an important art critic and curator, a political theorist, a militant and an artist and film-maker, working both alone and in collaboration with Laura Mulvey.

I suspect that Wollen would not like to be remembered only as a central figure in film studies. Indeed, Signs and Meaning can be read as a work of philosophical aesthetics as much as a founding text of film theory. When read closely, Wollen is making the case for two quite astonishing points for the time. The first argument is that the general field of aesthetics needs to make a full account of film if it is to assure its relevance for the twentieth century. The second argument arises within Wollen’s insistence on the heterogeneity of film’s signifying materials, which pose complex problems for aesthetics and linguistics. Wollen’s perspective was close to that of Christian Metz, who often insisted that his aim was not to establish a semiology of film, but rather to demonstrate that a general science of signs could not be accomplished without fully accounting for film’s semiotic density and complexity. For both Wollen and Metz, understanding film meant mastering a broad range of disciplines – structural linguistics and anthropology, philosophy of language, philosophical aesthetics, political theory and psychoanalysis – and the study of film was intended as much to expand and enrich these domains as to draw the perimeters for a new discipline.

Wollen’s first films, co-directed with Mulvey, are indebted to this huge range of interests, which Mulvey shared, as well as a new and deeply original conception of what film could be. Early works, such as Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974) and Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), were created at the same time as important theoretical statements like ‘The Two Avant-Gardes’, first published in Studio International in 1975 and widely reprinted. Although sometimes called ‘theory films’, this characterisation does not do justice to the creative experimentation, formal innovation and intellectual passion exhibited in these works. In ‘The Two Avant-Gardes’ Wollen argues that the most forward-thinking works of twentieth-century modernism were split into two tendencies: a literary or semiotic modernism characterised by experiments in language and representation, and a painterly abstraction descending from Picasso and Braque that fractured and interrogated space, time and perspective. These two tendencies flow together in the experimental work of exemplary figures such as Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton, who produced complex works that are neither completely narrative, nor completely abstract, yet contain elements of both in a context of linguistic and plastic experimentation. Within this historical, aesthetic and theoretical framework, Wollen tested tactics for thinking through film, thus bringing his writerly and creative endeavours into a single project. This experimentation also produced other extraordinary works such as Crystal Gazing (1982, with Mulvey) and Friendship’s Death (1987), which, sadly, are rarely seen though still worthy of serious critical discussion.

Wollen moved fluidly between the international worlds of academia and art, and I believe this geographical and intellectual mobility entirely suited Wollen and his creative and intellectual work. As a curator, his interests in aesthetics and art history were innovative and wide-ranging. One of his first exhibitions (curated with Mulvey), which paired the work of Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti, opened at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1982, and subsequently travelled to Berlin, Hamburg, Stockholm, New York and, finally, the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City. Wollen was an early supporter of Nan Goldin and presented her ‘Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery in 1985. He also organised a path-breaking exhibition on Situationist and Lettrist art, ‘On the passage of a few people through a rather brief period of time: the Situationist International, 1957–72’, which opened at the Centre Pompidou in 1989. His other important exhibitions include, among others, ‘Addressing the Century: 100 Years of Art and Fashion’ at Southbank Centre (1998). Wollen’s most important essays on art are collected in Paris Manhattan (2004) and Raiding the Icebox(1993), among other important books and catalogues. Let us remember Peter Wollen, then, as a writer, artist and curator above all else.