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Leonard French’s stained-glass treasure at La Trobe Uni gets special cinematic treatment during Soundvision in 'Variations on Leonard French'

“There just seems to be an otherness or otherworldliness to his work that is very inspiring when you see it for the first time.”

Image source: 
Tony Owczarek

It’s a safe bet that most folks first come to Leonard French’s artwork via a primary school excursion to the NGV, where his stained-glass ceiling graces the Great Hall and kids are encouraged to lay on the floor, turn their gaze skyward and bath in colour. Less well-known is the fact that you can find French’s work popping up in unexpected locations all over Australia, including at La Trobe University, where his Four Seasons stained-glass piece takes pride of place in the Bundoora campus’ sculpture park.

While obviously on a smaller scale than its NGV compatriot – after all, French’s work in the Great Hall is the largest stained-glass ceiling in the world – Four Seasons is equally capable of inspiring awe. It makes sense then that Soundvision, the bash celebrating La Trobe’s 50th, includes Variations on Leonard French, a specially commissioned film that celebrates Fours Season in all its radiant glory.

Celebrated muso and composer Tamil Rogeon and award-winning filmmaker Paul Rankin were tapped on the shoulder for the project by Christian Wagstaff and Keith Courtney, the crew behind the recent House of Mirrors extravaganza in the Arts Centre forecourt. Rogeon – who’s one half of The RAah Project’s core and has a CV spanning everything from composing the score played by the MSO celebrating 2010’s crazy St Kilda and Collingwood Grand Final draw through to writing the theme tune for Judith’s Lucy’s ABC show (Judith Lucy is All Woman) – hadn’t met Rankin prior to the project. Following a robust discussion about Four Seasons, Rogeon and Rankin plugged away at Variations on Leonard French, which pulls together the two complementary components of Rogeon’s music and Rankin’s video.

For Rankin’s part, he went on-site at La Trobe and shone light through the four stained-glass panels comprising Four Seasons, capturing its various effects and moods, later editing the material into a coherent short film. Rather than composing the score in light of the finished film, Rogeon walked away with a brief about the kind of energy and movement they wanted from the piece. Subsequently, Rogeon delivered a version of an orchestral score of approximately 13 minutes in length designed for a 35-piece orchestra to Rankin, against which Rankin could edit his video images.

For the purposes of Soundvision, the Australian Youth Orchestra will play Rogeon’s score live as Rankin’s film screens. “To quote French himself, we were both trying to create a personal statement,” Rogeon reflects. “Leonard French said, ‘Art is opposite to a realistic image of anything: you must make a personal statement.’ Using his work as a springboard, that’s what we intended to do.”

Rogeon’s intro to French’s work was also courtesy of the NGV ceiling, and he still recalls its impact. “His work seems to have a very spiritual quality to it, although he wasn’t religious,” Rogeon says. “Interestingly enough, he won the Blake Art Prize several times, which is an art prize for spirituality. There just seems to be an otherness or otherworldliness to his work that is very inspiring when you see it for the first time."

Despite the fact that Four Seasons is on a radically different scale to French’s work at the NGV, Rogeon describes them as having key similarities. “When the sun comes down, it pushes the light through them in the most beautiful way and they come to life,” he says. “It appears to be a work of a similar medium to the NGV: it’s tiny pieces of glass that are mosaic-ed together. It’s pretty hard to describe, but it also has that spirituality to it.”

Rogeon admits to added pressure, knowing that the work he was commissioned to compose would be measured up against celebrated art, but found solace and encouragement to bat on in French’s own attitude towards his work.

“There’s another great quote where he says that the way people talk about inspiration is nonsense. He said something to the effect that you work all day and sometimes you achieve nothing, and some days you’d probably be better off sweeping the floor. The gist of the comment is that it’s better to keep on going even when you’re achieving nothing: if you paint two good works a year, and paint for 30 years, that’s 60 good paintings. He thought the whole notion of everything you do as being brilliant is bollocks.”   

Variations on Leonard French will premiere at Soundvision, taking place at La Trobe University’s Bundoora campus on Saturday November 18. The event will also feature performances from GL, Remi, The RAah Project, and more.