Claire Parker, An Appreciation
by Giannalberto Bendazzi
Alexandre ("Alosha") Alexeïeff and Claire Parker (A Night on Bald Mountain , The Nose , Pictures at an Exhibition , etc.), loved to introduce themselves as "the artist and the animator," i.e., he was the one who created the images and she choreographed them.
I knew them both for the last 11 years of their life together; and although I became very close friends, I still feel it is almost impossible to know which of them did what.
Their working relationship was very much like their personal relationship: happy, loving, creative and, above all else, inextricably linked. I witnessed Alosha (a nickname based on his family name, not his first name) proposing certain movements to Claire, which she faithfully executed; and I saw her discussing (and, on that occasion, rejecting) the development of a scene he had conceived.
Discreet Yes, Shy No
In fact, she always maintained that, "Between us, he's the genius." I know that she did not say this out of either love or because she was shy. Although she loved Alosha very much, she was also very frank; and she certainly wasn't shy. (Discreet, yes; shy, no.) But Alosha's genius could not have been expressed without Claire. For it was she who allowed his creativity to flourish. Initially, in a very practical way with money, and later giving him energy, confidence and inspiration.
Claire Parker was born in Boston, Massachusetts, nearly 90 years ago, on August 31, and died in Paris on October 3, 1981. Her family was rich, prominent and cultivated, and did not discriminate against her because she was a woman.
Claire had the freedom to travel anywhere, read what she wanted and associate with who she liked. (As a teenager, her father decided to introduce her to the perils of whiskey and got drunk.) In her twenties, like many other American artists, writers and intellectuals of her generation, she left for Paris.
In Paris, she had the urge to create, but didn't know exactly what to do. Her current beau , a Mexican lawyer also living in Paris, gave her some books illustrated by a Monsieur Alexeïeff. She was immediately struck by these illustrations and promptly wrote to the publisher asking to meet the artist, so she could study with him. "I figured I would meet an old, dignified man with a white beard," Claire recalled with a giggle, "but [instead] I saw this tall, brown, handsome, aristocratic 30 year old guy. Our first lesson ended on the banks of the Seine, hand in hand; and there was never a second one."
The Nose (1963) by Alexendre Alexeïeff and Claire Parker
Courtesy of Cecile Starr
Claire was wealthy, while Alosha, a Russian émigré, was not; so, she decided to invest her money into the building of the pinscreen he conceived for creating gravures animées (animated engravings), and into the first film made with it: A Night on Bald Mountain, based on Mussorgsky's tone poem. It should be noted that the patent for the pinscreen was registered under her name, and that the film, like all the later ones, was signed by both.
Claire always maintained that the films she was most responsible for were the advertising shorts they made between 1935 and 1940 using various techniques, but not the pinscreen She directed these films, while Alosha created the images and their collaborator Etienne Raik animated them. (It is less clear what the contribution of Alexandra de Grinevsky, Alexeïeff's former wife and the fourth member of the production team, actually was.)
Many of these films still exist and what is most striking about them is the way they express the joys of color; this may seem strange from a pair of filmmakers who preferred to work in black and white. Alosha didn't like color in films, although he pioneered it in the engravings he did for books. He said he found it too decorative and it was Claire who best exploited the language of chromatism.
Claire, who spoke perfect French (though with an American accent), mastered Russian well enough to read Dostoevski aloud for the delight of her husband when he was sick. She knew the Russian classics almost by heart. Thus, it is not surprising that she was able to relate so closely to Alosha so closely when making films such films as The Nose (from Gogol), Paintings at an Exhibition and Three Themes (both from Mussorgsky).
Claire Parker was a cultivated, intelligent and scholarly; but she was always, incredibly, charmingly sensitive and even candid. When I asked her to name her favorite films of all time, she immediately said, "The ones with Tom Mix and his beautiful white horse!"
Giannalberto Bendazzi is a Milan-based film historian and critic whose own history of animation, Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation, was published in the US by Indiana University Press and in the UK by John Libbey. His other books on animation include Topoline e poi (1978), Due voite l'oceana (1983) and Il movimento creato (1993, with Guido Michelone).
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