Just as academic Teresa de Lauretis writes about Chantal Akerman’s classic Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), Pictures on Pink Paper is a film that “addresses its spectator as a woman, regardless of the gender of the viewers […] the film defines all points of identification (with character, image and camera) as female, feminine, or feminist.”
This was the first work of the 1980s by the avant-garde British filmmaker Lis Rhodes. It continues a line of inquiry begun with her previous film, Light Reading (1978), and her influential 1979 essay ‘Whose History?’ Namely, it challenges patriarchal structures of power by deconstructing language.
Light Reading had instigated a succession of essayistic feminist avant-garde films that flourished in the 1980s, including those by Susan Stein, Nina Danino, Sandra Lahire and Alia Syed, to name a few. But Rhodes’ contribution to the development of a feminist experimental film culture in Britain is not limited to her films and writings. She was a key figure in the early development of the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative, where she was the cinema programmer, and one of the founding members of Circles, a feminist distributor of film, video and performance by women artists. Rhodes taught first at the RCA and then at the Slade for several decades, directly influencing several generations of artists in the UK.
Rhodes addresses the problem of representation by emphasising voice. Language is understood as a cause rather than a symptom of gender inequalities. Pictures on Pink Paper was made the year before Rhodes and Felicity Sparrow curated the touring programme Her Image Fades as Her Voice Rises, which was accompanied by a co-authored essay of the same name.
The programme, which included Light Reading and another key feminist essay film from the era, Joanna Davis’s Often During the Day (1979), could be understood almost as a manifesto, its title a fitting description for all of Rhodes’ work after Light Reading. By dismantling the assumption that women, like Victorian children, are “to be seen but not heard”, female presence is enunciated in her films, with the predominance of the voice unsettling the traditional hierarchy between sound and image.
Rhodes’ voice rises steadily through the 1980s in works such as Hang on a Minute (1983-85) and A Cold Draft (1988). In Pictures on Pink Paper, it’s not only Rhodes’ voice that we hear, but multiple female voices of different generations, accents and intonations. As often in Rhodes’ work, the pronoun ‘she’ is used to refer to a number of different female characters, who all remain unseen – though their female presence feels real and tactile.
There are no faces but we see hands: playing the piano, washing up. The multiplicity of voices implies a dialogue. It also suggests a collective rather than a singular experience – or rather both a singular and a collective experience. Many women are credited as contributors to the film, including fellow filmmakers Mary Pat Leece, Susan Stein and Joanna Davis. Rhodes’ own voice seems to offer a meta-commentary on the narrative: “It’s all a question of who makes real whose ideals,” we hear her say.
Rhodes is always concerned with the slippages of meaning: “meaning is not in things / but in between”. In Pictures of Pink Paper, she contrasts images – both suggested by the words and sounds, and by the visual imagery of the film – from the natural world and the domestic sphere: sounds of washing up and sounds of the sea washing up on the shore.
Much of the vocabulary suggests the aquatic, both in the nature (we hear words such as “mist”, “damp”, “sea”, “tide”, “river”, “pools of ice”, “water”, “flow”, “waves”) and within the household (“soaking”, “drain”, “washing away”, “well-rinsed”). The female experience appears trapped between these two worlds of images and words: the rural and the domestic. This is a dichotomy that Rhodes dismantles by introducing the world of words and language: “she ran across the page / rewriting all the words.”
In the end, Rhodes must deconstruct the idea of the ‘natural’ itself:
“does nature produce
the nature in us
or is it their nature
that’s natural – not us
is it natural in nature
to subjugate us
or is it naturally
nature to them – I mean men
to think of a nature
especially for us
a feminine nature
designed by them
but naturally – quite unnatural to us”
There are repetitions of words and repetitions of images – within the film but also between this film and other Rhodes works, both past and yet to come. References to “blood on the sheet” seem directed at Light Reading, while the piano music and the animated drawings will later reappear in the TV series Hang on a Minute, co-directed with Joanna Davis between 1983 and 1985.
Rhodes’ use of language is always playful, but it is deadly serious too. Language might be both metaphorical and figurative, but violence and fear are not metaphorical; they are very real. The threat of internment and shock therapy is referenced directly. Rhodes could have been thinking of female writers like Sylvia Plath, who was treated with electroconvulsive therapy on multiple occasions before her suicide. ECT was overwhelmingly given to women and is now understood as a form of violence against women.
With later works, Rhodes shifted from a focus on gender politics to a broader range of urgent political subjects. Her films held power to account by drawing attention to the progressive eradication of justice, equality and individual liberties as a consequence of neoliberal capitalism.
Born of a time that equated radical politics and formal experimentation, Rhodes’ essay films, such as Pictures on Pink Paper, are exemplary of a distinct tradition of feminist avant-garde film practice in Britain.