A Revealing Look at the Shadowy World of Silhouette Artistry
Photo credit Herb Hochman
Silhouette Secrets is a fascinating television documentary that takes the viewer on the same journey as the film’s subject, Charles Burns, a modern-day silhouette artist. What is a silhouette artist or “silhouettist” you may ask? It is an artist who creates silhouettes, which are defined by the Collins English Dictionary as outline drawings filled in with black. They are often profile portraits cut out of black paper and mounted on a light ground. To Charles Burns, silhouettes are much more than that. In his words, “Hand-cut silhouettes possess a unique charm all of their own, often seeming to capture the essence of a person in amazing detail with the minimum of effort. Such shadow portraits, or shades, were hugely popular throughout England during Georgian and Regency times. A portrait silhouette should always be cut freehand, using only the eye as a guide.”
The art form is named for Etienne de Silhouette, an eighteenth century Controller General of France who would spend time at drawing room gatherings cutting out paper profiles of his fellow guests. Those who create this type of art have been a dying breed, but the art form may be experiencing a renaissance. According to Burns, “The craze for silhouettes died out in Victorian times with the arrival of photography; shades were suddenly old hat! Yet a few talented artists did continue the tradition throughout the twentieth century, and this little known English craft now seems poised to make a come-back.”
In the film, Burns’ journey takes him from his home in Reading, England to Houston, Texas. It begins at a New Year’s Eve party during which the artist and fellow silhouette artists discuss an intriguing invitation and challenge he has recently received. The invitation has come from formidable Houston silhouette artist, Cindi Harwood Rose, who began her career at the age of 16. During her formative years, Rose practised her art at Astroworld, Disneyland, and Disney World. She has clipped the portraits of numerous celebrities, including Elvis, Queen Elizabeth, Tony Bennett, and Mama Cass, to name only a few. Rose is also the founder of the Holly Rose Ribbon Foundation, named for her sister, where she creates “silhouettes for survivors.” The world record holder for cutting the most silhouettes in an hour, Rose set the record at a charity event in San Antonio, during which she cut 144 silhouettes. She has invited Burns to come to Houston and challenge her record.
Silhouettes are created by cutting with one single, clean, flowing line. Burns prides himself on the speed with which he creates his shadow portraits. He calls speed his secret weapon, and it has always been an important part of the art. According to Burns, speed delivers real impact and creates an immediacy of expression that is as important as the portrait itself. John Miers, a silhouette artist who worked during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, boasted a time of one silhouette per minute. Cindi’s speed was five times Burns’ current speed so it provided him with quite a challenge. By accepting her invitation, Burns believed, not only could he challenge himself, he could also help shed a light for modern audiences on many of the characters who have practiced this charming art over the centuries.
In the film, Burns embarks on two journeys. The first is the physical journey he takes to meet Rose in Houston. The second is his metaphorical journey to the past where he introduces the audience to the intriguing artists who practiced the art before Burns and Rose and who inspired the silhouette artists of today. The first of these we meet is Hubert Leslie who has had a profound effect on Burns, and who he considers to be his teacher, though the two never met. We go on to learn about the works of three more artists, Harry Oakley, a veteran of WWI who created a remarkable series of silhouettes about life in the trenches; Dai Vernon, a magician, who was a street silhouettist during the Great American Depression; and French artist Auguste Edouart who was the first to work solely with freehand cutting. Today, these pioneers of the craft are unknown, and yet, their legacy in contemporary culture is evident. Burns illustrates this point by introducing the audience to New York based artists Pilobolus, the creator of the innovative silhouette dance show “Shadowland” and Beatrice Coron, an internationally-known paper cutting artist.
When Burns arrives in Houston, to join Rose at a charity speed-cutting challenge, called “Off with Your Head” benefitting the Holly Rose Ribbon Foundation, the results are fascinating and not to be divulged here. Watching the two as they work is truly captivating and an education for those of us not versed in this exacting art.
This informative, fun, and ultimately exciting film effectively frames the history and progression of cutting shadow portraits, which began in eighteenth century French drawing rooms, with its modern-day practice, culminating in a thrilling battle of scissors between two of its contemporary practitioners. Thoroughly enjoyable and exquisitely entertaining, Silhouette Secrets has garnered well-deserved recognition as the 2016 Remi winner and as the 2016 winner in the Best Documentary category at the 12 Months Film Festival. It is also an official selection of the NYC Independent Film Festival for 2016, the Martinique Film Festival for 2016, the International Documentary Film Festival for 2016, and the Sydney World Film Festival for 2016. CKW Luxe would like to congratulate associate producer, Cindi Harwood Rose; writer and producer Charles Burns; and writer, producer, and director, Andi Reiss, and everyone else involved with Silhouette Secrets on its achievement of bringing the world of silhouette portraiture to life and on its much deserved success.