Documentary pays homage to famed art historian Vincent Scully

Vincent Scully
Vincent Scully Photo by Checkerboard Films.

The Checkerboard Film Foundation, which produces films on individuals who have made important contributions to the American arts, screened its documentary, “Vincent Scully: An Art Historian Among Architects,” last night at the Yale Club of New York. The film portrays Scully’s career as a professor, architect, art historian and writer through interviews with nine of his students from different generations and the architects closest to him.

“Terrible subject but nice movie,” Scully said of the documentary in an interview with the News.

He added that he would have liked to see more of his interest in art history in the film, which focuses on architecture.

Edgar Howard, producer of the film, said capturing over 60 years of Scully’s life in one hour was an enormous challenge.

In addition to interviews, the film features footage from his lectures and scenes of Scully walking around New Haven, describing the architecture of several of his favorite locations, including Old Campus, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Yale Center for British Art and the Yale Bowl.

The film also has a section on Scully’s year-long trip to Greece in 1955, when he visited all the Greek temples on foot and recorded everything he saw. Scully said his visit was the most important event of his life and made him realize that everything is related: He connected the divinity in nature with the divinity as envisioned by man — “nature implacable, the human will unbreakable.”

In the film, Robert Venturi said Scully is the founder of the post-modernist movement in architecture, which seeks to give unfamiliar context to the ordinary and react to the modernist trend to imbue architecture with forms of the classical.

Much of the film concentrates on Scully as a professor. Scully said he had to start out by convincing students that each of them could have aesthetic reactions to works of art.

“First, I convince them it is possible,” he said in the film. “Then they pretend to have such feelings; then they have them.”

The film expresses both the students’ willingness to take Scully’s class and Scully’s eagerness to continue teaching.

David Childs ’63 said he took Scully’s intro class all four years of college, not because he failed it, but because he learned something new each time.

Paul Goldberger ’72, the architecture critic for The New Yorker and a student of Scully’s, said Scully helped him understand a building within its cultural context and influenced his career choice.

“I was a writer before, and I liked architecture before,” Goldberger said. “But being his student helped me to put those two things together.”

In 1980, at the age 70, Scully gave a lecture that was supposed to be his last before retirement. Once Scully saw the faces of his friends and former students, he walked out of the room, composed himself, and returned to applause, before going on to give the ultimate lecture he had planned.

But Scully did not want to stop teaching, and, through the efforts of the University and his students, he was granted special titles that allowed him to teach until he retired last year.

The film includes scenes from Scully’s famed final 2008 lecture on Michelangelo for his introductory history of art survey course.

At the end of the class, Scully turned to his students and said they were the best class he had ever taught and that they had given back more to him than any other.

“Of course,” he added, “I said exactly the same thing to the class last year.”

The film premiered in New York last May which celebrated Scully’s 70th year of formal affiliation with Yale, brought together some of the influential figures, including School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 and Pulitzer Prize winning writer David McCullough ’55.

Stern read a letter from University President Richard Levin, who wrote that Scully has told states, cities and even a Yale president what to do.

“Even when we do not listen, we usually wake up to this depressing fact: He is right,” Levin said.

The film is scheduled to screen again at the School of Architecture on Oct. 28 and at the Tribeca Design & Architecture Film Festival in New York on Oct. 14-17.

Correction: Sept. 26, 2010

An earlier version of this article misreported the first name of the film’s producer, Edgar Howard.

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