In The Quintet of Remembrance, Bill Viola uses video to explore the texture of human emotion. The fifteen-minute silent work depicts the subtly changing gestures and facial expressions of five stationary figures as they respond to some unknown memory or unseen event. With the help of a high-speed camera, Viola slows the action to capture fleeting shades of feeling as expressions of ecstasy, fear, joy, and sorrow shift and peak in a crescendo of emotion and then subside.
Despite its modern medium, The Quintet of Remembrance is a direct descendant of Old Master paintings. It is one of a series of Viola’s works inspired by the powerful portrayal of emotion in Hieronymus Bosch’s painting Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns). The direct lighting that streams in from the upper left, intensifying expressions, is drawn from Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi and the dramatic meditations of Caravaggio.
Whereas the Old Masters were bound to select a single dramatic moment to paint, Viola is able to explore the continuum of human emotion in The Quintet of Remembrance. Viola said, “I’m interested in what the Old Masters didn’t paint, those steps in between.” By filming in a single take, without editing, Viola shows those transitions between emotions, the moments just after the apex of ecstasy, for instance, or when fear turns inexorably to anger.