Friday, November 30, 2012

The Ben Soleway Portraits

Now, I will devote this blog to showcasing the art that appears in movies. But on occasion, like today, I might share an artist whose work is linked to Hollywood. These artists, while not creating art for movies, created art that preserved the era of the movies.
Granted, I'm rarely going to mention these guys, but some of their work is interesting, and if you are interested in movies/art, you might find something in their work.

For instance, one of my favorite artists is a Philadelphia artist by the name of Ben Solowey. He was from an immigrant family and he rose to fame in the '30s and '40s. His work was never truly avant-garde but it is very well done. He is of note because during his prime, he was making these beautiful theater charcoal portraits. He was commissioned by the papers to record pictures for their reviews of plays. They were done quickly and very neatly and he was very popular among the stars because of the quality of his work. Here's a couple and I think you'll recognize the faces. He created hundreds of these, usually during the rehearsals of Broadway shows they were in and the likenesses are almost photographic.

He also painted one of my favorite portraits of all time. It's of his beloved wife, Rae, who would act as his muse for decades. The portrait is currently at the Michener Museum and is simply lovely. I find Rae to be one of the most lovely, sophisticated women ever to sit for a portrait in the last century. While, this painting has nothing whatsoever to do with art, it is a marvel.

Don't worry, my next post will be a little more on topic, but I thought you might enjoy the pictures of these lovely ladies.
Please comment!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Art for Art's Sake: The Sound of Music

I neglected to mention one more genre of "film-art." And, once I explain it, you'll understand why.
In many movies, art is (obviously) prevalent. There is, of course, an art of set design, of costume design, even of the jewelry that appears in films. But I digress, even without that, there is still art in movies that adds nothing to the plot. The three previously mentioned "genres" if you will of art in movies: love/obsession, ghosts, and repressed emotion. This art does not really even relate to the characters.
The fact is, in many movies, sometimes art is put in "just because." That umbrella terms usually refers to one thing though. I have found that when paintings,sculptures,etc. do not relate to the plot or characters, they help create a setting. It is, to use the cliche, Art for Art's Sake.

For instance, a painting in the background of a scene may not play any major role in a plot. But- if there is a romance that takes place in 18th century France, the imitation-Boucher that appears in the background is there because it adds to the setting. The setting can, of course, add to the overall mood of the film. But, in this case, the parts do not equal the whole in importance. Alone, these pieces are not needed- but (usually, not always) together, a combination of works adds to the setting which add to the mood.
Let me provide an example for you.

One of my favorite movies of all time is (and how cliche is this) The Sound of Music. If you haven't been around of earth for a while- the film stars Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. It's a musical, by Rogers and Hammerstein, about a nun-in-training who sings and a lot of kids. Just watch the movie.

Around half-way through the film, there's a wedding between the Captain and Maria. It's a beautiful scene, a fruition of the main characters' love for each other. But this is relevant because it takes place in this beautiful Cathedral. The place sets the mood for the wedding- beautiful and grand.
So, the entire church is beautiful, but I'm going to focus on one piece in particular that I always notice when I watch the film. Here we go...

It's a beautiful Baroque altar piece, consisting of gorgeous woodwork, carved saints, and even a sculptural crowning of Mary as the Queen of Heaven (in the center). As a Roman Catholic, I find it beautiful, and I feel even the non-religious can find inspirational in the artwork.
So here's a little bit about it.
The wedding scene was filmed on location, like much of the film. In specific, it was filmed in the Mondsee Cathedral in Mondsee, which is located in Northern Austria.
If you really want, you can look up the history of the Church. It was established and built and re-built in the good old days of the Holy Roman Empire and than the Austrian Empire. It was originally part of an Abbey, and it may still even serve the Abbey- I'm not sure if monks are still living next door.
But I digress...
The altarpiece itself was created by one of the foremost Baroque Austrian sculptors, a Meinrad Guggenbichler. He was a wood-carver who studied under his father, and learned much from local Austrian traditions, actually many from Salzburg, itself. He built a couple of "high altars" for some churches and finally settled in Mondsee (which is very close to Salzburg) and worked on this piece (and the rest of the pieces in the Church) the rest of his life. You can get a glimpse of them here.

 So, you can tell, the Church is magnificent and beautiful, even grandiloquent, in the typical Baroque style. This sets the mood for the wedding. You can tell from the setting and the artwork around it, that the marriage is a large-scale and traditional event. If the wedding had taken place in a simple little chapel, the mood would have been completely different.
When I write about this artwork- the knowledge is mainly trivia. But still (I think) it's worth knowing.

By the way, if you are actually reading this, comment with some criticism- I'd really appreciate it. I enjoy sharing my knowledge, but I'd love to find out if you think it's (even a little) neat.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Skyfall: The Fighting Temeraire

So, I know- right now you are probably thinking, "Wow! I didn't know that there were so many thematically important paintings in motion pictures? (in that exact wording of course)" But of course, you are also thinking, "Well, all those movies are from way back when." So just to spice things up a little I'm taking inspiration from a new movie. Here's the painting...
James Bond "The Fighting Temeraire"
Well, I know this doesn't say much to you, but how about a little more. I'll show you a scene where the painting appears.
The Fighting Temeraire
Yes! That painting (titled, if you must know, The Fighting Temeraire) appears in the new hit James Bond movie starring Daniel Craig (see above) titled Skyfall. I know, my up-to-date nature is fairly impressive. But what's more impressive is that this painting contains the third, and perhaps last important theme that appears in movie artwork. Ready? Artwork, besides showing the presence of ghosts and obsession/love, also show, in a symbolic nature, repressed fears/emotions.

In this category, you'll notice something else that you may have noticed in this painting. Obviously, this painting was not created for the film. The Fighting Temeraire was an actual painting, even a famous painting, before this movie. This artwork requires a little analysis because its nature in the film is full of symbolism.

So, I'm going to cover the painting first. The painting is by the foremost of the Romantic British Painters, J.M.W. Turner. It was painted in 1838, as the rotting warship was taken off to be scrapped. The HMS Temeraire was a fairly notable ship that appeared in the Battle of Trafalgar (enjoy the painting by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield).
So what's symbolic about the painting is that in 1838 England was going through the beginning stages of the Industrial Revolution. So this old, beautiful warship was being drawn to its demise by none other than a member of the "new guard," a steamboat, spewing smoke. So in a sense, this painting represents Britain adapting a modern attitude, getting rid of tradition and moving on. It is fairly important, and also a fairly good Turner (I really don't care for Romantic painting, as a rule).

Now, how does it relate? In Skyfall, a major theme is Bond's fear that he is unneeded, that the MI6 is an old tradition that is on its way out. In the beginning of the film, these repressed fears plague Bond.
So, when Bond meets Q at the National Gallery in London, the director placed Bond in this specific spot for a few reasons. For one, it is in a gallery filled with very essentially British paintings. I believe that a Reynolds is behind him (so another British painter). And as Bond and Q have this discussion about modern espionage, and who is important, they are staring at this Turner piece, thinking of tradition, thinking of change, thinking of value. In his heart of hearts, Bond fears that he is like the warship- a grand reminder of Britain's past, but ready to be sent to scrap.

An important thing to remember in film is that everything is done for a reason. The scene is an enjoyable scene without knowing anything about the National Gallery, about Turner, about The Fighting Temerarie. But of all a sudden, when you realize what the painting portrays, what it represents the scene becomes powerful. Bond's fixation with the painting shows his fixation with his repressed emotion. He likens himself to the warship, he fears he has become a part of British tradition, gone to rot.
This is why understanding art is important and why merely just watching a film is not enough. If you want to appreciate a film, you need to understand the elements involved. Hopefully, I'm helping you get there.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Carlotta Portrait

You may have noticed a key theme in the Laura portrait that I left out. If you haven't I'll let you in on it- many portraits represent presence of the dead or in normal terms, a ghost. Laura's amazingly realistic portrait conveys her presence incredibly realistically. The portrait has an aura of the sitter and the aura remains even if the sitter is dead. This can be dangerous to the obsessed and lead to toxic results. In Laura, such things don't happen. But in our next film, Vertigo, they do.
Now, both the Laura portrait themes (love and ghosts) are repeated in another classic film, Vertigo.
I'll give a little movie background first. Vertigo (1958) is one of Hitchcock's most famous and enduring films because it's a great thriller by any time's standards. Basically the plot centers around this former detective (Jimmy Stewart) who is hired to follow a client's wife. The wife (Kim Novak) is seemingly obsessed with a cursed dead ancestor who killed herself tragically, and the husband is worried that Kim Novak is going to repeat. Watch the movie because it's really entertaining and it's at true classic by any standards.

Now, in the film, one of Kim Novak's obsessions is this Portrait of Carlotta (the dead great-great-great grandmother or whatever). Here it is...
She goes to the art gallery every day and stares at the portrait. She even models her hair after the painting and carries the same bouquet as Carlotta. If you've never seen Vertigo (God help you) and you think that it's creepy, you are not off the mark. It is intentionally emotionally disturbing, as most obsession is.

So, once again we have a pivotal prop, really, that's a key plot piece. The portrait represents obsession with Carlotta and will eventually represent obsession with Kim Novak in general.
Thematically, the portrait represents obsession more than love because two of the main characters almost become obsessed with another. The portrait also strongly represents the presence of Carlotta, her ghost, if you will. Her presence lingers, corrupts the Kim Novak character and later the the Jimmy Stewart character.
People come and go, but the portrait remains to corrupt. If you notice me using "obsessed" a lot because it's the most accurate word to describe what's going on with these characters.

Just as in Laura (and other films), the director uses the portrait to convey the presence of a missing (and subsequently dead) character.  Hitchcock, you will find, loves using the "ghost-portrait" for the obsessed man. You'll see the motif repeated in other films. If you want titles you're going to have keep reading the blog...

Onto the portrait itself. As it is a key plot point, much work was put into it. For starters, the actress Vera Miles modeled for earlier models of it. I don't know if those models were used for the actual painting, but she did model for Hitch at first. It's painted in the style of 1840s-1850s San Francisco, when Carlotta was supposed to have lived. Her clothing represents a higher class and wealth, which is explained in the film.
It was actually painted by John Ferren. Now, he's an abstract expressionist, which (to me at least) explains some of the clumsiness I see in the painting. He was also a frequent Hitchcock art director. I know he contributed heavily to The Trouble with Harry. Actually, he also designed the "Nightmare Sequence" (which is really bizarre) in Vertigo. Still, it's a lovely portrait, art-wise at least. I feel it perfectly describes theh ghostly aura of Carlotta and I would also say it's one of the top movie paintings out there.
UPDATE: For more artist information on the Carlotta painting and a discussion of the "Midge Portrait" that appears later in the film (see above), CLICK HERE. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Laura Portrait

We're going to start out with a beautiful portrait of an absolutely gorgeous woman, Gene Tierney. It's from perhaps her most famous film, the classic noir movie, Laura from 1944. The portrait not only is a prop in the movie, it's actually a major plot point. A woman has been found murdered and the detective attempting to solve it falls in love with her (you guessed it) portrait.

I've been looking over famous film portraits and you'll find a solid theme in them, and this is pretty universally recognized. A common theme in paintings, in film at least, is love, usually obsessive love. That's not surprising at all when you think about it. If a painting is commissioned it's taken time and money, so obviously care is in it. This of course, it not always how it goes, but I progress...

In Laura, Detective McPherson (Dana Andrews) becomes obsessed with a seemingly dead woman. The painting elicits his love and becomes his obsession. Of course psychologically, the love of the dead is a problem all its own, but we'll ignore that for now.  In Laura, the obsessive love leads to no real harm. In other films (and you'll see shortly) that's not always the case.
Now, about the painting itself. First, it's not a real painting. It's a photograph, colored with oil paint of Gene Tierney. The photograph was created by a Fox photographer, Frank Polony, who did many photographic portraits of famous actresses. I believe that the director, Otto Preminger, chose the painted photograph over an actual painting so that the portrait would be almost photographically realistic and otherworldly. Well, it is a photograph, so he certainly got the effect.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Hello world!
I know you're asking- how can there possibly be another blog about movies on the internet? I'll tell you in a two part answer. First, blogs are free to create so anyone can make them, and unlike early 20th century immigration- there are no quotas. Secondly, this blog is not merely about simply movies. That would be too easy and a lot less interesting. This is about the art within movies. I mean paintings, sculptures, props, you name it. I'm going to steer clear of fashion and architecture because, quite frankly, there's enough information out there and I don't know much about it. I do know art. Now, I'll give you fair warning. Many older movies are not as good at record-keeping as one might hope, so while I'll try to find all artists, all mediums, all... everything... I can't promise I will. Also- I neither own nor claim to own any pictures I post on my blog. They are for decoration and for your enjoyment.
I love movies and I love art. So, I hope with two passions united in one blog, it's going to create a pretty amazing result.
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