Sunday, April 28, 2013

Moving Pictures: Howell Conant's Photographs of Grace Kelly

Today, I’m going to do another post in the “Moving Pictures” series. This time, I’m going to confront the issue of artistic photography.

I don’t know if I’ve covered photography yet, but I think it’s pretty apparent that a lot of photography is definitely art. Photography’s realism is one hundred percent, obviously, so I feel a photo becomes a piece of art when it conveys more than mere likeness. Which is something the following photos achieve.

Grace Kelly. She had the it factor, didn’t she? I really don’t think any other actress has every come close to her in terms of beauty, sophistication, wit, talent and dare I say it, grace. I never cease to marvel not only at Grace’s abilities as an actress but also at the incredible way she managed to live so gracefully in the public eye, where she remained beloved.

Grace was first a model, when she was discovered and became a star. She naturally belonged in front of a camera and managed to look stunning each shoot. In 1955, soon after her stardom, fashion photographer Howell Conant was assigned to do some publicity shots for Grace. He was so impressed by her in these shots by the natural grace she conveyed that basically he devoted the rest of his career to her. In fact, his shots of her are basically all that people remember about poor old Conant.

After his publicity shots, Colliers tapped Howell to photograph Grace Kelly during her vacation in Jamaica. He took basically a bunch of candid shots of her enjoying the beach, loving life, all that good stuff.

 She was without makeup, without the fancy clothes, and still she managed to convey that vibrant sophistication that she was loved for.

His photographs of her are works of art in themselves, regardless of the subject. They show balance of color and light and movement. But considering the personality he conveys in them and that Grace Kelly is the subject, they become timeless for me, as they became timeless for the contemporary audience. I really think they speak for themselves.

Needless to say, they were very well received. The one above garnered Howell a cover shot for Colliers, but more importantly Howell had struck up a friendship with Grace Kelly. For the rest of her life, through her royal wedding and her time as Princess of Monaco, he was basically the unofficial court photographer and one of the family friends of Her Serene Majesty and Prince Rainier. He was given access few members of the press were, and his work showed his appreciation. It is almost always flawless.

Conant once said,
"You trusted Graces beauty. You knew it was... natural, unpretentious." 
And it was. She was. 

And that shows through his photography. And the fact that it does show is not merely a credit to Grace’s beauty, but to Conant’s talent as a photographer. His images have kept her spirit alive over the years and kept her best traits- her natural elegance and spirit of life- fresh in the minds of those who view the pictures.  And that is an effort worth lauding. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Rosings Estate in "Pride and Prejudice" (2005): The Verrio Heaven Room in Burghley House

One of the loveliest little movies in the last few years was the Kiera Knightley adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (2005).  You really can’t go wrong with the Jane Austen masterpiece, and I felt this particular adaptation was very successful in conveying the true feeling of the novel itself.
Pride and Prejudice (2005) 
The film also contained some magnificent filming locations by using some of the finest houses in Britain (and this was all pre-Downton Abbey).  I was perhaps most impressed by the filming location of the residence of the snobbish Lady Catharine de Bourgh, the fictional Rosings estate. I haven’t time enough to describe the plot of the entire Pride and Prejudice, but Lady Catharine serves as a stereotypical snobbish remnant of the ancien regime- extraordinarily rich, arrogant to the point of open rudeness, and staunchly remaining in her social positions and beliefs. At one point, Lizzy Bennett visits Lady Catharine at her estate and is treated in quite a cavalier fashion by the domineering mistress of Rosings. Meanwhile, her best friend and her husband, the foolish Mr. Collins, remain in awe of the so-called “greatness” of Lady Catharine.

Judi Dench as Lady Catharine
The scene introducing Lady Catharine (Judi Dench) is made much more magnificent by the location. Enter, Lizzy and company into the grand “parlor” of Rosings- a huge room, decorated incredibly in Baroque classical style. Amidst this awe-inspiring art is the similarly awe-inspiring Lady Catharine- cold and conceited as usual- receives them with the manner of one who knows they are better they everyone else- even if this may not be so.

This magnificent room is all too fitting of Rosings and Lady Catharine. Beautifully decorated to the point of extravagance- which is basically the point of all Baroque art. The grandness of the room is supposed to befit the so-called grandness of Lady Catharine. Whether it does, is the opinion of the viewer.

What really is impressive and grand is the fact that this room is no set at all. It actually exists in the magnificently preserved Elizabethan estate, Burghley House. In the 17th century, Burghley’s masters were quite wealthy and wished to decorate their drafty rooms into a magnificent receiving room in the newest style- at the time, Baroque with a dash of classical appreciation thanks to the contemporary popularity of the “Grand Tour” of Italy at this time. The 5th Earl spent a fortune restoring his drafty home, and in particular spent much time in this gallery, hiring the esteemed Italian Baroque artist Antonio Verrio. Verrio, mainly obscure today, was of some prominence in Britain during the 17th Century because he is credited with bringing Baroque mural painting into Britain.
The Heaven Room at Burghley 
Perhaps Verrio’s greatest masterpiece appears in Burghley. It is none as, humbly enough, the Heaven Room. The entire room is painted with grand scenes from mythology. The Heaven Room is, by all regards magnificent. Verrio worked mainly by himself on this giant project, achieving a sense of proportion, grandness and drama that is so distinctly Baroque. The room remained unfinished for some years, until finally another artist was hired to finish Verrio’s work. The end result is a living piece of art.

As I have stated over and over again, the setting of a scene is so incredibly important because of the mood it can convey. In this case, the Heaven Room in Burghley House conveys a feeling of grandness, of awe, or drama that befits the scene in Pride and Prejudice. More importantly, it remains one of the finest and largest examples of Baroque murals in England.
Pride and Prejudice (2005)
As an aside, if you care for such artwork, I know of an excellent blog that only covers British estates and artwork. It’s called Period Pieces and Portraitureand the work on that blog is exceptionally well done and well researched. I encourage you to check it out!

Also- I’m really looking for a plot-relevant piece that I can use in the near future. I have a lot of projects brewing, but I’m trying to find a really emotional piece to use for some characterization. Keep an eye out! 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Cezanne's "Young Man With a Skull" in the Barnes Foundation: Picture of Dorian Grey?

I recently toured the Barnes Foundation in Center City Philadelphia. Really, it's quite a remarkable collection of art and completely impressive when you think that it was all collected by one man, the somewhat eccentric and extremely wealth Dr. Barnes. I'm not going to delve into the history of his collection, but when he died, his will mandated that his works were arranged in the same "assemblages" as he organized them in. So, when this new building opened last year- it was originally in Merion- the curators had to arrange the art in such a fashion. And really its quite magnificent.
Young Man and a Skull (1896)
by Paul Cezanne
Anyhow, as I was perusing, I saw this one painting that completely reminded me of the (ideal) picture of Dorian Grey from The Picture of Dorian Grey. It's called Young Man With a Skull and it is a young man with a skull. But the model has such a sense of Dorian Greyish ennui and that skull is so symbolic of the moral death of the character, I just immediately thought of that. What do you think?

Definitely different stylistically, but same thematically if you think of it. And really, plot-wise, the Cezanne painted this around the same time as the story-portrait would have been painted and really Cezanne's is more of the avant-garde style of the times. Maybe I'm just crazy, but maybe not...

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Columbo Painting in "Murder, a Self Portrait" (1989)

Recently, a reader commented about of one of his favorite movie/TV art pieces from the classic show, Columbo. The only thing I love more than 80s TV is a mystery and the only thing I love more than a mystery is a mystery with some artwork in it. Check. Check. And Check! Needless to say, I was more than happy to do a little sleuthing of my own about this piece and its intriguing artist.

The piece the reader was referring to appears in an episode of Columbo called Murder, A Self Portrait. It’s actually more of a TV movie because of its length, but it’s all semantics because the most important thing is the Columbo is in it. The plot of this episode involves a famous European artist, Max Barsini who has a notorious past. His first ex-wife makes some threats about revealing the past, she’s knocked off, and an investigation occurs. Obviously it was a murder (or it wouldn’t be on TV) and even more obviously, it is the husband. Now, here’s the kicker, as Columbo goes to arrest Barsini for the murder of his wife, Barsini reveals his latest piece: a portrait of none other than Columbo himself. But it’s better than that because the Columbo’s face has this great little smirk on it like Barsini knew he was going to be caught the whole time. Really, you have to hand it to the writers.

You really can’t ask more out of a portrait. It captures a remarkable likeness of Peter Falk and also creates the perfect reaction from the audience to the scene. A seemingly ordinary scene becomes extraordinary because this portrait adds depth to Barsini and the scene itself. And you know me: give me a portrait that’s more than a portrait and I am simply thrilled. And give me a piece that plays an important part in the plot itself, that is required by the plot and I’m just ecstatic.

As you may have surmised from previous posts, finding artists is usually quite a drag. But that was certainly not the case for this piece. Immediately I found that this painting was created by apparently a very big name. When I looked more into Jaroslav Gebr’s career, I found out it was, or should be, a huge name. Gebr was born in Eastern Europe, studied there and later fled the Communists and arrived in Hollywood. He began in the art departments of Fox and MGM and eventually ended up at Universal’s Television studios where he led their Art Department for years. This seems all well and good but once you begin viewing his resume, it’s actually quite impressive.

Most notably, Gebr created the title cards for the Redford/Newman flick, The Sting (expect post later), which have a very iconic Americana look. But Gebr had incredible talent and large artistic versatility. He was able to copy almost every style and did throughout his career. Among the high points in his career were his murals for the MGM studios, Michaelangelo frescoes for MGM’s The Shoes of the Fisherman, and art in almost every style for some of the huge shows of the time including The Lucy Show and Murder, She Wrote. Most recently, he did work for one of my favorite chick flicks, The Princess Diaries. In addition, Gebr found time to paint portraits of Hollywood’s top names, like Orson Welles and make storyboards for his studios. Needless to say, the man had talent.

Gebr may not have been the most technically perfect artist, I’ll concede that. But really, that wasn’t his job. His job was to create art quickly and well, which he did. I read that he had extremely high standards, despite his often ridiculously short deadlines. If you glance at his work, this is fairly evident. They added to the artistic vision of the set and piece and more importantly filled necessary voids in storylines. Who cares if some of his pieces appear on screen for mere seconds? When they do appear, they shock, impress or create whatever emotion needs to be created in the story with remarkable accuracy. More importantly, you art snobs, his work was probably seen by more of the general public than some of the high art “geniuses” of his day. I think it’s pretty clear who made a bigger difference.  
Back to the painting itself, this piece served an important part in the plot of one Columbo episode. But it also serves as a prime example of a great artist’s work and captures an important part of Columbo’s character, and in a way, Peter Falk’s screen persona. Despite its brief appearance, I believe it’s a hugely important and tremendous piece if only because of the impact it makes. And really, that’s what matters. 

Also, this fits very nicely into my "Moving Pictures" theme as this piece is, at its simplest level, a wonderfully evocative portrait of the great Peter Falk. I'm getting two birds with one stone with this truly wonderful painting. 

If interested, check out more of Gebr's work at, a site dedicated to his artwork. Expect to hear more about him and his work in the future!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Moving Pictures: Andy Warhol's "Liz" Silkscreens of Elizabeth Taylor

For my first post in the “Moving Pictures” series, I’m going to cover a Warhol silkscreen, just as I promised. But- don’t get too excited- I’m not going to get all mainstream on you- no Marilyn Diptychs for me, at least for now. I’m going to go with some prints that were once, at least, equally famous or certainly one of the luminaries of the Silver Screen- Elizabeth Taylor.

Love her or hate her, Liz Taylor certainly created a stir in Hollywood and proved to be one of its most iconic and troubles characters. Regardless of your own opinion, Andy Warhol loved her. Warhol, as you most definitely know, was one of the paramount “Pop Artists.” He is best known for his obsession and willingness to mock the “Cult of Celebrity.” Really, he’s the frontrunner of all movie bloggers. We love to be critical, to poke fun, to laugh at the stars- but without them- we would have nothing to blog about. In a similar way, Warhol took advantage of America’s obsession with celebrity, poked fun at it, while making a huge fortune over his silkscreens.

Like I said, Andy Warhol was fascinated by Liz Taylor and in the early ‘60s, as she was very ill, but still at the top of her stardom, he made a series of prints based on a publicity photo. From what AI researched, he based his prints off of a 1960’s publicity photo of Butterfield 8. I couldn’t find the exact photo, but I included a sample publicity shot for you to enjoy.

His versions of Liz are essentially very simple. Her face is simplified and dabbed up with color, but it is essentially very much still her. I read in one criticism that the dabbed colors are Warhol’s attempt to capture the sensuality of Liz Taylor and aggressiveness it often contained. This Liz Taylor looks almost fierce, with her war-paint on and grotesquely heavy eye-shadow. At the time of these prints (1963-65), she was very ill, but still had to put on her makeup and look pretty to reassure her fans that their favorite star was still alright.  It’s beautiful, certainly, but it is also tragic. Doesn't she almost appear clownish when Warhol applied the other colors as he did?

I personally, like these prints because I feel that Warhol attempted to capture not only the likeness of Liz Taylor, but her perceived personality and her Hollywood persona. It’s point is not to ridicule Liz as much as to show her as an icon of Hollywood, and perhaps and misused and tragic one at that.

This is iconic American artwork. It’s subject is distinctly American, distinctly a source of “worship” from the “cult of celebrity.” It’s artist is now similarly worshiped and his work critically acclaimed. More importantly, Warhol did this before he was hugely popular, hugely commercial. This work has some meaning, some emotion in it. I love portraiture because it allows the artist to go beyond his or her technical skills. It allows them to delve into the depth of a person, to attempt to portray not only a subject’s individual likeness, but their personality. It allows him to show not only his love and admiration for Liz Taylor, but also his pity. And I feel that’s been incredibly accomplished here.

So, in summary, Warhol created this silkscreen not only to create a lasting tribute to a living legend, but to show how primitive our obsession with the stars is by reducing Liz as both beautiful and tragic. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

New Theme: Moving Pictures

Starting soon: I'm going to open up a new theme for my posts. I was inspired by, of all things, some of Warhol's prints. I was thinking- the portraits and pictures of movie stars really represent the scope of film's artistic importance and the scope of the "cult of celebrity" we subscribe to today.

I'm titling this new theme: "Moving Pictures: Immortal Portraits of the Stars" because they are pictures that... well, can move you! First up, will be the Warhol prints- so get ready!
More to follow!

Update: 25 June 2013
Posts so far..

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Dali's Surreal Dream Sequence in "Spellbound" (1945)

Recently, I had the pleasure of watching a Hitchcock film I hadn’t seen before, 1945’s Spellbound. To be honest, I was a little unimpressed. For me, I found it a little too predictable, a little too heavy on psychoanalysis and just at times a little too much. Still as with every Hitchcock film, there are aspects of the film that I can’t help but loving.

I found Spellbound to basically be Hollywood’s attempt to cash in on the publicity and contemporary renown of the psychoanalysis theories of Freud. Selznick and Hitchcock teamed up for this film in the mid ‘40s, for their second collaboration after the massive success of Rebecca

The plot focuses on an intelligent, but restrained, psychoanalysist Dr. Constance Peterson (played a little heavily by Ingrid Bergman) who attempts to help an amnesiac patient who believes to have killed a man (the young Gregory Peck). The plot basically turns into a manhunt, as Ingrid and Gregory Peck flee from the law whilst trying to find the truth about Peck’s beliefs. 

The characteristic Hitchcock suspense comes in moments when Peck’s character loses control of situations, which casts doubts about his assumed innocence. I love Ingrid Bergman in almost everything, but I thought she was too over the top in this film. Her icy demeanor in the beginning of the film was too cold, too academic to be believable and her love scenes were too exuberant for a woman who supposedly never has shown emotion previously. But, whatever.

This film had many Surrealistic elements in it that were supposed to mirror the psychoanalysis in the film. While I’m going to focus on the famous Salvador Dali dream sequence, other moments occur in the film that border on surrealism. For instance, when Bergman and Peck share their first kiss, the camera cuts to a surrealistic scene of the doors (apparently, Constance’s mind) opening in succession. Certain absurdities that occur in the film, also seemed to have the tongue-in-cheek irreverent humor that often characterizes surrealism. But I digress- back to Dali.

Really, what’s probably most famous about this movie nowadays is this dream sequence designed by the Surrealistic master, Salvador Dali. Hitchcock went on record saying that during a scene where Peck’s character describes his dreams (how Freudian), he wanted the dream sequence itself to have incredible clarity and vividness, while remaining absurd. Hitch felt that Dali’s work accomplished this vividness that he wished to portray. And I am inclined to agree with Hitch- Dali’s work is certainly dream-like, with its incredible perspective and bizarre images.

The dream sequence is supposed to accomplish two things in the film. The first is to help explain Peck’s character’s mental state- frazzled to say the least. The second is to provide clues to audience about the actual murderer (a little clumsily at times).

I’ll briefly outline the sequence. It starts with a bunch of eyes (apparently, Peck’s feelings of being watched and hunted), turns into a gambling hall with eye curtains, which are being cut. A girl is going around the table kissing everyone. The dream turns to a game of Blackjack with a bearded man, followed by a confrontation with a masked man in a tuxedo (obviously the murderer). The dream that zooms to the bearded man falling off a building (with some really weird perspective) and then basically a figure running down a pyramid with wings behind it.

I will complement Hitch- the scenes, while incredibly strange (aka surreal) are very characteristically Dali. For me, at least, I felt like I was watching a Dali painting in motion.

Apparently, Hitch and Selznick were very gung-ho about Dali at first. Hitch, always the art fanatic, was excited for the artistic vision. Selznick- who was a little low on funds at the time- was excited for the potential publicity over Dali’s participation in the film. Things soon got complicated, though. Dali designed five scenes, which together would have run around twenty minutes. Each contained highly surrealistic images and themes that fit in with the plot. Hitch and Selznick, though, were soon a little overwhelmed by the eccentricities of the great painter. 

Dali envisioned scenes that were basically impossible to film, but snippets of each survive. These include ideas to have a ballroom scene filled with dancers with grand pianos suspended over the heads. Another idea included Ingrid Bergman coming out of a classical Roman statue, with ants and something else. I think Hitch was a little horrified by that one- and neither idea came to fruition.

Dali was involved with the filming, but I would give much artistic credit to the film’s art director, William Menzies, who was given the difficult job of organizing the designs, making them fit into the plot and the film’s time limit. The end result is magnificent, albeit bizarre- but hey, that’s surrealism for you.

I rarely do this, but I’m going to link a video clip of the dream sequence for your perusal. I’m also going to include a link for a MOMA interactive site about Dali's work in film that I found a lot of information from (just click on the link). It’s very interesting and includes some great pictures. Despite my feelings on Surrealism, I have to concede that it is incredibly interesting that a mass culture film, like Spellbound, was able to enlist the cooperation of such a famous artist in general. It’s a rare, but truly interesting and fruitful, mix of the “high art” world and the “low art” world of film. And I have to say, it’s pretty incredible.  

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Katharine Hepburn's Bronze Bust of Spencer Tracy

This Sunday, as spring is in the air and I’m feeling pretty great about life, I thought I’d get a little sentimental. Or probably, more accurately, a little MORE sentimental than usual about my favorite films and actors and actresses.
Right from the beginning of my classic movie-watching days, I've always loved Katharine Hepburn. I love her spirit and her wit and her strength of character. She had the rare ability to be a terrifying pillar of strength at one moment, and a source of pathos the next. Of course, as most critics put her at the top of the “Best Actresses” list, I’m not alone in these sentiments. Still, she always has a special place in my heart. Her films, especially her early comedies like Bringing up Baby, fostered in me a love of classic cinema that’s never left me.  

As I've become more a connoisseur over the years, I've found more appreciation in some of her later roles, especially, as Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, which I consider one of her best performances ever. Then, there’s always that old standby, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), to which I devote my post to, in a way.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a fairly monumental piece about interracial marriage, a very touchy issue at the time of the film. So, the movie was pretty groundbreaking. More importantly (to me, at least), it’s the last pairing of Kate and her long-time lover, Spencer Tracy. Weeks after filming, Spence would die, leaving Katharine heartbroken. Their love affair has been documented and re-documented and I’m not going to go over old ground. (I will say though, the one great irony I find in it was the Spencer, the “great” Catholic, couldn't justify divorce, but could justify a decades-long affair- but whatever). At the end of her memoir Me, Kate concludes with a beautiful “letter” to long-dead Spencer, which is quite touching. They meant a great deal to each other, and I think both their work was bettered because of their mutual love and support.

According to the internet, a certain bust of Spencer Tracy appears in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner which Katharine made herself. To confess the truth- I've never seen the whole movie. In the scenes I DID watch I couldn't find it, but that certainly doesn't mean it isn't there. (This is a hint for you readers to comment with a picture or a sassy comment like “it’s right behind Sidney Poitier, you dope”).

Regardless of its appearance in the film, the bust exists. Katharine Hepburn was apparently quite an accomplished artist who took up painting and sculpting as a relaxing hobby. Her bust of Spence was a true testament of her love for him, and I find it quite lovely that this piece of art exists forever attesting to their love. I believe she created it in the early '60s, when Spencer was quite ill as a way to pass the time peacefully. As you can tell, it is certainly not a young Spencer Tracy, but certainly it certainly conveys his strength and his character in all his glory, regardless of age. 

This piece doesn’t really hold many thematic elements; it adds some greater attractiveness to the set and serves as a magnificent portrait of one of old Hollywood’s greats by one of old Hollywood’s greatest. Incidentally, it was sold at auction a few years ago for over three hundred thousand dollars. So, that should tell you the value that the world puts on such a piece. Not only is it a rare piece of movie memorabilia, it’s a rare piece of Hepburn art of Hepburn’s great love. Needless to say, it’s an incredibly neat piece of art, just for its historic value alone.
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