Thursday, December 18, 2014

"The Night Gallery" Joan Crawford portrait

I hate to be on a Joan Crawford run, but I just can't help but writing about this fantastic painting I saw in an old rerun of the Night Gallery. Actually, I only saw the pilot episode. I wasn't in love with the series and it certainly wasn't as good as The Twilight Zone. But there was something about it that still attracted me. While it might not have been the best show ever, there was still that wonderful Rod Sterling touch, that beautiful eeriness, and most importantly... art!
If you don't know anything about the Night Gallery, it ran from 1970 to 1973. They all featured eerie horror stories hosted by Rod Sterling. The way the show worked was that Rod would introduce a painting and then the actual "story" part would be the explanation of why that painting was so secretly horrific. Like I said, after but one episode, I'm no expert about the show, but apparently episodes were less sci-fi (in the light of the Twilight Zone) and more supernatural. I'll just take Wikipedia's word for it.
I saw the entire pilot which was comprised of three paintings and therefore different stories. The first and the third, I could take or leave. But, I loved one episode, "Eyes." And if you look at the details, it's easy to see why. It was directed by Stephen Spielberg, in one of his earliest directorial positions, and it starred none other than the queen of melodrama herself, Miss Joan Crawford.
The story opens with an eerie portrait of Joan Crawford looking directly out at the canvas (another engaging Crawford portrait). In "Eyes," she plays a mean-spirited, wealthy blind woman who buys the eyes of a hapless, ignorant gambler for a risky surgery. She blackmails everyone to get the illegal surgery to happen but, as it so happens, karma is a real bitch. I won't ruin the ending, but it's a worthwhile watch. The whole episode (all three stories) will leave you a little unsettled.
A show completely based around art is such an appealing concept. The premise of the show is really the premise of the blog: art holds deep secrets and much meaning. We might not see it initially, but once we understand, the understanding helps grow our appreciation of the piece and of the power of art in general.

The Joan Crawford painting, titled "Eyes," is dated from 1969 and was painted by one of my favorite TV/movie artists, Jerry Gebr, the legendary Universal artist. Gebr did a lot of work for the Night Gallery and his talents were certainly very much in demand for an art-based show. I don't know the details of the painting, but I assume due to time constraints, that Gebr did the painting off a photo instead of off of Crawford herself. He still did a magnificent job, capturing Crawford in all her elegance. At the same time, the almost expressionist styling really lends to the feelings of the ominous and the horrofic.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The "Big Eyes" Joan Crawford Painting

A recent movie trailer actually helped answer an artist question that I've had for a while. A few days ago, I saw the trailer for the new Amy Adams film "Big Eyes," a Tim Burton biopic about Margaret Keane, the legendary kitsch artist who painted the famous "big eye" paintings of animals, mothers, kids, anything. Keane's story is so interesting because her husband actually took credit for her work for years until she later sued and divorced him. I haven't read any reviews of the film yet, but (as you well know) any movies about art or artist always interest me.
In the trailer, you get a very brief glimpse of one of Keane's more famous paintings: a portrait of legendary actress Joan Crawford. It turns out, in the height of Keane's fame, both Joan Crawford and Natalie Wood commissioned Keane portraits. In the 60s, both Wood and Crawford were real stars. So if that doesn't speak to Keane's popularity, nothing should.
The Crawford portrait is rather stunning and really does justice to the cinema dominatrix. I actually recognized the painting because Joan posed in front of it in the picture of herself that graces her memoir. I have to admit that I find it ironic that Joan, with her famed rivalry with Bette Davis (herself famed for her "Bette Davis eyes"), should want to emulate a feature so closely connected with her enemy. But that's just me being a peevish gossip.
What I think is really incredible is that Keane obviously had real talent. Joan's eyes are a little larger than real life, but certainly not as large as the most iconic of the "big eyes" paintings. It's realism tinged with caricature. Because the features are so clear, even exaggerated, you can clearly tell that its Joan Crawford in all her chilly elegance. The portrait is stunningly dramatic, with the sharp curve of the cape, and the direct engaging stare. And then you remember, the painting is engaging because of the stare, because of Keane's signature motif, the eyes. Perhaps, they really are windows to the soul. They certainly are in this painting.
In real life, Keane began painting her famous big eyed paintings in the 1960s where they became hugely popular. Later, after her divorce, she moved to Hawaii and her work took on a much brighter and more colorful look. Tim Burton, the director of "Big Eyes" is a huge Keane collector; hence, he made the movie.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Moving Pictures: Kermit the Frog and Jim Henson Statue

I came across this some time ago and I just think its a wonderfully fun piece, though certainly not an overly historic or thematically deep piece. I love my campus, but I can't help but wish that we had something this fun.

A few years ago, the University of Maryland unveiled a statue of legendary Muppets-creator Jim Henson on their campus. Henson was an alum of the University of Maryland, so it makes sense that he's on their campus.
When the Henson family decided they wanted a memorial to their father on the campus, outside the student union, they opened up a contest. The winner was Jay Hall Carpenter, a talented young sculptor. The finished version of the sculpture shows Henson talking to Kermit, his most famous Muppet friend, on a gorgeous granite bench.
The statue was sculpted first in clay before being cast in bronze. The whole sculpture- statue and bench- were put together in College Park in 2003. It still sits in its original location outside the Union, providing students with some joy and aspirations every time they pass. If I went to Maryland, I certainly be able to help from taking tons of pictures with Kermit, but I think that is just me.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Fred Astaire portraits in Daddy Long Legs

You know just as well as I do that I don't like to write about films that I haven't seen. I feel like it is a sacrifice of my artistic and critical credibility. But, you probably also I love breaking my own rules in very special instances. And I found one such instance when reading about Fred Astaire. I found some really incredible artistic homages in his great film with Leslie Caron, Daddy Long Legs (1955).
In all honesty, I have actually seen parts of Daddy Long Legs but unfortunately (for me now that I want to write about it), I didn't finish the film. It's a fairly standard 50's musical- fairly cliche plot, a lush score, and indisputably incredible talent. As I've written before, one of my favorite musicals from the period is the wonderful Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire reunion vehicle, The Barkleys of Broadway (you can read about my analysis of it here). But Daddy Long Legs has a lot going for it. In my eyes, Fred Astaire can do no wrong especially when he has a beautifully talented costar (in the form of Caron), a gorgeous soundtrack, and some Technicolor action. Also, not going to lie, any film with Thelma Ritter in a supporting role can't be all that bad.
Thanks to the marvels of the internet, it's easy for me to catch myself (and you) about the plot. Fred Astaire plays the titular Daddy Long Legs, who stumbles across a lively young French girl, played by Caron. Entranced by her optimism, Fred decides to anonymously pay for her college education in the US. Several years later, he visits the school (and her) and (lo and behold), despite their sizable age difference, they fall in love. If that's not a classic musical, I don't know when else true love would be borne out of unknown tuition payments. Actually, now that I think of it...maybe its not so crazy....
So, why do I bring up Daddy Long Legs. Certainly its not for an original or artistic plot (though the dance sequences that I have seen exhibit the classic 50s art vibe. But, the reason I found the film in the first place was because there are some of the most wonderful and fun art homages I've ever seen in the movies.
Like I said, Fred Astaire plays a suave American gentleman from a wealthy, established New York family. The film sets this in place visually by showing a number of portraits to establish that the family is well... established. A series of three portraits are shown: apparently of his grandfather, father, and himself. Each represent not only a dominant historical artistic genre, but dominant artists as well. I'll work out all three with you because they are just so much fun.

The first portrait is supposed to be the "grandfather" portrait. Not only is it painted in the style of James Abbott McNeill Whistler; but it is a direct allusion to his famous painting, commonly known as "Whistler's Mother" (1871). (For you art historians, the painting is officially titled Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1, but that's only for sticklers).
The second portrait (the "father" portrait) is painted in the style of one of my favorite artists, the famous turn of the century portrait painter, John Singer Sargent. You may remember, I did a serious look at Sargent's influence on the style and look of both art and period pieces of that time period in film. The Sargent portrait is, if nothing else, an excellently rendered realistic portrait of Astaire.
The final portrait is an attempt at Picasso cubism. The attempt at modernism is quite impressive and we all clearly get what the artist is going for. It is really wonderful how it is obviously cubism, but at the same time it is still clearly Astaire. Sure, he might be abstracted, but you could tell that face anywhere. And of course, Fred would never be underdressed, not even in a Cubist portrait.
Not surprisingly, Astaire served as the subject for all these portraits. They are fairly clearly pictures of him. Interestingly, though, the artist was director Jean Negulesco (according to TCM sources). Negulesco had artistic training and was involved in the artistic scene of the day. In addition, he contributed to the artistic dance scenes in the film and borrowed real Braques and Picassos for the set to make Astaire's character seem like a very legitimate establishment figure.

The art of the film befits the gorgeous look that was provided to the film. I was very pleasantly surprised to see that real modern art pieces had been used instead of studio imitations. Better yet, I was glad to see that real effort had been put into what is honestly an interesting, but minor, stylistic detail. If anyone defined class and sophistication, it was Fred Astaire and the fact that his films mirrored this dominant personal quality is both pleasant and refreshing.
Not too much analysis can be given to Leslie's chalk drawing
of her "Daddy Long Legs." 

TCM Source From 

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Lawrence of Arabia Poster: Playing with the Question of Identity

I recently hung up my Lawrence of Arabia poster in my dorm room again. It's one of my favorite posters because, as you'll probably remember from an earlier post, since the first time I watched it with my dad, Lawrence is one of my all-time favorite films. In fact, at this very moment, I'm listening to Maurice Jarre's magnificent soundtrack just because it puts me in a properly majestic mood. But very lately, I got to thinking about the poster and why I like the poster so much. Or at least, why I like besides just being a visual ad for the movie itself. And once I started reflecting upon Lawrence (as one does), it hit me. Very subtly, the Lawrence poster literally illustrates the major thematic element of the film: identity.
In my Lawrence post from last year, you'll probably remember how I deeply analyzed the bust that appears in St. Paul's because it suggests that the film will attempt to discover who Lawrence was and if he was actually a heroic figure. But identity is more than a sweeping theme of the film. Lawrence himself is deeply concerned with his own identity throughout the story.
I feel that its fair to say that Lawrence is grappling with who he and the implications with that identity the whole time. On one level, Lawrence must decide where his loyalty ultimately lies with: the British or the Arabs. This is perhaps the most obvious conflict of identity in the film. But it grows deeper. I feel that not only is Lawrence conflicted by his loyalties, he is conflicted by who he is. Is Lawrence a Brit in Arab's clothing? Or is he an Arab than finally dropped the British uniform? Politically, this has an easy answer: Lawrence is obviously British. But, in a film that spends so time attempted to explain the Arab psyche and... I'll call it spirituality (not in a religious sense at all), is Lawrence spiritually British?
Consider Lawrence's back story. Very early on, it is clear that Lawrence is a bastard child, with no real claims in Britain. He is viewed with either disregard or an odd fascination by his fellow troops. He dislike mundane military life. In real life, Lawrence was a poet- an artistic mind. This image is not compatible with early 20th century British society- colonial, capitalistic, brisk. Remember, Fiesal distinguishes Lawrence from those "Englishmen who love desolate places." Perhaps, this is why Lawrence's loyalties ultimately lie with the Arabs. Think to early on in the film, when Dryden reminds Lawrence that "only two kinds of creatures enjoy the desert: Bedouins and gods." Dryden suggests that Lawrence is neither, but instead has a funny sense of fun. But, the more I think of it, the more I think that the film is suggesting grand things about Lawrence's identity. The beginning at St. Paul's. The constant questioning of the funeral attendees. And now suggesting that Lawrence- who of course did find (certain) enjoyment, or at least realization, in the desert, is either a Bedouin or a god.
The film clearly portrays Lawrence's many flaws and his ultimate (in my interpretation) decline. I feel that the inevitability of the desert ultimately defeats Lawrence (again, my viewing). But, at the same time, I don't think his 'defeat' makes him British. On an emotional level, he can sympathize more with the Bedouin, than with the British imperialist. And let's recall, it's not Lawrence of London or Kent or whathaveyou. It is Lawrence of Arabia, i.e. Lawrence the Arab. But, it's Lawrence the Arab who ultimately abandons the Arabs. It's clear by the end of the film why the characters can't figure out what to make of Lawrence: we, the audience, who has seen the story from "every" angle, can't either.
So, let's get back to the poster. What's most striking is that figure. Or really, the bust (coincidence... I think not). Unlike in St. Paul's, this is a bust of a man in Arab's clothing. His dark skin is pleasantly contrasted by the white robes. Visually, it pleasing. Look at the face... but you can't. Because it is abstracted, obscured, darkened. The identity of the figure, of assuredly Lawrence is unknown. The visual reflects the thematic. Just as Vertigo's swirling designs reflected the confused mind, Lawrence's obscured face represent's his identity crisis.
Back to the bust:
Does he deserve to be here?
Think of this visual choice by the graphic designer. Peter O'Toole was an extremely handsome man at the time of Lawrence's release. Almost everyone has heard the famous biting criticism of O'Toole as the too pretty"Florence of Arabia." His handsomeness is surely a selling factor that you would think the studio would play on. But instead, the face isn't even visible. For God's sake, it's not even white. Is the darkness indicative of a Bedouin or simply a confused man? Or both?

So, I guess a better question than "who is Lawrence?" could be, "Does the poster answer the question?" Is the poster the tell to the great thematic element of the film? Or, am I just crazy?
In Memoriam
Peter O'Toole (1932-2013)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Bette Davis as Sarah Siddons in the Pageant of the Masters

I was looking through my files the other day and I came across a very interesting picture that I meant to post months ago because it applies to one of my earliest posts. It's a picture of Bette Davis dressed up as the legendary 18th century actress Sarah Siddons. If you remember my post, "The All About Eve Sarah Siddons Award," the 1784 Revnolds portrait of Siddons was a repeated motif in the classic Bette Davis film. It shaped the design of the actual (fictional) award that serves as the flashback moment for the whole film. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to find Bette once again associated with the film.
I started doing a little research. Why was Bette dressed up as Sarah Siddons? Why was she recreating the portrait? And where or when did this happen? I was lucky to find the answers from the Festival of the Arts of Laguna Beach.

Every year, the Festival of the Arts hosts a legendary "Pageant of the Masters," where famous paintings and works of art are created in incredibly detailed tableaux. The Pageant started in the early 1930s and became a hugely popular element of the annual arts festival. Each year, it became more impressive and ambitious in its scope and, to this day, it continues to produce incredibly beautiful "living" works of art.

Still, this doesn't explain how Bette Davis got involved with it. According to the FOA's website (see links below), the organizer of the Festival was neighbors with Bette and got her to sign up for the 1957 festival. Of course, in 1957, Bette's name would have drawn huge crowds and she was scheduled to be the opening act. She was planning on recreating the famous Reynolds painting of Siddons as the tragic muse. According to the Festival's website, Bette even was drafted into cleaning and prep work, which, true to her Yankee roots, she obliged to do. Unfortunately, she got an injury last minute and was not able to perform, much to posterity's chagrin.

Their blip on Bette Davis is a short one and doesn't explain why she selected that particular painting. After all, it was featured extensively in her blockbuster film, All About Eve. I don't know whether she or the organizers chose that painting. I do know however, that, when it comes to the arts in film, I don't believe in coincidence. Of course, if Bette selected it, it would suggest that she held more than a little admiration to the great tragic actress. I doubt Bette Davis would deign to imitate anyone she didn't highly admire. The picture must have been from a dress rehearsal of the pageant, which explains why a higher quality picture (aka, one without the makeup team) doesn't exist. The repeated Siddons motif would suggest more than a mere repeated visual motif, it would suggest an acting inspiration for one of the greatest actresses that has graced the American screen.

"Hollywood Goes to the Pageant" on the Festival of the Arts of Laguna Beach website

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Bette Davis in the "Dark Secret of Harvest Home"

I know it seemed that I had gone the way of the Carlotta portrait, but I am not tragically missing- just tragically busy. I do sincerely apologize for not posting sooner. Fear not, though- while I may not have been posting about the Art of Film, I certainly was thinking about so hopefully my posts will continue to entertain.

Today's post is dedicated to John Stewart, the art of the piece on which I wanted to focus. As a little background, John is a California artist who worked in Hollywood for years and years. I actually met him through his comments on my blog and he's provided valuable feedback and insight into the world of artist who work for the movies or television. John is an accomplished artist of his own right, I really enjoy his blog  "A Drawing Per Day" and I hope you are encouraged to do so as well.
A few weeks ago, John sent me some pictures of his work and one piece in particular fascinated me. It was a portrait of the legendary Bette Davis commissioned for the 1978 TV mini-series, "The Dark Secret of Harvest Home," based on a bestselling horror book. As you probably know, I am no horror fan, so I haven't seen it and have absolutely no intention of doing so. From a quick google search, I found out that "Harvest Home" is about neo-paganism in a small country town- pretty creepy stuff. But even if I can't appreciate (or even view) the show without nightmares, I can appreciate the art.
John left this comment, which I'm going to use, because it sums up the story of the painting better than anything I could write.

"Early on in my career as a film artist (in 1977) I got an assignment to do a portrait of Bette for a mini-series called "Harvest Home" or "The Dark Secret of Harvest Home". I got to meet her and sat in her dressing room, sketching her and conversing with her. She told me about all of the famous artists who had done portraits of her, which made me even more nervous than I was already. She was smoking, which didn't bother me because I was a smoker too. I finally decided to take some photos and return to my hotel art studio. The assignment became huge and I did up to 60 drawings and 2 oil portraits, (even did one of Rossana Arquette) and was on location for 9 weeks. Quite an adventure...."
-(John N. Stewart) 

Bette Davis is absolutely one of my favorite stars and the idea that anyone that I am even in distantly connected with met her is tremendously exciting for me. I would have loved to be a fly on that hotel room's wall. I've always wondered whether the movie-commissioned paintings are done from life or photograph, and it makes me very happy to know that (in some cases, at least) they allow the artist to meet and bond with the stars. I can only imagine the plethora of stories that artists such as John can share. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Gryffindor Common Room: Lady with the Unicorn Tapestry

I know I just wrote what is basically a treatise about the importance of art in film and the importance of highlighting certain pieces of art in film as to attempt to gauge attitudes towards art in society. That being said, I'm publishing a post about art that has no bearing, aside for cosmetic purposes, towards the plot. Nor does this piece reflect any emotional or metaphorical meanings of the film itself. It's just kinda cool. Which is reason enough to publish a tiny blog post.
The First Years are welcomed into the Gryffindor Common Room.
A clear view of the "Desire" Panel in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
It's Harry Potter Weekend; that means I've been rewatching and rereading all my favorite installments of the series. I can't help myself. I was hooked since childhood and even though the last few films were slightly painful for me, I not only watched them, I enjoyed them. C'est la vie.

Still, I was watching this batch of Harry Potter with a more critical eye, at least in terms of art. I would love to be able to write about the wonderful moving paintings of Hogwarts, but alas, I think computer animation is to thank for most of them. Still, that does not mean all is lost because I was able to spot a wonderful tapestry in the most unlikely of places. I'm being sarcastic, it was right on the wall where it belongs but in a slightly different format.
The tapestry/wallpaper is clear in all the scenes that take place in the Common
Room, just like this scene from The Goblet of Fire
Thanks to the Childcraft books of the '70s, I have a great recollection of a few hundred random pieces that are highlighted in the book. And one of those pieces (in the chapter, "Animal Fair") is one of the panels of the famously beautiful Lady with the Unicorn Tapestry. It is a 16th century French tapestry that is in six separate panels. From what I can tell, the tapestry (which currently resides in the Cluny Museum of Paris) is a visualization of the senses (with "desire" being the sixth sense) and a celebration of a fantastically beautiful lady. The titular unicorn appears in all the panels with the titular lady, as well as a lion and sometimes a monkey. From the cursory research I've done outside of Childcraft, it is believed that the lion and unicorn are part of some lord's heraldry, but the exact lord or lady is unknown.
The Lady with the Unicorn (16th century French tapestry)
Cluny Museum, Paris
So, how does this wonderful tapestry end up on the walls of Gryffindor Common Room? I have a few suggestions as to why the production designers were attracted to this particular tapestry. First of all, it is fairly well known because of its gorgeous red field and its titular magical creatures. The unicorn is a magical creature hence it would be at place in a school of witchcraft and wizardry. Secondly, the medieval tapestry goes well with the very medieval vibe of Hogwarts, which is, after all, a castle first and foremost.(Though perhaps a French tapestry would be more at home at Beauxbatons Academy, but I digress). Thirdly, the house symbol (or sigil in the Game of Thrones world) is a lion. As I stated earlier, a lion appears in the panels. Finally, Gryffindor's colors are maroon and gold just like the primary motif of the tapestry. With its mix of imagery, color, and magic theme, The Lady and the Unicorn just make sense on the walls of Hogwarts.

As a final note, the tapestry does not appear in tapestry form. It looks more like ornate wallpaper. Of course, we know better. Finally, it looks like the "Desire" tapestry is the primary panel from which the designers created their pseudo-wallpaper. I'm making this assumption based on the blue tent which figures heavily in "Desire" and on the Common Room walls.
A view of the set

Have you noticed any more real art influences in the magical world of Harry Potter? If you have or if you are interested about any particular pieces from the films, please let me know!

Friday, July 11, 2014

The State of the Arts: As it pertains to "The Art of Film"

Before you read what follows, here are a few disclaimers. First, I apologize for my silence lately. I've been working like a dog saving money for a trip to Europe next spring and I haven't had a ton of time to research quality posts. What you are about to read is the fruits of a lot of philosophic effort. It is a rough draft of a treatise that I was inspired to write one night. My wording or more importantly, my opinions may change, even overnight but I wanted to share it with the world. 
I wonder what Miss Brodie would think.
By the way- I'm working on a post for her! 
I was recently reading an article online that dealt with how art was treated on television and in the movies, a subject that occasionally interests me (as you may know). Since, I’ve read that article, I can’t find it anywhere, but I just want to say that the following post, which is completely uncharacteristic for my blog is spurned partially by that excellent article and partially by a disparaging comment my little sister made about the arts. The two go hand in hand because the point that the article made (and that my sister proved) is that mass media (what I consider “low art”) has major implications on the perception and subsequent reception of high art.

I don’t consider myself a high art writer. While I occasionally highlight certain critically-considered masterpieces that appear in film or influence the look of film, I’m no expert. Most of the art that I write about is generally considered more props than art (which I think is unfair, but no matter). But while art critics may consider the Carlotta portrait from Vertigo a prop, I (movie critic and public combined) consider such pieces as Art with a Capital A. This is telling in two specific, but not equally important ways.

The first is that it proves that the American public has still yet to really get a grasp on the definition of art, probably in part due to the confusion caused from the members of the art community itself. The modern art scene is so varied that it defies categorization. This is not necessarily a negative attribute to today’s art scene. At the same time, it explains why the American public may not have a complete grasp on the high art scene. It is so varied that it is unable to be grasped in one piece. The plethora of artists, styles, mediums, and genres overwhelm the average art viewer and are frankly difficult to process. This explains the second consequence of movie art: the public grasps art in a way that it can understand: through mass media.

Television and film provide the public with digestible portions of art. These are both beneficial and damaging to the art world. In some instances, mass media can break art into understandable chunks for the public. Consider a television documentary about an artist: it provides the viewer with a limited, but seemingly concise, knowledge about a limited field in the art world that in a familiar and understandable fashion. Facts are provided in these formats, but more importantly, in these supposedly objective media, criticism is provided for the viewer. If a talking head critic says that Picasso’s work is masterful and diverse and shows a breadth of action and emotion, the viewer is provided with a blueprint about how to feel about certain art. It seems like an emotional cop-out and defeats part of the purpose of art- an individual reaction and relationship with the art- but in a confusing field, it provides some order and some hard-to-find certainty. It is not ridiculous, then, to imagine that the public takes the same approach to understanding art in less academic media.

Which leads us to my second conclusion, the public looks to the movies, to radio, to television, to help them understand art. We all are told that art is important but from personal experience, I know a lot of people have trouble understanding just what the big deal about art is. After all, my sister told me, anything can be art, which is the same thing as saying nothing is art. Her conclusion is rough, but I’m inclined to respect her logic.

Here’s an honest confession: I will never understand color field painting, or the supposedly ironic work of Jeff Koons, or the ultra-abstract sculptures that I’ve seen inside the hallowed halls of my local art museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I do not have the artistic chops or understanding to critically demote these pieces, but I can honestly say that I do not understand them. But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand art or the personal response that great art is supposed to render. I’m always revising my personal definition of art, often due to the work I highlight in this blog, and I’ll share my most recent conclusion about what makes art: something that is consciously created to be more then itself, which should also evoke a personal or emotional response, of any depth, from the viewer. With these parameters, using the Vertigo example I mentioned earlier, I can consider both the film and the Carlotta painting as art. I can also consider Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans a work of art and other more complicated modern pieces. As a disclaimer, this is my personal definition that, in all honesty, I’ve labored over.

I have an educated guess that most people don’t spend time laboring over what something means if it is a work of art. So instead, as is largely the case with so many other aspects of culture- food, fashion, beauty- they turn on their screens, and look to the movies or television for their reaction. But, I want you to think of the last time you saw an artist character on TV. I don’t even know what you’re thinking of, but I’m sure the character was eccentric, even wacky, and made some incomprehensible work that the characters, let alone you, couldn’t understand. And those who do understand it (in the show, mind you) are considered elitist, aloof, or just as crazy as the artist. Think Frasier- he was comedic partially due to the fact that he was cultured. This is the making of great comedy but it is also a little dangerous when we belittle intelligence and culture.  

If you notice, a lot of the works I highlight are from older films and television shows. I used to just focus on central plot pieces, but now, I enjoy just using almost background pieces and gauging reactions of characters to those works of art. I don’t have a nostalgic naiveté about the treatment of art forty or fifty years ago- the sins of today’s media are simply echoes of the sins of our fathers. But at the same time, I do notice more respect because perhaps, there was a greater balance.

I love writing and researching about the arts in film and culture because I believe they are just as important, if not more important than the high arts. Why? Because they shape the public’s perception of art and the art world. And art, or at least truly great art, is nothing without its audience. The art of film is important because it determines how we view art outside of film. It gives us preconceived attitudes, opinions, and philosophies. Some are blatantly stated while others are subtly implied through the subtexts of the plot.

The work I do promoting the art of film is irrelevant, even if you agree with my argument that the arts in film shape the public opinion, if you don’t believe art is important in the first place. If you don’t think a heritage of culture and arts is important, the work I do is pointless. But, if you see a place for the arts in society, for promoting a diverse cultural experience, for forcing audiences to think outside the box and beyond their own spheres, then what you read on this blog is not merely a list of painted props, it is a documentation of an important cultural element.

For the record, I believe art is necessary for the human spirit. And in a small way, I believe that I'm simply recording an element of that essential ingredient for human fulfillment. I know I view this blog in huge terms, but if the posts make you happy, then I must be doing something right!

Friday, June 27, 2014

The "I Love Lucy" Bedroom Paintings

Here's a little assignment for all my fellow "Lucy" lovers. For the last few weeks, I've been on the prowl for some of the original I Love Lucy paintings that decorate the set. Eventually, I decided that I was going to only focus on the pair of dancers that hang above Lucy and Ricky's twin beds in their New York apartment. Finally, I've made a breakthrough, but it's only half a breakthrough. I'm hoping that any readers with extra information will help me (and the world of movie art lovers) out a little bit and add to the illustrious, but understated history of television art.
I don't need to explain why I love Lucy. Does anyone need an excuse to love timeless comedy and incredible talent? (The answer, by the way, is no.) I really wanted to be able to document the two paintings that hang above Lucy and Ricky's twin bed in their NYC bedroom set. It's hard getting a long clear shot of them, but they appeared to be paintings of male and female ballet dancers. They are very simple (even the casual watcher would notice that), so I almost assumed that they were just a couple of paintings from Sears or a pair of Woolworth prints and I really focused my search in that area, but I was wrong.
It turns out that the paintings were original works of art made by the set designers of I Love Lucy in 1952. They are, indeed, simple, but that is just because I'm sure the set artist had a lot of work to do besides quickly paint these dancers. Once, Lucy and Ricky "left" NYC, the paintings did not follow them and it appears that the paintings were lost to posterity, priceless and fun props.

At least they were lost. In 2006, the male dancer went up for sale on Worthpoint, an online auction sale. The seller claims that his mother not only purchased the painting in an auction in 1961, but also painted the dancers. According to his account, they are painted on thick paper with pastel. Apparently, the frame was used for some of his childhood art which protected the pastel from the elements for years, so it is still in pretty good shape. I've included his description in the sources below.
In 2006, the trail goes cold and my lack of an online auction account forces me to give up the scent. I assume the painting was sold, most likely for a good price. But I don't know where it went or for how much.

Here are my requests for you, the reader. If you, by rare chance, know the artist, the current owner, or the location of either painting, please let me know immediately, so I can share this information with the world. I'd love to complete this post, but it seems that the internet has decided not to allow me to finish my quest. Hopefully, you can.

WorthPoint description:

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Modern Art in "Suits:" The Work of Heather Millar

Suits, one of my favorite cable TV dramas just came back on air for the summer. I can barely contain my excitement, but I'll try. I love Suits for a lot of reasons. It has sharp plots, smart characters, and incredible style. I aspire to be the wealthy, sophisticated lawyers of Pearson Hardman. It is a credit to both the actors and production designers for creating such a thoroughly sleek look throughout the show. I've said it before, but movies and television are both primarily visual materials: great dialogue and story can only go so far without a great look (or else, its either crappy audiovisual media or radio).
When I talk to my fellow Suits fanatics about the sophisticated look of the show, usually we are referring to the characters' incredible senses of style. I mean, have you ever seen Donna (Sarah Rafferty) or Jessica (Gina Torres) looking anything less than incredible? But, that same cosmopolitan, modern style that is so apparent in the costume design is mirrored in the set design. Granted, I know that the show is filmed on sound stages, but if my apartment looked anything like those sets, I'd make do with the three walls!
Because I am who I am, I became fascinated by the interior design of the show, especially in the office of Pearson Spector where most of the action takes place. In particular, I noticed two individual pieces that I felt must have some back story (or at least some documentation). The first appears in Rachel's (Meghan Markle) office and the second appears in Harvey's (Gabriel Macht) office. After a little research and a little help from some other blogs, I was able to find the answers (see sources).
Both paintings were painted by Heather Millar, a young Canadian artist whose style seems to be a mix of realism and surrealism (or an interesting combination of both styles). She graduated from the Alberta College of Art and Design in 1998 (according to her own bio). She later moved to Toronto where she continues to work. This makes a lot of sense because Suits is shot in Toronto. When the set designers were looking for some original pieces, they would not have to go far in a big city such as Toronto. And indeed they did not. If I've found two Millar pieces in Suits, they are probably many more hanging in the various sets.
Listen Up (oil on canvas)
Heather Millar (2009)
The painting in Harvey's office originally reminded me of some of the art I've been seeing from some contemporary Chinese painters. I would call it contemporary surrealism. It appears to be a China doll sitting on some brightly colored... thing. As I already said, the painting is not Chinese, it is Canadian. Millar titled the 2009 piece Listen Closely, which I understand in terms of a lawyer's office but not exactly from the content. But no matter.

I've looked through a gallery of some of Millar's work (again, check out the sources), and it appears that she went through a period where she painted a lot of close ups of dolls. I'll be honest, most of them creep me out, but they are pretty interesting. I was reading an EW piece about the production design, and Macht claims that the paintings in Harvey's office refer to his sense of humor. I guess a painting of a toy does suggest something a little whimsical. But at the same time, its modernity keeps even the whimsical sleek and clean like Millar's paintings.
The second piece that attracted me is completely different, which is why I was surprised when I discovered that Millar also painted it. It's a painting of what appears to be a 1950s or 60s office girl carrying a package. It had a somewhat vintage, realist look to it, which made me assume it was adapted from a period piece. That may be the case and Millar may have been inspired by another piece of graphic design, but I have no evidence either way. In any case, the 2011 piece is titled The Gift.
The Gift (oil on canvas)
Heather Millar (2011)

I feel like this painting corresponds perfectly to the character of Rachel, who is classically lovely. At the same time, the men whispering in the background suggests Rachel's own insecurities in the prestigious law office. Perhaps more importantly, it is an essentially feminine piece that fits Rachel's personality and, most importantly, the classy look and color scheme of the room.

I'm really impressed by the range of Millar's work. Both pieces do represent a realist style, but they are so thematically different that they really speak to the variety of her work. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on her portfolio from now on- just as I'll be watching each new episode of Suits with anticipation. I'll keep marveling over that incredible production design and keep my eye out for some new interesting paintings.
If you would like to see any of my source material, please check the following sources below. I especially advise you to check out Millar's blog to really appreciate her work, past and present.

Heather Millar's Blog

Entertainment Weekly piece about Harvey Spector 
"Inside the man and office of Harvey Spector" by Mandi Bierly (2011)

To da loos (the blog that put me on the right track)

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