For many, cinema is the son of photography, which is quite true, but it is also the grandson of painting. On the other hand, today the cinema ‘produces’ painting and is no longer limited to reproducing it as in the past. From painted backgrounds in the expressionist style to The cabinet of doctor Caligari (1920) by Robert Weine, to the universe of the planet Pandora digitally created by James Cameron for Avatar (2009), the trajectories of these two arts continue to intertwine.
The call painted cinema is one of the main links in this plot. In the golden years of Hollywood, when technology and special effects did not yet exist, sets were works of art, real paintings made on huge walls by painters who worked day and night under the often obsessive control of the great directors.
Mount Rushmore without actors…
This is one of the famous scenes from the movie. North by NorthwestMGM (1959), which in Spain was titled with death on his heels, in which Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint run for their lives. The film was produced and directed by the magician of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. This is one of the most outstanding curtains in the history of cinema. The photo above is of Sandy Carson.
…and with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint on the run
The exhibition is dedicated to this ancient world Art of the Hollywood Backdrop: Cinema’s Creative Legacy, open to the public from April 20, 2022 to 2023 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 70 kilometers north of Miami. The exhibition features a selection of 22 backdrops spanning 30 years of film history, from 1938 to 1968. Viewers will find themselves in the middle of the harrowing chase on Mount Rushmore, reproduced by Alfred Hitchcock for with death on his heels (1959), and considered the Sistine Chapel of the cinematographic curtains.
But you can also immerse yourself in masterpieces of classic cinema such as Ben Hur (1959) by William Wyler Smiles and tears (1965) Directed by Robert Wise Seven brides for seven brothers (1954) Directed by Stanley Donen An American in Paris (1951), by Vincente Minelli, or become a selfie in front of the original curtain Singing under the rain (1952), which includes a recreation of the couch and mannequin from Gene Kelly’s celebrated prom scene.
An idyllic landscape to pour…
This magnificent backdrop serves as the landscape and ‘exterior’ location for the musical Smiles and Tears, 20th Century Fox (1965), with the Trapp family, consisting of actors (from right to left) Kym Karath, Debbie Turner, Angela Cartwright, Duane Chase , Heather Menzies, Nicholas Hammond,
Charmian Carr, Julie Andrews, and Christopher Plummer. The top photograph is by Sandy Carson.
… ‘Smiles and tears’
It is the first time that the works of artists as unknown as they are essential for the film industry have been shown in a museum over almost a hundred years. Thomas A. Walsh, one of the exhibition’s curators, explains that this art was born as a way to make up for the lack of resources to ‘be’ where and when the story of the film was happening, but also because the film directors wanted “to have the control of everything” and outdoors that was very complicated, in addition to increasing the budget. For this reason, they ordered “to bring the exterior to the interior”.
It was a way of ‘being’ in the spaces that the film; the directors wanted to have control of everything and therefore they ordered to bring the exterior to the interior”
These are true masterpieces that were not meant to be admired live. On the contrary, for years they were hidden in Hollywood studios as one of the most precious secrets of the dream industry. The opening act was something very traditional, little recognized and that used to be passed down from father to son. Most were true artists, but remained uncredited, sometimes due to union agreements, but mostly because the studios wanted to keep a firm grip on the secret techniques that were passed down from master to apprentice.
Nonetheless, these artists were the backbone of the film industry for decades. They knew how to recreate landscapes and places in two dimensions that were perfect for the cameras, since they were designed in such a way that the viewer’s eye would not notice the fiction. Physically it was also a very complex job and some artists even suffered tragic consequences before the studios developed safer platforms.
The concept of ‘photo-realism for the camera’ was ideologically spearheaded by Cedric Gibbons, who took this art to a whole new level of prowess. Winner of eleven Oscars, Gibbons established Art Deco as the perfect style for golden age Hollywood. At MGM, where he reigned for forty years, there were three shifts of performing artists who worked day and night, non-stop.
These huge canvases were painted in an impressionist style, which becomes photorealistic from a distance. In fact, when museum visitors take selfies with their phone cameras, the resulting image looks different from what they see in person. Today they are valuable study pieces for students of set design for film, theater, opera and even video game creators.
The imposing Rome of ‘Ben-Hur’…
This magnificent curtain that shows us the Rome that we have never seen, but imagined, was used for the film Ben Hur (1959) and was used again in a scene from the film Hail Caesar!in 2016. Time never passes for ancient Rome.
… never gets old
“This exhibit is about the joy of reliving something you grew up with, that you always thought was real. It’s about getting as close as possible to that magical moment. Being in the same space with that giant, familiar scene. It’s hard for people to understand the sheer size of these backdrops until they see them,” says Walsh. “These are literally some of the largest paintings ever created,” adds the exhibition organizer.
The possibility of exhibiting this essential piece of Hollywood history for the first time is due to the passion of a group of experts who worked hard to save it from destruction and oblivion. With the advent of technology and new shooting techniques, curtains were left rolled up and covered in dust in studio warehouses. Its rescue was possible thanks to the Backdrop Recovery Project, an association that bought more than 2,000 pieces from MGM in the 1970s.
It is miraculous that these monumental historical paintings are not lost forever, as so many Hollywood treasures are.”
Irvin Lippman, executive director of the Boca Raton Museum of Art, considers that “it is miraculous that these monumental historical paintings have not been lost forever, as so many Hollywood treasures have disappeared.” In the installation, the curtains are shown accompanied by videos that tell the story of each of these works and the exhibition includes an Educational Gallery to publicize the techniques of the creators.
Besides, The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop is designed to deliver a fully immersive experience with interactive elements created by some of Hollywood’s leading digital designers. Soundscapes designed specifically for the exhibition envelop visitors with atmospheric effects related to classic movies and their grandiose sets.
A long hallway…
In this scene, Donald O’Connor is next to a mannequin, in a moment of the famous ‘Singing in the rain’. The scene offered a spectacular vanishing point, which was only in the viewer’s mind, thanks to the great work of the artists of painted cinema, as shown in the photo below.
… which only the viewer perceived
A well-deserved recognition to dozens of unidentified artists, whose mastery has made possible some of the most memorable scenes in the history of cinema. Now the curators hope the exhibition will travel the world. They only await proposals.