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I have wanted to put together a compendium of images demonstrating the influence of Classical and Modern Art on Cinema for a long time and while a quick search shows that I am a little late to the game, there appears to be a dearth of opinion on the matter. In most posts sharing many of the same images I will share below the comparisons that exist are rote, simple statements of artists and dates with nothing more than the images themselves to establish a corollary. In some instances, this is enough and in others it is not. My decision to go forward with this subject as an ongoing column is based on my desire to explore these connections a little more deeply, to argue for and against the comparisons and hopefully stumble across a little insight into the nature of homage, artistic influence and inspiration. In doing so I will also be broadening my scope to include not only the influence of Classical and Modern Artists but other forms of Modern Art including the influence of other filmmakers resulting in what I hope will be, if not an exhaustive compendium, then at the very least an easily referenced catalog for the further research of others. I will begin with American films and filmmakers operating within the Hollywood machine and continue with further posts on Foreign films, Music Videos, Film to Film comparisons, Mixmaster Tarantino and other American films as they occur to me. 

For many of us with a Classical Arts bent, it's often a thrill to see a painting or sculpture we're familiar with recreated on screen, but personally, I much prefer to see a director reimagine the tableau and comment on it rather than faithfully reproduce it. Below, we see Botticelli's The Birth of Venus faithfully recreated by Terry Gilliam in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and followed by what I would argue to be a post-modern and blackly humorous comment on the classic painting in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs

The Birth of Venus, 1496, Sandro Botticelli / The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 1988, Terry Gilliam.

                                                                                      The Silence of the Lambs, 1991, Jonathan Demme.

While the Gilliam example is obvious in its recreation and quite beautiful in its own right it serves no real purpose in the film's narrative or meta-narrative other than artifice. The example from Demme's film, however, is less obvious in its homage while serving to both wryly comment on the original painting and simultaneously shock audiences of the time, just as Botticelli's work shocked the Renaissance era. Now the treatment of Trans people in Hollywood is problematic, to say the least, and Demme's film is no better in this regard. The criticism leveled at the film for its insensitivity is warranted in my opinion for this scene much more than any other. This scene is, after all, used to shock the audience and deepen their sense of horror about the Buffalo Bill character. It is not my intention to go on a diatribe about this representation here, but illustrate its use as a comment upon the inspiring image. 

The Birth of Venus is not a painting one needs to interpret. It is, for the most part, a sensory experience of beauty. The reveal of Buffalo Bill's fantasy is meant to serve the opposite purpose via the same method; a sensory experience of repulsion. In Botticelli's masterpiece, Venus is arriving upon her shell and seafoam to land, slightly off-center, her journey motivated by the Gods of the Wind to her left as Spring, to her right welcomes her. Of particular importance to note is that the painting does not represent the Birth of Venus as the title would suggest (it was named centuries after the fact), but Venus' arrival, her coming out so to speak. Second, her nudity was not common for the time. In fact, this was one of the key paintings of the Renaissance to return to the Greek and Roman sensibilities of female beauty and its importance in Art history has much to do with this aspect. Buffalo Bill's reveal is also an arrival, a coming out to the audience, a display of his beauty. Like Venus, he is slightly right of center and his nudity is to the audience of its time, shocking. Framed to his left are not the Winds, but a mannequin in wig and costume, Bill's stance mimicking the mannequin's - this is his motivation, his wind while simultaneously being a blank, dead thing perhaps reflecting Bill's eternal emptiness. Also of interest is that there is no corollary to Spring in this depiction, no coming bounty or flourishing of life, only emptiness. 

As unfortunate as this use is, it remains one of the best examples in cinema of a filmmaker using an image from Classical painting as inspiration for a scene that not only deepens the experience of the film but comments intelligently on the original artwork. Interestingly enough, it appears that the Horror and to a lesser degree Sci-Fi genres are the only genres actively using Classical Art in this way. Ninety percent of the other examples I can think of, or have come across in other articles about the subject are from other genres outside of Horror and Sci-Fi and all of them are simple recreations of the original artwork in tableau and tone. Bereft of comment or consequence within the film's narrative. I have offered up a few examples of this empty recreation from, in most cases, otherwise stellar films;

 

The Last Supper, 1498, Leonardo Da Vinci / Viridiana, 1961, Luis Bunuel.

   

                                                   M.A.S.H., 1970, Robert Altman.   

                                                                              

                                                   Inherent Vice, 2014, Paul Thomas Anderson.

Da Vinci's The Last Supper and Wyeth's Christina's World are along with Edward Hopper's work the most quoted by American filmmakers and yet, for my money, I have yet to come across one that is anything more than simple recreation, using the work to create nothing new, nor comment upon the original work. Instead, giving us nothing more than a not-so-clever joke, or a pedantic attempt to elicit a similar emotional response as the original work. Just because you can quote a great work doesn't mean you should. That doesn't mean that Days of Heaven is not a masterpiece. It certainly is, but it would still be a masterpiece without quoting Wyeth. 

   

                                                                             

                                                                           

                                                                            

                                                                                                   Christina's World, 1948, Andrew Wyeth / Days of Heaven, 1978, Terrence Malick / Forrest Gump, 1994, Robert Zemeckis.

 

I can forgive the kind of faithful recreation present in the below works from Bob Fosse and Ridley Scott slightly easier. At least these are period pieces depicting subjects and times relevant to the original work and so the recreation serves some purpose if still exhibiting none of the inspiration or creativity the works they are based on should instill. 

 

                                    

                                          Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden, 1926, Otto Dix / Cabaret, 1972, Bob Fosse.

 

                                                                                       

                                                     

                                                     Napoleon Bonaparte Musing After Sunset, 1829, Benjamin Robert Haydon / The Duellists, 1977, Ridley Scott. 

And then we have the direct quote, so faithful in their adaptation that it appears to serve no other purpose than to shout from the rooftops that the director has looked at some art once upon a time, or perhaps smuggle in the rather nefarious idea that they themselves are the artists behind such stirring images. 

                                                                       

                                                                       

                                                                        Jutta, 1973, John Kacere / Lost in Translation, 2003, Sofia Coppola.

                                                                                    

                                                                                 

                                                                       

                                                                        Pacific, 1967, Alex Colville / Heat, 1995, Michael Mann.

                          

                                Ophelia, 1852, Sir John Everett Millais / Melancholia, 2011, Lars von Trier.  

Of course, Horror and Sci-Fi are both guilty of this tendency to simply recreate as homage as we see below in the typically baroque and empty images of Dario Argento's Profundo Rosso, Ken Russell's Gothic, the clever marketing campaign of The Descent and the near-subliminal quote in The Silence of the Lambs' transitioning metaphor. This simple recreation within the so-called lesser genres, however, is anemic compared to the rest of cinema, perhaps due to these genres greater dependence on atmosphere and setting. 

 

                                                                 

                                            

                                          Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper / Profundo Rosso, 1975, Dario Argento.

                                                           The Nightmare, 1781, Henry Fuseli / Gothic, 1986, Ken Russell.

                                                                                                         

                                                                         

                                                    In Voluptas Mors, 1951, Salvador Dali & Phillipe Halsman / The Descent, 2006, Neil Marshall /The Silence of the Lambs, 1991, Jonathan Demme.

More often than not the recreations in genre film are at the very least used in such a way that they themselves have become iconic images. I am speaking here of Fredersen's headquarters in Lang's Metropolisthe Bates House in Hitchcock's Psycho, and the Grady Twins in Kubrick's The Shining. I have included the house from Malick's drama, Days of Heaven as well for a juxtaposition of the use of an iconic, almost archetypal image that nevertheless has a far less iconic weight within popular culture. 
 

                             

                                         The Tower of Babel, 1563, Pieter Bruegel the Elder  / Fredersen's headquarters, Metropolis, 1927, Fritz Lang.

While it is quite well known that Fritz Lang was most influenced by a visit to New York City in the imagining of Metropolis, The Tower of Babel features not just visually in the film but plays an important part in the film's narrative, illustrating the struggle between the elite and working class in a story Maria relates in the film. In fact, while the more iconic image from Metropolis remains the Automaton, it is the central metaphor of The Tower of Babel and Fredersen's own tower that remains the core of Lang's vision and message.  

 

                                                                                                                                                              

                  

                  The House by the Railroad, 1925, Edward Hopper / Psycho, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock / Days of Heaven, 1978, Terrence Malick.

Edward Hopper's work is probably the most referenced of American Artists. So much that a book could be written on this subject alone. His work is often described as depicting the loneliness of modern life and the images themselves are predominantly that of solitary people and solitary buildings, as well as the occasional empty space. The light is almost always that of artificial light in the middle of the night, or that of dusk casting shadows and hiding potential secrets. Of the filmmakers most influenced by Hopper, I would have to say David Lynch's middle period bears the most scrutiny though I cannot think of any image from these films that is a direct homage. Rather his work from this period seems visually and tonally of a piece with Hoppers and despite the more experimental nature of Lynch's early and later work owing more of a debt to Bacon and Magritte it is this middle period of Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, the first two seasons of Twin Peaks, Fire Walk with Me, and Lost Highway that seems most influenced by Hopper.

                                                                  

                                                                  Via jo_kake / Reddit.

That said, I cannot suggest that Hopper had anything more than an effect on Lynch's visual depiction of suburbia's dark side. An effect that seemed to become less apparent once Lynch went digital but has resurfaced in the latest season of Twin Peaks. Despite what appears to be one direct recreation in the below video, I have always seen Lynch's interior scenes between characters as the dark extensions of the more passive but no less tensely coiled scenes in Hopper's work. Where if there are couples at all they are quietly facing away from each other in deep contemplation whereas with Lynch they are always either about to fight, fuck or both. 

                                  

                                  Excursion into Philosophy, 1959, Edward Hopper. 

                                  

                                   Hotel by a Railroad, 1952, Edward Hopper. 

                                  

                                  Blue Velvet, 1986, David Lynch.

                                  

                                  Wild at Heart, 1990, David Lynch. 

For a quick video comparison of Lynch's work with some of the above-mentioned artists and others see this excellent video by Voordefilm on Vimeo:

                                                          

                                         Via Voordefilm/Vimeo.

Then of course, there are the direct quotes that more and more I have to see as cheap knock offs and not homage and certainly not artistic inspiration.

 

             New York Movie, 1939, Edward Hopper / Pennies from Heaven, 1981, Herbert Ross.  

                         

                   Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper.

 

                       Pennies from Heaven, 1981, Herbert Ross. 

It's no surprise that Stanley Kubrick, a director known for his technical acumen and precision and not necessarily his creativity, would seize upon at least one iconic image from Modern Art and refashion into his own equally iconic image as he did with Diane Arbus' work in The Shining's Grady Twins. 

                                                           

                                                                          

                                                                          

                                                                            Identical Twins - Roselle, New Jersey, 1967, Diane Arbus / The Shining, 1980, Stanley Kubrick.

However, for a director often described as a visionary, his work tended to be that of a precise craftsman and not that of a passionate artist. If anyone could turn this tired cliche of the artist on its ear, however, it is Kubrick who while certainly guilty of simple recreation as seen in the below images from Van Gogh's The Prison Courtyard and A Clockwork Orange also gave us the majesty of Barry Lyndon

                                                                                  

                                                                                  

                                                          The Prison Courtyard, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh / A Clockwork Orange, 1971, Stanley Kubrick. 

 

While there are many paintings Kubrick took inspiration from and recreated for Barry Lyndon including William Hogarth's six-painting series Marriage á la Mode, his recreation went deeper than simple tableau and framing to a need to recreate the light of the period by developing in tandem with NASA special lenses to shoot the film by natural and candlelight alone - a type of inspiration perhaps not so creative as it is technically obsessive.

 

 

                                                                                  

 

                                                                         

                                                                                 

                                                                        The Téte a Téte, 1743, William Hogarth / Barry Lyndon, 1975, Stanley Kubrick.

 

 

Returning to the Horror and Sci-Fi genres' more creative and metatextual approach to homage, however, I offer the following examples. All of which display the mark of creativity sparked by the original image and the filmmaker's creation of a new image or images that are both homage and new works in their own right. 

 

      

     Saturn Devouring His Son, 1823, Goya / Pan's Labyrinth, 2006, Guillermo del Toro. 

Del Toro not only recreates the image of Saturn Devouring His Son in Pan's Labyrinth but he places the recreation within a fantastical world of monsters and fairies, reimagining Saturn as The Pale Man, a blind child-eating monster feeding on a fairy. While the scene is nothing more than a challenge for Ofelia to overcome, the story depicted in Goya's original work; that of Saturn paranoid of his children usurping his power and thus eating each one upon birth is reworked here into a clever mirror of Ofelia's own quest as well as an echo of the Fascist mindset of Franco's Spain.  

 

                                                                                

                                                        

                                                        Relativity, 1953, M.C. Escher / Inception, 2010, Christopher Nolan.

Christopher Nolan, like Kubrick, is a titan of technical wizardry if not quite his equal in concept or execution, and here, like Kubrick's co-opting of Arbus' portrait, Nolan uses M.C. Escher's mind-bending work to create his own iconic action set piece in the film, Inception. Where Nolan trumps Kubrick in appropriation is that Nolan seems to have crafted his entire film around the dream logic in Escher's work and done the impossible by giving lucidity to an infinite contradiction. A fine accomplishment if somewhat hollow as all conceptual art risks being.  

 

                                                

                                     Witches' Flight, 1798, Goya / The Witch, 2015, Robert Eggers.

With just one film to his credit, The Witch, Robert Eggers can perhaps be forgiven for his recreation of Goya's Witches' Flight, though it is its placement in the film that warrants praise and makes it apparent that like Nolan, albeit to a lesser degree, Eggers seems to have structured an entire movie around the idea of giving us this transcendent image with maximum impact to both the story and audience. 

                       The Naked Maja, 1800, Goya / Trance, 2013, Danny Boyle.

Goya is used perhaps more interestingly in a less interesting genre film, Danny Boyle's Trance where Boyle uses Goya's La Maja Desnuda as a plot point and not as a source of homage. Largely seen as the beginning of the Modern era, Goya's representation of the female form as he saw it is not as the perfected vision of Classical Greek and Roman beauty or that personified by Botticelli's later return to this style. Predominant among the change in representation is Goya's inclusion of pubic hair, something Rosario Dawson's character in Trance points out before shaving her own pubic region to present to James Mcavoy's Simon as his ideal of beauty. A move that she hopes will unlock his mind and produce the answers she needs. Unfortunately, it's the only thing really interesting, or memorable about the film and one wishes Boyle had saved his use of it for a better film.  

Clearly one of the most visually arresting and stark films of the last several years is Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, and while I cannot completely convince myself that the world of that film owes a debt to the work of video artist Bill Viola, I cannot ignore it either. Viola's work is awash in lone figures seemingly hanging in the void, and water is a chief motif. Glazer's film is likewise made up almost entirely of similar images and themes. In fact, I would argue that the film itself often feels like a video installation one would see in a museum given just the breath of narrative. 

                      

 

                   The Messenger, 1986, Bill Viola / Under the Skin, 2013, Jonathan Glazer.

 

Closing this chapter out, perhaps, I've been too harsh on those filmmakers who simply recreate a Classic image, but for me any filmmaker arrogant enough to include a visual quote of another work better bring something new to the table or else why do it? For me, there is no justifiable answer other than hubris, and more insidious, marketing campaigns as we see in the repetitive use of Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog in modern movie posters. A very fine article by Ryan Britt at Tor.com regarding this very issue can be found here.

Of course, if we look at the Robin Williams weepie, What Dreams May Come, we see a film awash in the influence of great works, both outright quoting them and using their genius to inform its world - exactly what I have been arguing for, and yet, I would certainly classify it as the lesser of any of the films I have mentioned above. So, perhaps what I'm saying is as filmmakers we should be original in our recreations, let the work influence our own imaginations, not shoehorn in a perfect mirror of the work nor let that work inform every visual choice we make lest we end up like this mad bastard! 

 

                                       

                                       What Dreams May Come, 1998, Vincent Ward.                                               

 

 

 

 

 

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