The Golden Age of Cinema was a handmade effort, with enormous painted sets that framed classic stories like Ben Hur, The Sound of Music, and Hitchcock’s cliffhanger North by Northwest.
Rarely seen, stored for decades, and saved from the dumpster, this exhibition, “Art of the Hollywood Backdrop”, of 22 scenic backdrops made for the movies between 1938 and 1968, pulls the backdrop art into front-row view.
The first thing you see as you walk into the exhibit is the gasp-inducing scenic backdrop of Mount Rushmore from the 1959 MGM film North By Northwest. Produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the film starred Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint on the run and on the rocks – both real and painted.
“This is the grandaddy, the Babe Ruth of all Hollywood backdrops,” said Karen Maness, one of the curators. “Especially because it was such a key player in the telling of this story.”
Painstakingly made by dozens of unidentified studio artists, these enormous canvases rival artists like Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell. While uncredited, their craftsmanship made scenes of Mount Rushmore, Ben Hur’s Rome, the Von Trapp Family’s Austrian Alps, and Gene Kelly’s Paris street dance come alive onscreen. Using secret techniques, the backdrops mimic rippling water, shadows on mountains, lit cafes at night, and even antique European tapestries.
The show’s knockout immersive components include interactive video reels created in Hollywood specifically for this exhibition, telling the stories behind each backdrop. Soundscapes have been engineered to surround visitors in the museum, including atmospheric sound effects related to the original movies, and to the scenic vistas.
Clips of the films run alongside the floor-to-ceiling paintings, making viewers watch the film in a whole different focused way. Recreations of the art studios show how it was done.
“It is miraculous that these historic monumental paintings were not lost forever, as so many Hollywood treasures have disappeared,” said Irvin Lippman, the executive director of the Boca Raton Museum of Art. “The concept for this show had its genesis with a CBS Sunday Morning segment I saw that called attention to the campaign to preserve scenic backdrops that had been rolled up in the basement of MGM’s studios. Lynne Coakley, Karen L. Maness, and Thomas A. Walsh have played a significant role in preserving this inventory from Hollywood’s golden age. Their vision and partnership with the Boca Raton Museum of Art made this exhibition possible.”
Knowing the importance of artwork, in 2012, The Art Directors Guild Archives, then under the direction of Thomas A. Walsh who was the Guild’s president, launched the Backdrop Recovery Project, a partnership with J.C. Backings. Their goal was to preserve the backings and make them available for study and exhibition.
One of the recipients of this cache of gigantic paintings was the University of Texas at Austin and Associate Professor of Practice, Karen L. Maness, who saw the opportunity to use the artifacts in a learning laboratory where students could use them for visualization and inspiration for high-realism scenic painting.
“This has become my passion project, to tell their stories. I will be their champion in this lifetime,” said Maness. “Historically, as a woman, I would have never been allowed to work alongside them in that era. As a teacher, they have now become my masters. When you choose your mentors as ghosts, they can’t say no.”
Since they were so involved, Walsh and Maness agreed to be the co-curators of this first major exhibition. They visited the Boca Raton Museum of Art in the fall of 2021 at Irvin Lippman’s invitation.
Twenty backdrops are being loaned by the Texas Performing Arts Hollywood Backdrop Collection at the University of Texas, along with a 1952 backdrop for Singin’ in the Rain and the tapestry backdrop for Marie Antoinette (1938).
On a tour of the show with Thomas Walsh, he explained that “everything was done as much as possible in the studios back then for more control and to save money. So all the locations had to be recreated from photographs, sketches, and then paintings in huge movie studio warehouses. Teams of artists would work on them, and sometimes the backdrops were reused in other films, so they never added people or cars.”
Some of the artists came from a family tradition of the craft who had been painting for generations. Trained as professional artists, they remained uncredited, sometimes because of union agreements, and mainly because the studios wanted to keep a tight grip on the secret techniques that were handed down from master to apprentice on the backlots.
The sheer physicality of painting these giant canvases was difficult. Some artists even suffered tragic consequences. One fell to his death from a perilously high scaffold while painting a backdrop. In the heyday of MGM, they had three shifts of scenic artists working day and night, non-stop.
Walsh explained that these creations were painted for the camera lens, not for the human eye. It’s an impressionistic style of painting ― not photo-realism. It’s called photo-realistic when viewed from a distance. Up close they look very different. When viewers take selfies with their phone cameras, the resulting image will look different from what they see in person in the gallery.
This original concept of “photo-realistic for the camera” was spearheaded by George Gibson, who took scenic art to a new level of artistry.
“This show is about the joy of re-living something you grew up with, that you always thought was real,” said Thomas A. Walsh. “It’s about getting as close to that magical moment in time as you can. Being in the same space with that giant, familiar scene. It is difficult for people to get their minds around the awesome size of these magical spaces until they see them in person.
People are often shocked and surprised by the scale and visual impact of these massive creations. These are literally some of the largest paintings ever created in the world, similar to cyclorama paintings. Aside from the technicians working in the soundstages, no one else has ever seen this collection. This is the first time the public can see this collection in person.”
On the second floor is a not-to-be-missed exhibit called “Art Meets Hollywood” of photographs by Palm Beach resident Bonnie Lautenberg, who pairs famous artworks with instantly recognizable stills from Hollywood movies that were released the same year the artwork was made.
Lautenberg says she finds images that “speak to each other” in ways that make viewers question and re-examine both the film and the artwork. In her process, she chooses the artwork first and then finds a connection to that year’s film, or reverses the process to select artwork that relates to the movie.
One work is a clever pairing of a movie and painting both made in 1928. Rene Magritte’s The Lovers is the art and The Mysterious Lady starring Greta Garbo is the film still. The Golden Age of Hollywood is represented by pairings The Philadelphia Story with a Stuart Davis painting once owned by Lautenberg’s father.
The backdrop downstairs was created for the 1952 film “Singin’ in the Rain,” which connects to a work by Yayoi Kusama.
Kenny Scharf, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Georgia O’Keefe pair with films as well, giving a new understanding of the two art forms.
The show also features an Education Gallery created especially for this exhibition, showcasing historic tools of the trade used by these artists in Hollywood. The Museum will present a series of events and educational presentations for the community throughout the run of the exhibition. The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop runs through January 22, 2023.
Online at bocamuseum.org/visit/events
Art of the Hollywood Backdrop exhibit at Boca Museum