Note about image captions, * indicates unverified attributions.

1. Grace Kelly and Alfred Hitchcock, in front of a landscape painting by Rosa Bonheur, on the set of Dial M For Murder (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954).

2. Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock in Pollock (Ed Harris, 2000). At least three painters and an art historical consultant assured passable imitations and pastiches.

3. The bust of Darcy (Matthew McFadyen) seen in Pride & Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005), made by Nick Dutton.

4. The bust remained on display in the sculpture gallery at Chatsworth House — where most of the Pemberley scenes were shot — among authentic early 19th century marbles, for a couple of years (it has since moved to the gift shop, as seen here).

7. Keira Knightley in Pride & Prejudice with a sculpture of a Veiled Vestal, 1846, by Rafaele Monti, as many of the marbles at Chatsworth, a work commissioned by the 6th Duke of Devonshire.

8. Alexander Knox with two sculptures by Elisabeth Frink in The Damned (Joseph Losey, 1963), a film in which Viveca Lindfors plays a sculptor whose existential figures underscore the film’s atomic-age angst.


Decay of the aura: modern art
in classical cinema

by Susan Felleman

“This image makes it easy to comprehend the social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura. It rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction. Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former.”           
—Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

Not too long ago I learned that one of the paintings on the wall of the Wendices’ London flat in Dial M For Murder (1954) is a landscape in oil by Rosa Bonheur [fig.1]. According to a press release from the Warner Bros. Archives, “because he is a man of taste and culture, Hitchcock hand-picked many of the props, including an original Rosa Bonheur oil painting, long hidden in Warners’ property gallery, and a pair of valuable Wedgewood vases” (Jacobs 2007, 107). It is really not surprising that the vaults of Hollywood’s major motion picture studios should contain some treasures, including “original” art and “valuable” antiquities. It would be surprising if they did not. And it is certainly not news that Hitchcock was a man of taste or that he exercised a great degree of control over particular elements of mise-en-scène. Many scholars—myself included—have explored the roles of paintings and other art objects in Hitchcock’s oeuvre.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

If there’s any revelation associated with this “discovery,” it is that films, filmmakers, film audiences and scholars (of film studies or art history)—without the help of archives, press releases, and other documentary accounts—cannot really distinguish a fine oil painting by a major painter from a reproduction, an imitation, or from significantly lesser works seen on the screen.[2] The connoisseur’s work depends on the material presence of the object and in movies the object is, like the actors, always absent. This is the fate of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, as we know from Walter Benjamin.  Moreover, it doesn’t really matter to us. What difference does it make whether a painting in a movie is “real”: an authentic object with provenance, as opposed to a photomechanical reproduction, an imitation, or an anonymous daub? The film itself is photomechanical; fiction is imitation; anonymity is the proper condition of the mutely indexical excess that constitutes the impression of reality on screen.

We are more likely to note the status of the art object in film when it is incommensurate to its task: when mere props, or poor imitations must perform as masterpieces of art in scenarios about art and artists, as with two examples I’ve noted previously—Dolya Goutman’s Gauguinesque pastiches in Albert Lewin’s 1942 adaptation, The Moon and Sixpence (Felleman 1997, 34-36) and Joseph Nicolosi’s plaster “Anatolian Venus” sculpture of Ava Gardner in William Seiter’s 1948 film version of the Broadway show, One Touch of Venus (Felleman 2006, 59-62)—or the ersatz Picasso paintings that James Cameron sank with his 1997 Titanic, which included a diminutive Demoiselles d’Avignon, a canvas that is not known to have sunk in the Atlantic and is in fact monumental. Even in such cases, though, authenticity is less pertinent than quality. High quality, scale reproductions or excellent imitations and pastiches—the action paintings that are made in Pollock (2000), for instance, [fig. 2] or the bust of Darcy that Nick Dutton made, mixing marble dust with resin, to stand among authentic marbles in the sculpture gallery at Chatsworth in Pride & Prejudice (2005) [figs. 3-4]—can, arguably, perform their parts as well as museum pieces, possibly sometimes better (if designed and crafted for maximum photogeneity).  And what of that part? In what way does an object of art emerge from the background of a picture to perform—as an actor—and be subjected to such “reality testing”?

These are some of the many questions that arise around the question of the work of art as it appears in film, specifically the fiction film. And they are questions that have not received adequate attention. Film studies tend to regard the art object as a symbolic or functional presence in film, of textual rather than material significance, so when the art object en-abyme has been considered, its status as an autonomous entity beyond the film has generally been neglected. This is in part a function of what the one medium does in representing the other—or misrepresenting, as is inevitable—but it also reflects a blind spot, one created by the withering of aura, the transformation of objects into images. The painters and sculptors of works featured in films—even those of some prominence—often receive no screen credit and are difficult to identify. This oversight was especially common during the classic period of cinema but is not unheard of today.

There are obvious exceptions to this rule, in film and in film studies. Hitchcock’s engagement with Salvador Dali on Spellbound (1945) was highly publicized and has been thoroughly examined. My own work on the films of Albert Lewin attempted to illuminate the complexities of a rather unusual career; Lewin, one of Hollywood’s notable art collectors, credited major artist collaborators and foregrounded art works in his films, including Ivan Albright’s titular portrait in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) [fig. 5] and Max Ernst’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony in The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947) [fig. 6], for which Lewin arranged a rather high profile modern art competition.

5. The Picture of Dorian Gray (Albert Lewin, 1945). Hurd Hatfield with Ivan Albright’s painting, that now hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. 6. The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (Albert Lewin, 1947). George Sanders and Katherine Emery with Max Ernst’s The Temptation of St. Anthony (1945), that now hangs in the Wilhelm-Lehmbruck-Museum, Duisburg, Germany.

Olivier Assayas’s recent Summer Hours (2008) was conceived as a collaboration with Musée d’Orsay (on the occasion of its 20th anniversary), by which objects from the museum’s collection would be “returned” via fiction to the kind of domestic life they might have known before becoming property of the French State and the film is exquisitely sensitive to issues of art and objecthood, cultural patrimony, taste, and the lives which art surrounds and inhabits. Ironically, even a film such as Summer Hours, conceived around particular objects of art, can reveal the extent of the “decay of the aura,” however; several of the works selected from the Musée d’Orsay to be narrativized in Assayas’s film—including paintings by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Odilon Redon—were deemed too fragile or valuable to be relocated to the house in which the film was shot, so were represented by copies (i.e. high quality painted copies, however, not mere photomechanical reproductions).[3]

In general, it must be observed, movies tend to subsume and diminish art. Mapping and theorizing this diminishment or decay is one part of my larger project—a book length study I am calling Real Objects in Unreal Situations: Modern Art in Fiction Films—of which this essay presents some preliminary findings.  The larger study is interested in identifying different kinds of modern art objects (primarily, but not exclusively, paintings, drawings and sculptures) as they enter and appear in fiction films, from objects that appear to be playing “themselves” (e.g. numerous examples of “Degenerate Art” in Venus vor Gericht, 1941, a National Socialist romantic-comedy and polemic set in the early 1930s; the content of OK Harris Gallery in An Unmarried Woman, 1978; the neoclassical marbles in Pride & Prejudice, 2005 [fig. 7], or the Corots in Summer Hours) to objects playing parts (e.g. figurative works by at least seven different contemporary sculptors as the work of fictional sculptor Richard Waldow in The Song of Songs, 1933; paintings by John Ferren, and possibly also Stanley Marc Wright, as the work of fictional painter Sam Marlowe in The Trouble with Harry, 1955; works by Elisabeth Frink as those of fictional sculptor Freya Neilson in The Damned, 1963 [fig. 8]; Paul Jenkins’ paintings playing Saul Kaplan’s in An Unmarried Woman) [fig. 9]. In every case, the study is interested not only in the part played by the art, but the “back story,” too: the social, economic and material details of how the art came to be in the film, and its recognition or reception thereby, along with the larger context of film’s institutional and aesthetic engagement with art and artists.

This study, then, constitutes a new branch of the growing literature on the other visual arts and film: one that attends to the material, historical, personal, economic and political realities around the art works in films—including, where possible, the interactions between movie directors, producers, designers and the artists engaged to work for movies—as well as to description and interpretation of their outcomes. I shall begin with a series of loosely connected case studies related to modern art in fiction films of the classic period.[4]

9. An Unmarried Woman (Paul Mazursky, 1978). Left: Jill Clayburgh with Rain Palace (1976), a large painting by Paul Jenkins, whose work plays that of Saul Kaplan (Alan Bates) in the film. Right: Bates and Clayburgh in Paul Jenkins’ New York loft, which performed as Kaplan’s.

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