When Cinema pays tribute to Masterpieces of Art History

Added Mar 20, 2021 - 8 minutes read

Have you ever noticed that your favorite movies are full of artistic references? Directors, writers and their creative teams often take advantage of their feature films to scatter curious tributes to their favorite artworks.
Today, we're going to find out how art is expressed through the camera. Whether it's biographical films describing emblematic artistic trajectories, subtle references or homages known by everyone, one thing is sure: Art is everywhere!

1. Artistic destinies through the prism of the camera: Art Biopics 

International cinema is full of biographical films retracing the often tragic and always curious destiny of emblematic artists.
In this way, there are more than 4 movies entirely dedicated to the legend of Vincent Van Gogh: Lust for Life by American director Vincente Minnelli kicked off the ball in 1956. A few decades later, in 1991, the eponymous film Van Gogh by Maurice Pialat flooded French theaters. More recently, technological developments have allowed more freedom for filmmakers, giving us two feature films of deep quality. First, Loving Vincent, (2017) a British-Polish animated film, gives us a glimpse of a completely new format: animation of the scenes is directly inspired by the artist's paintings, reproduced and modified to compose each shot of the film. At Eternity's Gate by American filmmaker Julian Schnabel is the latest film to be entirely devoted to the Dutch genius. Performed by the excellent Willem Dafoe (The Green Goblin) who won an Oscar in 2019 for this remarkable performance, this film has managed to satisfy both media critics and audiences. For the curious, these two are available on Netflix, a good reason to enjoy them easily!

But Van Gogh is not the only legendary artist who has stimulated the minds of directors around the world.
Here is an (almost) exhaustive list of many artists who have been given their own biopic:

  • Frida Kahlo: Frida (2002) by American director Julie Taymor. The Mexican artist is interpreted by the formidable Salma Hayek (Desperado, From Dusk till Dawn, Wild Wild West...). The film has been critically acclaimed and has also won more than 15 awards.

  • Pablo Picasso: Surviving Picasso (1996) by California director James Ivory. This feature film depicts the tormented relationship between the Spanish artist, played by the great Anthony Hopkins (Hannibal Lecter), and Françoise Gilot, one of his many muses.
    Fun fact: James Ivory didn't obtain the right to use Picasso's real artworks in the film, as the heirs considered it too critical about their father's life (whose morals are commonly accepted as controversial). We therefore discover curiously more artwork by Georges Braque, contemporary and friend of the painter, than original artwork signed by Picasso.

  • William Turner: Mr. Turner (2014) by English director Mike Leigh. This film traces the romantic and eventful life of an irreverent artist, who fell into a huge depression after the death of his father, but was ultimately saved by love.

  • Jean-Michel Basquiat: Basquiat (1996) by Julian Schnabel, used to the biographical style since he also directed the biopic on Vincent Van Gogh (At Eternity's Gate). In this film, we discover a very remarkable performance: the character of Andy Warhol is performed by the iconic David Bowie, and Courtney Love plays the role of Madonna. An XXL casting for a film that has not really entered the history of cinema.

  • Paul Gauguin: Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti (2017). This feature film available on Netflix follows the French artist's Tahitian exile, played by Vincent Cassel (La Haine, Westworld...), between inspiring encounters and questionable relationships with muses far too young to express informed consent.

  • Paul Cézanne: Cézanne and I (2016), by French screenwriter Danielle Thompson. This film subtly describes the singular friendship between Paul Cézanne and the illustrious writer Emile Zola.

  • Margaret Keane: Big Eyes (2014). Inspired by true events, this critically acclaimed feature film tells the tumultuous story of Margaret, shy and talented painter. Her husband, Walter Keane, a deeply greedy and malicious being impersonated her and appropriated her talent in order to sell her artworks and enjoy undeserved success, until the scam was discovered by a tabloid journalist. If you have never seen this film, we highly recommend it.

  • Johannes Vermeer: Girl with the Pearl Earring (2003) by Peter Webber. In this film, Scarlett Johansson plays Griet, a young muse for the painter Johannes Vermeer (played by Colin Firth).

2. Subtle References in Feature Films

Sometimes, cinema pays homage to art history in a more subtle way. It is often a scene that is particularly similar to a well known artwork, that we recognize by the position of the actors, by the layout of the scene, or by cleverly conceptualized elements of the set.

We start this series of discreet references with this scene from the cult thriller Shutter Island, where we discover a magnificent reference to Gustav Klimt's Kiss. The common points are numerous: the posture of the actors, the flowery dress of Michelle Williams and the confetti scattered in the background of the scene, which smartly remind us of Klimt's taste for gold leaves, with which he covered each of his masterpieces.  

On his side, famous Danish director Lars Von Trier (Melancholia, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville...), distills in each of his films numerous artistic references, which seem to fascinate him as much for the inspiration he draws from them, as for the pictorial and emotional beauty that emerges from their evocation. Considered one of the best directors of our time, his media arrogance and his transgressive and intelligent films have already made him a world legend at the age of 64.

In his films, some references are particularly obvious, while others are more enigmatic. Here are some of these homages discovered through his films, notably Melancholia and Nymphomaniac, which list many of them.

In Nymphomaniac, we discover a bold reference to the controversial artist Balthus: Therese on a Bench Seat. This film describes the sexual journey of a woman, told in several chapters by the main character, Joe, a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac. It's not surprising that an artwork taxed of pedophile by many critics and artistic institutions serve the purpose of a subversive film having the fiery ambition to venture in the heart of one of the biggest taboos of our society (and in particular in cinema): Sex.

Sometimes artworks inspires great directors in the design of their sets, as is the case here. Hitchcock was inspired by a well-known artwork by Edward Hopper (House by the Railroad) to design the dark Victorian house next to Norman Bates' motel in Psycho.

For their part, Disney films are no exception to the rule: for example, in the animated film Frozen (2013), during one scene, Princess Anna is so bored that she chats with paintings, and then even becomes part of it. One of these paintings is based on Jean-Honoré Fragonard's 1767 : Les hasards heureux de l'escarpolette.

We notice that the political correctness characteristic of Disney Studios is expressed maliciously: the second man on the left (who has a rather naughty point of view on the crotch of the young lady), present on the rococo painting strangely disappears in this animated reinterpretation.

There is also an artistic reference in The Little Mermaid. Ariel, the aquatic beauty with red hair, dreams of having legs and collects human artifacts washed up at sea after a shipwreck. It' s on this occasion that she discovers a masterpiece by the Lorraine painter Georges de la Tour, Magdalene with the Smoking Flame (1640-1645). The Little Mermaid's fascination for human relics was the perfect pretext to integrate a real painting, whose animated reinterpretation is of exemplary quality!

There is a lesser known reference in Brother Bear (2003). It can be found in the end credits, where we see Koda painting on a large rock. The artwork of which he's the author, is Un dimanche après-midi à l'Ile de la Grande Jatte, by Georges Seurat. A masterpiece created in 1884, considered the founding painting of the pointillist movement.

Disney isn't the only animation studio that appreciates artistic references. On the Dreamworks side, there are also some particularly well thought tributes. This is the case in the first opus of the Shrek saga, where we discover a reinterpretation of the Birth of Venus (Sandro Botticelli), above the bed of this megalomaniac scoundrel Lord Farquaad. Obviously, the narcissistic pervert Lord finds himself disguised as a sensual Venus, thus stimulating his innate sense of the cult of personality. Come on, we forgive you little man!

3. Recurring Tributes: too cult ?

This last part concerns the few artworks that we keep seeing reinterpreted endlessly, in a multitude of films that have nothing to do with each other. These recurring tributes allow us to identify cult masterpieces. They have transcended the History of Art, everyone has seen at least once in his life. As such, the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, legendary artwork by the illustrious Leonardo da Vinci, are certainly the most quoted since the invention of the cinematograph.

There are, however, other artwork, equally well known but slightly less emblematic, which stimulate many filmmakers. This is the case of artwork such as Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, an iconic work of quiet and lonely America, or French artist Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat, which must tickle the fancy of most screenwriters when it comes to depicting a crime scene in a bath tub.

We hope you enjoyed this cinematic adventure. For cinema and art enthusiasts, we recommend our Collection of Artworks inspired by Famous Movies.
If you too have discovered a discreet tribute in a film that has not been mentioned here, please feel free to add it in comments, we would love to discover more!

Bastien Alleaume
Content Manager - Artmajeur Online Art Gallery 


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