Published: August 30, 2022
By Karla Klein Albertson
BOCA RATON, FLA. – Life always has a backdrop – we might be driving through the mountains, walking the beach or hitting the city streets. To recreate these life-like settings for a movie takes several hundred artists and technicians. Unless you are the guy who stays to the end of the credits or a woman – like this writer – who watches all the “making of” documentaries attached to a film, most of those highly skilled professionals remain nameless.
As far as the settings for scenes was concerned, “movie magic” was once produced – not by someone sitting behind a computer keyboard but – by a fine artist on a grand scale who painted cities and vistas as the backdrop for actors in the movie production. “Art of the Hollywood Backdrop” at the Boca Raton Museum of Art through January 22 brings together 22 examples – many instantly recognizable to film buffs – which have miraculously survived the end of the grand studio era in Hollywood.
Most non-winged creatures will never get as close to George Washington’s head on Mount Rushmore as Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint appeared to be with the help of that famous backdrop from the 1959 Hitchcock film North by Northwest. With the perfect backdrop, actors could look out over the Alps, dance on a Parisian street or survey the temples of ancient Rome. These are only a few of the trompe l’oeil artworks in this show.
“Credit went to everyone in these classic films except the scenic artists who made these cinematic moments possible by creating the backdrops,” said executive director Irvin Lippman before the opening. “The heroic efforts by these preservationists to recover the singular artistic knowledge of these masters is the heartbeat that underlies this exhibition at our museum. Hollywood’s most closely guarded creative secrets can finally be revealed through this never-before-seen exhibition that we are proud to debut here in South Florida.”
Backdrop preservation first came to Lippman’s attention on February 29, 2020, when Jane Pauley explored the subject on a CBS Sunday Morning broadcast. Her guests included well-known art director Thomas A. Walsh; artist and academic Karen L. Maness of the University of Texas at Austin; and Lynne Coakley of J.C. Backings, a company that has preserved vintage backdrops as rental properties. Lippman happened to be an alum of UT Austin, and Maness and Walsh became co-curators of the exhibition.
In connection with the exhibition, the Boca Raton Museum of Art has produced an accompanying 36-page booklet, filled with photos of the backdrops and their artists and contributions from both curators. In his introduction, Lippman states, “This exhibition of scenic backdrops, made between 1938 and 1968, celebrates an essential art form nearly forgotten. It is a moment in the spotlight for the dozens of unidentified studio artists.”
Even in the publicity before the show opened, Maness was on fire with enthusiasm for this project: “This has become my passion project, to tell their stories. I will be their champion in this lifetime. 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.”
Maness is officially assistant professor of practice at the University of Texas at Austin, trains students in art skills as associate director of the Texas Performing Arts Fabrication Studios, and serves as the director of the Texas Performing Arts Hollywood Backdrop Collection, which has preserved many vintage backdrops.
In an interview with Antiques and The Arts Weekly, the curator recalled, “I first came to learn about these artists in 2012 after an invitation from the Art Directors Guild archives. They brought me out to Los Angeles and asked me to help chronicle the story of their members who were scenic artists and to capture the story before the craft disappeared. Their work was rapidly being supplanted by digital technology.”
“Tom Walsh was president of the Art Directors Guild; he and I had met through a conference. He realized that I would be a good candidate for helping to tell this story with my connection to the art form. That was the first time I saw these paintings. I had been a scenic artist now for 30 years, a studio artist. But seeing these paintings in the historic MGM Studio, it was truly astonishing.”
“I had studied Nineteenth Century painting but this was the first time I had seen scenic art that had the color sense and understanding of Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century art. They were massive paintings, observationally based. MGM’s Golden Age was like the High Renaissance for this type of artist. I completely fell in love – so it’s been a love story ever since.”
Maness continued: “One of my principal goals is to have not only the artists recognized and the art form recognized but for people to have a concept of the scale of these paintings. To see the capacity of these artist to create illusions so compelling and so realistic for the eye of the camera that they disappeared. It’s pretty astonishing to see their techniques and recognize all they had to understand to pull off this illusion.”
This enthusiasm led to what became the ultimate and award-winning book on the subject, The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop by Karen L. Maness and stage designer Richard M. Isackes (Regan Arts, 2016). The volume is so sought-after that hardback copies are now collectors’ items, but an affordable Kindle edition is available from Amazon.
“Art of the Hollywood Backdrop” exhibition not only emphasizes the talent of the artists involved, it relates the harrowing story of how the physical backdrops survived as classic Hollywood studios downsized and began selling off costumes and props.
Many, especially those from MGM, entered the inventory of J.C. Backings, who rented them out as production backgrounds; more information can be found at the firm’s fascinating website. When the company had to downsize, UT Austin acquired a number for their collection in 2017. For the current show, Maness said, “We requested the loan of North by Northwest, The Sound of Music and Ben Hur for this world premier exhibition, and they were so happy with what was happening at the University of Texas at Austin, they kindly said they were going to donate them to the university. So, our collection here has expanded.”
Thomas A. Walsh was the perfect co-curator for this exhibition. A major production and scenic designer, he was for many years president of the Art Directors Guild and founded the ADG Archives which helps preserve the history of Hollywood scenic painting. Everything about his distinguished career can be found at www.thomasawalsh.net.
As he told Antiques and The Arts Weekly, “I’m an L.A. boy.” With an actor father, he grew up hearing stories about the golden years of Hollywood production. Rather than a career in acting, Walsh was attracted to work behind the scenes, first as a stage carpenter, then as a scenic artist in the 1970s when he had a chance to work with veterans of the trade. As he went on to head up productions of his own, he never lost his interest in the history of these crafts and their devoted practitioners.
Among the highlights, he noted, “In the exhibition, George Gibson is the heart and soul of our story. He created the department at MGM that was able to produce backdrops on an industrial scale and schedule. Each studio eventually had their own department – Paramount, Warner Brothers – and there was rivalry, of course. But MGM set the standard for technique and method.”
After he became president of the Art Directors Guild, Walsh initiated exhibitions of backdrops at MGM where they could be viewed as massive artworks on display – a concept which is perfected in the current show in Boca Raton. He explains that most are 20 feet long to 45 feet high, painted on canvas and attached to wooden battens at top and bottom. Others are more massive such as Mount Rushmore which is six vertical panels stitched together – 90 feet wide, 30 feet tall.
At the show, one section is devoted to international architecture, another to park-like settings. He said, “People love to have their pictures taken on the von Trapp’s terrace – it’s a beautiful backdrop. Visitors have an emotional experience when they go to the show.”
Walsh states in his exhibition essay: “A fan of scenic painting, Walt Disney once said, ‘It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.’ We could not agree more – and yes, it was fun!”
The “Art of the Hollywood Backdrop” exhibition booklet, priced at $20, is available from the museum store: 561-392-2500, ext 102.
The Boca Raton Museum of Art is at 501 Plaza Real. For information, 561-392-2500 or www.bocamuseum.org.
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