Art Imitates Art

Classic paintings and their influence on film

Kobiela & Welchman, Loving Vincent (2017) Still from film

This article explores six painters and their influence on modern film: from the European Renaissance world of Bruegel and Caravaggio to Hopper’s 20th century America, cinema owes much painter’s use of composition and light.

Lang’s Renaissance

Bruegel, The Great Tower of Babel (c.1599) Oil, 114 cm × 155 cm

Brueghel is a seminal figure within the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance, influencing the Dutch Golden Age. Known for his landscape and genre paintings, The Great Tower of Babel (c.1599) in particular depicts the construction of the tower as delineated in Genesis 11:4:

“Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) draws upon Bruegel’s tower, alongside many other artistic influences - such as heavy Art Deco influence in the architecture of the film. Lang’s portrayal of The Tower of Babel was used to emphasise the class conflict between elites and workers: words that signified glory to the designer’s transformed to represent the workers' oppression as they constructed the tower:

“Brain and Hands became enemies. The pleasure of one became the other's burden. 'Babel!' shouted one, meaning: Divinity, Coronation, Eternity, Triumph! 'Babel!' shouted the other, meaning: Hell, Slavery, Eternal, Damnation!'”

This led to the tower's destruction as the workers rose up against the designers because of the oppressive working conditions. Such a classical reference within a pioneer of the science-fiction film genre juxtaposes the old versus the new, the ancient versus the modern.

“St Matthew in New York”

Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599) Oil, 322 cm × 340 cm

A revolutionary, Caravaggio is a bridge between 16th century Mannerist and Baroque art, pioneering a style that emphasises tenebrism and violent, moving figures. In the early 17th century he was famous (or perhaps more infamous) for his extravagant paintings and lifestyle; Bellori observed in 1642 that

“painters in Rome were greatly impressed by his novelty, and the younger ones especially gathered around him and praised him as the only true imitator of nature.”

Since then, Caravaggio has had a huge influence over modern art of all forms, from fellow artists to filmmakers - most notably, Martin Scorcese. Influenced most of all by his composition and use of light, Scorcese admires how Caravaggio created his scenes in the middle of the action:

“It was like modern staging in the film: it was so powerful and direct...I thought I can use this too.”

“He pervaded the entirety of the bar sequences in Mean Streets (1973). He was there in the way I wanted the camera movement, the choice of how to stage a scene. It's basically people sitting in bars, people at tables, people getting up. The Calling of St Matthew, but in New York! Making films with street people was what it was really about like he made paintings with them.”

Black Paintings, Pale Man

Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819–1823, 1.43 m x 81 cm

One of the darker Romanticists, Goya is known for his increasingly surreal and horrific depictions of gore and violence. A practising Spanish portrait artist throughout the late 18th and early 19th century, his experiences in war and personal battles with health saw his work turn towards more shocking themes. In particular, his Black Paintings (c.1819-1823) are fourteen paintings created towards the end of his life that reflect his growing fear of insanity - Saturn Devouring his Son (c.1819) is just one of these projections of fear. These Black Paintings del Toro in the creation of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), both in the general themes of horror depicted and specifically Saturn:

“Goya was an obvious reference, specifically with regards to the character of the Pale Man. There is a scene in which the Pale Man bites the heads of the fairies. That comes straight from Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring his son.”

Ode to van Gogh

Van Gogh, Portrait of Dr Paul Gachet (1890) Oil, 67 cm × 56 cm

Now considered a post Impressionist genius, Vincent van Gogh didn’t receive fame in his lifetime and suffered extensively with mental anguish. Loving Vincent (2017) is undoubtedly a different influence than the other listed films, yet is entirely deserving of recognition as a poignant love letter to van Gogh’s legacy. Created by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman with funding from the Polish Film Institute, this was a monumental project: the film consists of 65,000 hand-painted oil paintings from 125 artists from across the globe in the style of van Gogh, documenting the last years of his life. It was nominated for an Academy Award and won Best Animated Feature Film at the 30th European Film Awards. The influence of van Gogh is better seen rather than explained: the best way to celebrate an artist unrecognised in their own time is to demonstrate the huge, global impact his work has since had.

Hopping mad

Hopper, House by the Railroad (1925) Oil, 61cm x 73cm

A quintessentially mid-century American artist, Edward Hopper is renowned for his unintentionally unnerving depictions of consumerist life.

Hitchcock, Psycho (1960) Still from film

He produced urban landscapes sparsely populated or entirely devoid of figures. Although he insisted that his paintings were just representing American life with no ulterior message, the viewer cannot help but notice themes of loneliness, separation and mystery. Illuminated by a faint afternoon glow, House by the Railroad (1925) features a luxurious Victorian house, the bottom of which is blocked from view by railroad tracks. The tracks create distance between the viewer and the house, which is a lonely fixture in an empty skyscape. As with all of Hopper’s work, this painting evokes a vague unsettlement within the viewer. It’s this painting that is said to have influenced Hitchcock in creating Psycho (1960): the architecture of the Bates home is near-identical, with the film playing on similar themes as Hopper, namely the effects of isolation and loneliness.

Empire of the Exorcist

Magritte, The Empire of Light II (1950) Oil, 78cm x 99cm

Concluding with another ominous house that inspired a filmmaker: Magritte’s Empire of Light. Known for his Surrealism, Magritte is a recognisable figure amongst 20th-century artists. Alongside famous works such as The Son of Man (1946), his long-running series The Empire of Light (1939-1967) portrayed sunny skies with darkened streets, and vice versa. This juxtaposition plays with stereotypes and tricks the eye:

Friedkin, The Exorcist (1973) Still from film

“The landscape suggests night and the skyscape day. This evocation of night and day seems to me to have the power to surprise and delight us. I call this power: poetry.”

Magritte’s series has greatly influenced popular culture through its reference in The Exorcist (1973). The scene of Father Merrin arriving at Regan's house is one of the most famous in the film, being used in promotional advertising because of its recognisability. Director Friedkin cites The Empire of Light as influencing the composition and lighting of the shot:

“[Magritte] depicted a small house at night lit by a streetlamp, but the sky in the painting is flat-out daylight. It's an amazing surrealistic image.”

Follow Elliot on his Instagram @el.iott