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Art on Film: A Look at Iconic Artworks in Movies

These are not just pictures on a wall. These are not some set pieces in the corner. There are certain artworks in film that are as vital as its characters. Of course, it helps when a character happens to bludgeon someone to death with a certain rude-shaped sculpture or a painting casts an evil spell of eternal youth on a heartless protagonist. Whether it’s famous artists creating work for fictional ones or directors commissioning well-crafted fakes to take the place of what they can’t acquire, most of these memorable artworks come with a little background story. Here are ten (mostly) great films and the tales of origin behind their most central art pieces.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

In the late 1960s, Stanley Kubrick wandered into St. Catherine’s Dock complex near the Tower Bridge in London, one of the vacant buildings scheduled to be demolished, re-purposed as an art studio complex. There, Kubrick lucked into renting several soft porn mag-inspired paintings from Cornelis Makkink which gave the film that stylized smutty sheen and Herman Makkink’s subversive kinetic sculpture Rocking Machine which became a fatal tool for one the most metaphorically phallic acts of “ultraviolence” ever committed to celluloid.

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

As Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character gets hopelessly swallowed up into the increasingly meta world of his epic theatre piece, his estranged wife sprouts into a fancy-pants artist in Berlin. One of writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s most brilliant nuances involved miniaturizing Alex Kanevsky’s series of oils from inches to millimeters so gallery visitors would have to garland their faces with these absurd but captivating spectacles.

Basquiat(1996)

Director/artist Julian Schnabel could not get the Basquiat estate to rent him originals for the stellar biopic, so he painted his own copies. The two knew each other well and shared a city, a scene and art dealers, so Schnabel was in a prime position to create some quality fakes.

High Art (1998)

Staging a brooding romance between tortured artist with “a love issue and a drug problem” and her editor/photography muse/lover, Lisa Cholodenko’s indie flick featured photography by Jojo Whilden. Yes, it does look familiar. It’s based directly on the archetypal works of Nan Goldin… minus the authentic grittiness and drama in the lives of Goldin’s actual subjects. It’s Nan Goldin Lite?

A Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

This early film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel was black and white except for a few short bursts of Technicolor to highlight that fantastic, monstrous portrait that was aging instead of the morally corrupt gent. It wasn’t just aging, but twisting, swirling with flesh, bubbling with gasoline-rainbow-hued puss! Up close, Ivan Le Lorraine Albright’s painting was almost psychedelic.

American Psycho (2000)

Robert Longo’s most famous and most misinterpreted 1979 Men in Cities series wasn’t just a background decoration to be fitted into the serial killer’s immaculate, two-toned apartment. It was a major signifier of his character. The life-size, sharply dressed men and women, thrusting and thrashing about in the lithographs were not crisp yuppies like Patrick Bateman — quite the opposite. “That’s how you dressed if you were in a band,” Longo has explained. How ironic. Thankfully, director Mary Harron was full in on the joke: “The design had to be upscale, because Patrick would have had a decorator. And, of course, the art in the apartment is much hipper than Bateman. Ultimately, Bateman is a bit of a dork.”

Great Expectations (1998)

Attempting to artificially transplant Charles Dickens’ tale from 1860s London directly into 1990s New York, Great Expectations didn’t turn out so great, but at least they went big for the art. Artist Ethan Hawke’s portraits were done by renowned Italian painter Francesco Clemente himself. The actors sat for him in private.

New York Stories (1989)

Another fictional tumultuous tale, another professionally inappropriate affair, another famous artist stand-in. Scorsese’s New York Stories starred pretend New York artist Nick Nolte and featured the work of real New York artist Chuck Connelly. In turn, Chuck Connelly would like to be played by “someone successful, like Brad Pitt or Gary Cooper,” possibly the polar opposites of Nick Nolte.

Titanic (1997)

Long before he had successfully invested millions upon millions of producer dollars into Avatar, James Cameron was so incredibly thrifty, he did this sketching of bare-bosomed Kate “Rose” Winslet himself.

Dreams (1990)

Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece in eight parts included a most delightful little vignette wherein one Vincent Van Gogh art lover literally steps into his paintings. While the character’s little strut superimposed into a blown-up Van Gogh canvas may have looked a little corny at first, later, the paintings transformed into accurately recreated IRL landscapes with a little help from George Lucas and his special effects group Industrial Light and Magic. Magic indeed.

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