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Art In The Cinema

Written by Karel Tan | Posted 13 Jan 2017

Art has always been regarded as one of the oldest, and still relevant, mediums of recording moments in human history and culture. Just like how art shapes cultural and historical movements, movies are taking over that same role today. Hence, it is no wonder that some movies continue to draw inspiration from the works of its predecessors, with some scenes or entire movies influenced by artists and works. Here are some famous artists and works that has inspired popular movies in today’s culture.

1. Jean-Honoré Fragonard – The Swing

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Did you know that the famous painting, The Swing, was the main inspiration for Disney’s adventurous heroine in the film Tangled? The girl’s joyous and carefree poise in the painting was the main model for the animation team to create the movements and character of Rapunzel in their light-hearted version of the fairy-tale classic. And it was not just the girl that lent influence to the movie; the film’s background was also inspired by the painterly strokes and rich colours that formed the dreamy gardens in the painting.

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The painting gained so much fans after the release of the movie that it made a brief appearance in another of Disney’s films, Frozen, in the scene when Anna jumps up to mirror the pose of the girl on the swing. Centuries later, the bright and carefree attitude of the girl on the swing still stands strong, bringing smiles to our faces when we see it.

2. Francisco Goya – Colossus & Saturn Devouring His Son

Fans of Guillermo Del Toro’s fantasy films will be glad to be able to trace his fervour and inspiration to Francisco Goya’s macabre series, Black Paintings. Perhaps the darkest of the artist’s works, they gathered great fame for its disturbing and haunting portrayal of monsters and myths, which are equally the stuff of dark fantasy books and films of today. Guillermo Del Toro professed in numerous interviews to be a great fan of Goya’s works, agreeing with the artist’s works that “Fairytales pit harsh circumstances against a fantasy world”.

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The science-fiction genre has always gained attention for its fantastical, impossible creatures, giants and beasts who stalk the night. That was the vision that Guillermo saw as he was looking at Goya’s painting, The Colossus. In an interview with the Associated Press, Del Toro explained the painting’s ability to create the “awe and spectacle of when you watch something so big that the scale is inhuman” translated into his desire to bring that element into the movie. Power, honour, glory: Guillermo’s science fiction offering answers to our fascination of such majestic creatures.

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Fans of the dark fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth will remember the stomach-churning scenes with The Pale Man. Already grotesque in appearance, the character became even more hideous in the scene when he mercilessly guzzled down the fairies that aided the heroine in her tasks. Sounds familiar? The scene was actually inspired by the lore behind the painting, Saturn Devouring His Son, a Greek mythology of the god who ate his babies in order to keep his power. Guillermo’s fascination with grim and macabre fairytales aligns perfectly Goya’s Black Paintings, leading fans to wonder of the extent of Goya’s influence on the prolific director.

3. M.C. Escher – Ascending Descending Staircase Relativity 

Illusions and mind-bending works are becoming more prominent amongst popular culture, with M.C. Escher’s works taking the forefront of the rising trend.  Instantly recognisable with its portrayal of mathematical elements and paradoxical worlds, it became a great influence on films venturing into similar genres, challenging our reality and imagination with new mediums.

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Christopher Nolan’s profound interest in paradoxical theories was fuelled by M.C. Escher’s complex and mind-boggling works, which served as inspiration for his critically acclaimed movie Inception. In the scene where the Penrose Steps are explained in the dream world by Arthur, viewers will notice a similarity between the scene and Escher’s mind-bending work, Ascending Descending Staircase, challenging them to question the boundaries of reality and fantasy.

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Another of M.C. Escher’s works surfaced in one of the scenes in the cult classic movie Labyrinth, where the heroine attempts to solve the labyrinth in order to save her brother. His works greatly influenced the aesthetics of the film, bringing to us remarkable scenes and environments well-suited for the dreamy and fantastical adventures of the characters in the beloved film.

4. Edward Hopper – House By The Railroad Nighthawk 

Psychotic murders, isolation and moodiness are ever-present in Film Noir, with plots questioning our capacity for vulnerability and desperation. Edward Hopper’s works prove to be one of the bigger influences in the dark film genre, with his desolate paintings being reinvented as memorable scenes that became the talk of fans and critics today.

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Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho has always been considered as the icon of the horror and thriller genre, even to people who have never seen the film. Fans of the looming Bates Motel will have to thank Hopper’s House By The Railroad, which served as the inspiration for Hitchcock to find the perfect setting for his dreary characters. Hitchcock brought Hopper’s technique of light and shadow into the film, successfully stirring up discomforting emotions in viewers and colourising the desolate and deranged characters that we have come to love even today.

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Easily the most important and iconic of Hopper’s works, Nighthawks would go on to inspire Ridley Scott to create the futuristic world of Blade Runner and its inhuman characters. To get the atmosphere of the film right, the director was known to have constantly shown the painting to his production team “to illustrate the look and mood I was after”. Though different in plots and characters, both painting and film share similar moods of isolation and indifference amongst the hubbub of the city, a feeling which we city dwellers can resonate with.

5. Thomas Gainsborough – The Blue Boy

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One of the most notable paintings of Gainsborough’s career, The Blue Boy gained much acclaim in its unveiling in the Royal Academy in 1770 with its proud stance and distinctive fashion, serving as the inspiration behind one of the costumes of Django in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The rich blue shades of the painting were brought into Django’s costumes, bringing the bizarre plight of our favourite hero to life.  

6. Johannes Vermeer – The Girl With The Pearl Earring

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With her vibrant headscarf, the dainty pearl earring and her enigmatic stare, it has ignited many debates and praise amongst art lovers and critics. Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel, later adapted into a critically acclaimed film, was one of the extensions of the painting’s lore and debate that successfully made the painting familiar amongst film lovers and critics today. Even though we may never know the true story of the Girl With The Pearl Earring, Scarlett Johansson’s character guides us into a new realm of perspective, igniting our dark fascinations with passion, sexuality and cruelty.   

Despite the progressions of time and society, art continues to influence and impact cultures today. Films bring the spirit of art a step further; by using such influences to create works of art that are uniquely different and refreshing to the modernising society. Art, after all, need not be fixed in a time long gone, but brought back to life again by new mediums that continues Art’s main goal: the portrayal of our culture and humanity.