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John K. Grande

Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Nov. 16, 2000 - March 18, 2001

[ 1,222 words ]

With a glitzy title like Hitchcock and Art, how could one not be skeptical. Yet by drawing comparisons between film and painting, and with a tight curatorial choice of material, this show's innovative approach provides fertile ground for what may become a future trend in cross-over exhibitions. Hitchcock, the master of suspense, is contextualized, first with film documents, photos, set and costume designs, posters, production stills, and then the art — paintings, prints and drawings from 19th century symbolist and Victorian to contemporary PoMo — but without seeming overly academic or laboured, perhaps because of the pop cultural substance of Hitchcock's films. There is even a full scale reconstruction of the film set for Psycho, complete with clean white towelettes, pristine shower, kitschy bed, lamps, and other paraphernalia to psyche your psyche out!

While the show's preamble of those sublimely ordinary yet cheesy object/icons Hitchcock used as cues in his films; a pair of broken glasses from The Birds, a razor from North by Northwest, hand cuffs from The 39 Steps, a set of books bound with rope from Rope, and the Exacta Camera with telephoto lens from Rear Window seemed unnecessarily obvious, a smaller room presenting still photos with Hitchcock in his famous cameo role performances; walking with two dogs out of Davidson's Pet Shop in The Birds, going onto a bus in North by Northwest and on a train in Blackmail draws the viewer in. As Hitchcock commented, the clever cameo device: "(...)was strictly utilitarian; we had to fill the screen. Later on it became a superstition and eventually a gag."

While not always dead on as comparative examples of the parallels between film and art, the astonishing range of artworks from the Victorian, Symbolist, Surrealist, modern and contemporary eras presented give a sense of how popular artistic sensibilities inspired Hitchcock's childhood imagination and adult life in the making of his films. There are relatively little known Victorian painters such as Albert Goodwin and George Earle whose intensely realistic depictions of Victorian life had the same almost obsessive attention to detail found in Hitchcock's films. One such notable example is a fragment from Wilhelm Liebl's The Corset (ca. 1880-81), with its embroidered blouse, brooch, and rippling textiles. The close-up detail is near claustrophobic in its microscopic detail, and for all its so-called realism carries an aura of strangeness with it. The parallels become almost uncanny when one looks at The Woman (1898), a bluish pastel by Ernst Stohr of a nude woman who stands at the end of a rowboat under a starry night sky while a gentleman dressed to the tails whose face we can not see paddles the boat. Though 19th century this artwork could have actually represented a Hitchcock film scene! The same goes for the drowned godiva-like young Victorian woman floating with ghostly upturned face, long blond hair and dress in a river in Willy Schlobach's The Dead Woman (1890). Likewise Léon Spilliaert's Vertigo (1908) an India ink and chalk wash drawing of a woman with shawl on a series of steps in a completely surreal painted scene, as surreal as when Kim Novak with her long shawl pretends to drown herself by the Golden Gate Bridge in Vertigo.

In a sense the visual and imagistic "traps" Hitchcock constructed so beautifully and with such an acute eye in his films were a way of capturing a subject's essence or soul. The female stars Kim Novak, Grace Kelly, or Ingrid Bergman were pristine and strangely objectified, or alternated as untouchable mother figures. Seductive yet vulnerable, unaware of the potential evil or violence taking place around them, Hitchcock's women pave the way for the protagonist who fulfils a kind of yin-yang evil complement to their beauty. Thus, women fulfil the good and evil paradigm, evidenced in films like I Confess, Topaz, and The Lodger that is ultimately moralistic, and even carry echoes of Hitchcock's Catholic upbringing. The images sometime suspend time as do Surrealist works by De Chirico, Francis Picabia or René Magritte. A Magritte painting titled Deep Waters with huge bird incongruously perched beside standing woman is compared to the elegantly dressed Tippi Hedren with crow perched on arm in The Birds, captured in a Philippe Halsman still photo during the making of the film. The portrait - male or female - likewise builds the suspense, while other things take place behind the scene. The element of spectacle, and theatre Hitchcock builds on can likewise be seen in artworks by Sickert, Vallotton, Guy Pène Du Bois, and Georges Roualt. More interestingly, there are those surreal yet convincingly horrific illustrations after Edgar Allan Poe by Odilon Redon and Arthur Rackham in the show. Indeed Hitchcock did comment that: "I was so taken with Edgar Allan Poe's stories that I later made suspense films." in particular for the spellbinding logic with which Poe binds incongruities in his novels such as The Raven. Though kitschy and exaggerated, Hitchcock's films fulfil the viewer's dreams and horrors much like Poe's novels did. And so this show weaves its theme using Victorian and Symbolist comparisons through to the surreal effects seen in Spellbound (1944) for which he hired Salvador Dali for the dream sequence due to the "architectural sharpness of his work".

The storyboards for the films are themselves fascinating pastiches of Hitchcock's vision of the filmmaking process, which involved constructing the entire scenography prior to shooting. Included are Saul Bass's near-Pop storyboard illustrations for Psycho, Harold Michaelson's for The Birds, Robert Boyle's painterly caption-like still studies for North by Northwest and Marnie, Tom Wright's for Family Plot and Salvador Dali's for Spellbound. Contemporary art selections include Holly King's surreal reconstructions of beatific dream-like landscapes in miniature, rephotographed to become large chromagenic colour photos, Eldon Garnet's Poe-like juxtaposition two photos; a bird's blood spattered beak and rangy eye and a pre-pubescent girl's body in NO (1997), Gregory Crewdson's haunting image of oversized birds in hyper-colour ranging around a lawn in Untitled (Birds Around Home] (1997). Why was Louise Bourgeois, master of psycho-sexual disquietude, not included in the contemporary section?

While some of the examples seem almost too self evident in this art/film mêlée, Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences builds a strong case for further shows investigating the pop culture influences that filter into and out of art and hence into other areas such as film making. If anything, this show fulfils the 20th century's sublime and existential quest to reveal and entertain by delving deeper into the more disquieting aspects of the human persona.


Text: © John K. Grande. All rights reserved.


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