Art for Film’s Sake: Celluloid Characters, Real Paintings

Noir films are crammed with pictures of the dead, the missing, and the ghostly


In 1992, I owed a favor to a production designer in the film industry, and he asked me to create a series of paintings for the character of a penniless artist in a feature co-written by a little-known director from Taiwan. One summer day, a gaggle of assistants arrived at my Queens studio and stretched half a dozen canvases while I read the script. The lines written for “Wei-Wei” conjured a scrappy young Chinese woman who was steeped in the painting practices of two cultures, and who was also desperate for a green card. Her work needed to combine the calligraphic sinuousness of Chinese brush painting with clashing hues and jagged compositions, emphasizing her quest to succeed in the birthplace of postwar abstraction, as well as anxiety over her immigration status.

I enjoyed this detour from my own white-male head, as I tried to imagine how Wei-Wei might interpret the New York School, 40 years on. Although filmed in a Brooklyn loft, Ang Lee’s Wedding Banquet garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and I received a liberating lesson in fiction as visual goad.

Steven Jacobs and Lisa Colpaert’s new book, The Dark Galleries (subtitled “A Museum Guide to Painted Portraits in Film Noir, Gothic Melodramas, and Ghost Stories of the 1940s and 1950s”), begins with a 1931 Picasso still life featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941). No one was more aware of the rift between the realistic perspective of the camera and the theatrical artifice of movie sets than Hitchcock, but when we see a policeman gazing at Picasso’s cubist fracturing of space, it seems an incongruous detour in the film’s narrative flow. Later, however, in an echo of Picasso’s web of dark lines, Cary Grant strides through a latticework of shadows to deliver a glass of what might be poison milk — a deadly still life on a tray — to his wife. Another prominent painting in the film, a portrait of the wife’s father, glares with patriarchal disapproval upon his playboy son-in-law.

See also: An illustrated comparison between the scene in Suspicion and Picasso’s Pitcher of Fruit

Jacobs and Colpaert’s book delves into the ways that a painting in a movie is often presented as a “character in its own right. Other characters treat the portrait as a real person, looking, talking, shouting, or even throwing things at it. In films, painted portraits invite the same reactions as human beings do. They are valued, cherished, and loved but also hated and destroyed.” Noir films are crammed with pictures of the dead, the missing, and the ghostly, all of which apply to the portrait of Gene Tierney used for the title character in Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). This famous image anchors a tale concerning a disfigured murder victim, presumed to be Laura, and a policeman investigating the crime, who falls in love with her portrait. Preminger was not happy with the original painting and ordered a second version (which is reproduced on the cover of Jacobs and Colpaert’s book). The new rendering was actually an enlarged photograph lightly brushed over with paint; as Tierney herself once said, “It is one of the curious facts of moviemaking that paintings seldom transfer well to film.” This is not surprising when you consider that motion pictures, like photographs, are inherently flat, which strips painting of the gestural physicality your body — beyond the information about color and shape entering your eyes — responds to when engaging with a great painting.

During the 1940s and ’50s, modern art was considered suspect by Hollywood barons wary of making audiences feel like rubes. Murder and adulterous sex you could understand, but in Man in the Net (1959), an expressionist portrait is destroyed by its subject, a woman having a nervous breakdown — the implication being that the painting is as mad as she. And it was not only the sitters who acted out. The artists who painted them were generally neurotic, lecherous, and often murderous, such as the character played by Humphrey Bogart in The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947). His grotesque rendering of his wife (the alluring Barbara Stanwyck) as an emaciated wraith was actually painted by John Decker, one of the few artists who was credited during this period. (Producers preferred using anonymous studio employees or outsiders working under verbal agreements.)

Decker, who in his youth studied with an admitted forger, once said of himself that he could “paint like any other painter,” be it old master or modern innovator. A serious carouser who partied with such legendary boozers as W.C. Fields, Decker was perhaps the ideal artist for the movies because he understood both the de facto fiction of painting — think of Magritte’s depiction of a pipe, labeled “Ceci n’est pas une pipe — and the double duty of narrative and character development that filmed paintings must deliver to moviegoers.

Another of the rare credited portraitists was Robert Brackman, who provided the title work for Portrait of Jennie, a 1948 film starring Joseph Cotton as an artist who unknowingly paints a ghost. Barraged by opinionated memos from producer David O. Selznick concerning the painting’s progress, Brackman finally responded, “One of these days I shall accept every suggestion offered to me, then I shall paint the perfect picture.”

The Astonishing Works of John Altoon:
Charming, haphazardly handsome, and a diagnosed schizophrenic, the Los Angeles–based painter John Altoon (1925–1969) was described by Picasso as “the most precocious drawing talent” he had ever seen. Beautifully reproduced on these wide-format pages, Altoon’s sketches of nude maidens, sometimes cavorting with frogs or cowboys and Indians, are done with exuberant contours and tactile shading. His paintings — radiant, biomorphic abstractions — exude a carnal, hedonistic warmth.

This elaborately designed catalogue brims with period photographs and glued-in facsimiles of heartfelt reminiscences that Altoon’s friends wrote after his early death from a heart attack. The painter Ed Moses compared the mercurial Altoon to literature’s most sublime artistic rogue, Joyce Cary’s Gulley Jimson (The Horse’s Mouth), then added, “We imitated your manner of how a painter should be and act and demonstrate himself. We found your mad behavior so compelling.” Perhaps these lush reproductions will encourage the powers that curate to bring a full-dress retrospective of Altoon’s Pacific passions to our gloomy burg.