By Aoife O’Leary-McNiece
The latest James Bond film, Skyfall, is, among other things, a deliberate celebration of James Bond as a quintessentially British tradition. Homage is paid to the legacy of the franchise in the reappearance of the Aston Martin DB5 which first featured in the 1964 Bond film Goldfinger. However, the classic car is not the only British cultural tradition celebrated in the film. Bond meets the new Q in the presence of a work of art by one of Britain’s most celebrated artists, William Turner. Furthermore, works by two other great British artists; Joseph Wright and Thomas Gainsborough frame the two men. This presents the viewer with a fascinating dialogue between two visual art forms—cinema and painting. In this instance, The Fighting Temeraire, arguably Turner’s most iconic work, is employed as a metaphor for Bond’s current situation. In this work, an old warship is carried on its last voyage by a clunky steamship, representing the advent of the Industrial era and the close of a more romantic era, one governed by wooden warships and sea battles.
However, there is more to the inclusion of Turner’s work than this somewhat obvious analogy. As touched upon, it places an item of artwork from a golden age for Britain artistically within a film franchise that is self-consciously presenting itself as representing a golden age in British film. In a sense, it passes the cultural torch from Turner to Bond. Indeed, it is not unusual to include famous artworks as props within films, to serve a whole host of different narrative functions. What these instances have in common is that they represent a discourse between two visual art forms, and by examining this discourse one may get an insight into the way in which art communicates with itself through time, form and place. James Cameron’s epic film Titanic, Mel Smith’s farcical comedy Bean and John Hughes Ferris Bueller’s Day Off each present the viewer with different examples of interaction with art. Each of these examples are fascinating because they are a living representation of two art forms interacting with one another. We witness ‘great works of art’ in dialogue with the popular art form of film. By examining these incidents in isolation and also in comparison, we can gain an insight into the contemporary relationship between these two visual art forms.
In James Cameron’s Titanic, the central character, Rose collects works of art by Picasso, Degas and Monet among others. Once scene presents us with her cabin, which is almost subsumed by the sheer volume of canvases, she is filmed carrying Degas’ ballerinas into her room. The inclusion of these artworks works on a number of levels in the film. To begin with, it is a way of establishing context considering so much of the film deals with the emergence of the modern, and by including modern works of art we are given further indication of oncoming modernity. Furthermore, Cameron allows the audience a sense of superiority over those in the film, particularly Cal, who scoffs upon hearing Picasso’s name and asserts that ‘he won’t amount to a thing’. By appreciating these works of art, Rose is presented as a woman of sophistication and cultural prescience, and the audience is able to align themselves with her, being aware of the future significance of these works. In the sinking montage, Cameron also includes a frame in which a Degas canvas appears, floating in a room gradually filling with water. By illustrating the destruction of a work of art which would now be deemed priceless, Cameron attempts to garner some realisation of the sense of loss which resulted in the Titanic’s sinking; human loss is the focus of the film, however, by including this scene he also alludes to cultural loss.
The destruction of priceless works of art is also a predominant theme in the film Bean, written by, and starring Rowan Atkinson. This film charts the good-natured simpleton’s accidental destruction of the great American art work Whistler’s Mother. The narrative deliberately plays upon our almost subconscious ideas of the way works of art should be treated. Really great masterpieces should be kept behind glass and examined from a respectful distance, therefore, the image of Mr Bean sneezing onto the face of Whistler’s mother and attempting to negate the damage by the application of different powerful cleaning products gains much of its comic effect from the fact that it deliberately subverts our notions of the way art should be treated.
The film further interrogates how we interact with art in the climactic scene, where Bean saves the day by replacing the painting with a poster, and making a speech about it to great acclaim,
So, what have I learnt that I can say about this painting? Well, firstly, it’s quite big, which is excellent because if it was really small, you know, microscopic, then hardly anybody would be able to see it which would be a tremendous shame. … Secondly, …, this picture is worth such a lot of money because it’s a picture of Whistler’s mother, and …families are very important, and even though [Whistler’s] mother was a hideous old bat who looked like she had a cactus lodged up her backside, he stuck with her and even took the time to paint this amazing picture of her. It’s not just a painting. It’s a picture of a mad old cow who he thought the world of.
Again in this speech we get a comedic shock factor from the fact that a priceless American icon is being referred to in such a vulgar manner. However, there is also an irony in that Bean still seems to be at a loss as to why the work is so important. He finds meaning from the subject matter and what he sees as the message of the work of art, the aesthetics of the composition are largely ignored. The film fails to reach a satisfactory conclusion as to the status of the work. One might even read this as a parody of the pretentions with which we treat art.
The way in which art is treated in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, is more in keeping with conventional societal behavior towards artwork. Indeed, behavior which may have been the subject of the parody inherent in Bean. The film is full of comedy, jokes and pranks; the main plot revolves around Bueller’s successful avoidance of school for a day. However, when the three characters visit a museum in which works by masters such as Edward Hopper, Seurat and Rodin the film takes on a serious tone, dialogue is nil and thoughtful music encompasses the scene. The three characters, Ferris, Cameron and Sloane are even filmed in the quintessential museum stance, hands crossed, standing stationary examining the paintings. The most striking aspect of the scene is the close up of Cameron’s face juxtaposed with that of the child from Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the camera closes in on her face to such a degree that it reduces it to the points of paint from which it was created. This is a fascinating examination of this work in particular, which becomes more and more indiscernible the closer it is viewed. Furthermore the camera is able to look at it in greater detail than the naked eye.
This treatment of works of art is somewhat similar to that of Skyfall in that there is a clear spatial distinction between the world of the characters in the film and that of the art objects. Furthermore the status of the works as ‘masterpieces’ is celebrated in both. In Skyfall, great British works of art are celebrated and alluded to in tandem with an iconic British film franchise. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,the greatest works of the Art Institute of Chicago are showcased in a film that is in many ways a celebration of the city of Chicago.
However, what is fascinating in all four examples studied is the interplay between two forms of visual art. Although, in a sense, one might argue that the paintings are simply showcased as props that attribute to the greater arc of the narrative, one cannot avoid the fact that by including these works one is engaging in a dialogue with art works from the past. These films play upon the way we think works of art should be viewed—whether it is demonstrating the way we view them by including an archetypal museum scene where people stare at works on a wall, or whether it’s deliberately destroying works of art, and thereby deliberately subverting the way we believe art should be treated.
Furthermore by including these works in films, one engages in the art of reproduction. In some cases, by including a work of art in a film one may be introducing it to a new audience, or changing the meaning or status of the work of art itself. I have spoken to people who only know about Whistler’s Mother because of the Mr. Bean film, or others who are able to place Picasso and Degas in time alongside in the context of the Titanic. This is a further example of how film and visual art become interlocked in a symbiotic relationship. The art changes the film by being included in it, but the film also changes the work of art. This is an example of the way in which all artwork is involved in a discourse with itself, a discourse which may be hidden behind Bond’s introduction to Q, Mr. Bean sneezing on the face of Whistler’s mother, Rose and Cal arguing over Degas, or Cameron staring into the face of Seurat’s child.
Title Photo by brava_67
Photo of The Fighting Téméraire by paulwan8
Photo of Ballet d’Edgar Degas by dalbera
Photo of Whistler’s Mother by huffstutterrober1
Photo of Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by banalities