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Cinema’s Creative Legacy

Art of the Hollywood Backdrop

Story and photography courtesy of the Boca Raton Museum of Art

The first dedicated museum exhibition of its kind honoring the unsung heroes of Hollywood’s artistic DNA is now on display at the Boca Raton Museum of Art in South Florida. Art of the Hollywood Backdrop: Cinema’s Creative Legacy honors the artists who created monumental canvases for the camera, going back almost a century. These artists were the backbone of the film industry.

The exhibition is a concept by the museum, co-curated by Thomas A. Walsh and Karen L. Maness, who played pivotal roles among a group of passionate Hollywood insiders in salvaging these American treasures. The result is a magical portal that takes the terms “large-scale,” “immersive,” and “virtual reality” to a whole new level.

A film still from The Sound of Music, showing the actual location, which was recreated with one of the iconic backdrops that the public will see for the first time in this exhibition, 20th Century Fox (1965)

“These monumental paintings were essential to moviemaking for almost a century and were never meant to be seen by the public with the naked eye,” says Leonard Maltin, the renowned film critic, historian, and author. “Having this rare opportunity to experience these American masterpieces up close is long overdue.”

This exhibition of twenty-two scenic backdrops, made for the movies between 1938 and 1968, celebrates an art form nearly forgotten. This is a well-deserved moment in the spotlight for the dozens of unidentified studio artists. Their uncredited craftsmanship made scenes of Mount Rushmore, Ben-Hur’s Rome, the Von Trapp family’s Austrian Alps, and Gene Kelly’s Paris possible. The show’s immersive components include interactive video reels created in Hollywood specifically for this exhibition, telling the stories behind each backdrop. Soundscapes have been engineered to surround visitors in the museum, including atmospheric sound effects related to the original movies and the scenic vistas.

(91' x 30'), Mount Rushmore, MGM Studios (1959)

Irvin Lippman, the executive director of the Boca Raton Museum of Art, says, “It is miraculous that these historic monumental paintings were not lost forever, as so many Hollywood treasures have disappeared. The concept for this show had its genesis with a CBS Sunday Morning segment that called attention to the campaign to preserve scenic backdrops that had laid rolled up in the basement of MGM’s studios.”

He adds, “Lynne Coakley, Karen L. Maness, and Thomas A. Walsh have played a significant role in preserving this inventory from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Their vision and partnership with the Boca Raton Museum of Art made this exhibition possible.”

Lynne Coakley heads J.C. Backings Corporation, which acquired over two thousand backdrops from MGM storage in the 1970s. In 2012, the Art Directors Guild Archives, then under the direction of Thomas A. Walsh as president, launched the Backdrop Recovery Project, a partnership with J.C. Backings. Their goal was to preserve the backings and make them available for study.

Most backdrop painters in Hollywood were trained as professional artists but were uncredited, sometimes because of union agreements but often because the studios didn’t want their secret techniques leaked to competitors.

One of the recipients of this cache of gigantic paintings was the University of Texas at Austin. Karen L. Maness, who serves as UT’s assistant professor of practice, saw the opportunity to use the artifacts as part of a learning laboratory where students could use them for visualization and inspiration to succeed in high-realism scenic painting.

With Walsh and Maness agreeing to be the co-curators of this first major exhibition of the Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, the museum project began to take shape. They accepted an invitation to visit the Boca Raton Museum of Art in the fall of 2021, thanks to Lippman, who had seen the television segment on CBS Sunday Morning.

Twenty backdrops, including the famous Mount Rushmore, are being loaned by the Texas Performing Arts Hollywood Backdrop Collection at the University of Texas. In addition, a 1952 backdrop for Singin’ in the Rain and the tapestry backdrop for Marie Antoinette (1938) are on loan from the Motion Picture Academy in Los Angeles. Donald O’Connor danced his brilliant comic performance of “Make ’Em Laugh” in front of the backdrop from Singin’ in the Rain, and museum visitors will be able to take selfies in front of it, with a recreation of the sofa and mannequin from the famous scene.

The Marie Antoinette tapestry backdrop interestingly was reused in the auction house scene of North by Northwest (1959). Repurposing props and backdrops was a relatively common practice in the film and television industry of the time. Produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the latter film starred Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.

Of the famous Mount Rushmore mural also used for North by Northwest, Maness says, “This is the granddaddy, the Babe Ruth of all Hollywood backdrops. Especially because it was such a key player in the telling of this story.” The backdrop is part of Texas Performing Arts’ permanent backdrop collection, the most extensive educational collection of Hollywood Motion Picture backdrops in the world. Maness worked on the backdrop to prepare it for the exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. This involved cleaning, sealing, touching up paint, and repairing tears. She also conducted extensive oral history interviews with the last surviving artists, their family members, and their acolytes to record and preserve their previously unacknowledged histories. “It was essential to capture these artists’ stories before they disappeared,” she says.

Originally painted for Ben-Hur in 1959, this backdrop (48' x 18') was reused in this scene from the 2016 film Hail, Caesar!

Some of these artists came from a family tradition of the craft, with lineages spanning three generations of painters. The skill stayed within the family. Most were trained as professional artists, yet they remained uncredited, sometimes because of union agreements, but mainly because the studios wanted to keep a firm grip on the secret techniques handed down from master to apprentice on the backlots.

Having this rare opportunity to experience these American masterpieces up close is long overdue.

The physicality of painting across these giant canvases was often overwhelmingly difficult. Some artists even suffered tragic consequences in the early years of this craft before the studios developed more sophisticated working platforms.

“This has become my passion project, to tell their stories,” Maness shares. “I will be their champion in this lifetime. Historically, as a woman, I would have never been allowed to work alongside them in that era. As a teacher, they have now become my masters. When you choose your mentors as ghosts, they can’t say no.”

In the heyday of MGM, three shifts of scenic artists would work day and night to complete one backdrop. They painted the creations for the camera lens, not the human eye. It is a very impressionistic style of painting―not quite photorealism, but it snaps together as photorealistic when viewed from a distance. Up close, the backdrops look totally different. When visitors to the museum take selfies with their phone cameras, the resulting images will look very different from what they see in person in the gallery. This unique concept of “photorealism for the camera” was spearheaded by George Gibson.

“This show is about the joy of reliving something you grew up with that you always thought was real,” says Thomas A. Walsh. “It’s about getting as close to that magical moment in time as you can, being in the same space with that giant, familiar scene. It is difficult for people to get their minds around the awesome size of these magical spaces until they see them in person. People are often shocked and surprised by the scale and visual impact of these massive creations. These are literally some of the largest paintings ever created in the world, similar to cyclorama paintings. Aside from the technicians working in the soundstages, no one else has set eyes on this collection. This is the first time the public can see it in person.”

MGM (1951). Backdrop: Montmartre, Paris, 20′ x 15′ | Photo courtesy of J.C. Backings

Throughout his career, Walsh has been a mentor to many. “After the digital/synthetic revolution took over filmmaking, the young designers today who are most successful in the computerized realm are those who continue to hone their real-life painting and drawing skills,” he says. “They know about perspective and really understand art, nature, light, and architecture. They can still be tactile. The idea that you can still get personal and dirty with your art is a revelation to many of the current generation. Those who do are better at their computer arts.”

Walsh was born into a Hollywood show business family. His father, Arthur Walsh, was a contract actor and jitterbug champion at MGM Studios in the 1940s and went on to have a successful solo career as a nightclub comedian. Through exposure to his father’s world of live performance, Walsh began his lifelong journey in film and performing arts. He attended Hollywood High School and, starting at age seventeen, served as an apprentice to some of these Hollywood scenic artists. Today, Walsh is a leading production designer in the entertainment industry. He was president of the Art Director’s Guild when this recovery project started, and his vision was to ensure his guild’s members were seen and recorded.

Hollywood’s most closely guarded creative secrets can finally be revealed through this never-before-seen exhibition

“Credit went to everyone in these classic films except the scenic artists who made the cinematic moments possible by creating the backdrops,” says Lippman. “The heroic efforts by these preservationists to recover the singular artistic knowledge of these masters is the heartbeat that underlies this exhibition at our museum. Hollywood’s most closely guarded creative secrets can finally be revealed through this never-before-seen exhibition, which we are proud to debut here in South Florida.”

The show also features an Education Gallery created especially for this exhibition, showcasing historic tools of the trade used by these artists in Hollywood.

One of the most memorable experiences for visitors to the museum will be the opportunity to see up close the actual brushstrokes and dynamic hand-painted techniques that these artists used to create the necessary effects for the camera lens. “In this form of painting, the deadlines and physicality required speed and confidence. The canvas was attacked with wild abandon, not courted,” Walsh says. “Their unique industrial techniques permitted them to be Norman Rockwell at one moment, and then Turner, Rembrandt, or Vermeer at another.”

As artists, they made motion picture artworks—with a brush, roller and sponge, spray guns and Hudson tanks, brooms, or just sheer tactile aggression—on a massive Ford’s River Rouge industrial scale and output schedule.

“Bold, efficient brushstrokes pull forms into a loose realism that breathes with the energy of the artists who laid the marks on the canvas,” Maness expounds. “These monumental witnesses to cinematic history vibrate with impressionistic optical blending techniques, applied with pneumatic guns, to deliver fine points of color that pull together and hold up as realism for the camera’s eye.”

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The Boca Raton Museum of Art will present a series of events and educational presentations for the community throughout the run of the exhibition, from now through January 23, 2023. Learn more about this special programming at BocaMuseum.org/visit/events.

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