Before green screens and CG, if you needed to shoot a scene amidst the Austrian alps or Ben-Hur’s Rome in a Hollywood studio, you turned to backdrop artists. Yet, if these colossal hand-painted works, essential to the film industry throughout Hollywood’s golden era (approximately 1920s-1960s), look unfamiliar, it’s for good reason. The artworks behind the period’s best-known films lay rolled up in the basement of MGM’s studios until recently when co-curators Thomas A. Walsh and Karen L. Maness salvaged them for the first exhibition of its kind: Art of the Hollywood Backdrop: Cinema’s Creative Legacy – which opened at Boca Raton Museum of Art, Florida last week.
Up close, these artworks might look peculiar to visitors for another reason; they were never designed to be seen by the naked eye – and not merely as a means to suspend audience disbelief. The painting process behind them was entirely unique in that they were created for the camera lens, requiring a very physical, impressionistic hand-painted style. While the backdrops may not appear photo-realistic up close, they are designed to “snap together as photo-realistic when viewed from a distance”, explains a release. “Up close they look totally different. When visitors to the museum take selfies with their phone cameras, the resulting image will look very different from what they see in person in the gallery.”
Walsh continues in the release: “In this form of painting, the deadlines and physicality required speed and confidence. The canvas was attacked with wild abandon, not courted. Their unique industrial techniques permitted them to be Norman Rockwell at one moment, and then Turner, Rembrandt or Vermeer at another.”
Another, perhaps even more impressive element of the works on display is their scale. “These are literally some of the largest paintings ever created in the world, similar to cyclorama paintings,” Walsh adds. At MGM’s peak, the studio had three shifts of scenic artists working day and night, non-stop, delivering backdrops. Maness and Walsh hope to celebrate both the unsung craftsmanship and perilous physicality required of the dozens of unidentified studio artists who worked on the canvases. Many artists remain uncredited, mainly because the studios wanted to keep a firm grip on the secret techniques utilised. The exhibition will also feature some of the tools used to deliver fine points of colour, which would hold up as realism for the camera’s eye, including brushes, rollers and sponges, spray guns and Hudson tanks, and brooms.
This display of backdrops marks the first time anyone will set eyes on the collection aside from the technicians working in the soundstages. The process of restoring and curating this mammoth collection of works is a labour of love for Maness and Walsh, who were invited to exhibit at Boca Raton Museum of Art after the museum saw a CBS Sunday Morning segment calling attention to their ongoing campaign to preserve scenic backdrops.
Art of the Hollywood Backdrop will feature 22 scenic backdrops from films between 1938 and 1968, including Singin’ in the Rain, The Sound of Music and a backdrop originally featured in Ben-Hur revived more recently for the Coens’ Hail, Caesar!. Also featured is “the grandaddy, the Babe Ruth of all Hollywood backdrops,” says Karen L. Maness in a release: North By Northwest’s Mount Rushmore backdrop. The event will also include interactive video reels offering stories behind each work alongside soundscapes related to the original films. The exhibit will run until 23 January 2023.
Backdrop: view from von Trapps’ back terrace, 30’7” x 15’8”. Photography by Sandy Carson.
About the Author
Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating in Film from The University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, INDIE magazine and design studio Evermade.