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Art in America (2001) - The Man Who Saw Too Much: Alfred Hitchcock




The myriad correspondences between Alfred Hitchcock's movies and modern art are explored in the exhibit "Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences." This exhibit originated at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and travels to the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.


The Man Who Saw Too Much: Alfred Hitchcock

The myriad visual correspondences between Alfred Hitchcock's movies and modern art are explored in an exhibition that travels to the Centre Pompidou this month.

Works of art can possess ominous power in Alfred Hitchcock's films. In Blackmail (1929), a painting of a laughing jester seems to mock Alice White from the easel of the artist she has just killed. Guilt-ridden and fearful, she lashes out, ripping the canvas. A portrait of her predecessor torments the second Mrs. Maxim de Winter in Rebecca (1940), Hitchcock's American debut, while the ancestral image of Carlotta Valdez, enshrined in a museum in Vertigo (1957), appears to drive Madeleine Elster mad. But "Hitchcock and Art," a fascinating exhibition organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, does more than merely survey the director's oeuvre for sightings of paintings or sculptures. Cocurators Guy Cogeval and Dominique Paini, directors of the Montreal Museum and the Parisian Cinematheque Francaise respectively, situate Hitchcock's 50 years of filmmaking within the larger visual culture of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Film clips, storyboards, publicity stills and costume designs are provocatively juxtaposed with works in all mediums by diverse artists ranging from Edward Burne-Jones to Julia Margaret Cameron, Auguste Rodin, Edvard Munch, Max Ernst, Bridget Riley and many others.

Subtitled "Fatal Coincidences," the exhibition reveals myriad correspondences among these objects in iconography and style, formal and narrative strategies, mood and recurring themes. Literary and cinematic parallels are noted as well. According a popular filmmaker such expansive treatment is an unusual endeavor for an art museum, although in 1999, the centenary of Hitchcock's birth, the Oxford Museum of Modern Art organized another kind of homage: "Notorious: Alfred Hitchcock and Contemporary Art" surveyed video and sound works, photographs and installations by artists directly referencing or inspired by movies like Rear Window (1953), Psycho (1959-60) and Marnie (1963-64). Victor Burgin began this artistic engagement with Hitchcock in his psychoanalytic treatment of Vertigo, a text and photo-panel piece titled The Bridge (1984); the phenomenon is now widespread and international, exemplified by Judith Barry, Stan Douglas, Pierre Huyghe and David Reed, among others. The pervasive appeal of Hitchcock in recent years is attributable to multiple and diverse factors, not the least of which must be technological (the advent of the VCR) and theoretical (the ascendancy of semiotics and psychoanalysis as interpretive models). Surely contemporary artists are equally seduced by the potent psychology of Hitchcock's oeuvre, his manipulation of Freudian concepts and, above all, his masterly production of a realist, narrative cinema injected with his own supremely self-conscious artifice.

While Oxford's "Notorious" approached the films of Britain's native son as a source or, perhaps better, a resource for contemporary, visual artists, "Hitchcock and Art" instead reeks to contextualize his aesthetic historically. It's notable that this ambitious, celebratory project was initiated by two Frenchmen. At the forefront of film studies and theory, French intellectuals of Cahiers du cinema long ago recognized Hitchcock's status as auteur, devoting a special issue to his work in 1954; François Truffaut's interviews with him appeared in 1962, followed by his Cinema selon Hitchcock in 1966. Cogeval, moreover, is an expert on European Symbolist art and aims to show how Hitchcock's sensibilities, especially toward female beauty and romantic yearning, developed from this poetic attitude of the 19th century. Symbolists and Pre-Raphaelites defined the remote, even unattainable woman, cloaked in mystery, later embodied in characters like the spectral Madeleine Elster or the frigid antiheroine of Marnie. Images associating love and death, desire and drowning -- John Everett Millais's Study for Ophelia (1852), Willy Sohiobach's The Dead Woman (1890) -- predict morbid Hitchcock obsessions and the watery tableau of Madeleine's suicidal plunge into the San Francisco Bay. A contemporary tribute to Hitchcock's dramatic mise-en-scene, sans femme, is also included -- a color photograph by Cindy Bernard of the Golden Gate Bridge, Ask the Dusk Vertigo (1990).

Although this ricochet of sources, homages and "coincidences" old and new creates a tangled web, the exhibition refuses to reduce its thesis to simple causality or influence, insisting on varied possibilities. A gallery of illustrations for the stories of Edgar Mlan Poe by artists like Alfred Kubin, Odilon Redon and the Italian Symbolist Alberto Martini reminds us that Hitchcock knowingly modeled his efforts in suspense on Poe's dark "spellbinding logic."(2) In other instances, the relationships posited are tentative, as when Hitchcock clips are compared with similar scenes from Luis Bunuel, Jean Cocteau and Fritz Lang. Does the struggle between Scottie Ferguson and Madeleine/Judy in the mission bell tower in Vertigo derive from an episode in Bunuel's El (1952), or the shower murder in Psycho from Lang's While the City Sleebs (1956)? The viewer must decide.

Where Lang is concerned, it's clear at least that Hitchcock shared the German's genius for orchestrating light and dark for psychological effects. Early in his career, working in Berlin and Munich in 1924 and 1925 respectively, Hitchcock had been exposed to the techniques of Expressionist cinema at UFA and Emelka Studios. Stills and storyboards in "Hitchcock and Art" demonstrate his skillful uses of the favorite Expressionist motif of the shadowy staircase to create mystery in Blackmail, Number Seventeen (1932) and Shadow of a Doubt (1942), while a nighttime view of the little English hamlet in Murder! (1930) might be mistaken for Caligari's Holstenwall.

This latter Murder! image appears in a gallery devoted to "disquiet," exploring how haunted cities, castles silhouetted against the evening sky, abandoned buildings or isolated structures like the tattered windmill in Foreign Correspondent (1940) arouse a sense of foreboding. Hitchcock, the exhibition suggests, took his cues from a visual tradition harking back to the Romanticism of J.M.W. Turner and, later, Arnold Bocklin, whose lonely, windswept ruins may well-have inspired the director's conception of the burnt-out estate of Manderley, looming up through darkness and mist in the opening scenes of Rebecca. The Gothic structures of Québec City, seen from a low vantage point against gray clouds, produce a similar quality of unease at the beginning of I Confess (1952). And Hitchcock knew that a Victorian Gothic house on a hill, a la Edward Hopper circa 1927, was the ideal domicile for the crazed ghost of Mrs. Bates in Psycho. (Her mummified head -- the wax prop, actually -- qualifies as the most gruesome object in the exhibition.)

Disquiet also stems from the kind of agoraphobic spaces depicted in paintings by Ralston Crawford, Whitestone Bridge or Overseas Highway (both 1939), with no trace of human presence. In these, or in earlier drawings by the Belgian Symbolist Leon Spillaert of vast empty strands that dwarf nocturnal figures, one recognizes, as did Hitchcock, the possibilities for alienation, for rendering solitary beings physically and psychologically vulnerable. Comparisons are drawn, too, between Giorgio de Chirico's metaphysical spaces, with their stark columns and silent arcades, and the menacing architectural backdrops of the British Museum in Blackmail, where the villainous Tracy meets his demise, and the stony monuments of Washington, D.C., that tower behind Bruno Antony, the dangerous psychopath in Strangers on a Train (1950).

The best-known instance of Hitchcock's direct reliance on precedents in painting is the Surrealist dream sequence in Spellbound (1944), for which he hired none other than Salvador Dali to visualize John Ballantine's nightmare. "Hitchcock and Art" includes three grisaille studies Dali produced for the movie and a painting, The Eye (1944), given to the director after the shoot was completed, as well as a re-creation of the great curtain with staring eyes that's sliced with a gigantic scissors in the dream. A monitor in the same gallery broadcasts the nightmare in all its vivid strangeness -- excluding Dali's image, excised from the film by producer David O Selznick, of Ballantine's psychiatrist (Ingrid Bergman) transformed into a white statue. Originally, the dream was a full 15 minutes long; Selznick edited the sequence while Hitchcock, having finished shooting the movie, was away in England. The lost scenes, captured in photographs in the exhibition of a marmoreal Bergman on the set, testify to the legendary tension between Selznick and his creative rival.

A staple of Surrealism, the theme of woman as statue recurs in a painting by Rene Magritte, Deep Waters (1941), where an uncanny marble figure in coat and gloves is accompanied by an incongruously huge bird. The resemblance between the Magritte and a publicity photo for The Birds (1962) is striking: Tippi Hedren, a big crow perched on her arm, is statuesque in a glamorous cocktail sheath. Hedren is among the many Hitchcock heroines pictured in the exhibition, which foregrounds his celebrated "type," a cool blonde, often described as "icy" and inaccessible. The statue metaphor gives added meaning to his predilection for clothing female leads in long white gowns with pleated skirts, thus casting Bergman, loan Fontaine and -- in Edith Head's costume designs for To Catch a Thief (1954) -- Grace Kelly as archaic Grecian kore or fluted columns.

A painting of Pygmalion and Galatea (ca. 1926) by Franz von Stuck invites us to consider the more universal trope of woman as image, fashioned by man according to his desire, as Hitchcock, for instance, literally transformed Hedren from model to movie star or as Scottie recreates Madeleine from Judy in Vertigo. Although a gallery of beautiful blondes -- including stunning Technicolor sequences of Hedren in Marnie, Kelly in Rear Window and Kim Novak in Vertigo -- allows viewers to luxuriate in the visual pleasure of what Hitchcock wrought, an untitled film still (1979) by Cindy Sherman posing in a white slip subtly reminds us that such eroticized icons are masculinist constructions.

Also illuminated in the exhibition is the fetishizing of feminine hair and body parts that film theorist Laura Mulvey identified as a crucial defensive mechanism of the male unconscious in classic Hollywood cinema.(4) But the tendency is peculiar neither to Hitchcock nor to film: Vertigo's loving close-up of Madeleine's blonde chignon and the fascinated caress of the back of Eve Kendall's neck in North by Northwest (1958) find echoes in paintings on view by Edouard Vuillard, The Nape of Misia's Neck (ca. 189-99), and Domenico Gnoli, Curly Red Hair (1969). The libidinotts investment in women's accessories seems ubiquitous, as we encounter images of Psycho's Marion Crane in girdle and lacy brassiere, or Marnie's soft leather purse (stuffed with stolen money) gripped tightly under her arm or Catherine Lacy's shiny high-heel pumps in The Lady Vanishes (1938). It's the same urge to fragment, isolate and cathect found in Alfred Stieglitz's 1919 photograph of a woman's leg, stockinged and tightly shod or, earlier, in Max Klinger's suite of etchings (1881) unfoldlng a tale of a man's desperate obsession with a woman's glove. An amazing surprise in this category is a painting in the show by German Realist Wilhelm Leibl, The Corset (ca. 1880-81), which fixates on a woman's cinched waist, every pleat in her apron, every fold on her sleeve detailed with almost lascivious attention.

Eroticized vision and cultural spectacle number of works in the exhibition that parallel themes in the movies. If the menaced eyes in Spellbound's dream signify castration, the look in Psycho and Rear Window is also phallic -- witness Norman Bates spying on his victim through a peephole (a picture of Susanna and the Elders on the wall nearby) and L.B. Jeffries equipped with a long telephoto lens, the better to observe Miss Torso and her neighbors across the courtyard. Clips from these films indicate how effectively Hitchcock implicates the moviegoer as voyeur: in the opening scene in Psycho, the camera pans across Phoenix until it finds a window with blinds slightly raised, then sneaks beneath them into a room where Marion lies in her underwear, her lover standing over her. Hitchcock indulges his and his viewers' voyeurism while also positioning them as guilty perverts -- Peeping Toms. Across the century, a number of other works present scopophilia as a common feature of the modern city: Auguste Chabaud's painting Hotel-Hotel (1907-08) of neon nightlife populated by disembodied eyes; Andre Kertesz's photograph of a couple, backs turned to his camera, peeking through cracks in a fence in Circus, May 19, 1920; and Alain Fleischer's nocturnal projection of pornographic images on the brick wall of an apartment building in Exhibition in the North of France (1992). The witty inclusion of Magritte's 1937 photo of Edward James, seen from the rear studying one of the artist's paintings, suggests to the exhibition's visitors how they, too, participate in the kind of activity in question.

The active gaze is the subject of Tony Oursler's video installation Seed (1996), where the image of an eye watching Brian de Palma's Dressed to Kill is projected onto an 18-inch sphere; we see the searching, blinking, pupil-dilating eyeball engaged and excited by the violent film reflected on its surface. Movies, theater, circus, sideshow, all cater to the hungry eyes of the crowd in paintings by Walter Sickert, Georges Rouault and Guy Pene du Bois, while framed stills and clips from Murder!, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), Saboteur (1942), Stage Fright (1950) and I Confess illustrate some of the many instances in Hitchcock when scenes of violence take place as spectacle, literally onstage. These frequent allusions to theater within Hitchcock's dramas, like plays within plays or pictures within pictures, underscore his self-awareness as an artist, just as his amusing cameo appearances, inventoried in this exhibition by 40 backlit stills -- from an ad for weight reduction read by William Bendix in Lifeboat (1943) to a bus ride with Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief -- serve as signs of his presence and authorship.

Hitchcock studied art and art history, at the Vniversity of London and later became a collector, acquiring works by Milton Avery, Raoul Dufy, Albert Gleizes, Paul Klee, Rodin, Rouault, Pierre Soulages and Chaim Soutine. Of these, he believed he had something in common with Rouault in his devotion to a certain number of important themes: "Not that I'm comparing myself to him," Hitchcock explained to Truffaut in 1962, "but old Rouault was content with judges, clowns, a few women, and Christ on the Cross." These were sufficient subjects for Rouault to express his moral outrage and Christian sentiment, and one of the numerous revelations of "Hitchcock and Art" is how the director's own Catholic background emerges in vignettes that resemble religious tableaux familiar from painting: a Deposition in The Lodger (1927), a Pieta in Topaz (1969), Christ Mocked in I Confess. Juxtaposed with images of Christ's Passion by Rouault and another Catholic artist, Maurice Denis, scenes from The Wrong Man (1956), in which Manny Balestrero is unjustly persecuted for crimes he did not commit, illustrate Hitchcock's compassion for innocence and suffering.

Women of course represent the majority of victims in his films, but Hitchcock reserves his greatest sympathy for two falsely accused men, Father Michael Logan in I Confess and "wrong man" Manny, artist-musician and devoted husband and father. We need a political as well as a pictorial context to grasp the full implications of these martyrlike characters who are so touchingly and empathically drawn. It's significant (though beyond the purview of the exhibition's French organizers) that these two persecution films, with their Christological overtones, were made during the grim days of the McCarthy hearings. The Hollywood Ten were imprisoned in 1950; Arthur Miller was subpoenaed before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1956 and, refusing -- like Father Logan -- to name names in order to preserve his own, was tried for contempt and convicted the following year. Hitchcock made no public proclamations about his fellow artists' fate but, brilliantly, found a way to express his moral concerns as a purveyor of visual images. Twenty years after his death, his complex humanity is still a source of astonishing discovery as film scholars and theorists mine his life's work for new insights. Highlighting his contribution from an entirely novel perspective, "Hitchcock and Art" reveals both his place in art history and the dark and light sides of his extraordinary genius.

(c) Art in America