With just a few steps, people entering the Boca Raton Art Museum can travel from the colossal Mount Rushmore to the vast cityscape of ancient Rome.
All 22 renders look real, but they were ripped from MGM’s basements – narrowly escaping a junkyard grave.
“The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop” is the latest exhibit from the Boca Raton Museum of Art. The hand-painted scenes date back decades, dating back to 1938. But the artists responsible have never been credited – until now.
Exhibition co-curators Karen Maness and Thomas Walsh spent hours combing through archives and oral histories to find the artists behind the realistic canvases. Although they were able to credit over a dozen artists for their work, many still remain unnamed.
“I started this out of a love of painting,” said Maness, a professor at the University of Texas and co-author of “The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop,” a 13-book tome published in 2016.
“I wear it both for the love of painting but also as an advocate for these artists to help them be seen in history. They deserve to be recognized and honored,” Maness said.
The University of Texas at Austin previously hosted the exhibit, often selling out even at the height of the pandemic. This spring, the university loaned several pieces to the Boca Raton Museum of Art.
The exhibit features 22 iconic settings, including the Austrian Alps featured in “The Sound of Music” and Mount Rushmore from Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” – a favorite of Walsh, an Emmy Award-winning production designer.
“It’s like naming your favorite child. You can’t,” Walsh said, then turned to face the Mount Rushmore giant. “But that’s it.”
Works like this are often created by four to five artists on a tight deadline – one to four weeks depending on the project. Hitchcock’s backdrop towers over visitors at 90 by 60 feet.
What sets this art form apart from what museum goers might be more accustomed to seeing – aside from its sheer size – is that it was not designed for the naked eye.
“These are artists who understand the art of illusion,” said Irvin Lippman, the museum’s executive director.
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They may not look as detailed as classic realism, but in a camera lens they look transparent and tangible.
“It was really interesting and we were trying to get them into the movies,” said Linda Toner, Boca Raton resident and museum member, after completing a tour of the artwork. “We noticed that if you pull out your camera to take a photo, it looks a lot more realistic.”
These handmade illusions have not completely disappeared from the industry. While many modern movies rely on CGI for special effects, some directors still opt for practical effects. Movies like “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Greatest Showman” used painted backdrops.
Yet they are much less common now with today’s technology.
“The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop” also explores the history and craftsmanship behind the magic. With soundscapes and video reels, visitors can immerse themselves completely.
“Hollywood never knows what it’s lost until it’s lost,” Walsh said. “The truth is, we can’t go back in time in a time machine. We’ll never have enough artists to do it – and even if we did, they’d never have enough time to do it well.
This exhibition is accompanied by another, “Bonnie Lautenberg: Art Meets Hollywood”. Lautenberg has been a political photographer for decades. For this exhibition, she combined her love for cinema with her love for art.
Lippman called the show pairing “serendipity” and said they both demonstrated a love of filmmaking. Each of Lautenberg’s pieces combines a work of art with a still image from an iconic film.
“What’s great about it is the psychological connections between the movie, those particular scenes, and the artwork,” Lippman said.
A pairing includes a still from “Pulp Fiction” and Kenny Scharf’s “Globeglob,” a work of colorful abstract swirls. Another features René Magritte’s “Les Amants” and “La Dame Mystérieuse”, which stars Greta Garbo.
“When I put these pieces together, it’s so exciting for me,” Lautenberg said. “There is no process. Sometimes I have a film that I want to use and then I have to find the art. Sometimes I want to hire an artist and then I have to find the paint.
Of the backdrops on display, Lippman said, “People can see these beautiful paintings that [they’ve] only seen in the movies – and probably never even knew they were paintings. I think it’s kind of an amazing opportunity.
If you are going to
What:“Bonnie Lautenberg: Art Meets Hollywood”, until August 21; “Hollywood Backdrop Art,” until January 22
Or: Boca Raton Art Museum, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton
Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday
Tickets: $12 aadults; $10 seniors; free for students and children