June 7, 2023

The world of art is not an exclusive club to which only a select few have access. It is neither a luxury nor is it reserved for the privileged. We encounter art everywhere. We don't have to go to a museum to see it. And yet even the Old Masters in museums have much more to do with the reality of our lives than we sometimes think.

The boundaries between film, music, fashion and art are blurred as artists create elaborate productions that directly or indirectly reference famous paintings.

Art in Pop Culture

In 2018, Beyoncé and Jay-Z rented the entire Louvre to film their music video for the song Apeshit. The song contains political undertones and critical commentary on social reality. Lyrics such as "I can't believe we made it" can be understood as a reaction to the experience of racism and injustice in society.

Beyoncé and Jay-Z use their art to draw attention to these issues and to be a voice for those who are often marginalized. By choosing the Louvre as the backdrop for their music video, they symbolically enter the realm of classical art and claim their place in a space traditionally dominated by "white" culture.

When pop culture refers to the works of the Old Masters, it's like a meeting of different worlds. Both worlds feed off each other. By referencing established works of high culture, art becomes accessible to a much wider audience. People who may not have been exposed to museums and Old Masters can experience art and culture in a whole new way.

At least as exciting is the creative exchange between past and present. Pop culture can use old masterpieces as a source of inspiration and breathe new life into them with new elements and perspectives. The result is innovative creations that enrich the artistic landscape.

In this way, works of high culture remain relevant and current. As part of a lively cultural dialog, they retain their meaning for new generations. A kind of cultural curiosity is created that can lead to a deeper appreciation and understanding of works of high culture.

Painting meets film: The Connection Between Art and Film

The old masters had a grandiose mastery of pictorial composition. They created balanced, aesthetically sophisticated compositions. The principles by which they worked can be found in many films today, whose directors, cinematographers and storyboard artists consciously refer to the teachings of earlier schools of painting. The placement of figures or objects in the frame, the use of line and perspective to create depth and tension, and the creation of a harmonious overall image are among the elements that artists of earlier centuries and eras developed and used over generations.

As in painting, color plays an important role in filmmaking. Have you ever noticed that action or superhero movies tend to be bright and full of energetic colors, while thrillers tend to be darker? In romantic comedies, the colors are delicate, but the more the focus is on the comedic part, the bolder the colors become. Just like the old masters, filmmakers influence the overall mood with their choice of color palette, which can vary depending on the subject.

The use of light and shadow can create an eerie, serene, or even menacing atmosphere. This concept is also used in film to enhance the mood of a scene or to emphasize certain aspects of the plot. Directors and cinematographers study the paintings of the old masters to learn their techniques of playing with light and applying them to their own work. This creates a special visual effect that enhances the emotional intensity of the story and gives the viewer a more intense experience.

Both filmmakers and old masters use symbols to convey certain messages or achieve deeper levels of meaning in their works. This is the case with the rose in American Beauty (1999). It represents both beauty and transience. And it shows the characters' longing for something meaningful in their superficial and unfulfilled lives. The mirror in Black Swan (2010) symbolizes the inner conflict of the main character Nina. It shows her identity conflicts and her fear of losing herself.

Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick has been known to draw inspiration from artists and works of art. The 1975 film Barry Lyndon, for example, pays homage to 18th-century English landscape painting. Almost every shot is reminiscent of a painting by Thomas Gainsborough or John Canstable. It's impressive, by the way, that the movie's candlelit scenes were actually shot entirely by candlelight. Kubrick used a camera lens designed for NASA to make this possible.

It is no coincidence that the uncanny twins in The Shinning are reminiscent of photographer Diane Arbus's famous portrait Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey. In A Clockwork Orange, he even quotes a work by Vincent van Gogh.

Kunst in der Popkultur

Clockwork Orange movie scene

Round of the prisoners of Vincent van Gogh

The Fascination of Art Theft: A Gentleman's Crime and an Ingenious Plan

Art theft is a popular theme in movies. When art is stolen in the movies, we know: The villain is not a villain. He is a gentleman, highly educated, subtle, worldly, and superior to everyone else. He is usually not in it for the money. No, he robs for art's sake. Sometimes he does it to "atone for a transgression," to do a good deed. In any case, the art thief in the movie is almost always the good guy.

The White Collar series works on this principle. So does the Ocean's series. In the second part, a Fabergé egg is to be stolen - the most expensive of the Fabergé eggs, by the way. The theft will take place in the Galleria D'Arte di Roma, which doesn't really exist. The British School in Rome lends its facade to the imaginary museum.

More than 150 masterpieces were copied for the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair starring Pierce Brosnan. The painting San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk by Claude Monet is stolen from there. The movie claims that it is the first Impressionist painting. This is not true. It would be strange because the painting was done in 1908, while the first Impressionist group exhibition took place in 1874. However, the art movement was named after another painting by Monet, Impression, Soleil Levant.

In the movie Hudson Hawk, 4 works of Leonardo da Vinci are to be stolen at the same time. And so on and so forth. The mixture of clever tactics, ingenious planning, surprising twists and mostly charming thieves makes art heist movies a popular genre. Even if the reality is not so glamorous, when art is stolen, from museums, for example, the media attention is usually very high. Part of this is due to the cultural significance and high value of the art, but there is also an air of adventure and mystery.

One of the most spectacular art thefts in history was the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, from the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, by Italian artisan Vincenzo Peruggia. Peruggia had previously worked as a glazier at the Louvre. Disguised as a craftsman, he entered the museum through the staff entrance, stole the painting, and hid it under his clothes. After removing a door handle, he asked a passing workman to open the side door for him.

The theft of the Mona Lisa caused a worldwide sensation and led to an intensive international manhunt. But the painting remained missing for more than two years. Finally, Peruggia was caught trying to sell the stolen masterpiece to an art dealer in Florence. The Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre. This spectacular art heist added to the legend surrounding the painting - and led to increased security measures in museums worldwide.

Needless to say, the heist was filmed several times.

The Artwork as Performer

Art in film is not just an object of desire. Sometimes works of art are used much more subtly to underscore the plot or the characters' motivations. In Notting Hill, Anna gives William the original of a print that hangs in his kitchen. The filmmakers could have chosen any painting and it would not have changed the plot of the movie.

But they chose La Mariée by Marc Chagall. It symbolizes the longing for something lost. In 1944, Chagall lost his beloved wife. It was not until a year later that he slowly began to paint again, and from then on he often chose the bride as his subject. The longing for what might have been is also present in the movie when Anna gives the painting to William.

Incidentally, the copy of La Mariée had to be destroyed at the end of the shoot, a condition imposed by the owner of the original: It was the only way the copy could be made in the first place.

In Skyfall, James Bond and the new Q meet for the first time in the National Gallery. They have a date in front of William Turner's The Fighting Temeraire. They talk about the innovation of youth versus the experience of age in a changing, digital world. Turner's painting, depicting the glorious battleship Temeraire, now in a fragile state of disrepair, not only underscores the content of their conversation. It also reflects Bond's state of mind.

Inspiration from the Past: The Power of Art References

Art references are not a pop culture invention. Throughout the ages, artists have been inspired by their predecessors. It's a kind of dialogue across the centuries in which ideas, concepts, and aesthetic elements are passed down.

When artists deliberately incorporate quotations or references to past works into their own creations, it can serve as a tribute to their predecessors or as a subtle way to communicate with other art lovers. These references to past art create a kind of artistic network that exists across time. Art is an ongoing process of creation, inspiration, and connection.

Las Meninas

Diego Velasquez | Las Meninas

The painting Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez is considered one of the most important works in the history of European art. It is a symbol of the power and influence of the Spanish royal family, but it also raises many questions. The painting depicts Princess Margarita, daughter of Spain's King Philip IV, surrounded by her court. But it could also be a self-portrait. And why is the royal couple so small in the mirror?

Velasquez's refined rendering, his ability to capture the individuality of his subjects, and his masterful use of light and shadow make the painting a study in perspective, space, and human interaction. It raises questions about the nature of art, the role of the artist, and the viewer's gaze.

This has led to many interpretations and discussions. And it has led artists to engage with painting in ever new ways. For example, it inspired Oscar Wilde to write his tale The Birthday of the Infanta, Sophie Matisse to paint the room without people, and Picasso to create more than 40 variations of the painting!

Pictures at an Exhibition

Viktor Hartman | Das Balett der unausgeschlüpften Küken / The ballet of the unhatched chicks

Another excellent example that shows that art references are nothing new is Pictures at an Exhibition. Modest Mussorgsky created a musical work in 1874 that takes the listener on a sonic journey through an imaginary art exhibition. The artist Viktor Hartmann, a friend of Mussorgsky, had died a year earlier. The paintings displayed in the memorial exhibition in his honor inspired Mussorgsky. He originally composed the suite for the piano. Later, it was arranged for orchestra and gained even greater fame as a result.

Pictures at an Exhibition brings to life the various drawings and paintings. Each piece represents a different work of art and captures their character and atmosphere. The suite begins with the Promenade motif, which guides the listener through the exhibition. It is a thematic link between the individual pieces and represents the strolling visitor strolling from artwork to artwork. The motif appears again and again, each time slightly altered to reflect the different impressions of the artworks on display.

Each image in the exhibition has its own musical interpretation. Gnomus conjures up the image of a hunchbacked figure with its dark, dissonant sounds. A delicate, melancholic waltz sounds in the Old Castle, and the Ballet of unhatched Chicks is humorous and lively. The boundaries between visual art and music are blurred in the Pictures of an Exhibition.

Art references as bridges between past and present

One of my favorite artists who has mastered the art of quoting the most famous works of art history is Ertan Atay. He selects details and fragments from paintings and incorporates them into his works.

His works of atmospheric aesthetics transfer old masterpieces into a modern context. Ertan Atay mixes styles and epochs, playing with perception. This is what makes his works so wonderfully humorous, surprising and unexpected.

Art references help connect with the past, understand the present, and push the boundaries of creativity. By referencing and quoting the works of old masters, pop culture creates a connection between seemingly disparate worlds - and that leads to a rich cultural experience.

How do you like references to famous paintings, sculptures, or literary works in movies or songs? Did they impress you, make you think?
Share your favorite art references in the comments.

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About the Author Lea Finke

Lea Finke is an artist with all her soul. In her blog, she talks about inspiration, passion, and encounters with art.

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