Filmmaking and Art have always seemed to go hand in hand. Wether you consider movies as an art form or a simple money grabber,it’s undeniable the presence film has conquered in the art universe. In the early mute days, when images were worth a thousand words, there was a big concern about the importance of the single frame in the moving pictures novelty, but as soon as the sound became a big part of the industry, and later the colour, some of the early priorities were set aside.
Still, through the times, paintings and photos were the inspiration for directors to assemble certain scenes, for writers as basis to their screenplays and for cinematographers in incorporating the magic of art in the camera composition.
In this list you can find some examples of the artistic influences in cinema. Starting with construction coming alive on the screen, passing by people resurrecting for the sake of beauty and finishing with examples of art serving as an atmosphere for the film.
1. Metropolis (Fitz Lang, 1928) – The Tower Of Babel (Pieter Bruegel, 1563)
One of the best examples of the german expressionism brilliance, or perhaps the ultimate one, Metropolis, is still seen as one of the most innovative pieces of art ever created. In a futuristic 2026, the city planners rule the city as the working class tries to survive with the little they got. The son of a wealthy man finds about the City of Workers, in the day he chasing a beautiful working class woman, and does his best to change their conditions.
The futuristic utopian world is shown as big and rich, with a grand tower in the centre of it, inspired by the biblical interpretation of The Tower Of Babel by Bruegel. Beyond the stylistic visual impact it sets in the film, the painting can also relate with the film’s message, as the biblical story is related with the union/separation of the human race.
2. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) – House By The Rail Road (Edward Hopper, 1925)
Marion, a desperate woman in search for money to get married, decides to steal 40,00$ from her employers client and heads up to California to meet her lover. Facing a severe storm, Marion decides to stop on a desolated motel outside the main road, The Bates Motel. Inside she meets Norman Bates, the shy son of the owner and departs to her room to take a shower…
Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic is one of the most famous movies of all time, but not many people know that the design of the iconic Bates’ house, over the motel, was inspired by an Edward Hopper painting. Not only that but some other scenes are very similar with other paintings by the artist, like the opening shot that shares resemblances to The City (1927).
3. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973) – The Calling Of St Matthew (Caravaggio, 1959-1960)
Martin Scorsese’s 70s gangster landmark narrates the dangerous life on New York’s Little Italy seen by an outsider, a man with a moral compass who tries to understand the gangster world in his own perspective. Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel play the lead parts in this classic about the successes and struggles of the members of a small-time hood.
About the homage to Caravaggio in Mean Streets, Scorsese stated: “I was instantly taken by the power of [Caravaggio’s] pictures. Initially, I related to them because of the moment that he chose to illuminate in the story. You come upon the scene midway and you’re immersed in it. It was like modern staging in film: it was so powerful and direct. He would have been a great filmmaker, there’s no doubt about it. He sort of pervaded the entirety of the bar sequences in Mean Streets. It’s basically people sitting in bars, people at tables, people getting up. The Calling Of St Matthew, but in New York!”
4. Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975) – The Dance/ The Happy Marriage VI: The Country Dance (William Hogarth, 1745)
In the Eighteenth Century, Redmond Barry is a young farm man which, after a series of unfortunate events, is obligated to joins the British Army to fight in the Seven Years War. There he becomes the protégé of Chevalier de Balibari and, later, marries the wealthy Lady Lyndon, but Barry’s obsession with power, nobility and money can put in cause everything he accomplished in his quest for dignity.
Barry Lyndon is a highly celebrated mainly for John Alcott’s cinematography. The film is exclusively shot with natural light, seeking a more realistic approach to the period, and many of the shots are inspired by paintings from the same time frame. Hogarth’s work can be easily identified in many of the decadent images, but it’s his iconic Country Dance that can be seen as a more direct reference in the movie.
5. Days Of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978) – Christina’s World (Andrew Wyeth, 1948)
Bill and Abby, a young couple pretending to be siblings, travel to the south in seek of a better life. When they find employment on a farm, in Texas, the farmer falls in love with Abby and, when they find he has a severe decease, the lovers decide she should accept his wedding proposal. Unluckily, the farmer’s death fails to happen and the conflict starts between these three people.
Terrence Malick’s visual poetry is taken to the maximum in his second directorial effort. The golden broad landscapes presented throughout the film are very much a character in Days Of Heaven, following the other characters and their inner conflicts and taking a very important part in the overall narrative. Christina’s World is a clear influence, from the colour scheme to the similarities in the landscape, passing by the subtext of the painting.
6. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Terry Gilliam, 1989) – The Birth Of Venus (Sandro Botticelli, 1484-1486)
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is an adventure epic featuring an aristocrat, his henchmen and a little girl that team up together with the goal of defeating the Turks, on an eighteenth century European town.
In one of their fantastic adventures, they are faced with the beauty of Venus in a very ceremonial moment in which she comes out of a huge shell and poses just like in the Botticelli painting. The stunning Uma Thurman plays Venus and, although her visit is short, it’s still the most remarkable moment in the movie.
7. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) – Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 (Diane Arbus, 1967)
Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson), a recovering alcoholic and writer on a creative block, accepts a job as the house keeper of the isolated Overlook Hotel by its closing time, in winter. Isolated on the snowy mountains with his wife (Shelley Duvall) and his psychic son, Jack is haunted by the hotel’s ghosts and is persuaded (and helped) by the dark forces to kill his family.
Based on the Stephen King novel, The Shining is arguably one of the most sinister and scary movies of all time. Stanley Kubrick thought about a thousand of ways to make his take on the horror genre an experience no one would ever forget. The twins Danny sees on the hallway are a very important ingredient of the film’s disturbing nature. A Diane Arbus photography from the late 60s served as an inspiration to the spooky twins no one ever forgets after watching the film.