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Art in the Cinematic Imagination

Art in the Cinematic Imagination

An illuminating exploration of the relationship between art and cinema, from Hitchcock to Scorsese.

January 2005
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
$25.00
213 pages | 6 x 9 | 39 halftones |
ISBN: 
978-0-292-70941-6
Description: 

Bringing an art historical perspective to the realm of American and European film, Art in the Cinematic Imagination examines the ways in which films have used works of art and artists themselves as cinematic and narrative motifs. From the use of portraits in Vertigo to the cinematic depiction of women artists in Artemisia and Camille Claudel, Susan Felleman incorporates feminist and psychoanalytic criticism to reveal individual and collective perspectives on sex, gender, identity, commerce, and class.

Probing more than twenty films from the postwar era through contemporary times, Art in the Cinematic Imagination considers a range of structurally significant art objects, artist characters, and art-world settings to explore how the medium of film can amplify, reinvent, or recontextualize the other visual arts. Fluently speaking across disciplines, Felleman's study brings a broad array of methodologies to bear on questions such as the evolution of the "Hollywood Love Goddess" and the pairing of the feminine with death on screen.

A persuasive approach to an engaging body of films, Art in the Cinematic Imagination illuminates a compelling and significant facet of the cinematic experience.

Contents: 
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Baring the Device
  • Chapter 1. The Moving Picture Gallery
  • Chapter 2. A Form of Necrophilia (The Moving Picture Gallery Revisited)
  • Chapter 3. The Birth, Death, and Apotheosis of a Hollywood Love Goddess
  • Chapter 4. Survivors of the Shipwreck of Modernity
  • Chapter 5. Out of Her Element
  • Chapter 6. Playing with Fire
  • Chapter 7. Dirty Pictures, Mud Lust, and Abject Desire: Myths of Origin and the Cinematic Object
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
Author: 

Susan Felleman is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She is also the author of Botticelli in Hollywood: The Films of Albert Lewin.

Excerpts: 

Art (and by this I mean the "other" visual and plastic arts: painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, etc.) has been reflected and represented in, thematized by and structured into narrative films in myriad ways throughout the history of cinema. This book considers a range of such incorporations, drawn from the postwar classical and contemporary narrative cinema—European and American. I am particularly interested in attending to patterns relating to the signification and symptomatization of sex, gender, sexuality, and psyche in the way art and artists figure in film, as I believe these to be the basic problems from which much else in human nature and culture derives. The "otherness" of the other visual arts has, to cinema, a significant, although rarely simple or directly correlative relationship to the way that other "othernesses"—primarily, but not exclusively gender difference—function in the larger culture and society within which cinema operates. Committed to no one methodology, I have found a complex of formalist, structuralist, poststructuralist, feminist, and psychoanalytic methods—those in which I was educated and am, for better or for worse, most fluent—necessary for pulling apart the tangled relationships I see around art and psyche in cinema.

If I employ no one single methodology per se, there is method here, however, and that method is essentially art historical. From the field in which I was trained, I inherit a tradition of close looking and close description—at and of form, structure, and style—and ways of approaching historical and cultural patterns in art and imagery: the iconography and iconology so aptly defined by one of art history's great innovators, Erwin Panofsky.1 Panofsky, to the eternal surprise of many who think of art history as a conservative and stodgy discipline, was of course a rather early and very eloquent articulator of the cinema's close relationship to the other arts, who perceived the applicability of art historical method to cinematic objects. But Panofsky was not my teacher. Among those who were, foremost for me are Linda Nochlin and Rosalind Krauss, from whom I learned that the disciplinary rigor of art historical method need not be abandoned under the influence of new intellectual paradigms. Nochlin's brilliant feminism and Krauss's incisive and protean critical insights are always rooted to the object and its problematic nature by investigation, fascination, and close regard. They are my exemplars. Methods and attitudes about seeing and interpreting objects learned from them and others have strongly influenced my viewing, teaching, and writing in the field of cinema studies. For me theory never precedes my interest in an object but always follows from it.

There is a small but significant body of scholarly work that has been done in and around this border area between cinema and the other visual arts in the past decade, including John Walker's Art and Artists on Screen, Brigitte Peucker's Incorporating Images: Film and the Rival Arts, Angela Dalle Vacche's Cinema and Painting: How Art Is Used in Film, Katharina Sykora's As You Desire Me: Das Bildnis in Film, and volumes of collected essays edited by Patrice Petro (Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video), Dudley Andrew (The Image in Dispute: Art and Cinema in the Age of Photography), Dietrich Neumann (Film Architecture: From "Metropolis" to "Blade Runner"), Linda Ehrlich and David Desser (Cinematic Landscapes: Observations on the Visual Arts and Cinema of China and Japan), and Angela Dalle Vacche (The Visual Turn: Classical Film Theory and Art History), as well as a number of landmark exhibitions. I hope and believe that my work contributes to this meaningful interdisciplinary trend in several ways.

My background in art history enables me not only to approach the film object art historically, but to comprehend and elucidate the art objects within it. I recognize art historical citations and investigate the particularity of the works that are shown, be those relatively minor elements of the mise-en-scène or deeply imbricated with the narrative. I hope that my knowledge of modern and contemporary art, in particular, has enabled me to represent the complexity of its representations on film with sensitivity. Another contribution I hope this study makes is in connecting this interdisciplinary project to one of the dominant paradigms in cinema theory: psychoanalytic feminism. I find the basic tenets of psychoanalysis deeply persuasive and I am a feminist: I believe gender is the foundational difference that has ordered human society, in many ways that must be exposed, understood, and often, if not always, dismantled. However, it is the more basic and pragmatic aims of psychoanalytic and feminist theory that I adopt. They are not ends in themselves but elements of a particular project: to uncover the meanings that the incorporation of art has for and in movies.

When a film undertakes the representation of "art" as a theme or engages an artwork as motif, it is, whatever else it is doing, also more or less openly and more or less knowingly entering into a contemplation of its own nature and at some level positing its own unwritten theory of cinema as art. Narrative films, then, can reveal much about their individual and collective undertaking and their sense of their own and their medium's origins through the incorporation or figuration of art. The particular film objects I discuss are ones that strike me as significant for the ways in which they, generally in relation to others, put these problems of art, origins, and difference into high relief, making somewhat clearer underlying conceptions, assumptions, and ideologies of the narrative cinema that tend otherwise to remain obscure and ambiguous.

Mainstream—that is feature-length, commercial, narrative—films that foreground art, as well as most that background it, can induce a rather curious tension, as the reflexive presence of art threatens the seductive flow of the fictional world within the film with a spasm of viewer self-consciousness. This is why we refer to such works as reflexive: it is as though a mirror has been held up to the beholder. The work of art en abyme (shown in-depth) reminds the viewer that she is viewing. It is interesting, then, to consider what is at stake in such potentially disruptive representations. For one, status: not only does the subject of "art" confer a certain stature; the reflexive use of art en abyme is a hallmark of modernist art, and therefore a nod (albeit an ambivalent one) to the "highbrow" viewer. Second, a claim: one knows that the film may have a (more or less articulate) contribution to make to the ongoing, unwritten theory of the art of cinema that the movies themselves are always telling, or to the ongoing, unwritten debate about cinema's sometimes uncomfortable and always shifting position among the worlds of art, commerce, industry, and mass media.

The meanings that arise from the heightened presence of painted portraits in a number of Hollywood films of the 1940s, discussed in chapter 1, "The Moving Picture Gallery," anticipate many of the closer readings that follow. Surveying more than a dozen films of various genres—from Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) to Mankiewicz's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)—I observe not only the way in which objects of art are objects of desire, and the existential and psychological consequences of contemplating still images in relation to moving ones, but also the underlying problematics of mimetic representation generally and portrayal specifically. The painted portrait in these films often "represents" a dead person, but even when it does not, I demonstrate, it always stands for death, as well as art, two realities that the classical Hollywood film, it has been often argued, represses or disavows.

Many of the same issues around mortality, mimetic representation, portrayal, and desire are explored in greater depth in chapter 2, "A Form of Necrophilia (The Moving Picture Gallery Revisited)." Here, it is not merely the appearance of portraits—in this case photographic and painted—that is meaningful, but the narrative pattern in which they appear. In-depth analysis of five films that share a poignant narrative trope—men meet and fall in love with women who uncannily resemble their dead love objects in Corridor of Mirrors (1948), Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), Vertigo (1958), Obsession (1976), and The Last Tycoon (1976)—demonstrates that the representation en abyme is a reification of a component part of the cinematic apparatus itself. The poignant theme is, in effect, allegorical.

Chapter 3, "The Birth, Death, and Apotheosis of a Hollywood Love Goddess," considers the way that sculpture—as three-dimensional object of art—fleshes out (as it were) problematics of corporeality, carnality, and embodiment, adding to the morbid and aesthetic mix around the classical cinema. Analyzing the intriguingly symmetrical relationship between two films starring Ava Gardner and featuring statuary—One Touch of Venus (1948) and The Barefoot Contessa (1954)—I describe the paradigmatic aspect of Gardner's stardom in relationship to an iconology that sheds light on inherently allegorical aspects of these films, as well as problematics around eroticism and moviegoing.

Two of the films discussed in chapters 2 and 3, Lewin's Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and, especially, Mankiewicz's The Barefoot Contessa, are meaningful sources, I argue, for the two European art films that are explored in considerable depth, both independently and in relation to each other, in chapter 4, "Survivors of the Shipwreck of Modernity." Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (Le Mépris, 1963) and Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse (1991), as "art" films and, moreover, as adaptations of modern literary landmarks (Alberto Moravia's Il Disprezzo and Honoré de Balzac's Le Chef d'oeuvre inconnu, respectively), claim an artistic heritage much more readily than even the most self-conscious of the more "hollywoodienne" films discussed previously. But the art film's readiness to bare its own devices comes to seem predicated on its insistence on baring the female body, too, and preserving, indeed naturalizing, a sexist ideology of culture for which the nude is emblematic. This chapter explores each film's complex engagement with its literary sources and with the other plastic arts, as well as with the distinct architecture of its location, and uncovers a veritable archaeology of the myth of the feminine in modern Western culture.

It is not only veterans of a movement of arguably preconscious (or should that be precocious?) sexism—Jacques Rivette and the New Wave—who perpetuate retrograde myths in contemporary films, though. The mythology bodied forth so elegantly in Rivette's "masterful" contemplation of artists and models is uncannily similar to that I uncover in two very different contemporary films from the 1980s in chapter 5, "Out of Her Element." In most respects, Splash (1984) and Children of a Lesser God (1986) could not seem more different from La Belle Noiseuse. Certainly, neither is an "art" film; these were two very commercial films made in the very commercial climate of Hollywood in the mid-1980s. Indeed, art is a mere diversion, or detail, in these movies, not a central theme. But art objects emerge as symptomatic of the construction of a mythic femininity in both films, which share an image of woman as elemental, immanent, fluid . . . an image that psychoanalysis brings to the surface.

There is an elemental aspect to the representation of women, too, in three other American movies of the 1980s, those I discuss in chapter 6, "Playing with Fire." After Hours (1985), Legal Eagles (1986), and Backtrack (1989) all manufacture an incendiary mix of women, art, money, and danger in stories set in and around the contemporary art world. Perplexity and suspicion swirl around art, particularly around the new, conceptual, and performative forms that proliferated in the art world of the 1980s and that are here associated with women. I explore the ways in which these three films frame this association, and expose the symptomatic ways in which their scorn and suspicion of both (seemingly) nonremunerative, noncrafted art forms and women artists reflect upon their own sense of viability (never mind virility).

Craft, gender, and virility are all themes, too, in chapter 7, "Dirty Pictures, Mud Lust, and Abject Desire: Myths of Origin and the Cinematic Object," which focuses on three other contemporary films—Artemisia (1997), Camille Claudel (1988), and Life Lessons (1989). In these films, the theme of the heterosexual artist couple is employed to embody a myth of the origins of art—as the outcome of the art act's inherently erotic aspect—and at the same time to perpetuate a gendered view of art in which what is great and virile in the male artist is pathological in the female.

The films considered in these chapters range from ones in which statues, figurines, photographs, or portraits are metonymic images of larger thematic preoccupations (Suspicion, Splash, or Children of a Lesser God); to ones with structurally significant art objects, artist characters, or settings related to the art world (One Touch of Venus, Legal Eagles, or After Hours); to others entirely pervaded by art and artiness (Pandora and the Flying Dutchman or Contempt); to those wholly concerned with art, the lives of artists, and art making (La Belle Noiseuse, Artemisia, or Life Lessons).

This is not an encyclopedic endeavor, though: I make no claim to considering every film in which art is a theme; that would be an unwieldy and probably boring undertaking, even if limited by country or period. Neither is my selection arbitrary. I attempt to cover a range of Anglo-American and European narrative films from the postwar period to the present and to discuss films' representation and incorporation of a wide range of art forms and media: painting, sculpture, photography, and architecture, as well as performance, installation, and conceptual art. I had originally intended a final chapter on the contemporary artist biopic, focusing on a number of recent films about twentieth-century artists: Carrington (Hampton, 1995); Basquiat (Schnabel, 1996); Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait (John Maybury's 1998 film about Francis Bacon), Pollock (Harris, 2000); and Frida (Taymor, 2002). But I have decided that this is really the subject for another book, perhaps my next, especially since more biopics are in the offing, including a soon-to-be-released movie starring Andy Garcia as modernist painter and sculptor Amadeo Modigliani.

To a greater or lesser extent, the films that I am considering are exceptional. That is, to the degree that they make art part of their explicit subject matter, they tend to skew toward the self-conscious end of the narrative cinematic spectrum. Most of them have received at least a modicum of critical attention and praise. A few of them are controversial, a few obscure. Some were successful at the box office, some not (Splash was the tenth highest grossing film of 1984, for instance, while Backtrack was never released theatrically). They are all, in some way—and perhaps this goes without saying—fascinating to me. It is my conviction that films such as those examined here offer a privileged view into a complex of overlapping and interlocking cultural and industrial problems, assumptions, and attitudes, in which issues of sex, gender, identity, and psychology generally—group and individual—entwine with those of art, commerce, class, and power. Some of these complex relationships might be fruitfully introduced by means of a particularly suggestive case study.

Artists and Models

All you very lovely ladies in your very fancy frocks,
And you fellows with the palettes, in your most artistic smocks,Use your thumb to get perspective of a world that's drab and gray,Add a lot of color and frame it just that way . . .

Among the many weirdly revealing images in the musical comedy Artists and Models (Frank Tashlin, 1955)—in which Jerry Lewis plays Eugene Fullstack, a gifted dreamer whose nightmares (he talks in his sleep) are converted into lurid, rather surrealist comics by his painter roommate, Rick (Dean Martin)—is one found in the title production number, staged for an on-screen audience at the "Artists and Models Ball." In it Martin and Lewis sing a song of artists and their models as women (showgirls) emerge from heaps of colored chiffon fabric representing daubs of paint on an oversized painter's palette.

The production and the song's lyrics (see the first verse, above) graphically define artists as male and models as female (a profoundly typical formula in Western culture—see the discussion of La Belle Noiseuse in chapter 4), despite the film's strong homoerotic overtones and artist-characters of both sexes: Dorothy Malone plays Abigail Parker, a successful comic book artist who uses Bessie Sparrowbrush (Shirley MacLaine) as a model (!) for her successful "Bat Lady" character. The title number also echoes the dichotomy between male sexual confidence and insecurity usually displayed in the dynamics of the popular comedy team of Martin and Lewis: while the daubs toward which the suave Rick (Martin) gestures as he sings—red, blue, green, and yellow—magically produce women who fawn over and embrace him, those that the puerile Eugene (Lewis) selects—violet, lime, gold—contain mere material. This part of the number ends as Eugene sings, "you will never hear me knocking any pink that's really shocking," as from the last daub of paint emerges a woman who just keeps on emerging, even after reaching normal height (a mechanical pedestal and prodigious lengths of pink fabric permit her to achieve monumental stature); "I think we're going color blind," the two "artists" exclaim finally in unison.

In the second, instrumental, part of the number, Eugene and Rick leave the stage and take their brushes into the audience, where they use the skin of scantily clad models (showgirls) as canvas, sketching amusing figures (and love letters) on exposed flesh, sometimes transforming it into the support for what are rather like animated motion pictures, as when—rather uncannily—one blonde's supple knees are turned into cartoonish heads for dolls dressed just like herself (although it might be more accurate to say that she is dressed like the dolls, in a farcical, short blue gingham frock and petticoat).

In the first part of the number, the female body (gob of paint) was the painter's medium, or vehicle; now she is the ground, or support. So, represented as the very stuff of which art is made, in this one colorful musical scene the female body is an ambivalent medium—simultaneously figure and ground, object of desire and ridicule, and source of inspiration and anxiety.

This spectacular equivocation in which women are elevated as material muses and also reduced to mere material is powerfully suggestive. In Artists and Models, through the use of comedy, travesty, and pop cultural forms—elements of the "bricolage" Paul Willemen says is most characteristic of Tashlin's method of "assembly and disassembly (dismantling)"—various aspects of the relationship between cinema and other visual media are vividly exemplified, embodied, and, along with other cultural problems, satirized. As some of the complexities of this relationship—generally more obscure or subtle, indeed often repressed in movies—are the subject of my study, perhaps this unsubtle film can be used to expose and introduce the problem of figures and themes relating to art and artists in the classical narrative film and the always gendered scenarios in which these are framed.

It is for reasons having to do with history, genre, and perhaps even authorship that Artists and Models lays bare such complexities more nakedly, as it were, than most movies. Made in the very middle of the 1950s, in the waning days of the studio system, it revels in flaunting possibilities that had been typically denied or suppressed by the classical Hollywood film. As Henry Jenkins and Kristine Brunovska Karnick have noted in the context of this kind of postwar "formalized" comedian comedy—a genre already characterized by a high degree of reflexivity—this was a period that spawned some other rather "baroque" subgenres (i.e., the adult Western, the self-reflexive musical, the excessive melodrama, and film noir), "marked by a blurring of previous genre distinctions, increasingly flamboyant visual and performance styles, self-conscious acknowledgement of their own construction and destabilized identities." And although most American auteurists (with the notable exception of Peter Bogdanovich) have been reluctant to treat the sublimely silly Tashlin as a major figure, certainly there are those who would attribute any such notably self-conscious and constructed qualities to this director's singular sensibility(among them the French in the 1950s—e.g., Jean-Luc Godard and the critics of the French postsurrealist journal Positif—and some associated with the British journal Screen in the 1970s).

Contrary to the image conjured by its title, Artists and Models takes sex, violence, popular art, mass culture, and their psychosocial intricacies as its basic subjects, not high art, which is marginalized and to some extent lampooned. This is all vividly summed up in the opening scene of the film: Rick and Eugene are working on (and in) a huge animated billboard advertising Trim Maid cigarettes. The first shot is an extreme close-up of what, when the camera zooms out, turns out to be the hand of Rick, on a scaffold several stories above the New York City sidewalk, painting the red upper lip of a colossal woman's open mouth. As the client and his employer look on from below, the artist is putting the finishing touches on the visage of a sexy, oversized, female smoker. Rick tells Eugene, who is inside the mechanical billboard, to turn on the smoke machine, but Eugene is too passionately wrapped up reading comics to attend properly to his job ("Wait," he insists, "I'm on the third murder. It looks like the Bat Lady's gonna blow one of the Rat Man's heads off!"). He then neglects to connect the smoke tube to the aperture of the open mouth and absently flips the switch the wrong way. The big tube starts sucking instead of blowing. First it sucks up all Eugene's comic books, putting him into a panic, and then, when he scrambles after them, it sucks him in (in a cutaway shot, we see him struggling in what is a virtual birth canal). When Rick finally sets things straight—rescuing Eugene, reconnecting the tube, and flipping the switch—tattered comic books spew out of the open mouth of the Trim Maid girl. "She's not smoking; she's spitting!" complains the dismayed client. It doesn't take a psychoanalyst to grasp the sexual innuendo of material like this.

Tacitly homoerotic relationships are another nonnormative feature of Artists and Models' plot that stands out in high relief, as one Internet Movie Database "user's" comments underscore:

Lewis and Dean Martin play "roommates" who met each other way back when they were Boy Scouts, sleep in separate twin beds in the same room, take baths with the door open, and at one point talk about getting a divorce. At one point the semi-retarded Lewis (and he admits as much himself) says to Martin: "I can't keep my dickie down, Ricky." Um, he's putting on a tuxedo I think. Similarly, Dorothy Malone lives in the apartment directly above them, unmarried with thick, black glasses and earning a good living on her own. She spends her time dressing the barely adult Shirley MacLaine, who has a cute little butch cut, up as the Bat Lady. The homosexual content seems to me almost too obvious to be meant. It's usually much subtler in Hollywood movies of the era. Then again, it's impossible to miss it, even if you're a 1950s housewife. Eventually, the two gay couples meet and change partners, Martin getting Malone and Lewis MacLaine.

As Frank Krutnik notes regarding an almost identical plot pattern in another Martin-Lewis vehicle, Sailor Beware (1951), "The two female partners . . . mirror the terms of difference inscribed in the Martin-Lewis partnership . . . Like is paired with like, and this serves to minimize the importance of heterosexual differences when measured against the familiar differences between the two men." Thus the essentially homoerotic terms of the relationship are not genuinely disrupted. As Krutnik additionally notes, the entire genre of comedian comedy is characterized by a strong undercurrent of misogyny and sexual hostility, as it "repeatedly offers controlled assaults upon, or inversions of, the conformist options of male identity, sexuality and responsibility." The misogyny in the genre is typically enhanced in the work of the male comedy duo, as Molly Haskell has noted, which "from Laurel and Hardy to Abbott and Costello, is almost by definition, or by metaphor, latently homosexual: a union of opposites (tall/short, thin/fat, straight/comic) who, like husband and wife, combine to make a whole."

But there's nothing latent about the marital qualities of the relationship between Rick and Eugene in Artists and Models. The first scene set in their apartment—they've come home after being fired for the billboard debacle, we learn—begins with Eugene, a dishrag tied around his waist, asking Rick how he'd like his dinner prepared. As the ludicrous dinner scene continues, Eugene sets up a virtual (there's virtually no food) romantic dinner for the two of them, complete with candlelight (real) and wine (imaginary). After dinner, he plays an imaginary piano and serenades Rick, singing to him ("When You Pretend"), even sitting in his lap briefly. Before the scene is over, Rick has spoken to Eugene of divorce. This explicit travesty of marriage is a kind of cover for the underlying reasons for the homosocial bond between the two males, though. Its raison d'etre is to maintain the partnership and ward off the potential disruption of women: "within the genre, women tend to signify the demands of integration and responsibility for the male." The relationship between two men only mimics marriage, while it in fact protects the men against economic and sexual maturity. Rick may castigate Eugene for his inability to hold down a job and Eugene may play at the dutiful and loyal "wife" to his philandering ladies' man roommate, but they really stick together out of a mutual commitment to warding off the financial and conjugal obligations of marriage and family.

Here, then, what might appear a wholly transgressive attribute is really more of a generic one, along with most of the film's other "inversions," including the very amusing image of female sexual initiative offered through Shirley MacLaine's performance. Again, it is the dynamic of the comedian-couple that necessitates this. If Martin's character is dominant, sexually confident, suave, and seductive, then Lewis's must be passive, sexually insecure, klutzy, and coy, which he is, in uproarious contradistinction to the aggressive MacLaine. The delightful inversion of her characterization notwithstanding, most of the many female parts in Artists and Models seem to be the products of a very misogynist imagination, comprising a range of carping and castrating types—emasculating wife, scolding mother, nagging landlady, mannish masseuse—and more than the usual array of seductively clothed, seemingly dimwitted, nubile beauties ("models"), along with a campy dose of femme fatale (Eva Gabor as Sonia, an Eastern bloc agent—this is the height of the cold war, after all—and the comic book vamp, the Bat Lady). The credit sequence alone features—in twelve shots—twenty different eye-popping "models" (these look much more like fashion models or, again, showgirls, than artists' models), although six of them are only shown from the hips down, as a row of six sexy pairs of bare leg.

One of Artists and Models' silliest and most symptomatic conceits is that a comic book artist would require live models. What at first looks like a gag turns out to be a more motivated device, though. It is the source of one major thread of the movie's romantic farce: because Abby draws from life, Eugene encounters Bessie dressed as the Bat Lady and is smitten—in a paralytic, abject sort of way. But Eugene—despite opportunities and hints—refuses to recognize Bessie out of costume as the same alluring, fatal creature of his fantasies (and Bessie wants to be desired for herself, not for her two-dimensional associations, so doesn't pull her trump card to secure his interest). The "gag" actually instantiates, then, not only the relationship between two- and three-dimensional representations, and between still and moving images, two formal conundrums of pictorial arts generally, but also the relationship between model and image, or performer and role—that is: the intriguing puzzle of portrayal and portrayed. Eugene, in this respect, is a mere exaggeration of the prototypical moviegoer: caught in the web of illusion, he cannot or will not extract himself, even enough to see what Bessie continually throws under his nose—that she and the Bat Lady are one and the same. So, in fact, Tashlin's Artists and Models peppers with laughs the very same cinematic trope that is bathed in melancholy in Hitchcock's Vertigo and the other films I discuss in chapter 2.

Indeed, although wholly lacking in seriousness, Artists and Models manifests many if not most of the traits that I find meaningful and analyze in the coming chapters. In addition to giving form to the seemingly magical propensity of representations to seduce and perplex viewers—a propensity I analyze throughout, especially with regard to the use of portraits and statues en abyme—Tashlin's film, like those discussed in chapters 3 and 4, also regards the female body—excessively—as simultaneous object of desire, source of anxiety, and cipher of cultural meaning. (Frank Tashlin himself was co-author of the screen adaptation of One Touch of Venus, the first in a "trilogy" of Ava Gardner films discussed in chapter 3). And, as with two deceptively different films, La Belle Noiseuse and Splash, femininity is associated with animality in Artists and Models. Bessie Sparrowbrush is both Bat Lady and, by virtue of her name, bird woman. Women are treated as predatory and carnal.

The comic book and nightmare themes of Tashlin's film permit bold expression of the obscure but powerful connection between women, art, and violence that I observe in chapter 6. Most symptomatically, Artists and Models, like the films I discuss in the final chapter, assumes that the practice of art—at any and every level, from comic books to high art—is infused with psychosexual energies. A scene in which Abby substitutes herself for a female model with whom she is posing Rick in a clinch, and is then aroused, seems a mere comical variant of the scene in Agnès Merlet's Artemisia in which the lustful young painter puts down her brushes and inserts herself (sexually) into the scene in which she has posed her fellow painter Tassi as Holofernes. Of course, one ought not forget that one of the meanings of "art" to American moviegoers of 1955 was precisely "sex," since this was the period when the more mature fare produced abroad was increasingly being seen in the United States, usually in "art houses" under the rubric of "art film."

Thus sexuality constitutes a source of slippage between the terms of art and film, at least in the (English) language of movie going in the postwar period. But this is obviously no vernacular accident. Although maybe "foreign" to the movies in America (in a somewhat naïve, simplistic reading of the classical Hollywood film), sex is always already a component of all art, along with death and other basic human preoccupations. This study explores the ways in which art, when taken up by cinema, becomes its speculum, revealing at many levels the psychic, social, and cultural components of the apparatus . . . returning the repressed . . . baring the device.

Reviews: 

“An engaging interdisciplinary study. . . . Felleman's astute, insightful, very smart analyses forge a series of fascinating links.”
Brigitte Peucker, Professor of Film, Yale University