Get your selfie sticks ready because the Boca Raton Museum of Art is the place to get unique social media photos — especially if you’re a classic film buff.
“Art of the Hollywood Backdrop: Cinema’s Creative Legacy,” open now through Jan. 22, is celebrating unsung heroes who created the monumental canvases that served as the backdrops during the golden age of the film industry.
The exhibit features 22 monumental scenic paintings created between 1938 and 1968 for “Singing in the Rain,” “North by Northwest,” “Ben Hur,” “The Sound of Music,” “An American in Paris” and more.
The exhibition originated at the museum and is curated by Thomas A. Walsh and Karen L. Maness, who played pivotal roles among a group of passionate Hollywood insiders to salvage these American treasures. The result in the Museum’s galleries is a magical portal that takes the terms “large-scale,” “immersive,” and “virtual reality” to a whole new level.
Walsh and Maness said in notes on the exhibition: “This is a well-deserved moment in the spotlight for the dozens of unidentified studio artists. Their uncredited craftsmanship made scenes of Mount Rushmore, Ben-Hur's Rome, the Von Trapp family's Austrian Alps, and Gene Kelly's Paris street dance possible.”
The show’s immersive components include interactive video reels created in Hollywood specifically for this exhibition, telling the stories behind each backdrop. Soundscapes have been engineered to surround visitors to the museum, including atmospheric sound effects related to the original movies and the scenic vistas.
“It is miraculous that these historic monumental paintings were not lost forever, as so many Hollywood treasures have disappeared. The concept for this show had its genesis with a ‘CBS Sunday Morning’ segment that called attention to the campaign to preserve scenic backdrops that had laid rolled up in the basement of MGM's studios,” said Irvin Lippman, the museum’s executive director.
J.C. Backings Corporation acquired over 2,000 backdrops from MGM Studios storage in the 1970s. In 2012, the Art Directors Guild Archives, then under the direction of Walsh, launched the Backdrop Recovery Project, a partnership with the company.
The goal was to preserve the backings and make them available for study. One of the recipients of this cache of gigantic paintings was the University of Texas at Austin, where Maness teaches.
During a media tour, Maness explained that more often than not, because the backdrops were painted and stored on the studio soundstages, once filming of a scene was complete, the backdrops were then painted over for the next project.
Many of the artists came from a family tradition of the craft, with a lineage spanning three generations. Most were trained as professional artists, yet they remained uncredited, sometimes due to union agreements but mainly because the studios wanted to keep a firm grip on the secret techniques that were handed down from master to apprentice.
Both Walsh and Maness emphasized the backdrops were painted for the camera lens, not the human eye. Up close, the backdrops seem to be impressionistic in style, but become photo-realistic when viewed from a distance.
“This show is about the joy of reliving something you grew up with, that you always thought was real. It’s about getting as close to that magical moment in time as you can. Being in the same space with that giant, familiar scene. It is difficult for people to get their minds around the awesome size of these magical spaces, until they see them in person. People are often shocked and surprised by the scale and visual impact of these massive creations," concluded Walsh.
“Art of the Hollywood Backdrop” is on display through Jan. 22 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real in Boca Raton. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. and until 8 p.m. on Thursday. Tickets are $12 at BocaMuseum.org.