What's on in Paris in Summer/Fall 2001

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Alfred Hitchcock at the Georges Pompidou Center.
Paintings, etchings, photos, storyboards, film settings, videos, models, drawings, costumes and famous objects are currently showing until 24th September 2001.

Alfred Hitchcock and Art: inevitable coincidences

As an old fan of Alfred Hitchcock I couldn't miss the exhibition at the Pompidou Center. I was curious to see how his films are being promoted not just as classics of suspense but likened in artistic quality to some of the greatest artists of the last century. In fact, as soon as you enter the 6th floor gallery you are plunged in the dark; it’s as if you were in a police department's collection of "crime evidence" – a sort of horror museum with the scissors from ‘Dial M for Murder’, the razor from ‘Spellbound’, the knife from ‘Blackmail', the tie from ‘Frenzy', and the yellow bag that ‘Marnie’ held while walking away from a compulsive robbery. These objects are the artifacts of suspense from famous shocking scenes in his films, and have often been used and misused since by others, sometimes acquiring the banality of clichés (e.g. the scene of a young woman being attacked while taking a shower).

The exhibition takes you further by recreating the atmosphere on the set with some scene settings (you can see the dismal hotel room of ‘Psycho’ opening to the shower). In addition, the way scenes were thought out and created is illustrated with the help of photos, drawings, storyboards and models. And some drawings show what Hitchcock actually had in mind in terms of atmosphere before realizing his films and how closely he directed his actors (a photo of him on the bedside scene in ‘Vertigo’ with Kim Novak shows the charming complicity of the two).

In addition to the documentary and scenographic dimensions, the third – and most important dimension of this exhibition – is the exploration of Hitchcock’s imagery, his sources of inspiration and his own interests and vulnerabilities that opened the door to influences from other artists' ideas and imagination. Hitchcock had studied art history and was an art lover who closely followed contemporary creative developments. His imagery finds echoes from the artistic creation of the past: the elongated shadows (Edvard Munch represented people like shadows), the half-closed doors through which a corpse is perceptible (perhaps influenced by the double door of Vuillard), the expression of terror in his victims' eyes (Dali's 1944 "Eye" and the later drawings of eyes for ‘Spellbound’), the dead bodies (Rossetti's Ophelia: wishing, as Stephane Mallarmé put it, that she were untouched by death "Like an Ophelia undrowned – jewel intact in the midst of chaos"), the cold and enigmatic beauty of his heroines (Ingrid Bergman evokes the beauty of Rossetti's women).

This imagery, that is the embodiment of Hitchcock’s own state of mind and his fascination with the dark side of life, is very reminiscent of the19th century Romantic painters and early Expressionism. Just like for Edvard Munch, the mystery of women is summed up for him in a triptych: symbols of purity, fecundity and death (Munch: La femme, 1899). He showed a very ambiguous relationship with love, and it's most frequent expression, the kiss, is both of love and of death. This is so well expressed by a quote from Truffault that seems to confirm this thesis "The love scenes were filmed like murder scenes and the murder scenes like love scenes". Rodin’s ‘Kiss’ is also on show to remind us that it was a favorite of Hitchcock (e.g. the kiss in ‘Under Capricorn’).

Yet he was also attracted to more modern painters for their sense of mystery (such as the Surrealist and Metaphysical painters Salvador Dali, De Chirico and Magritte). Georges Braque and Paul Klee introduced yet another dimension, that of abstraction: a quote from Hitchcock is quite telling "You see, the point is that you are, first of all, in a two dimensional medium. Mustn't forget that. You have a rectangle to fill. Fill it. Compose it.”

Similarly, in the screenplay, Hitchcock also displays a very 19th century obsession with the dark; he uses women as a source of mystery and drama, he delights in unsolved murders and shows a fascination with death, evil and the dark side of the psyche. These were probably all the more ignited by his fondness for reading Edgar Allen Poe, who reigned over the dramatic adaptation of his screenplay (you can see some books of Poe, beautifully illustrated by Odilon Redon and Aubrey Beardsley, that were presumably from his library).

Although one is always awestruck by the genius of the man, one cannot help feeling that even the best of Hitchcock’s films do not escape the terrible test of time, and appear outmoded at times. It is fortunate that the organizers included some of the artworks that inspired Hitchcock because it also gives us an opportunity to make revealing contrasts. Braque's ‘Black birds’ – a favorite of Hitchcock – is a timeless spatial poem so dense with significance and inspiring with its apparent simplicity that, even 45 years later, it seems more modern than Hitchcock's ‘The birds’; although a classic of excellence in film-making, his film is prosaic in nature and subject to time's erosion (yet, no doubt, it will remain a key part of the history of 20th century motion picture art).

Hitchcock inspired many with his undeniable talent and mastery of content and technique, but he also engendered a following for the sensational mood of the content that tended to put forward the darker side of life, nourished by ancestral fears, with an ambiguity in the simultaneous condemnation and delight in violence. This following has even given rise to a whole new culture in the last two or three decades, a culture based on phobia, violence and despair – who would have imagined that a simple pastel and crayon drawing by Munch, ‘The scream’, would have such a powerful influence 100 years later on a film like ‘Psycho’, which in turn had so many repercussions. Art has no boundaries, but why is it that we are more attracted to the sinister shades of the spectrum, whereas history shows that a lasting culture and civilization is one that tends towards light and courage and lives with the colors of joy.

Art Lovers' Paris
September 2001

Alfred Hitchcock and Art:
inevitable coincidences
6th June to 24th September 2001

Centre Pompidou Paris
Galerie 2, Galerie 3
Phone 01 44 78 12 33
Metro: Rambuteau, Hôtel de Ville
RER: Châtelet/Les Halles
Open: every day 11:00 to 21:00 (tickets until 20:00)
Closed Tuesdays & 1st May
Thursdays until 23:00
Price: 42 Francs, 6.40 Euro

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