The artist behind Norman Bates
Fatal Coincidences: The Art of Alfred Hitchcock6 June-24 September 2001 Pompidou Centre, Paris
The artist Edward Hopper was said to have been ecstatic when told that Alfred Hitchcock had drawn inspiration for the Bates house in Psycho from his painting House by the Railroad (1925). Hopper, himself a great movie lover, may have been even more impressed had he realised the extent to which his ‘urban gothic’ may have influenced the overall mise-en-scene of the movie or, for that matter, the extent to which Hitchcock entwined what many still consider to be the separate worlds of fine art and cinema.
For almost its entire existence, debate has surrounded cinema’s status as an art form, a criticism dismissed correctly by Dominique Paini, curator of ‘Fatal Coincidences’ an exhibition exploring the link between Hitchcock and the broader art movements of the late nineteenth and twentieth century. The exhibition at the Pompidou Centre (transferred from Montreal), not only helps place cinema formally within the pantheon of fine art but as the dominant visual form of the past 100 years.
As with the critics from Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s, it is again the Francophone world who, two years after his centenary, have staged a truly genuine homage to the man Godard described as ‘The greatest creator of forms of the twentieth century.’
Despite his populist success and genuine universal appeal, Hitchcock’s work has always juxtaposed itself easily with that of Bergman, Renoir or Fellini. Yet while his contribution as an artist to world cinema is in little doubt, it is as an artist in the wider established sense that he should also be remembered, compared to and revered alongside the major names of the era – spoken of in the same breath as Duchamp, Matisse, Ernst and Magritte – all of whom have work which features heavily throughout the impressive collection on display.
‘There are ten thousand people who haven’t forgotten Cezanne’s apple, but there must be a billion spectators who remember the lighter of the stranger on the train.’ (Jean Luc Godard)
The exhibition consists of fourteen independently themed displays, the first entitled ‘Fetishism’, highlights Hitchcock’s unique and uncanny ability to turn everyday objects into icons, in a way that contemporary global brand managers can only dream of. Individually encased in glass and positioned on red velvet cushions, as if displayed at Tiffany’s, a pair of scissors, broken spectacles, a razor or that lighter, present visitors not with elevated props, but conduits into the world of cinema, each one conjuring a sense of déjà vu, automatically recalling pivotal scenes from Dial M for Murder, The Birds, Spellbound or Strangers on a Train.
However, Hitchcock was not merely a creator of images but an auteur of dreams, albeit at times with a deep sense of foreboding. Like the incubus of our deepest fears, he haunted the spaces he created with an authoritative yet often restrained presence, like the shadowy figures of a De Chirico.
Despite the continual and singularly dark overtures made about him by critics, Hitchcock twinned this lingering menace with a great comic talent, and one of the most popular and light-hearted displays, ‘Apparitions’ is given over to the various appearances he made in his own movies. A frequent theme of artists over the centuries has been the recurrence of the self-portrait and even here Hitchcock re-examined the relationship between artist and self as subject, establishing the cinematic cameo. Whether being tormented by an unruly child (Blackmail), missing a bus, (North By North West) or casting a final expressionistic silhouette (Family Plot), it soon became clear that Hitchcock’s cameos were more than just narcissistic foibles but a deeper machination of the artist’s relationship with his work. Renowned for his almost obsessive casting of ‘icy’ blondes for his female leads, Hitchcock’s men were not just his alter egos but also his binary opposites. Tall, dark, handsome, sophisticated and romantically successful, Peck, Stewart and Grant all got the girls that he could not. Hitchcock’s seemingly humorous manifestations should then be viewed like the proverbial tears of a clown, the cinematic equivalent of Van Gogh’s bandaged head, the melancholic image of unrequited love.
Considering the thorough and inclusive nature of work in this exhibition, one name glaringly stands out by its absence. Allowing for their status and contemporaneousness, Pablo Picasso is surely the only artist who could challenge Hitchcock as the most potent of all image-makers. Yet defining the nebulous void created by his omission only serves to strengthen the link for, as Paini retorts, ‘Hitchcock is Picasso. Picasso is not included because he is everywhere.’
The breadth and abundance of work from both men was a key aspect in their longevity, neither being tied or restricted to a single style or period, constantly moving in and out of - and even mixing - genres. Hitchcock’s mainstream label as the master of suspense may have been apt but never paid homage to the influence of avant-garde movements, such as Expressionism and Surrealism, within his work. Similarly to call Picasso a Cubist is to see only half the picture. Equally, while both men reconstructed the traditional view of women within their given fields, they have both divided opinion among mainstream and feminist critics alike over the years.
And with Hitchcock’s known interest and study of art history, it is easy to trace the fractured reflections of Vera Miles in ‘Mother’s’ bedroom mirrors from Psycho to their antecedents in the abstracted forms of Picasso’s Demoiselles.
Befitting the twists so intrinsic to Hitchcock, the exhibition too holds its surprises. In ‘Birds’, the final display, before re-entering the light from the beckoning souvenir stall, leaving visitors are confronted by some potent ornithological representations from art and folklore, none more so than Eldon Garnet’s genuinely chilling Non (1997).
The continual revisiting of Hitchcock’s work by critics, artists, writers, film-makers and even musicians, can only bear testament to the legacy which he has left behind and the foundation laid for others to build upon. Director Brian DePalma, one of the most frequent visitors to the Hitchcock well, may have paid the ultimate and most fitting complement when he said of his influence ‘If cinema has a language, then Alfred Hitchcock is its grammar.’ For a fan of cinema this fascinating exhibition is a rare treat.
Joel Karamath, lecturer in film / cultural studies, London
First published in Eye no. 41 vol. 11, 2001
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