copyright 2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 53, summer 2011

Decay of the aura: modern art in classical cinema

by Susan Felleman

“This image makes it easy to comprehend the social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura. It rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction. Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former.”           
—Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

Not too long ago I learned that one of the paintings on the wall of the Wendices’ London flat in Dial M For Murder (1954) is a landscape in oil by Rosa Bonheur [fig.1]. According to a press release from the Warner Bros. Archives, “because he is a man of taste and culture, Hitchcock hand-picked many of the props, including an original Rosa Bonheur oil painting, long hidden in Warners’ property gallery, and a pair of valuable Wedgewood vases” (Jacobs 2007, 107). It is really not surprising that the vaults of Hollywood’s major motion picture studios should contain some treasures, including “original” art and “valuable” antiquities. It would be surprising if they did not. And it is certainly not news that Hitchcock was a man of taste or that he exercised a great degree of control over particular elements of mise-en-scène. Many scholars—myself included—have explored the roles of paintings and other art objects in Hitchcock’s oeuvre.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

If there’s any revelation associated with this “discovery,” it is that films, filmmakers, film audiences and scholars (of film studies or art history)—without the help of archives, press releases, and other documentary accounts—cannot really distinguish a fine oil painting by a major painter from a reproduction, an imitation, or from significantly lesser works seen on the screen.[2] The connoisseur’s work depends on the material presence of the object and in movies the object is, like the actors, always absent. This is the fate of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, as we know from Walter Benjamin.  Moreover, it doesn’t really matter to us. What difference does it make whether a painting in a movie is “real”: an authentic object with provenance, as opposed to a photomechanical reproduction, an imitation, or an anonymous daub? The film itself is photomechanical; fiction is imitation; anonymity is the proper condition of the mutely indexical excess that constitutes the impression of reality on screen.

We are more likely to note the status of the art object in film when it is incommensurate to its task: when mere props, or poor imitations must perform as masterpieces of art in scenarios about art and artists, as with two examples I’ve noted previously—Dolya Goutman’s Gauguinesque pastiches in Albert Lewin’s 1942 adaptation, The Moon and Sixpence (Felleman 1997, 34-36) and Joseph Nicolosi’s plaster “Anatolian Venus” sculpture of Ava Gardner in William Seiter’s 1948 film version of the Broadway show, One Touch of Venus (Felleman 2006, 59-62)—or the ersatz Picasso paintings that James Cameron sank with his 1997 Titanic, which included a diminutive Demoiselles d’Avignon, a canvas that is not known to have sunk in the Atlantic and is in fact monumental. Even in such cases, though, authenticity is less pertinent than quality. High quality, scale reproductions or excellent imitations and pastiches—the action paintings that are made in Pollock (2000), for instance, [fig. 2] or the bust of Darcy that Nick Dutton made, mixing marble dust with resin, to stand among authentic marbles in the sculpture gallery at Chatsworth in Pride & Prejudice (2005) [figs. 3-4]—can, arguably, perform their parts as well as museum pieces, possibly sometimes better (if designed and crafted for maximum photogeneity).  And what of that part? In what way does an object of art emerge from the background of a picture to perform—as an actor—and be subjected to such “reality testing”?

These are some of the many questions that arise around the question of the work of art as it appears in film, specifically the fiction film. And they are questions that have not received adequate attention. Film studies tend to regard the art object as a symbolic or functional presence in film, of textual rather than material significance, so when the art object en-abyme has been considered, its status as an autonomous entity beyond the film has generally been neglected. This is in part a function of what the one medium does in representing the other—or misrepresenting, as is inevitable—but it also reflects a blind spot, one created by the withering of aura, the transformation of objects into images. The painters and sculptors of works featured in films—even those of some prominence—often receive no screen credit and are difficult to identify. This oversight was especially common during the classic period of cinema but is not unheard of today.

There are obvious exceptions to this rule, in film and in film studies. Hitchcock’s engagement with Salvador Dali on Spellbound (1945) was highly publicized and has been thoroughly examined. My own work on the films of Albert Lewin attempted to illuminate the complexities of a rather unusual career; Lewin, one of Hollywood’s notable art collectors, credited major artist collaborators and foregrounded art works in his films, including Ivan Albright’s titular portrait in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) [fig. 5] and Max Ernst’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony in The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947) [fig. 6], for which Lewin arranged a rather high profile modern art competition. Olivier Assayas’s recent Summer Hours (2008) was conceived as a collaboration with Musée d’Orsay (on the occasion of its 20th anniversary), by which objects from the museum’s collection would be “returned” via fiction to the kind of domestic life they might have known before becoming property of the French State and the film is exquisitely sensitive to issues of art and objecthood, cultural patrimony, taste, and the lives which art surrounds and inhabits. Ironically, even a film such as Summer Hours, conceived around particular objects of art, can reveal the extent of the “decay of the aura,” however; several of the works selected from the Musée d’Orsay to be narrativized in Assayas’s film—including paintings by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Odilon Redon—were deemed too fragile or valuable to be relocated to the house in which the film was shot, so were represented by copies (i.e. high quality painted copies, however, not mere photomechanical reproductions).[3]

In general, it must be observed, movies tend to subsume and diminish art. Mapping and theorizing this diminishment or decay is one part of my larger project—a book length study I am calling Real Objects in Unreal Situations: Modern Art in Fiction Films—of which this essay presents some preliminary findings.  The larger study is interested in identifying different kinds of modern art objects (primarily, but not exclusively, paintings, drawings and sculptures) as they enter and appear in fiction films, from objects that appear to be playing “themselves” (e.g. numerous examples of “Degenerate Art” in Venus vor Gericht, 1941, a National Socialist romantic-comedy and polemic set in the early 1930s; the content of OK Harris Gallery in An Unmarried Woman, 1978; the neoclassical marbles in Pride & Prejudice, 2005 [fig. 7], or the Corots in Summer Hours) to objects playing parts (e.g. figurative works by at least seven different contemporary sculptors as the work of fictional sculptor Richard Waldow in The Song of Songs, 1933; paintings by John Ferren, and possibly also Stanley Marc Wright, as the work of fictional painter Sam Marlowe in The Trouble with Harry, 1955; works by Elisabeth Frink as those of fictional sculptor Freya Neilson in The Damned, 1963 [fig. 8]; Paul Jenkins’ paintings playing Saul Kaplan’s in An Unmarried Woman) [fig. 9]. In every case, the study is interested not only in the part played by the art, but the “back story,” too: the social, economic and material details of how the art came to be in the film, and its recognition or reception thereby, along with the larger context of film’s institutional and aesthetic engagement with art and artists.

This study, then, constitutes a new branch of the growing literature on the other visual arts and film: one that attends to the material, historical, personal, economic and political realities around the art works in films—including, where possible, the interactions between movie directors, producers, designers and the artists engaged to work for movies—as well as to description and interpretation of their outcomes. I shall begin with a series of loosely connected case studies related to modern art in fiction films of the classic period.[4]

Doubly immortal: The Song of Songs (1933)

The Song of Songs was Paramount Pictures’ 1933 adaptation of Prussian writer Hermann Sudermann’s 1908 novel Das Hohelied, a story that had, according to Tino Balio, already offered “histrionic opportunities to Duse, Bernhardt, Modjeska, Pola Negri and Elsie Ferguson” (Balio 244), the last two in previous Hollywood adaptations (The Song of Songs, 1918, directed by Joseph Kaufman; and Lily of the Dust, 1924, directed by Dimitri Buchowetzki, both for Famous Players-Lasky). The 1933 version was directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starred Marlene Dietrich, in her first Hollywood film not directed by Joseph von Sternberg. In The Song of Songs, which is set around the turn of the last century, Dietrich plays Lily Czepanek, an innocent but sensual, orphaned country girl who moves to Berlin. Working in her aunt’s bookstore, she meets Richard Waldow (Brian Aherne), a handsome young sculptor who lives and works across the street. She succumbs to his entreaties to pose for him, and becomes the inspiration and model for his life-size nude, “The Song of Songs,” and then his lover, the beginning of a fall from innocence.

The titular sculpture was actually made for the film and—although the contract with sculptor Salvatore Cartaino Scarpitta expressly stated that “the head of such statue shall be a reproduction of Miss Marlene Dietrich who is the star in the said production, and the figure thereon shall be an ideal figure of your own composition,” and “it is agreed that Miss Dietrich shall not be required to pose for you in any manner other than for the purpose of enabling you to reproduce her head”—Dietrich did, evidently, finally pose in the nude. There was considerable publicity generated around the rather monumental nude figure; one advertisement [fig. 10] shows Dietrich photographed on her knees, embracing the base of sculpture, accompanied by the text:

“Thou Art Beautiful
            O My Love”
 — The Song of Solomon, Ch. 6, IV

Poem in marble conceived by
the noted Italian sculptor S.C.
Scarpitta. Inspired by the beautiful—
Marlene Dietrich in “The Song of Songs”

The sculpture was not made of marble, which would have been a prohibitively expensive and time intensive material for a film prop. In fact, the film shows the process that would have been used (and may, in fact, document Scarpitta’s actual work on the sculpture); a montage sequence shows the initial sketch of Lily’s pose and then the subsequent stages of work: a sculptural maquette [see fig. 11], a full-scale armature, upon which first plaster, then clay is built up. At least two casts (of plaster, later polished; see fig. 12) were made from the clay figure, as one was smashed to pieces by its model, later in the film. Despite the abundant evidence that the sculpture was made additively, the film depends upon its audience’s forgetfulness, or ignorance of technique, near the end of the film permitting the Baron von Merzbach—who used his wealth and influence to persuade Waldow to give up Lily—to say to the sculptor, “you modeled her in marble; I modeled her in the flesh!”

Scarpitta did work often in marble, as with one of the most impressive among the other ten sculptures seen in the Waldow atelier: Transition, a massive, somewhat Rodinesque non finito: a languorous nude—this one indeed of marble—of his wife Nadia [fig. 13-14].[5] Salvatore Cartaino Scarpitta (1887-1948) was born and trained in Italy. In 1910, he moved to New York, where he became a member of the National Sculpture Society. There he met and married vaudeville acrobat and actress Nadia Jarocki. In 1923 the Scarpittas settled in Los Angeles. He was an active and recognized sculptor of statuary and portraits [fig. 16], including a monumental Mussolini sculpture, which, according to his granddaughter, he not only later regretted undertaking but indeed vandalized when he fought with the partisans in Italy during the war. Among Scarpitta’s most important works are public sculptures for Los Angeles area churches and for panels over the entrance of the Los Angeles Stock Exchange [fig. 15], awarded a prize by the American Institute of Architects.[6] As with most of the other sculptors whose works were disposed around the set in the Waldow studio scenes, Scarpitta’s academic training made him well suited to producing work believable as that of a turn-of-the-century sculptor.

Scarpitta was evidently not the first sculptor approached about the commission, however. Among the director’s papers are copies of telegraphic correspondence between Mamoulian in Hollywood and Boris Lovet-Lorski, a prominent, somewhat more modernist sculptor of the day, in Paris. Lovet-Lorski (born in Lithuania in 1894 and trained at the Royal Academy in Petrograd, a naturalized U.S. citizen by 1925) was well known by 1933 for a series of “bronze female figures with impossibly narrow, boyish hips, and bodies broadening as they rise to the shoulders and wide-spread arms held behind their heads like flowers on a stem.”[7] It was no doubt one such bronze, probably Venus, 1925 (fig. 17, in the collection of the de Young Fine Art Museum of San Francisco) about which Mamoulian wrote to his friend on January 5, 1933, by Western Union:


Lovet-Lorski replied with alacrity, the next day:


A week passed before Mamoulian’s reply was sent, January 13:


Evidence suggests that Lovet-Lorski’s price was indeed too high. Scarpitta’s contract, dated January 12, 1933, engaged him to prepare a preliminary maquette for approval and then the full-scale statue by January 21 (nine days!) for full compensation of $1,000. Use of a more abstract, deco statue, such as Lovet-Lorski was known for, would have been a somewhat daring and anachronistic choice for a story set in the very first years of the 20th century. The figure would also have had a much more abstract relationship to the image of Marlene Dietrich, neither whose face nor figure could be invoked very expressly by it, for either purposes of narrative or publicity.[8] Additionally, although they do not display remarkable consistency, the dozen or more other sculptures seen in Waldow’s studio (figs. 18-19), are all more consistent in style (mostly idealized, academic figural works, although a few betray more modernist influences).  Probably some of these, which appear to be reproductions of neoclassical bronzes, came from the Paramount property department [fig. 20]. But a number of works are by contemporary Los Angeles area sculptors. There is little evidence about exactly how these works came to be loaned to the production but it is not unlikely that the sculptors were among those, with Scarpitta, considered for the central commission. A memorandum prepared by Mamoulian’s office at the behest of the Paramount publicity department in May of 1933 identified (by artist, title, estimated value and provenance/ exhibition history) ten of these works seen in The Song of Songs. In addition to Scarpitta’s Transition and another rather celebrated contemporary marble figure, Kneeling Aphrodite, by Montengro-born Vuch Vuckinich (aka Vuk Vukinich, 1901-1974), these included three works by Bulgarian-born Atanas Katchamakoff (1898-1988); two minor works not publicly shown previously by a “young Los Angeles sculptor,” David Williams; and single works by Harold Schwartz (almost certainly Harold Swartz, 1887-1948), George Stanley (1903-1973, designer of the “Oscar” statuette), and Ella Buchanan (1869-1951).

The works by these legitimate, albeit in some cases little known, academic sculptors lend some credibility and artistic ambience to the lengthy scenes set in Waldow’s studio, although the presence of several seemingly completed, fairly monumental, and presumably unsold works in stone and bronze seems unlikely in a period during which most such ambitious works would result from commissions [see figs. 18-28]. There are also works suggested as in progress (clay, presumably, covered by cloths). But beyond their function as realist décor for an artist’s atelier, the figures are vividly engaged by the narration. In fact, most shots set in the studio are carefully composed around these sculptures; they fill what would normally be negative space with positively urgent sensual atmosphere and innuendo. 

From the moment Lily first enters the studio [fig. 20], figures point to and constrain her and all the action is staged to keep statues, particularly nudes, much in the frame. A long dialogue in which Waldow tries to persuade the modest maiden that he has only the most clinical attitude toward the nudity of the model, when she balks at undressing, places the two just in front of, and framing, Scarpitta’s Transition, the most sensual nude in the space, plainly giving the lie to such dispassionate attitudes [fig. 22]. And the film is clearly having fun, playing hide and seek with the Hays Office. Conspicuous camera movements veer away at the last possible moment as Lily undresses for her first modeling session, to settle on the corresponding body parts of nude or partially nude statues [fig. 24], “so we will know just what private part she is baring at the cutaway moment,” as Steven Bach puts it (167). Just a year later, when the Hays Office had begun to enforce the Motion Picture Production Code more strictly, this film could not have been released. It emphasizes the nudity of the statuary, particularly of the title work, as well as its likeness to Dietrich. Shots of Richard working on The Song of Songs are quite explicit about the erotic equation of sculpture and model. In a second modeling scene, Lily’s playfulness results in the two finding themselves in an unanticipated clinch. Moments later, the film suggests Richard’s certain sexual attraction to Lily as he stands kneading the statue’s chest and shoulders, his fingers mere inches away from the figure’s prominent, erect nipples, while watching the projected shadow of his model undressing [figs. 29-30].  Mamoulian employs the artworks to evade the censors and to evoke visual and tactile engagement with the figure of Marlene Dietrich.

I have written elsewhere about sculptures of Ava Gardner, commissioned from academic sculptors for two of her films (Joseph Nicolosi’s for One Touch of Venus, 1948 [fig. 31] and Assen Peikov’s for The Barefoot Contessa, 1954 [fig. 32]; see Art in the Cinematic Imagination, 60-64). These sculptural props also mean to reify Gardner’s erotic appeal but a comparison to the range of sculptures used in Song of Songs points to the ways in which they fall short. Much of their inadequacy stems from censorship: they appear as clothed as their model must (according to Gardner’s autobiography, though, Nicolosi misunderstood the parameters of his assignment, initially completing a nude version of her as a Hellenistic statue of Venus, much to the studio’s displeasure). They are not so sensually “handled,” either—in both senses of that term.

But perhaps the most significant difference is the one most likely to be overlooked. In the absence of other “real” works of art, such as those aesthetically and materially persuasive extras in the scenes set in Waldow’s studio in Mamoulian’s film, even sculptures made by “legitimate” artists tend to become mere props.[9] The combination of the conditions around their creation (schedule and budget restraints, and the institution’s probably mistaken perception that permanence of materials is irrelevant to the celluloid destiny of the work), censorship, and their origins on the page of a screenplay, rather than in the imagination and exertion of the sculptor, prevent them from acquiring the “aura” that surrounds the Dietrich nude as it comes into being in the context of art, both in the scenario and on the set of Song of Songs.  That aura—such that it is—is one of sensual force. Ironically, one way that artistic power is confirmed within the narrative is an action almost conventional in movies, though unusual in life; the personal assault on and destruction of the object. Such assaults are near clichés of cinematic artist stories, especially assaults on portraits by their subjects, as with Lily’s on The Song of Songs, the destruction of which permits the restoration of her relationship with Waldow [fig. 33]. The sculpture then reifies not only “art” for this movie but passion, collapsing the two.

Modernism on trial: Venus vor Gericht (1941)

1933, the year that The Song of Songs was released, was, of course, not only the last year prior to the Hollywood Production Code Authority’s crackdown on films with morally objectionable content. It was also the year Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists took power in Germany. Not surprisingly, Mamoulian’s film was not passed by the Berlin censors when it was submitted at the beginning of 1934. Interestingly, this was not for the reasons that would have then tripped it up with Joseph Breen and the Hays Office. Rather, Ministerialrat Dr. Ernst Seeger censored the film for political reasons, having to do with its representations of a decadent and corrupt bourgeoisie and nobility of pre-WWI Germany.[10] Although his verdict does not refer to it, the fact that The Song of Songs starred Marlene Dietrich, an internationally known German-born actress with known anti-Nazi sentiments, must have been another factor.

It seems entirely likely, however, that The Song of Songs was seen—perhaps in Paris, where it did play in 1934—by Hans Zerlett, the writer and director of a propagandistic German fiction film of 1941, Venus vor Gericht (Venus in the Dock, or Venus Before the Court), that also told a tale of a sculptor and his model. This otherwise minor film is distinguished by its dramatization of National Socialist art polemics and by its use of—as props—actual modernist works of “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”), which the narrative places into a dialectic with pseudo- and neo-classical sculpture, most prominently a nude rendering of the female lead.

Venus vor Gericht [fig. 34] is set in 1930, that is, prior to the Third Reich. Its protagonist is a sculptor, Peter Brake (Hannes Stelzer), obviously loosely based on a sculptor favored by the National Socialists, Arno Breker. Unlike Breker, who was not an early joiner, though, Brake is heroic in the film’s terms because of his precocious fascism: he’s quietly active in the Nazi party [fig. 35]. He gets embroiled in a political, artistic, and journalistic brouhaha, and is taken to court for libel, after claiming authorship of a sculptural fragment excavated on a Bavarian farm. The fragment, which becomes known as Venus vom Acker (the Venus of the fields), is of a naked female torso and is mistaken for an authentic antiquity by “authorities” the film portrays as suspect (coded as effete, Jewish, homosexual, etc.). It causes a sensation in Berlin.

Brake, it unfolds, who had lived and worked in Bavaria, had buried the work not to commit art fraud, but to protect the identity of his model, Charlotte (Hansi Knoteck). Since then, Brake has moved to Berlin and Charlotte has become a respectable Hausfrau, married to a loutish small town Bürgermeister. Although the film portrays Brake’s motivations as honorable and chivalrous (he is reluctant to call upon Charlotte’s testimony to defend himself against libel, as it would besmirch her reputation), it also trades on the titillating equation of sculpture with model, as had The Song of Songs: before the court (vor Gericht), Charlotte, who finally comes forward on her own initiative—out of love and righteousness—as a witness for the defense, is briefly faced with the possibility of being asked to disrobe to prove that this Venus is no moldering antiquity.

More significant than the erotic and romantic fantasies around sculptor and model (who do end up romantically united), however, is the film’s polemical representation of modern art and aesthetics. The story’s main antagonist, a gallerist who trades in modern art, is called Benjamin Hecht [fig. 36]. This is an overdetermined name: evidently Jewish and also that of a well-known Hollywood writer, Zionist and anti-Nazi activist, who was also well known in Berlin, having served there as correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, from 1918 to 1919, in that capacity reporting on, among other matters, Berlin Dada activities, and associating with the avant-garde (Chametzky, 45, 224, n. 25). The 1941 audience for Venus vor Gericht must have been thought to be well-indoctrinated, for scenes that to a contemporary audience might seem celebratory introduce its decadent picture of Weimar Berlin.

These scenes, strikingly, are actually cinematic correlatives of the “Entartete Kunst” employed in the film; they consist of documentary footage obviously excerpted from period films shot in the city, such as Ruttmann’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927) and the collaborative Menschen am Sonntag (1929-30). A sequence of about twenty shots begins with establishing shots of Berlin’s Cathedral and wide views of bustling city streets, and is a dynamic montage of pedestrians, including some orthodox Jews, cars, buses, and trains, a man hawking clothing, another stridently gesturing from a soapbox, policemen in a park, a caravan of vehicles with passengers waving flags, newspaper hawkers, sidewalk cafés, outdoor dance halls, night clubs, with dancers dancing the Charleston, jazz combos, chorus girls, a scantily clad dancer, and a black drummer, all accompanied by a lively jazz tune. One might need to be surrounded by the disparaging anti-modernist clamor of a war-period German audience to feel properly offended by either these scenes or by Hecht’s trade, which flow together in a sequence that begins with the Weimar decadence shots, then by way of newspaper headlines introduces a muckraking newspaper reporter, and moves on to Hecht’s gallery, and finally to Peter Brake and friends in his studio, where his monumental statuary is seen.

The unctuous gallerist Hecht has obtained the Venus vom Acker for his Berlin gallery, which—along with a few modernist pastiches—is filled with works that director Zerlett managed to borrow from the government cache of so-called “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”), through the authority of Nazi Cultural Commissioner Hans Hinkel, to whom he’d written in October, 1940.[11] Some such work was “confiscated” from collections of NS victims and refugees and much had been seized from public collections—programmatically in 1937—and exhibited in a series of now infamous exhibitions, beginning that same year [fig. 37].[12]

Works seen in Hecht’s exhibition of contemporary art include Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s now lost sculpture, The Couple, shown in the window, and, inside, Paul Kleinschmidt’s painting, Duet in the North Café, Richard Haizmann’s sculptures, Elephant and Head, Wilhelm Morgner’s painted Deposition, Erich Heckel’s Große Stehende (a large carved wood female figure), and at least two other works that had been in the 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich: Wassily Kandinsky’s painting, Two kinds of red (1916), seized from the National Gallery in Berlin, and Marg Moll’s bronze Female Figure, or Dancer (ca. 1930), from the Museum in Breslau.”[13] A few works appear to be pastiches or copies; according to Andreas Hüneke (43), the two apparent Grosz paintings are pastiches and a couple of small sculptures are copies of works by Haizmann and Naum Slutzky. Narrative details and trappings of the scene ridicule these Nazi-confiscated works, the actual last known public appearances of most of which are preserved in this fiction film [figs. 38-40].

Almost all the “degenerate” works seen in Hecht’s gallery disappeared during the war; only one of those that could be identified was known to have survived. But just recently, in January of 2010, during excavations for a new subway station in Berlin, workers dug up a bronze head that turned out to be a lost modernist work by Edwin Scharff. In subsequent months, ten other sculptures were excavated nearby; all appear to have been among those withdrawn from public collections and deemed degenerate by NS authorities. The site where they were discovered in Berlin Mitte appears to be buried remains of an apartment building destroyed during allied bombing of Berlin. Michael Kimmelman’s account of the discovery in The New York Times reports official speculation about how the works—which may have been stored with other Entartete Kunst in the depot of the Reichspropagandaministerium—came to be where they were unearthed:

“Archeologists have so far determined that the recovered works must have come from 50 Königstrasse, across the street from City Hall. The building belonged to a Jewish woman, Edith Steinitz; several Jewish lawyers are listed as her tenants in 1939, but their names disappear from the record by 1942, when the house became property of the Reich. Among its subsequent occupants, German investigators now believe, the likeliest candidate to have hidden the art was Erhard Oewerdieck, a tax lawyer and escrow agent.”

“Oewerdieck is not widely known, but he is remembered at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel. In 1939, he and his wife gave money to a Jewish family to escape to Shanghai. He also hid an employee, Martin Lange, in his apartment. In 1941 he helped the historian Eugen Täubler and his wife flee to America, preserving part of Täubler’s library. And he stood by Wolfgang Abendroth too, a leftist and Nazi opponent, by writing him a job recommendation when that risked his own life.”

“The current theory is that when fire from Allied air raids in 1944 consumed 50 Königstrasse, the contents of Oewerdieck’s office fell through the floor, and then the building collapsed on top. Tests are being done on ash from the site for remains of incinerated paintings and wood sculptures. How the lost art came into Oewerdieck’s possession in the first place still isn’t clear.”[14]

The eleven unearthed works have been cleaned and exhibited at Berlin’s Neues Museum, not far from where they were found.[15] Two of them—Otto Freundlich’s black-glazed terra cotta Head (1925) and Marg Moll’s bronze Dancer (ca. 1930)—are among those seen in Venus vor Gericht [see figs. 42-45]. It is as difficult to imagine from their appearance in Venus vor Gericht the catastrophic destinies of these modest modernist works and their makers as it is to comprehend the offense that they are supposed to have constituted when subjected to public ridicule by the NS propaganda machine. But as Kimmelman reminds us,

“the Nazis seized the Freundlich from a museum in Hamburg in 1937, then six years later, in France, seized the artist and sent him to Majdanek, the concentration camp in Poland, where he was murdered on the day he arrived.”

The sculpture’s offense was its strong, minimal primitivism; the sculptor’s his Jewish origins [fig. 46].

The sculptor of the “Brake” works that appear in Venus vor Gericht is uncredited and unknown [fig. 47]. These appear to be props (and to be made of plaster); they are similar to but not clearly the works of a number of prominent sculptors, especially Arno Breker [fig. 48] and Josef Thorak, who employed the reactionary, neo-Classical, and often monumental style favored by Hitler and Goebbels. The “Venus vom Acker,” which is less monumental than the other Brake pieces, though, plays its part reasonably well; it looks like it may have been carved in stone and one can accept it as a contemporary academic nude that—dug out of the ground and fragmentary—might be taken for an antiquity. I must note a troubling paradox around the relation of these sculptures to the sculptures used in The Song of Songs. Those seem more than modern enough in the turn-of-the-century setting in which they perform and downright daring, risqué, even avant-garde in terms of the censorship conventions they flout in Mamoulian’s film, but at the same time, they could be described stylistically as comparable to the “Brake” sculptures in Venus vor Gericht, particularly the Venus, which perform decidedly reactionary roles.

This points to a number of interrelated problems, many of them to be situated around political and aesthetic discourses of classicism. Scarpitta, after all, was sculpting for Mussolini at about the same time as for Mamoulian. Fascist aesthetics evolved out of and borrowed from well-established academic traditions that were not necessarily inherently reactionary but were often merely aesthetically conservative. It should be noted that Italian fascist aesthetics embraced not only the classicism and monumentality favored by the Germans, but also incorporated modernist tendencies, including Futurism. To further complicate any facile alignment of art and politics, Scarpitta grew to revile Mussolini and engaged with the partisans, while Arno Breker had been associated professionally and stylistically with Parisian modernists and modernism only a few years before his reinvention as the heroic Nazi artist par excellence. And, as scholars including Patrice Petro and Sabine Hake have observed, popular cinema in the Third Reich “was in fact sustained by well-established generic conventions, cultural traditions, aesthetic sensibilities, social practices, and a highly developed star system—not unlike its Hollywood counterpart (Hake back cover).” It was, that is, a “classical” cinema.

Venus vor Gericht is positively rife with paradox. It stages a confrontation between modernism and anti-modernism in which the latter is obviously the victor—in the terms of the movie’s unambiguous ideology—but at the same time underestimates and overestimates the former, as played by authentic examples of “degenerate art.” Unlike the notoriously propagandistic displays of the Nazis’ Entarte Kunst exhibitions, where works were displayed and framed polemically, to assert their inherent madness and degeneracy, and where anti-modernist screeds—in bold gothic type—filled the space between and around them, Hecht’s display of “Contemporary Art” is plausible as a Berlin gallery exhibition of ca. 1930: the paintings are hung from moldings at reasonable intervals on white walls; the sculptures stand on pedestals; works on paper are kept in portfolios; objects are identified with small labels. It’s all rather civilized, and somewhat tame. And although—as is often the case with prints, drawings, easel paintings, and small-scale sculptures seen in black-and-white film—one cannot experience the sensory power or immediacy of works we know might have had vivid modern “aura” in the flesh, for the very same reason the film seems unable to persuade us to encounter these objects so reviled by the state with the perplexity or contempt that NS aesthetics demand. The decay of the aura cuts both ways.

Additionally, since the modest, degenerate objects’ adversaries are—despite their grand scale—mostly rather indifferent plaster pastiches of a type of statuary that at its best was heroic but bland and its worst mere kitsch, modern art feels like something of a straw man, or even a Macguffin here, in this movie that, aside from its polemics, is a rather conventional, and lightweight romance. As Peter Chametzky notes,

"Venus vor Gericht conforms to many of the patterns Linda Schulte-Sasse has identified in the run-of-mill popular cinema of the Third Reich. The film’s narrative structure and entertainment devices (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, etc.) are contiguous with the pre- and post-Nazi cinema. Venus vor Gericht is, in fact, entertaining. Rather than Nazi propaganda dressed up as entertainment it is entertainment with Nazi propaganda inserted. Perhaps sensing this apparent weakness in the film (the scenes of decadent Berlin nightlife look much more entertaining than Brake and his friend’s gemütliche gatherings; Siegfried Breuer plays Hecht as a more interesting and certainly less annoying character than Hannes Stelzer’s Brake) an extremely polemical article in the journal Filmwelt of April 1941 clearly explained the ideological lessons audiences were to draw from it. The article concentrated almost exclusively on art, juxtaposing the classical, beautiful work of Brake to the 'degenerate' work shown by the Jewish Hecht:

'art works characterize their times and their world views, their spiritual and moral stature…the apparent absurdity of ‘degenerate art’ had a razor sharp purpose and meaning: corruption of all ethical values…this spirit is embodied by the Jewish art dealer Benjamin Hecht (Siegfried Breuer) and the cabal surrounding him.'”[16]

Yet, in the case of this silly, polemical film, the “real” status of the art objects could hardly be more significant. The film not only embodies paradoxes and polemics associated with modern art in Nazi Germany, but is, in effect, evidence of state crimes. 

The world gone Wiggy: The Trouble with Harry (1955)

In its denunciation of modernism in art, Venus vor Gericht ranges from vitriolic (Brake’s rhetoric) to comical. One of its more clichéd little jabs is a familiar trope in the cinema, and indeed, according to Bruce Barber, "one of the most common popular critiques of modernist abstraction" (156): the disoriented, or “upside-down” abstract picture. In Zerlett’s film, the work is a print or drawing, probably by Kandinsky. A couple visiting Hecht’s gallery exhibit of contemporary art are looking at a piece from a portfolio of works on paper when Hecht’s assistant, Fraülein Rita (a stout, severe woman with a monocle and a necktie—pretty plainly coded and despised as a lesbian), corrects them, rotating it to the “proper” orientation (a rather clever way to impugn her “inverted” sexual orientation, along with the artwork; see fig. 49). The implication of the scene is that the work and the “refined” sensibility that purvey it are utter nonsense. This, of course, is a criticism of non-objective art (art with no recognizable subject matter) that neither began nor ended with the anti-modernism of the Nazis. That Uncertain Feeling (d. Ernst Lubitsch; fig. 50), a Hollywood film of the same year, treats modern art with pretty much equivalent scorn. The upside-down picture trope certainly appeared in Hollywood films prior to and after 1941 (including Stanley Donen’s and Gene Kelly’s On the Town, 1949, and Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris, 1951) and made a noteworthy appearance in The Trouble with Harry, Alfred Hitchcock’s droll black comedy of 1955.

As is well known, Hitchcock was wont to figure art in his films—including abstractions. In fact, a dialectic between mimetic and abstract art works appears in subtle variations across a number of them. In Suspicion (1941), for instance, a visiting police detective, Sgt. Benson, is distracted by a cubist picture in the entrance hall [fig. 51][17] and a portrait likeness of Lina’s father, General MacLaidlaw, bears down oedipally on the entire household. Rear Window (1954) features a modern still life painting and an abstract quasi-figurative sculpture in progress.  Despite that one of its main protagonists, Sam Marlowe, is a modern artist, however, and a couple of rather lengthy scenes feature a dozen or more of his works, art as a theme in The Trouble with Harry has not been seriously treated by film studies (or art history).

In his chapter on The Trouble with Harry in Laughing Hysterically: American Screen Comedy of the 1950s, Ed Sikov is one of the few scholars or critics to note how central Sam Marlowe’s paintings are to the film: “Sam’s art breaks Harry open into a yawning gulf, a disturbance of epic proportions out of which Harry’s sexual symbols fly.” At the same time, I think Sikov fails to appreciate those paintings. “Wiggy’s store and outdoor market are both crammed with Sam’s work,” Sikov notes [fig. 52-53], “most of it fairly dreadful (though the script describes him as ‘an extremely talented painter’).... (168).”

Of course, he is entitled to his opinion. But, in as much as most of the Marlowe works are played by paintings and drawings of a significant artist of the New York School, John Ferren, Sikov’s dismissal seems cavalier. And if the film regards Ferren’s works equivocally, as is almost inevitable, even as it depends upon them in a number of ways, probably Hitchcock did not. It might seem like a mere joke to insert abstract art into the bucolic New England countryside of The Trouble with Harry but the color and disorientation operate at two levels in this droll picture, operating within the setting and the narrative, as well as within the paintings seen en abyme, as indices of psyche and freedom.

First some background. John Ferren (1905-1970), perhaps better known among Hitchcock scholars for his work on Vertigo—he was credited with designing the special dream sequence [fig. 56] and also painted the Carlotta portrait [fig. 55]—was an active member of the New York School, and probably one of the most significant figures of the American art world to have collaborated on Hollywood pictures [fig. 54]. Although not very well known today, he was an artist with a considerable profile in the 1950s. The year that The Trouble with Harry was released was the same year that Ferren served as president of the Club, an organization of New York artists, founded in 1949, by among others, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Ad Reinhardt. Irving Sandler describes him as unusual among that group: a convivial, articulate and intellectual character. Ferren may have constituted one of the New York School’s strongest links to European modernism of the pre-War period, having lived in Europe from 1929 to 1938, mainly in Paris, where he worked among and associated with major modernists: Jean Hélion of the Abstraction-Creátion group, Picasso, Miró, and others [see figs. 57-59]. According to Gertrude Stein, writing in 1938, he was “the only American painter foreign painters in Paris consider as a painter and whose painting interests them” (108). In between these two periods of his work, interestingly, Ferren served in Europe as chief of publications for the U.S. Psychological Warfare Division during the Second World War. Although there is no direct evidence to suggest this, it is not impossible that this is how Hitchcock became acquainted with Ferren, as he had connections among other psychological warfare personnel, American and British.[18]

John Ferren’s work, including much among the selection visible in Hitchcock’s film, was profoundly influenced by Wassily Kandinsky, and also by Fernand Léger and Joan Miró, as well as by the ideas generated around William Stanley Hayter’s Parisian Atelier 17, the foremost modern printmaking studio. Tensions between figuration and abstraction, both within individual pictures and across works, are evident in Ferren’s oeuvre, including in the work seen in The Trouble with Harry. Ferren was, above all—and more than most of his New York peers—a colorist. New York Times art critic, Roberta Smith’s pithy assessment of Ferren’s work suggests its consonance with Hitchcock’s Technicolor films: “…undiluted color and flashes of pictorial wit.” [fig. 60][19]

Ferren’s widow, Rae Ferren, also an artist, recalls that the director was expressly interested in her husband’s paintings for their vivid use of color, which Hitchcock connected to the colors of the autumnal New England landscape [fig. 61]. The Ferrens spent a few days on location in Vermont, as John Forsythe had to be advised on technique for the scenes in which Marlowe drew. Rae Ferren recalls, too, that her husband and Hitchcock got along famously, and shared a predilection for French wine. She also revealed to me that it was she, at the time very recently an art student, and one with a more representational disposition—not her husband, as generally assumed—who drew the sketch of the dead Harry Worp’s head that figures prominently in the film [fig. 62].[20]

Disorientation is a central trope in The Trouble with Harry, beginning with the titular corpse itself. Sikov points out that the stocking feet of the dead man are part of a somewhat lewd joke, in terms of color and orientation. “Hitchcock lends Harry’s feet a whimsical touch by having him wear blue socks with bright red tips,” Sikov notes. The feet, he says, are

“a key element in the pervasive displacement of sexual energy that underlies each of the central characters’ progression through the film…. The joke stands on the fact that the dead human body is metonymically reduced to the feet: while the rest of Harry’s corpse lies flat, his feet stick up in the air… standing at priapic attention (160)” [fig. 63-64].

The question of orientation is addressed directly, in dialogue that often has a suggestive aura. Jennifer says of Harry, “he looked exactly the same when he was alive, only he was vertical.”

So, when Hitchcock engages the trope of the upside down picture, it is a joke, but an overdetermined one, that alludes to the upside down world and affect of the film. In the scene where the picture is inverted, Mrs. Wiggs, at whose country store and post office Marlowe attempts to sell his work, is all admiration: “Ah, Mr. Marlowe; it’s wonderful!” she exclaims [fig. 65]. As Sam inverts the picture she is admiring [fig. 66], he explains, quite casually, “I’ve been in a tortured mood lately,” turning her error into something of a matter of interpretation, artistic and psychological. “What is it?” Mrs. Wiggs asks. “Good ol’ Wiggy: my sternest critic,” responds Marlowe. But again, Hitchcock fails to drop it here, at the point where one can laugh at the obscurity of abstract painting. “I don’t understand your work. I think it’s beautiful,” says Wiggy almost rapturously, without taking her eyes off the picture, and having the last word.

The film itself, like Mrs. Wiggs, spends considerable time looking at Ferren’s luminous canvases. Wiggy and Miss Gravely both respond to the paintings with aesthetic appreciation that harbors a hint of eroticism. They function as surrogates for us, and perhaps for Hitchcock, too—whose favorite painter, Paul Klee, like Ferren, made somewhat mysterious and vividly chromatic pictures that shift between and across abstraction and figuration. The bright colors dominant in the paintings are also evident in the autumnal landscape of New England: yellow, orange, red, blue, green. In fact, the painting with which Sam makes his first appearance very clearly echoes colors and textures from the autumnal scene. Although the abstract aspect of Marlowe’s work has generally been regarded as a joke—(how ridiculous that an abstract painter would work in plein air)—this view is misguided. Abstract does not equal non-objective. Several of the pictures used in the film (including a few that may have been made by a second artist) have evident representational content and Ferren’s work of the period in fact includes numerous abstract landscapes [fig. 67]. Abstraction is at some remove from the concrete world and it is this removal that allows Hitchcock to employ the paintings as images of disorientation, play, mystery and freedom.

But is it the painting or the viewer that is disoriented, one wonders? Doesn’t Sam’s nickname for Mrs. Wiggs—Wiggy—imply that there’s something dizzy in this otherwise very down-to-earth viewer of his pictures? Earthiness and color are dialectically engaged in The Trouble with Harry. Richard Allen, in his analysis of Hitchcock’s color designs asserts—employing a metaphor that seems especially apt here—that Hitchcock approached the color film as a “blank canvas in which every element of color placed in the frame is put there for a reason.” With few but significant exceptions—most obviously Harry’s socks and Jennifer’s garb (both combining blue and red)—sartorial color in The Trouble with Harry is generally neutral, dark and/or earthy. The neutrality of their appearance underscores the characters’ absurd nonchalance and the darkness and earthiness of the morbid and sexual humor that pervades the story (e.g. “I’m grateful to you for burying my body.” “Marriage is a comfortable way to spend the winter”).

Thus the brilliant colors of both landscape and art are very much in contrast to the behavior and appearance of the characters [fig. 68]. The colors and forms of the paintings manifestly excite the two middle-aged women: Wiggs and Gravely, as well as—it seems, the elderly millionaire who stops to admire, and later purchase them. This excitement is expressed in a sense by the inversion. These sensual, stimulating objects turn the world inside out, or upside down. As Sikov suggests, they represent unconscious, repressed currents. It is then, utterly silly and yet at the same time quite serious, when Sam turns his painting right side up.

It ought to be noted that Ferren had some experience with his work’s inversion. An undated clipping from The New Yorker found among his papers reports “that the Museum of Modern Art had apparently hung a picture, a modernistic composition by John Ferren, upside down.” Ferren would likely have known, too, that his artistic forebear, Wassily Kandinsky, famously claimed that his move toward abstraction was inspired “by an encounter with one of his own paintings in the dark, set upside down, which though unrecognizable was ‘an indescribably beautiful picture impregnated with an inner radiance.’" Ferren certainly would have known, as well, that Paul Klee’s cryptic, colorful pictures were profoundly influenced by the art of children, and, especially, the insane, the latter through Hans Prinzhorn’s influential publication of 1922, Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Perhaps the painter was in on Hitchcock’s joke.

Such jocular reorientation in a sense celebrates the “craziness” of modernism, and its freedom. Propagandistic discourses linked abstraction, particular Abstract Expressionism, to freedom during the Cold War, and were central themes in official U.S. culture abroad, even as popular audiences in America remained skeptical (see Guilbaut). The equation of abstraction and freedom is echoed in The Trouble with Harry in a rather feminist exchange. Sam says to Jennifer, “if you marry me, you’d keep your freedom,” to which she replies, “you must be practically unique, then.” “I respect freedom,” he confirms. “More than that, I love freedom. We might be the only free married couple in the world” [fig. 69].

But the rotating canvas takes on other overtones when considered in cinematic terms. One element of the cliché of the disoriented painting may be the dynamic possibility afforded by its reorientation. Do the movies turn abstract pictures around because they can? A perennial problem in the representation of painting in film is its stasis, which can act upon the flow of cinema like a stop sign. The still picture, whose stillness does not bother us upon the gallery wall, looks dead in moving pictures… like Harry. The Trouble with Harry, it could be argued, is just this: his inexorable horizontality and stasis. Sikov points out that Harry’s reorientation is a sexual joke, his erect feet “standing” for the organ he couldn’t get up in life. But in moving pictures, even the dead must—and, as I’ve noted elsewhere, often do—move (the movies’ ubiquitous zombies, for instance, and Hitchcock’s own variously re-animated dead: Rebecca, General McLaidlaw, Madeleine Elster, Mrs. Bates). This mortified property of the still image is not only the source of the often morbid poignancy of the cinematic freeze frame (Truffaut’s, for instance) but also gives rise to the much abused impulse in documentaries on art to zoom in on and pan across canvases, as with still photographs: the inevitable and tiresome “Ken Burns” effect!

The abstract picture has virtues and possibilities that the figurative still and the narrative cinema lack, though. One of these is precisely its dynamic openness of form and concomitant reorganization of time. It can be rotated, or disoriented, productively. As Ferren himself wrote in 1958 about the possibilities post-cubist abstraction afforded his generation of painters:

“we found ourselves with a pictorial space which was less finite, less easily contained, full of energy; not the negative space between two planes, but a space in which the mind moves freely and which permits a flux of emotion instead of a timeless fixity. Comparing the classical concept of space which still haunts French painting to our space is like comparing a still photograph to a movie. A painting by Pollock ‘contains’ time in a way that is new” (Ferren, “Epitaph” 26).

And, of course, the upside-down picture is a figure of Hitchcock’s picture’s own inversion, in a sense, too, isn’t it? The same content that would be framed with horror, suspense, and morbid fascination in other movies is here—in the film its director claimed to be fondest of in his oeuvre—turned on its head: made droll, amusing, benign. The reorientation of the picture speaks to those more abstract, dynamic values of composition, color, and line which are such a source of inchoate pleasure in Hitchcock’s pictures: values, however, that generally must serve, or be subordinated to the flow of narrative. In The Trouble with Harry, in which narrative flow is not brisk or subtle, while the setting is uncommonly beautiful, these formal values come to the foreground. Hitchcock, who did once compare himself to an abstract painter (McGilligan 476), wanted Ferren’s pictures “for their brilliant color, like the color of Vermont in the fall.” Ferren no doubt wanted the cinema not only for its paycheck, but also for its dynamism, scale and luminosity. In the same year that he, and his pictures, and his wife were employed by Hitchcock—the painter had been experimenting with paintings made with “bright, nearly translucent inks” on Orlon, meant to be displayed in windows, producing a luminous glow like stained glass [fig. 70].

In hanging Ferren’s pictures at Wiggie’s roadside stand in the autumn sunshine, as well as indoors in her post office and general store, Hitchcock revels in the ways that their chromaticity operates under different conditions (a number of the same pictures are to be seen outdoors and in—perhaps a continuity error, but an illuminating one). A theater poster quite prominently displayed inside Wiggy’s shop points to the chromatic focus; it is for “The Caravan Color Season at the Dorset Playhouse” [fig. 71]. Ferren was also in the mid-fifties, after years of working strictly non-objectively, returning cautiously to figuration. Indeed, most of the works seen in The Trouble with Harry are abstract but not non-objective. Ferren wrote,

“The figure conceived in the Western Humanist Tradition has found its communicable art form outside of painting. To me, it is experienced better plastically and humanly in giant close-ups moving in sequence across a movie or TV screen”  (Art Digest 1953).

He felt that figuration was risky—it could be both reactionary and cowardly for artists in 1953—but also might fruitfully reemerge from the “matrix” of abstract expressionism, a “matrix” he believed could either destroy painting or enable a “leap” to an objectification of mental, emotional, and spiritual energies.

The power that such language attributes to painting may not be evident in these colorful canvases that are all too easily subsumed in mise-en-scène. It doesn’t help that quite a few rather small canvases jostle for attention in the scenes into which they’re crowded, or that they are somewhat inconsistent in style. Indeed, a couple of the paintings seen at the emporium are unlike most Ferren work and might be by Stanley Marc Wright, an accomplished realist painter resident in Stowe, who claimed to have made paintings for the film. “Hitchcock wanted to shoot in Wright’s studio,” according to art historian James Saslow, the painter’s nephew, but “the artist refused to allow the drastic remodeling required.” Wright claimed to have made all the art in the film, which is obviously untrue (perhaps he did not know that Ferren was paid for his canvases and was present for some days during the shoot; one wonders whether he ever saw the finished film), and, since “Forsythe was supposed to be the stereotypically earnest but penniless modernist that Wright never wanted to be,” to have “had a bit of fun at the expense of the avant-garde by cranking out a wildly varied smorgasbord of swirling , daubish abstractions, some of them deliberately dreadful” (Saslow, 26). Few of the canvases seen in the movie could be characterized as such. Hitchcock probably employed Wright’s work sparingly, if at all.[22]

In any case, even the “honest” abstractions by Ferren seem at best to contribute a benign, spiritually and sensually vivid air to the scene [fig. 72]. Certainly one senses through the admiration of Mrs. Wiggs, Miss Gravely, and the wealthy collector who takes up the whole lot, the director’s own appreciation. Ironically, these pleasant, almost decorative elements of Hitchcock’s film are not very unlike some of the works that were cast as ridiculous, dangerous, crazy, and degenerate in Venus vor Gericht. When cast in fiction films, whether to perform as ideological punching bags or as aesthetic diversions, such objects—dematerialized and removed from not only the space but also the cultural context of the studio or gallery—become players rather than objects. This is especially true of easel paintings, like Ferren’s. The large, more cinematic scale of contemporaneous works by New York School artists like Pollock, Motherwell or Kline come to embody a relationship between painting and cinema in a way that the representation, or incorporation, of the portable easel painting cannot, as Ferren himself had observed.

Thus the “Marlowe” paintings in The Trouble with Harry, despite their considerable screen time (in the two mercantile locations they are displayed, paintings are almost continuously to be seen for a total of about fifteen minutes), have been much less noticed, appreciated, and analyzed than the often inferior portraits and pictures upon which plot points turn in other Hitchcock films.  Upon entering the age of its technological reproducibility, according to Walter Benjamin, the work of art loses aura. When art comes into the aura of film, so to speak: when the object of art enters the space of its own symbolic appropriation—the classical fiction film—it gains a strange and paradoxical sort of invisibility, as well.

But even as these concrete objects disappear into the mise-en-scène—even unremarked—they continue to signify. Their signification is not fixed, however. As modernist, abstract works, of the mid-century, Ferren’s are indices of freedom, sensual experience, psyche and spirit. Color and abstract form are difficult to describe and to discuss, but they are felt. Ferren’s pictures participate, albeit somewhat whimsically, in a dialogue about art and value that in fact had some urgency in the post-war period. This dialogue is neither as obvious nor as polemical as the National Socialist case around which Venus vor Gericht was structured during the war but Hitchcock must have been aware of the history of anti-modernist rhetoric and the ways that aesthetic signification were shifting during the Cold War when he changed Sam Marlowe into a modern painter. The modernist works regarded as “degenerate” by the National Socialist ethos of Zerlett’s film signify, too, and not always as intended [fig. 73].

Although the objects themselves are mostly lost to history—a couple recently recovered, battered from it—their withered aura persists to defy the morality tale into which they were abducted. That morality tale pitted modernism against classicism, a classicism framed as virtuous, heroic, and occasionally a little titillating. But classicism is not a stable signifier, either. In The Song of Songs the classical figure is less reactionary than risqué; it is about the body, but not the heroic political body of the Nazi period; rather, it is about the sexual body that is off limits in Hollywood [gi. 74]. American censors must have been as outraged by Mamoulian’s sculptural surrogates as the NS establishment by the art it declared degenerate. By 1934, a nude statue was as taboo in Hollywood as a nude actress.

When art and movies get mixed up with one another, political signifiers get mixed up, too. What to one man is sheer madness is pure freedom to another. One woman’s paragon of virtue is another’s sexual fetish. The aura of the art object decays; the still image moves; the three-dimensional object becomes a mere projection, or shadow, but no more of one than the actor next to it. The mortal flesh and the solid inanimate thing begin to merge. The very notion of the “real” withers, as well.


The author wishes to acknowledge the following individuals for their time, expertise and assistance: Peter Chametzky, Rae Ferren, Mark Friedberg, Andreas Hüneke, Steven Jacobs, Brigitte Peucker, Marshall Price, James Saslow, Lola Scarpitta, and Christoph Zuschlag.

1. Notably, in addition to Jacobs: Brigitte Peucker, Michael Walker and Tom Gunning. [return to text]

2. French painter Bonheur (1822-1899) was probably the most famous woman painter of the 19th century and her work is held in many major museum collections.

3. See David Ng, “Olivier Assayas’ new film about art uses authentic masterpieces,” Culture Monster blog, Los Angeles Times, May 25, 2009, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2009/05/summer-hours-olivier-assayas-musee-dorsay-louis-majorelle-art-bracquemont.html (accessed June 22, 2010); Eve M. Kahn, “Behind the Screen: A look at Summer Hours with François-Renaud Labarthe,” The Magazine Antiques, June 10, 2009, http://www.themagazineantiques.com/news-opinion/current-and-coming/2009-06-10/behind-the-screen-a-look-at-summer-hours-with-franois-renaud-labarthe/ (accessed June 22, 2010); and documentary film, Inventory (by Olivier Goinard), that is special feature on the Criterion Collection DVD edition of Summer Hours.

4. This is a synoptic version of the first part of a larger project called Real Objects in Unreal Situations: Modern Art in Fiction Films. In addition to these three case studies of art in films of the classic period, it will include more contemporary material, especially focusing on the following films: The Damned (Joseph Losey, 1963); An Unmarried Woman (Paul Mazursky, 1978) and other films set in the New York art world of the 1970s and 1980s; Pride & Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005) and Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, 2008).

5. As per Lola Scarpitta.

6. Scarpitta was the father of noted post-war American sculptor, Salvatore Scarpitta (1919-2007) and the grandfather of painter Lola Scarpitta.

7. “Boris Lovet-Lorski, 1894-1973,” Macklowe Gallery, New York.  http://www.macklowegallery.com/education.asp/art+nouveau/Artist+Biographies/antiques/Decorative+Artists/education/Boris+Lovet-Lorski/id/140

8. I should note, however, that the Scarpitta statue does share one salient attribute with Lorski’s Venus (1925): the figure stands on tiptoes. If Mamoulian was particularly impressed with his friend’s work, he may have urged this iconography upon Scarpitta, when he undertook the commission.

9. Both One Touch of Venus and The Barefoot Contessa do include other art works in their mise-en-scene, however. In the former, the supposed antiquity has been purchased for a department store art gallery that is furnished with an eclectic assortment of obvious reproductions. In the latter, a Renaissance period Italian palazzo is persuasively enough furnished. But in neither case do these furnishings create an entirely persuasive context for the central sculpture.

10. The censors’ decision of 14 March 1934 is available at http://www.deutsches-filminstitut.de/filme/f035202.htm (August 9, 2007); it is discussed in “Deutsche Zensoren: ‘Das Hohe Lied’ verboten,” Film und Fernsehen, Vol. 8, No. 12 (1980): 45.

11. Zerlett letters in the Deutsche Kinemathek, Schriftgutarchiv, as per Andreas Hüneke, “’Entartete Kunst’ in Einem NS-Film,” Recherche Film und Fernsehen, 4 (2008), p. 42.

12. See “Die Beschlagnahme der "Entarteten Kunst" 1937 und ihre Folgen,” at the website of the Forschungsstelle "Entartete Kunst,” Kunsthistorisches Institut, Freie Universität Berlin,  http://www.geschkult.fu-berlin.de/e/db_entart_kunst/geschichte/beschlagnahme/index.html (22 December 2010); Stephanie Barron, ed.,  'Degenerate Art:' The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991); and Christoph Zuschlag, “Entartete Kunst”: Ausstellungsstrategien im Nazi-Deutschland (Worms: Wernersche Verlagsgesellschaft, 1995). The relationship between Zerlett and Hinkel, as well as—to my knowledge—the first scholarly indication that Venus vor Gericht featured actual seized works, is mentioned in Rolf Giesen, Nazi Propaganda Films: A History and Filmography (Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland, 2003), 265.

 13. Many of these identifications were made by Andreas Hüneke and Christoph Zuschlag, both at that time associated with the Forschungsstelle “Entartete Kunst,” of the Freie Universität Berlin, to whose attention the author and Peter Chametzky brought the movie in 2006. According to Chametzky, “the Kleinshmidt, Duett im Nord-Café, 1925, formerly Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, is visible in the 1937 Munich showing of “Degenerate Art” in Stephanie Barron, “Degenerate” Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, 56, # 15988. It is also visible in a still, with the caption: “The receptionist (Empfangsdame) in Benjamin Hecht’s Salon presents ‘artworks’ that these days we have eliminated as ‘degenerate’.” Ellie Tschauner, “Benjamin Hecht macht in ‘Kunst’,” Filmwelt: Das Film- und Foto-Magazin (Berlin) Nr. 16 (18 April 1941): 410-411.The Empfangsdame wears a monocle and a necktie, identifying her as a Weimar period lesbian. The possible Grosz is also reproduced, captioned as “Das Erlebnis” (it is captioned “Die Begegnung” in the film itself), “a concoction of Jewish corruption.” The Kirchner is Das Paar, 1923/24, acquired 1930, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg.” See Peter Chametzky, Objects as History in Twentieth-Century German Art: Beckmann to Beuys (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 147.

14. Michael Kimmelman, “Art’s Survivors of Hitler’s War,” New York Times, November 30, 2010: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/01/arts/design/01abroad.html (22 December 2010).

15. Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, “Ausstellung: Der Berliner Skulpturenfund. ‘Entartete Kunst’ im Bombenschutt,” press release, 8 Nov. 2010, http://hv.spk-berlin.de/deutsch/presse/pdf/101108_2_PM_Ausstellung.pdf (23 December 2010).

16. Peter Chametzky. Op cit. cites Linda Schulte-Sasse, Entertaining the Third Reich: Illusions of Wholeness in Nazi Cinema and “Plastiken auf Celluloid: Frauen und Kunst im NS-Spielfilm,” as well as Ellie Tschauner, “Benjamin Hecht macht in ‘Kunst’,” Filmwelt: Das Film- und Foto-Magazin (Berlin) Nr. 16 (18 April 1941): 410-411.

17. A reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s Pitcher and Bowl of Fruit (1931), as identified in private correspondence, by Steven Jacobs.

18. Ferren scholar Marshall Price believes the two probably met in California, however.

19. Roberta Smith, review of “John Ferren, the Formative Years: The 1930s in Paris and Spain,” The New York Times, August 27, 1993. http://www.nytimes.com/1993/08/27/arts/art-in-review-256993.html (accessed September 12, 2008).

20. Interview with Rae Ferren, June 22, 2009.

22. I have looked closely at the works in The Trouble with Harry with Marshall Price, foremost scholar of the work of John Ferren (his dissertation on the artist is near completion at the CUNY Graduate Center), and, although he cannot definitively identify any of the works seen in the film, he recognizes all, or virtually all, as being consistent with Ferren’s work of the late 1940s and 1950s. Conversation, 14 July 2010.

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