The presence of art in movies differs from one filmmaker to another, but it is not that rare that certain artworks found their place under the spotlight. Aside from being inspired or referring to a certain artwork (a good example being one of the scenes from Lars Von Trier’s celebrated movie Melancholy from 2011, an homage to John Everet Millais’ painting Ophelia), movie directors very often include artworks within set designs and mood boards.
Maybe the best example is the oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock who considered modern art an extremely important element of his films, and he often incorporated various artworks and collaborated with artists.
In order to show more examples of art featured in movies, we selected ten astonishing masterpieces by the leading 20th century artists that you can find in equally successful motion pictures.
Featured image: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps – Francisco Goya - Saturn Devouring His Sons, 1819–1823. All the images used for the text are screenshots courtesy of paintingsinmovies.
American Psycho was directed by Mary Harron in 2000. The narrative is based on Bret Easton Ellis's 1991 novel of the same name and it follows the decline of a wealthy New York investment banker Patrick Bateman, who turns out to be a killer. In one sequence, we see Batemen’s lavish apartment expensively equipped with the painting Man in Cities by Robert Longo.
The director apparently chose this particular artwork to symbolically accentuate what is about to happen. Interestingly so, Longo himself was inspired by the film The American Soldier from 1970 that in one of the scenes features two gangsters unexpectedly shot down. In a stop motion manner, the painter theatrically captured their bodies in a particular choreography, and so this artwork perfectly suits the scene dominated by the presence of a villain.
Batman, directed by Tim Burton, was made in 1989 as the first chapter of Warner Bros Batman series based on the popular comic of the same title.
The enemy of the dark superhero Joker is a sociopath driven insane by the incident who takes over the criminal empire and makes Gotham City soaked in crime. In a sequence, while demolishing the museum, Joker stops by Francis Bacon’s Figure with Meat, stating he loves the work and that it is not to be destroyed.
This masterpiece was made in 1954 and is based on Diego Velázquez’s famous portrait of Pope Innocent X; this painting features the horrifying image of The Pope seated between two halves of a dissected cow. The connection with Joker is apparent due to the similarities in the costume and the gruesomeness both figures represent.
Children of Men is a dystopian thriller movie directed by Alfonso Cuarón in 2006 and based on the 1992 novel of the same title written by P. D. James. The narrative takes place in 2027, at the time when human infertility threatens the extinction of the humankind, and illegal immigrants seek refuge in the United Kingdom.
The iconic masterpiece Guernica by Pablo Picasso appears in the backdrop of a grand room the Ark of the Arts, where a dinner takes place. It is well known that this particular painting was made as an homage to the bombing of Guernica undertaken by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in 1937. The selection of Guernica goes well with the narrative and indicates the director's desire to underline the hypocrisy of any authoritarian system which eventually leads to destruction and chaos.
In 1992, the renowned American filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola made Bram Stoker's Dracula based on the most appreciated Gothic novel ever written by Bram Stoker. The narrative takes an account of the ancient being in search of love.
However, the scene in which a dialog develops between the young solicitor Jonathan Harker and his client, the Count, features the portrait of young Dracula - the Self-portrait by Albrecht Dürer made in early 1500. This puzzling German Renaissance masterpiece depicts the artist as Jesus Christ, so the analogy with the Count Dracula seems quite articulated in regards to Coppola’s socially based critique.
The next motion picture on our top list is The Devil Wears Prada directed by David Frankel in 2006 and based on the novel of the same name written by Lauren Weisberger in 2003. The story follows the troubles of a young girl Andy with a leading fashion magazine editor-in-chief while working as a personal assistant. The inspiration for the bitchy character of an editor was no other than Anna Wintour, US Vogue editor and the most dominant person in the fashion world.
In the scene when Andy looks around her in the grand office of the fashion magazine headquarters, behind her back hangs an astonishing painting Harbor #3 by the distinguished artist Alex Katz whose entire painterly practice is inseparable from New York City.
Dr. No is the first James Bond movie made in 1962 by Terence Young. The agent 007 is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a fellow British agent, and the trail leads him directly to the underground base of Dr. No, who yearns to disrupt American space launch with a radio beam weapon.
Bond (played by Sean Connery) passes through Dr. No’s nest where The Portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya hangs. This scene refers to the famous theft of this masterpiece which occurred in 1961, indicating it was the first Bond villain who stole it.
The 2010 science fiction action film Inception was written and directed by Christopher Nolan. The film features the story of a corporate spy who uses experimental military technology to gather data by infiltrating the subconscious and is offered a redemption as payment for the implantation of another person's idea into a target's subconscious.
While attempting to deal with another person’s secret, the leading character played by Leonardo Di Caprio has a projection of his late wife Mal; the two move to another room within the estate, where Mal fixates the painting hanging on the wall - the Study for Head of George Dyer by Francis Bacon. The work belongs to a triptych honoring the artist’s late lover George Dyer who committed suicide the evening before Bacon’s Grand Palais retrospective opened in 1971 in Paris. The artwork appears here for a reason, since the scene is somehow an homage to lost love and the psychological effects of loss.
In 2003, American director Mike Newell directed Mona Lisa Smile. The title is two-fold, as it refers to Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic painting Mona Lisa, and the song of the same name, performed by Nat King Cole. The film features the story of a young art historian teaching the history of art at a conservative women's private college where she instantly becomes despised by the students for her approach.
This gradually changes and the young professor reveals the freedom of expression and autonomy typical for modern art by showing them the impressive and rather bold canvas, and at the time when the narrative takes place highly controversial, Number 1 painted by the leading post-war master and Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock in 1948. The painting is featured in the film as a symbol of emancipation and liberation from the social constraints young women in those environments were usually exposed to in the 1950s America saturated with conservatism.
Skyfall, the 23rd movie in the James Bond series, was made in 2012, and is starring Daniel Craig as James Bond for the third time. The story follows the unbeatable agent investigating an attack on MI6, part of a plot organized by former agent Raoul Silva.
While on his task, Bond finds himself witnessing a stolen painting shown to a buyer In Shanghai, The buyer is subsequently killed and the plot continues, but the painting in question is Woman with a Fan by Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani in 1919. This scene refers to a real-life event when the artwork was stolen from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in 2010 and is related to the aforementioned Goya painting from the first James Bond film Dr. No (1962).
Finally, The Thomas Crown Affair was directed by John McTiernan in 1999. It is a remake of the 1968 film of the same name as it follows a group of thieves infiltrating The Metropolitan Museum of Art while preparing to steal an entire gallery of paintings. The mastermind of the operation is the billionaire Thomas Crow.
Catherine Banning (Rene Russo), an investigator for the museum's insurance company, with whom Crow gets into the affair, is found standing in front of the painting The Son of Man by a famous Belgian Surrealist René Magritte.