Features Film

Introspection and Chaos: The Art Gallery on Film

MANY of us still depend on an art gallery to provide a place of refuge from our hectic existence. A space for quiet reflection and layered thinking. To experience art as intended by the artist, a face-on confrontation in which we can attempt to extract pleasure and meaning – whether it is personal, historical, social, political or a combination.

Occasionally filmmakers decides to invade the art gallery with camera in hand. When this occurs, we enter a meta realm where one artist’s work can be seen through the lens of another artist from a different medium.

Filmmakers may even borrow the artist’s work to play into their own intended message – just as director John Hughes did in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). In one montage scene, we watch Bueller and his two friends enjoy themselves in the Art Institute of Chicago. As Hughes admitted in his commentary on the film, the scene was mostly an exercise in self-indulgence to celebrate his favourite pieces of art.

Yet the scene does end on a completive note as Cameron (Alan Ruck) becomes fixated on George Seurat’s pointillist work A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Cameron’s gaze is drawn to a mother and young child in the painting, a reference to his own paternal pain. The young, blurred child in the painting then becomes a symbol of Cameron’s own fears about himself: the more and closer you look, the less you see.


A more contemporary art exhibition welcomes us to Tom Ford’s dark, harrowing tale Nocturnal Animals (2016). We watch a group of naked obese women with red lipstick and sparklers parade at Susan’s (Amy Adams) gallery opening. The exhibition speaks to American materialism and excess, a theme that soon becomes pertinent to Susan’s own life as her past – and past decisions – come back to haunt her in cerebrally penetrating fashion.

Just as in Nocturnal Animals, the art gallery is often associated with self-centred upper-class types. At its most intolerable, it can become a breeding ground for pseudo-intellectualism, emptiness and pretentiousness.

Terry (Mark Wahlberg) goes against this type as he pulls impressive artistic critic out of his back pocket to rebut his ‘artsy fartsy’ surroundings in The Other Guys (2010). Such ridicule of pretentious gallery dwellers is used for comedic effect in films such as LA Story (1991), Les Intouchables (2011) and Beverley Hills Cop (1984).

In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Paul (Michael Sheen) flaunts his knowledge of artwork like a peacock only to be debunked by secret time-traveller Gil (Owen Wilson). The art gallery thus becomes a setting to expose the fraudulent and peel back a person’s true character.

Discussions of artistic merit act as the pretext to romance in two other Allen films – Play it Again Sam (1973) and Manhattan (1979). Mary (Diane Keaton) and Isaac (Allen), in the latter film, have divergent opinions when they cross path in a New York gallery, only to be drawn together by these differences later in the film.

With its whispering beauties, the art gallery does tempt romance feelings. That is the case when Larry (Clive Owen) and Alice (Natalie Portman) engage in flirtatious conversation just a few feet away from their other halves in Mike Nichols’ Closer (2004). Likewise, gallery-inspired flirting takes place in The Break Up (2006), When in Rome (2010), About Time (2013) and – in slightly creepier, stalker-ish fashion – Fifty Shades Darker (2017).

The most arresting example, however, comes from the masterful hand of Brian De Palma and his film Dressed to Kill (1980). Lonely housewife Kate (Angie Dickinson) plays a titillating game of cat and mouse with a mysterious stranger she meets at a gallery. The two stalk each other through the labyrinthine halls of paintings as the quiet, polite setting adds to the thrill of their pursuit.


De Palma is not the only genius filmmaker to use the quiet of the gallery. Alfred Hitchcock lets the camera do the talking when Scottie (James Stewart) watches Madeleine (Kim Novak) as she stares at a portrait painting of Carlotta Valdes in his film Vertigo (1958). The silent politics of scene play out through different perspectives (those watching us, watching others and those we cannot see).

Of course, the art gallery can simply be a meeting place. Like when Johann (Bobby Sommer) and Anne (Mary O’Hara) engage in Linklaterian pensive conversation as they navigate the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours (2012). Or when we observe real-life artists like Frida Kahlo and J.MW Turner interact with their peers and admirers at the gallery in their respective biopics (2012,2014).

Speaking of Turner, James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Q (Ben Whishaw) meet in front of his 1838 painting The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up in the early stages of Skyfall (2012). Bond displays his brute simplicity when he responds to Q’s thoughtful critic of the painting by describing it as ‘a bloody big ship’.

At times, the filmmaker has dared to disrupt the peace and quiet of the art gallery to create on-screen chaos. In Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), The Joker dances into the Gotham Museum of Art with a group of henchmen as they deface and steal art. Elaborate distractions and gallery theft also take place in films such as The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) and St. Trinian’s (2007).

The art gallery houses even more sinister crimes as women are threatened in The Stendhal Syndrome (1995) and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). More innocent gallery chaos is caused by Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003). The two chase each other in and out of paintings until Bugs eventually gets a pointillist upper hand.

It only takes the sneeze of one helplessly clumsy man to nearly cause $50 million worth of chaos in Bean (1997). When left alone with James McNeill’s Whistler’s Mother, Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson) manages to ruin the world famous 1871 painting in a scene that positions Bean’s ridiculous physical comedy within the order of a prestigious art gallery.


This week, film-goers may find themselves in the art gallery once again as part of Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winning film The Square.

Who knows what mayhem or lessons will be learnt from this latest on-screen art gallery visit.



  1. A very insightful article. I never thought deeply of art and museums as these directional uses and what they may mean. I particularly liked your Bean reference. It reminded me of Bean destroying a precious, one-of-a-kind, ancient manuscript in the library by inadvertently drawing on it, etc.


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