The Boca Raton Museum of Art Shows “Art Against a Hollywood Backdrop”
In just a few steps, people enter the Boca Raton Art Museum can travel from the colossal Mount Rushmore to the vast cityscapes of ancient Rome.
The 22 renders look real, but they were plucked from the basements of MGM – narrowly escaping a junkyard grave.
The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop is the newest exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. The hand-painted scenes are decades old, dating back to 1938. But the artists responsible have never been named—until now.
Exhibition co-curators Karen Maness and Thomas Walsh spent hours sifting through archives and oral histories to find the artists behind the lifelike canvases. Although they have been able to credit more than a dozen artists for their work, many still remain unnamed.
“I got into it for the love of painting,” said Maness, a University of Texas professor and co-author of The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, a 13-pound tome published in 2016.
“I carry on with the love of painting but also as an advocate for these artists to help them be seen in history. They deserve to be recognized and honored.” Maness said.
The University of Texas at Austin previously hosted the exhibit, which often sold out even at the height of the pandemic. This spring, the university loaned several works to the Boca Raton Museum of Art.
The exhibition features 22 iconic backdrops, including the Austrian Alps from The Sound of Music and Mount Rushmore from Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest – a favorite of Emmy Award-winning production designer Walsh.
“It’s like naming your favorite child. You can’t do that,” Walsh said, then turned to face giant Mount Rushmore. “But it is.”
Works like this are often created by four to five artists on a tight schedule—one to four weeks, depending on the project. Hitchcock’s backdrop towers over visitors at 27.5 x 18 m.
What sets this art form apart from what museum-goers are more accustomed to seeing — aside from its sheer size — is that it wasn’t made for the naked eye.
“These are artists who understand the art of illusion,” said Irvin Lippman, the museum’s executive director.
They may not look as detailed as classic realism, but they look seamless and tangible in a camera lens.
“It was really interesting and we tried to fit her into the films,” said Linda Toner, a Boca Raton resident and museum member, after completing a factory tour. “We’ve found that if you pull out your camera to take a picture, it looks a lot more realistic.”
These handcrafted illusions have not completely disappeared from the industry. While many modern films rely on CGI for special effects, some directors still opt for hands-on effects. Films such as “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Greatest Showman” used painted sets.
Even so, with today’s technology, they are much rarer.
The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop also explores the history and craft behind the magic. With soundscapes and video reels, visitors can fully immerse themselves.
“Hollywood never knows what it’s lost until it’s lost it,” Walsh said. “The truth is, we can’t travel back in a time machine. We’ll never have enough artists to do it – and even if we did, they would never get enough time to do it well.”
This exhibition is accompanied by another, “Bonnie Lautenberg: Art Meets Hollywood”. Lautenberg has been a political photographer for decades. For this exhibition she has combined her love of cinema with her love of art.
Lippman called the pairing of the exhibits “accidental” and said both show a love for film. Each of Lautenberg’s pieces combines a work of art with a still from a cult film.
“What’s brilliant about it is the psychological connections between the film, these particular scenes, and the artwork,” Lippman said.
A pairing features a still from Pulp Fiction and Kenny Scharf’s Globeglob, a work of colorful abstract swirls. Another features Rene Magritte’s The Lovers and The Mysterious Lady, starring Greta Garbo.
“Putting these pieces together is so exciting for me,” Lautenberg said. “There is no process. Sometimes I have a film that I want to use and then I have to find the art. Sometimes I want to commission an artist and then I have to find the painting.”
Speaking of the scenery on display, Lippman said, “People can see these wonderful paintings like this [they’ve] only seen them in the movies – and probably didn’t even know they were paintings. I think it’s an incredible opportunity.”
when you go
What:Bonnie Lautenberg: Art Meets Hollywood through August 21; “The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop” through January 22nd
From where: Boca Raton Art Museum, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton
Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday
Tickets: $12 adults $10 seniors; free for students and children