A few years ago I showed John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) for a nice lady who sighed, “The pictures look like paintings.” Why was this a complaint and not a compliment? Because most people want movies to be “realistic” and thus prefer new movies whose style seems transparent. They want to be entertained passively.

A painting, in contrast, is expected to be a contemplation. Its style, instead of being transparent, is the gateway into the artist’s world.

These opposing attitudes toward movies and paintings have impeded critics of the arts. Fortunately, they have not hindered the artists themselves.

“Filming is nothing but seeing”, said one artist.

Not what you see, but how you see it. Anyone can learn to film the things that are there. But to film the things that one merely suspects to be there, that is the sort of task that makes life interesting.

The artist was Rembrandt van Rijn, supposedly, and he said “painting”, not “filming”. (1) But Rembrandt’s paradoxical attitude toward “realism” was shared by both filmmakers and painters in the 20th century. And what some of the Americans among them, notably King Vidor and Andrew Wyeth, “suspected to be there” was what Wyeth called “an American quality”. Though Wyeth was schooled on Albrecht Dürer and detailed each blade of grass, he made sure it was American grass, for what Wyeth sought was an American consciousness independent of Europe.

[It’s] an indigenous thing you’re born with. […] It’s the quality of the early weather vanes, the hinges on the doors. It’s very hard to pinpoint. (2) You have to peer beneath the surface. The commonplace is the thing, but it’s hard to find. Then if you believe in it, have a love for it, this specific thing will become a universal. (3)

“Know it spiritually”, Wyeth’s father, also a painter, had taught him. “Be a part of it.” (4) And such had been the counsel of America’s revered sages – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman – and of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science to which King Vidor dedicated his life’s work. Both artists sought to express an American consciousness of American people, places and things.

And thus in 1975, late in life, age 81, Vidor was “excited” to receive a letter from Wyeth. Vidor had never met Wyeth but, he said, “I knew he felt about America the way I did.” (5) Indeed, Wyeth told Vidor he had seen Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925) “a hundred-and-eighty-times, literally” and that, in all sorts of abstract ways, it had been the strongest single influence on his painting. Now Wyeth asked permission to use clips from The Big Parade in a documentary film which the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art was proposing to accompany an exhibition of Wyeth’s many paintings of World War I veteran Karl Kuerner and his farm – including preliminary studies: thus The Big Parade. The exhibition took place a year later (Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons) but not the film. Meanwhile, however, Vidor went himself to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, to make his own movie with Wyeth. Here in 1777, between Philadelphia and Wilmington, George Washington had lost the Battle of the Brandywine. Today people call it “Wyeth country”.

Often I had heard filmmakers talk of the influence that famous artists have had on their films. To my knowledge, this was the first time that a great artist had agreed to talk of the influence that a movie had had upon his work.

We were calling each other by our first names in about half a minute. Having seen the picture so many times, I guess he felt he knew me, and I was familiar with his work so I felt I sort of knew him. There is a language of understanding, a bond between two people who are working in an artistic medium whose styles are somewhat similar. (6)

We shot for three days, going to the places Andy Wyeth talked about, looking at the paintings that had been influenced by The Big Parade, and then we ran the film. I think I had taken along my own copy. Since then, Andy has purchased one for himself. (7)

Andrew Wyeth (1917-) at the time was one America’s best-known painters. As for King Vidor (1894-1982), had a poll been taken in 1929 to say who best represented cinema as art, Vidor would probably have won for Hallelujah (1929) and The Crowd (1928) following The Big Parade, the biggest grosser of the decade. To welcome Hallelujah to Paris, La Revue du Cinéma had mobilized dozens of intellectuals for a pre-release screening and published 42 pages of their awe-struck reactions.

Vidor is neglected today. Yet it is not for this reason that his influence on Wyeth was virtually unknown among Wyeth scholars in 2006, as was their film together, Metaphor (1980). (8) Although “film” is getting increased attention in art history, it is as media within the broad gamut of popular culture. Old auteur movies are discounted. Yet there is an interesting relationship between Vidor and 20th century American painters, a bit like that between Jean Renoir and French impressionists – and not a relationship that is just a one-way.

In Metaphor, Vidor and Wyeth and Wyeth’s wife Betsy discuss specific affinities linking The Big Parade to famous Wyeth depictions of a hill (e.g., “Winter 1946”; “Snow Flurries”); a sharpshooter medal (“Portrait of Ralph Kline”); a tree branch (“Afternoon Flight of a Boy up a Tree”). From another Vidor movie, Wild Oranges (1924), a vacant rocking chair swaying in the wind made its way into Wyeth’s “Due Back” (1963).

The Crowd

Vidor shot his first movies in 1909 and acquired an interest in composition along with an interest in art. In 1939, his involvement with painting intensified.

For years we thought in terms of black and white. Suddenly we moved into color, and my color sense had been neglected all those years. I had heard of cool colors and warm colors, but I had to learn what they meant because I didn’t want to depend on anybody to tell me all that. I learned that greens, blues, reds and a few other colors had a strong influence on the mood of a scene. I became interested in buying paintings and going to art galleries, but [novelist] John Marquand gave me a set of paints and I sat down and started painting. That was where I learned the most. I started to paint pictures as soon a I knew I was going to do [Northwest Passage, 1940]. I did attend a group painting session at Edgar Bergen’s house a few times, but I really had no instruction. (9)

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Los Angeles (shadow right is Vidor’s head).

Los Angeles (black-and-white of colour).

King Vidor in his studio

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The apple in a number of his paintings, said Vidor,

symbolizes two pulls in different directions of men – like the Garden of Eden and then the progressive man. And these books represent the progressive idea to keep moving forward, to keep moving upward. (10)

(detail of a long shelf of books)

In Northwest Passage, Vidor dressed the Rangers in a vague green, so they could conceal themselves in the forest.

But when we made tests they were so blatantly green – Killarney green – that they stood out; you could see them miles away. I tried to investigate this and finally we found out [from Technicolor that] this was the green Darryl Zanuck liked. So we had to get busy and get our own green back. To make these costumes blend, we sprayed them down to change the color. (11) [And] with some argument and persuasion we succeeded in getting the Technicolor company to mix up a new batch of green dye.

I realized that the whole dramatic intent of a scene could, through the use of color, be heightened, diminished, or completely destroyed. (12)

Evident in the frames below, from Northwest Passage, is the influence of N. C. Wyeth, an immensely popular book illustrator and Andrew Wyeth’s father.

Northwest Passage

Northwest Passage Northwest Passage

Vidor spent three years on his next Technicolor movie, An American Romance (1944).

I was still trying to find out more about colors and the different effects they had. As the film goes on, the colors gradually get lighter and lighter. (13) For the iron-mining episodes at Mesabi we would confine ourselves to the earth colors: brown, Indian reds, blacks, heavy grays, and earthly greens. The light, bright blue of a clear sky would be avoided at all costs. […] Then, when we saw the [ore being refined in Gary, Indiana,] glowing ingots, the flaming reds and red-orange hues would predominate: the birth of iron in the baptism of fire. […] In Detroit, we would follow the steel as it was transformed into gears, pistons, cams, and crankshafts. Here color would dramatize the cool precision of American craftsmen; the colors could be as articulate as a polished ball bearing. (14) The colors of aluminium and magnesium become similar to the sky colors (15) until finally [the earth, progressively more refined,] flies up, up into the sky as an airplane (16) – a color story which paralleled and reinforced the dramatic progression. (17) The film itself is the story of a man who is, or becomes, the refinement of the immigrant. (18) We started in New York and took in most of the states right across the country to California. (19)

So cool are the colours that most of the movie is fairly desaturated, first toward earth colours, then toward steel greys. There are almost no bright primaries or secondaries – except the red lips and yellow hair of the immigrant’s wife; a golden arrival; and the strange apparition of the red schoolhouse.

An American Romance

An American Romance An American Romance

I was influenced entirely by [Charles] Burchfield for this shot. I don’t know whether that exact setting with the house is taken from a Burchfield painting, but it was certainly inspired by him. The character of the house is entirely based on Burchfield’s work. (20)

You know, so few cameramen really have an appreciation for the great painters, the modern painters, and so forth. Hal Rosson really did. On our days off in Chicago [while filming An American Romance] we went to the art museum and discussed paintings. He recognized good paintings. This is very essential for a cameraman, especially a cameraman doing color films. He had a vast amount of experience to call on, and he was a sensitive artist himself. (21)

I had a house and I had in mind putting an art gallery in the entrance hallway, [of] modern American painters that I liked. I started out with Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton and Charles Sheeler. (22)

I tried to buy a Burchfield and a [Edward] Hopper [and Andrew Wyeth’s “Public Sale”], but I never succeeded in getting the ones I wanted. (23)

Vidor remembered Wyeth’s muddy ruts while filming War and Peace (1956).

Comments art-historian Wanda M. Corn:

Burchfield, Hopper, and later, Wyeth, took the ordinary houses of rural America as seriously as Henry Adams had taken Chartres Cathedral, creating haunting and poignant symbols of man’s loneliness. (24)

A red barn by Sheeler hung over Vidor’s fireplace. Other walls in his house displayed “Negro and Alligator” by Benton, a pair of children by Diego Rivera – “Everytime I look at them, I see something new,” said Vidor – and two by Grant Wood, “Arbor Day” and “January”. “In Grant Wood’s ‘January’ I have the whole feeling of America right in my own dining room.”

Vidor continued:

In a few brush strokes, a real artist catches years of rich experience, deep feeling, creative living. Even when I have only two people in a scene where they are just sitting at a table talking, for instance. I find myself trying to get into that one scene the overtones of sophistication and philosophy and good living that the artist gets into a fine painting. (25)

Like Vidor, these American painters “filmed” the familiar things of everyday, our room, our window, out the window, and, in Wyeth’s tempuras, so “realistically” detailed (like Dürer) that everything is abstract, figurative, still life – and yet alive with pent-up energy almost bursting. Or is it we who feel about to burst? For Emerson, Wyeth, Christian Science and Vidor, the transcendent is in us.

In Truth and Illusion (1964), Vidor stares at an empty room and chair, a bit the way Wyeth does. Vidor too was a documentarist.

Truth and Illusion

And yet Vidor insists that physical reality does not exist. “Reality is right here in our consciousness. There simply is no ‘out there’!” Everything that is is mind, and thus God. As everyone learns in Hallelujah.

And therefore, Vidor continues in Metaphor, everything a visual artist depicts is “metaphor” – a notion he has picked up on the way to Chadds Ford from students in Chicago and which, coincidentally, Wyeth’s wife Betsy cites from a dissertation on Wyeth by Wanda M. Corn (26), and which, not coincidentally, coincides with Vidor’s long enthusiasm for psycho-analysis à la Carl Jung. “Metaphor”, Vidor says in his film,

means that you use one image to express some other idea. If you took the ideas and expressed them right on the nose, people might react them right away. If you take one image that is pleasing to them, that they accept, but you’re saying something else with it – I know that’s what goes on in all of your painting.

Andrew and Betsy Wyeth agree. And they all agree that the hill in Wyeth’s “Winter 1946” is both the actual hill on Karl Kuerner’s nearby farm and also the filmed hill in The Big Parade. Wyeth grew up with both hills and fused them together.

The Big Parade Winter 1946

One might object that as “metaphor” the hill means opposite things in Vidor and Wyeth. In Vidor, a returning soldier limps down it to reunite with the woman he loves. In Wyeth, the metaphor is N. C. Wyeth’s death. Said Andrew Wyeth:

It’s of a boy running, almost tumbling down a hill across a strong winter light, with his hand flung wide and a black shadow racing behind him, and bits of snow, and my feeling of being disconnected from everything. It was me, at a loss – that hand drifting in the air was my free soul, groping. Over on the other side of that hill was where my father was killed [in a car accident], and I was sick I’d never painted him. The hill finally became a portrait of him. (27) [The bulges of the hill] seem to be breathing – rising and falling – almost as if my father was underneath them. (28)

The metaphors could not differ more. Yet it doesn’t matter. One has only to watch a few seconds of Wyeth and Vidor together in Metaphor, looking at Kuerner’s hill, to sense a shared empathy in this hill that goes deeper than metaphor.

This is the truth of art. The hill matters. Vidor knew this, and he suggests, “Perhaps philosophical content has permeated more full-length films that we realize.” (29)

Yet Wyeth, more forcibly than Vidor, argues for the irrelevance of the story climaxing in The Big Parade, when the soldier comes down the hill.

I don’t think that’s the power of The Big Parade. It really isn’t. I think that’s – I hate to say it – but I feel that’s very unimportant in the film. The story is almost no story at all. Every great thing has very little story; the story is unimportant, really. And yet it does build to a crescendo, but I don’t feel that is the importance of the film. I think it’s bigger than that. That’s why it’s timeless. (30)

And Wyeth added, in Metaphor, that, when people tell him they cannot understand why Wyeth continues to watch The Big Parade after one-hundred-eighty times, he replies, “You don’t understand my paintings, either.”

Andrew Wyeth: “Christina’s World”

Still the question gnawed at Vidor: “Must we continue to live under the old restraint that ideas cannot be photographed, only action?” (31) And after making more than a hundred films for others, Vidor bought himself a 16mm camera to make a film just for himself – a philosophy film.

I thought […], ‘I don’t have to sell anyone the idea in order to get finances and I don’t even have to consider the mass audience appeal. I can write the script myself, operate the camera, and speak the narration.’ (32)

First he wrote the narration, eight-pages. Whereupon, “Permeating my thoughts each day throughout all other activities was the challenge to translate specific philosophical ideas into images.” (33)

Thus, over the empty room and chair (above), Vidor quotes Mary Baker Eddy: “Metaphysics resolves things into thoughts and exchanges the objects of sense for the ideas of soul.” And over her last words, Vidor tracks out of a black tunnel into the light.

Truth and Illusion

Yet to the extent that Vidor is successful – in producing images that translate philosophic ideas – his narration seems redundant, like his friend Josef von Sternberg’s benchi-like voice-over in The Saga of Anatahan (1953).

“What do you photograph”, Vidor asked rhetorically,

to illustrate a line of narration that reads: ‘The primary meaning of metaphysics is derived from the discussions by Aristotle which deal with the nature of being, with cause or genesis, and with the existence of God.’ (34)

An American Romance

But in fact this theme is at the heart of most Vidor movies. In An American Romance, for example, a mother and her child watch a butterfly emerge from a cocoon, and the mother says,

God is being born, and living, and kindness, and being happy, and helping others. […] He makes our tree blossom every spring – fruit and flowers and fields of wheat, everything that lives and grows.

Wyeth, and Vidor himself usually, start with objects that degrade into metaphors only when analysed. (35) Vidor in Truth and Illusion starts from the other direction, with the metaphorical content, and then works backward to the object. Is there not something wonderfully paradoxical about taking an idea like “Mind is substance; matter is illusion” and turning it into matter? Did it occur to Vidor that his movies turn “truth” into “illusion”?

An American Romance An American Romance

In An American Romance, to the contrary, Vidor begins with a ship magically emerging from a fog bank, then cuts to the Manhattan skyline, one of the most sensuous passages in cinema, and if, thereafter, there is a “metaphor”, it is illusion unfolding sensually, building a brave new world materially, and earth itself flies into the sky.

One may wonder, looking at a Wyeth painting, if the artist is seeking God or death, or if he is simply being resolutely in this world. Art is in this world. Only from here can it point beyond.

Endnotes

  1. Hendrick Willem Van Loon, R.v.R.: The Life and Times of Rembrandt van Rijn (New York: Horace Liveright, 1930), cited in Rouger Housden, How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful, Imperfect Self (New York: Harmony Books, 2005), p. 33, who adds: “Van Loon claimed that this book was material from the diary of his ancestor, Joannis Van Loon, who he says was Rembrandt’s doctor,” p. 231.
  2. Richard Meryman, “Andrew Wyeth: An Interview”, Life, 14 May 1965, reprinted in Wanda M. Corn, ed., Art of Andrew Wyeth (Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1973), p. 77.
  3. In “Two Realists”, Newsweek, 16 June 1952, p. 95; cited in Corn, p. 102.
  4. Betsy James Wyeth, ed., The Wyeths: The Letters of N. C. Wyeth, 1901-1945 (Boston, Gambit, 1971), p. 205; cited in Corn, p. 126.
  5. Carol A. Crotta, “Masters of Metaphor,” part one, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Mar. 30, 1980.
  6. Crotta, op. cit.
  7. King Vidor, A Directors Guild of America Oral History, interview by Nancy Dowd & David Shepard (Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1988), p. 283.
  8. Vidor was unsatisfied with the film as we now have it and continued working on it up until his death.
  9. Vidor, Directors Guild, p. 181. Zanuck ran 20th Century-Fox. Technicolor was an imbibition process, like lithography; the colours could be customized. Northwest Passage was Vidor’s first colour feature, but not his first experience with colour film. The Big Parade had brief scenes in two-strip Technicolor. For The Wizard of Oz (1939) Vidor shot (uncredited) the “We’re Off to See the Wizard.” number in Technicolor, as well as the movie’s black-and-white sequences.
  10. In Catherine Berge’s wonderful filmed portrait of Vidor, Journey to Galveston (1980).
  11. Richard Schickel, The Men Who Made the Movies (New York: Athenaeum, 1975), pp. 131-60.
  12. King Vidor, King Vidor on Film Making (New York: David McKay, 1972), p. 171.
  13. Vidor, Directors Guild, p. 195.
  14. Vidor on Film, pp. 171-72.
  15. Vidor, Directors Guild, p. 195.
  16. Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg, The Celluloid Muse (New York: Signet, 1969), pp. 253-78.
  17. Vidor on Film, p. 172.
  18. Vidor, Directors Guild, p. 197.
  19. Higham and Greenberg, pp. 253-78.
  20. Vidor, Directors Guild, p. 202.
  21. Vidor, Directors Guild, p. 201.
  22. Crotta, “Masters of Metaphor,” part one.
  23. Vidor, Directors Guild, p. 202.
  24. Corn, “The Art of Andrew Wyeth,” in Corn, ed., The Art of Andrew Wyeth, p. 100.
  25. King Vidor, “Art vs. Stocks and Bonds”, House Beautiful, December 1945, p. 102 & 143.
  26. In Metaphor, Betsy James Wyeth cites Corn’s “Andrew Wyeth: The Man, His Art, and His Audience” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1974), an expansion of her “Art of Andrew Wyeth” essay.
  27. Meryman, op. cit., in Corn, p. 58.
  28. “American Realist”, Time, 16 July 1951, p. 72; cited in Corn, p. 143.
  29. Vidor on Film, p. 201.
  30. Carol A. Crotta, “Masters of Metaphor”, part two, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, 31 March 1980.
  31. Vidor on Film, p. 200.
  32. Vidor on Film, p. 199.
  33. Vidor on Film, p. 200.
  34. Vidor on Film, p. 200.
  35. Cf. Benedetto Croce’s insistence that true art is not symbolic, that a symbol or sign stands for something else, whereas in poetry stands for itself.