The English paintings that inspired Stanley Kubrick

On the 89th anniversary of the director’s birth, we look at how eighteenth-century art found its way into his work
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Mr and Mrs Andrews (c. 1750) by Thomas Gainsborough
Mr and Mrs Andrews (c. 1750) by Thomas Gainsborough

The classical synths of Wendy Carlos; the brutalist buildings of Thamesmead in east London; the airbrush pop-art of Philip Castle: when we picture Stanley Kubrick’s cultural influences, we tend to consider modern, rather than antique works.

However, the great 20th century director also allowed older sources to inform his films, as Bill Krohn explains in our Kubrick book. “A powerful myth has grown up about Barry Lyndon that Kubrick’s shots are imitations of paintings of the period,” explains Krohn. “Producer Bernard Williams actually told an audience at the Academy in 2006: ‘We used to copy the paintings in terms of light and where people were sitting. If you look at the movie, every scene is like a painting.’”

Krohn does not find this claim convincing. As he explains, “no scholar has come forward with a single example of literal imitation from the film.”

 

Marriage A-la-Mode: 4. The Toilette (1743) by William Hogarth
Marriage A-la-Mode: 4. The Toilette (1743) by William Hogarth

Nevertheless, the look and feel of Kubrick’s 1975 adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray book about an eighteenth-century Irish adventurer does draw something from the visual arts of that period.

“Many of Kubrick’s discussions about eighteenth-century painting were with Ken Adam, his production designer, and Milena Canonero, his costume designer,” Krohn writes. “He wanted to take the audience into the past, and paintings were his windows into time. The portraits by Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds showed him how people looked, wore their clothes and confronted their world, while a Hogarth narrative like the macabre Marriage A-la-Mode, about a doomed marriage between a penniless lord and a merchant’s daughter, contained scores of details about mores, public and private, which served as touchstones for Kubrick and his collaborators.”

 

Barry Lyndon

 

While the American director did not appear to copy any one picture in any specific scene, the canvases served as a kind of mood board for the movie. “Kubrick put together an archive of thousands of reproductions of paintings cut from books and used them as shorthand with his collaborators,” Krohn writes. “Williams recalls: ‘“Stanley,” I’d say, “we need a call sheet for tomorrow.” So he’d say, “Get all the paintings out.” The paintings became our Bible.””

Today, Barry Lyndon is known as the film Kubrick shot in natural light, using huge, specially adapted Zeiss f/0.7 lenses, originally developed for the Apollo space program. Those day-lit and candle-lit scenes share some the qualities of Hogarth and Gainsborough and Reynolds, without mimicking any picture directly. As Krohn puts it, Kubrick’s approach could be captured in the words of another seventeenth century great, the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, who wrote, "I do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old. I seek the thing they sought."

For more on Kubrick get our Masters of Cinema book; for more on how Gainsborough and co fit into the greater sweep of art history get The Art Museum.


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