College of Fine Arts Receives Historic Motion Picture Backdrops From Hollywood

Hollywood backdrop for National VelvetThis backdrop, created in 1945 for the film National Velvet, was painted by MGM artists under the direction of scenic supervisor George Gibson. 

The College of Fine Arts recently received a donation of 45 historic scenic backdrops used in films such as National Velvet (1944),The Prodigal (1955), The Seventh Cross (1944), The Lady and the Law (1954) and a complete replica of the Sistine Chapel from The Shoes of a Fisherman (1968).

In fall 2017 Karen L. Maness, co-author of the award-winning The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, served on the Art Directors Guild (ADG) Archives Backdrop Recovery Project team to preserve 207 historic MGM backdrops from certain destruction. As part of this preservation project, Maness had the rare opportunity to select 45 backings from ADG Archives to bring to Texas Performing Arts at The University of Texas at Austin. These backings hail from MGM's golden age of cinema and represent the high Renaissance of Hollywood motion picture painting.

Hand-painted scenic backdrops, or backings, created for the movies of Hollywood were rarely recognized for what they were—nor was that their purpose. These special effect backings, among the largest paintings ever created, were breathtaking in their artistic and technical virtuosity. Scenic artists working on backings for film and television had to master an extensive set of skills specific to these media. In addition to a complete command of drawing, color theory, perspective and an understanding of how light and shadow function in architecture and nature, the backing artist also needed to understand how to render both of these specifically for the eye of the camera. In Hollywood, MGM’s scenic art studio was considered the best.

With this donation, Texas Performing Arts will own one of the most critical extant backdrop selections in the world to use in the classroom, display for donors, support productions and create programming. Texas Performing Arts scenic studios are uniquely positioned to receive, handle, teach from and exhibit paintings, which measure up to 30 feet tall and 50 feet wide on the motorized truss in the scenic art studio.

The Harry Ransom Center, which houses an extensive film collection, Austin Film Society and The United States Institute of Theatre Technology have expressed interested in collaborating with Texas Performing Arts to co-present events and symposia around these assets.

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