Art and Movie
Boundaries of reality and imagination in Personal Shopper,
The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Inception
curated by eazel
Have you ever seen the same film more than once and spotted new elements that weren’t picked up before? Clues that were planted, perhaps slightly hidden on purpose? Making movies is like curating art exhibitions: every aspect carefully placed to create a narrative, building each dimension to paint a full picture.
If you have seen any of these movies already, this Curation will guide you to enjoy them all over again with added layers and perhaps see them from a different light. If you haven’t seen them, go and see the movies and come back to us.
So, if you don’t mind the spoiler, dive right in to Eazel’s third Curation presenting artworks that feature in three movies: ‘Personal Shopper’ (2017), ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ (2014), and ‘Inception’ (2010).
1. Spiritual connection of Hilma af Klint and Maureen (Kristen Stewart), in ‘Personal Shopper’ by Olivier Assayas
2. Confrontation with genuineness and fake, in metafictional ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ by Wes Anderson
3. Voyeurism in reality and subverted dreams, in ‘Inception’ by Christopher Nolan
Personal Shopper (2017)
by Oliver Assayas
‘Personal Shopper’ directed by Olivier Assayas is set in Paris and loosely around its fashion industry. The film starts with Maureen, a medium who also works as a personal shopper, trying to communicate with her dead twin brother. After her first attempt, Maureen finds out about Swedish artist and mystic Hilma af Klint, who believed that spirits commissioned her paintings.
The first work by af Klint that Maureen looks up is The Ten Largest, Youth (1907), a tempera painting and part of a series depicting the cycle of human life: childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age. Perhaps the painting represents Maureen’s stage of life: somewhere between youth and adulthood.
While Maureen and af Klint both attempted to connect with the dead, the difference is that Maureen passively waits for spirits to come to her whereas af Klint practised regular séances* in order to actively communicate with them.
Throughout the movie, it is difficult to decide whether Maureen can actually feel the presence of spirits or if they are just projections of her emotions. Similarly, we will never be able to determine whether Hilma af Klint’s artworks were actually led by the souls of the departed, or if spiritualism was a visual concept that motivated her work.
*A séance is a meeting dedicated to making contact with the dead, usually through the agency of a medium.
Spiritual symbolism continues to influence contemporary art significantly. California-based artist Esteban de Baca’s 2021 exhibition ‘Nepantla’ at Garth Greenan Gallery displays a broad range of painterly techniques, with the artist’s vibrant works intertwining layers of graffiti, landscape, and ancient symbols. Together, de Baca’s practice explores his complex ancestry as a person of Native American and Mexican descent with a direct link to the Spanish conquistador-turned-spiritual-healer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca.
De Baca describes his making process as generating “sculptural sentience”, drawing feelings and sensation into his works and conveying these in relation to spiritualism. Baca looks at spirituality in a transcultural way, reminding us that each person or society’s norms derive from their particular understandings of the earth and cosmos, rather than from comprehending the world in any complete way.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
by Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson often draws inspiration from other fictional stories but the subjects he writes about are universal in that they are relatable and familiar to the audience. Many of Anderson’s movies have fairy-tale aesthetics in which he satirises contemporary affairs including ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. The movie begins with a dedication to Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, who fled to Brazil while Austria was under Nazi occupation. Zweig tragically committed suicide after realizing that the reality of his homeland, that he once loved so much, no longer existed. Investigations of the real and fake, authentic and constructed, as well as a strong sense of nostalgia, are fundamental to ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, and the artworks featured are placed with great wit to reflect these elements.
Featured in the film is Michael Taylor’s Boy with Apple; described as a “priceless painting”, it was specifically commissioned for the film in 2012. However, the aesthetics of the artwork lure the viewer to see it as a Renaissance masterpiece - a fictionally historic painting in a fictional setting. When Boy with Apple goes missing, it is replaced with a watercolour depicting two women which appears to be an Egon Schiele piece, yet in fact the work is Two Lesbians Masturbating by Rich Pellegrino, again a contemporary prop painted for the film.
These deceptive techniques directly feed into the notion of genuine versus counterfeit culture, reminding that the ability to detect one from the other is not always easy.
Egyptian artist Wael Shawky’s 2013 film Al Araba Al Madfuna III is inspired by a town in Egypt of the same name. Here, the artist witnessed locals dig for hidden treasure, seeking to uncover their ancestors' histories through the remnants of alchemy and spiritual rituals that they left behind. The protagonists of Shawky’s film are played by children, and together they perform a fable written by Egyptian author Mohamed Mustagab, overlaid with Shawky’s experiences of the Egyptian town. In placing children, and sometimes puppets, in the role of adults, Shawky generates an otherworldly aesthetic and encourages the viewer to constantly wonder which elements of the film are truth or fiction. This careful treading of the line reminds of Zero’s quest for identity and boundaries, in the complex world of M. Gustave’s ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’.
by Christopher Nolan
Study for Head of George Dyer by Francis Bacon appears in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’. The painting is from the small 1967 diptych alongside Study for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne. Although Study for Head of George Dyer is only briefly visible, it is symbolic of characters Cobb and Mal’s love for each other. The painting features in the first dream sequence, which focuses on finding a secret belonging to the character Saito: Mal discovers it hanging on a wall and Cobb explains cryptically that “the subject” (meaning Saito) likes postmodern art.
The question of the subject is always in doubt in ‘Inception’ as the characters see a projection of their own consciousness rather than an objective reality. Equally, George Dyer’s distorted head is an image drawn out of Bacon’s own perspective, just as Mal turns out to be a projection of Cobb’s subconscious.
The connections between the two subjects continue. Dyer was the love of Bacon’s life as Mal was to Cobb, and while Mal is thought to have committed suicide in a hotel, Dyer was found at the Parisian Hôtel des Saints Pères having died from a deliberate overdose; the décor of the hotel in ‘Inception’ is uncannily similar to that of Saints Pères.
Following Dyer’s death, bereavement plagued Bacon, impacting upon the opening of his major retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971 - intended to be a significant event celebrating his career. Cobb, meanwhile, deals constantly with his guilt over the death of Mal on the night that they were meant to celebrate their anniversary.
Not only does ‘Inception’ explore subjective perception, but poses a question around the legitimacy of voyeurism. This act often invades a very intimate and vulnerable realm for the pleasure of the viewer, and is particularly dangerous when people capitalise on getting to know the behaviours and thoughts of others, keep watching for the thrill, or share their discoveries. Bacon’s representation of Dyer is very personal, yet it has been opened up to the public to explore and judge, similarly in ‘Inception’ Cobb shares his projection of Mal with others to assess.
Barbara Ess’ 2019 exhibition ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ at Magenta Plains, New York, was the artist’s last ever show. It investigates long-distance perception and voyeurism. Ess’ series of prints titled Shut-In was made when the artist was housebound and unable to continue her everyday routine, and so began photographing objects in her life such as her kitchen cooker and her building’s staircase. In this sense, Ess became a voyeur of her own environment, watching it through a camera lens and gaining a different perspective. While characters like Ariadne in ‘Inception’ took to designing the architecture of their dream sequences, Ess has investigated the way in which she can re-manifest the world she lives in.