On a cloudy April day, the University of Texas at Austin quietly became a part of cinematic history, bringing to close a year-long endeavor to bring historic Hollywood motion picture backdrops to campus. Teams of Texas Performing Arts staff and students raced the rain in an effort keep the monumental paintings dry as they off-loaded the unwieldy canvases on battens up to 38 feet wide into their new home in the TPA Scenic Art Studio.
In the fall of 2017 Karen L. Maness, co-author of the award-winning book, The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, served on the Art Directors Guild (ADG) Archives Backdrop Recovery Project team to preserve 207 historic MGM Studio backdrops from certain destruction. Maness received the rare opportunity to select 45 backings from ADG Archives to bring to the College of Fine Arts and Texas Performing Arts.
“As a member of the ADG, I understood their value and knew what could be lost,” said Maness. “My relationship with JC Backings gave me the opportunity to rescue them for educational purposes. I realized that if I can deconstruct the backdrops and teach the techniques to our students, we could ensure that this form of painting lives on through future generations of scenic artists.”
These backings hail from MGM's golden age of cinema and represent the high Renaissance of Hollywood motion picture painting. Among this teaching collection are backdrops from films such as National Velvet, The Prodigal, The Seventh Cross, The Lady and the Law, and a complete replica of the walls of the Sistine Chapel from The Shoes of a Fisherman.
“I chose pieces with examples of extraordinary paintings with different kinds of subjects. From landscaping and foliage to period architecture, I wanted to bring pieces that reflect the sophistication and execution of this art form,” she explains.
The historic MGM backings provide students direct access to one of the most critical selections of extant backdrops in the world. TPA scenic studios are uniquely positioned to receive, handle, store, exhibit these paintings up to 35 feet tall by 50 feet wide on motorized truss in the scenic art studio. The Harry Ransom Center, 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.
"I’m so grateful for this experience of being a conduit of other generations to next," said Maness. "I learned so much from other artists and I am determined to give all my knowledge away to students and other artists. These pieces were given to us with the intent of look towards future—not reflecting on the past."
Maness intends to incorporate the lessons held within these backdrops by the master painters of Hollywood's Golden Age in her fall 2019 Theatre & Dance class.
“Generations of Hollywood's top motion picture scenic artists trained through recreation and repair of these historic MGM backdrops,” said Maness. “I want our students to discover their painting style, and this art practice that was nearly lost to time. Teaching our students about these historic backdrops not only preserves the legacy of this craft but also furthers our organizational mission of becoming cultural stewards.”