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‘Hollywood’s Sistine Chapel: Sacred Sets for Stage & Screen’ Opens at McNay Art Museum

Backdrop replicating Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement,” made for Metro - Goldwyn - Mayer Studios’ film The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968). Courtesy of the Art Directors Guild Archives; JC Backings; and Melinda Sue Gordon, Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers

In a first-time collaboration, the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio and Texas Performing Arts (TPA) at The University of Texas at Austin (UT) join together to debut six rare hand-painted, sound-stage backdrops from Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) Studios alongside artworks from The Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts in the museum’s latest exhibition, Hollywood’s Sistine Chapel: Sacred Sets for Stage & Screen. The exhibition is on view in the McNay’s Tobin Theatre Arts and Brown Galleries through April 4, 2021.

Hollywood’s Sistine Chapel captures the Renaissance in both theatre and cinema. The exhibition engages iconic movie backdrops in conversation with modern theatre designs, and contemporary and Renaissance artworks. Backdrops replicating frescoes, including Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement,” complement the Tobin Collection’s cathedral-inspired maquettes for Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera La Prophète, and opera costume designs by Jim Dine for John the Baptist in Salome. A screenprint of Anthony Quinn, The Pope of Broadway by artist Eloy Torrez, punctuates the exhibition conversation.

The six backdrops on exhibit were created for MGM’s 1968 papal drama, The Shoes of the Fisherman, starring Anthony Quinn. Nearly discarded, more than 200 backdrops—including these replicas of monumental Renaissance masterpieces in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel—were saved through the 2017 Art Directors Guild Archives’ Backdrop Recovery Project. The Project was created to preserve the legacy of Hollywood’s motion picture scenic arts, and has resulted in the creation of the world’s most comprehensive archive of Hollywood scenic art painting.

“By exhibiting these rare backdrops, the McNay expands Robert L.B. Tobin’s heartfelt imperative that future generations of designers discover and learn about nearly lost practices, like hand-painting scenic backdrops,” said R. Scott Blackshire, Ph.D., Curator, The Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts. “It’s exciting to bring the Italian Renaissance to San Antonio—by way of Hollywood; and to debut the results of the Backdrop Recovery Project for the first time at an art institution.”

Texas Performing Arts at UT Austin holds 50 historic motion picture backdrops from Hollywood’s Golden Age. UT Scenic Art students study the works of MGM’s master scenic artists by replicating sections of the historic backdrops under the direction of Karen L. Maness, UT Lecturer and Texas Performing Arts Scenic Art Supervisor. Maness is the co-author of The Art of The Hollywood Backdrop, the definitive behind-the-scenes history of Hollywood’s cinematic backdrops and the scenic artists who brought them to the big screen.

“This exhibition reveals backdrops from Hollywood’s high renaissance of motion picture scenic art,” Maness said. “In MGM’s Golden Age, teams of scenic artists worked together to create monumental illusions for the silver screen by hand, with skills refined over generations of master-apprentice training.”

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