Long before John Huston became famous as a screenwriter, director and actor, he had studied drawing and painting in Los Angeles and Paris. He was a serious artist and connoisseur, and a lavish collector (even when he had very little money) of paintings, sculpture, masks and furniture. His art collection was among the best in Hollywood, and his knowledge and expertise in the visual arts, a kind of museum without walls, found their way into ten of his films. His best work had a perfection of visual detail, innovative colour and subtle texture that enhanced the historical context of the drama and illuminated the themes. He alluded to specific works of art to reveal character and mood, and to make his images more meaningful and real.
As a young man Huston showed talent and aspired to be a professional artist, but was forced to give up this ambition when he first married and had to support his wife. Yet throughout his life he sought refuge from the hectic process of filmmaking, from directing many people on a complex project, and found deep satisfaction in the solitary, private, self-communing and peaceful relaxation of painting. At his magnificent Irish estate, St. Clarens, near Galway, Huston fished and hunted with the local Galway Blazers, but he was also surrounded by his art. In April 1967 his secretary wrote, ‘John is painting morning, noon and afternoon. Good canvases that absorb him completely. The only thing that brings him to the surface is the tinkle of ice and the promise of the coldest martini possible around 8 P.M.’ Photographs show Huston painting a bowl of fruit and his son’s pet falcon.
In his youth he painted two very different Self-Portraits. The first, completed in 1923 when he was seventeen, was modelled on the defiant self-portraits of Gauguin and Van Gogh. Huston portrayed himself as an artist, holding a brush and sitting before an easel. In a three-quarter view, his head tilted slightly to the left, he wears an open-necked, high-collared tunic and gazes straight out at the spectator. He has a wide white cloth, or bandage, wrapped around his dark hair, with stray locks toppling over it, thick eyebrows, deep-set eyes, protruding left ear, strong nose, turneddown lips, small goatee and scowling, pugnacious expression. Later in the 1920s Huston did a caricature of George Gershwin that the composer considered good enough to use on his Christmas cards.
The second, undated self-portrait, painted later on, was influenced by Picasso’s Old Guitarist, completed during his Blue Period in 1903. Huston’s naked, gaunt, bony figure, indented by sharp shadows, is seated on a black floor that is sharply divided from the cloudy grey background. He has blurred features, prominent collar bone, elongated limbs, large hands and feet. Tilted slightly to the left, he assumes a yoga-like position, with his legs spread apart and one arm covering his genitals. The long spiky fingers of his right hand rest on the flat leg; his left hand, palm upward, is extended in a mendicant’s gesture. This rather sad, ascetic figure, strikingly different from the aggressively self-confident youth in the earlier portrait, lacks Huston’s characteristically commanding presence and seems to have been painted in a period of failure and depression, perhaps after his car accidents in Hollywood in 1933 and his down-and-out period in London and Paris in 1935.
Huston made several portraits of significant people in his life. In 1947, while filming The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in Mexico, he adopted a twelve-year-old homeless orphan, Pablo Albarran. He painted the young Pablo’s wide, flat, dark, mask-like Indian face with stylised features: slanted eyes, wide nose, thin lips and pillar-shaped neck. Pablo wears a white jacket and holds a guitar flat on his lap; his thick black hair, parted in the middle, hangs down the sides of his forehead. This portrait of a typical rather than individual Mexican suggests Huston’s emotional distance from Pablo. He impulsively acquired the boy in the same way that he acquired art, and they later became estranged when Pablo disappointed him.
Twenty years later, when the actress Olivia de Havilland (his former lover) visited St. Clarens, Betty O’Kelly, his Irish housekeeper, stable manager and mistress, welcomed her to the estate. But Olivia was shocked to see Huston’s portrait of O’Kelly, who had posed for him while eating an apple and lying naked on the floor. Instead of keeping his affair with Betty secret while his wife was in residence, he celebrated it in his art.
Huston’s two most ambitious paintings were the portrait of his tall, actressdaughter, Anjelica (no date) and The Spirit of St. Clarens (1960s). Anjelica, her elongated body in sharp profile, appears with long black hair and long black dress, and emerges from a cloudy blue background. Her left arm is extended to her knee, her right arm is bent back on her shoulder, and her huge feet protrude to the edge of the frame. In this unflattering, even hostile portrait of an attractive woman, her eyes are obscured, her nose is prominent, her face shadowy and dark. He later compensated for his neglect of Anjelica by emphasising her beauty and giving her leading roles in three of his late films.
The second picture, painted in hot reds and oranges, vividly evokes with symbolic imagery the fishing trips and fox hunts near his Irish estate. The stylised figure has hoof-shaped feet and rides a leaping horse with a feathery mane. He has an oversized, egg-shaped, mask-like face and large, black, almond-shaped eyes, surrounded by a glowing halo. Following the traditional iconography of St. George and the Dragon, the rider’s hand emerges from behind his tight head of dark hair, grasps a thin spear and pierces the neck of the threatening monster as the horse’s hooves are about to trample it. A bare tree trunk with limb-like branches appears in the upper left background and a realistic, curved and open-mouthed trout leaps up in the lower left corner. When he was making Moby Dick in 1955 Huston drew another picture that alluded to his fellow fox hunters in the Galway Blazers. It showed a rider, with long rein and bridle, on top of a giant whale.
Though Huston did not follow the contemporary movement toward abstract art, he maintained a cool, impersonal distance from his subjects (and himself) and seemed unwilling, after his first Self-Portrait, to portray their faces realistically. His painter’s eye, and combination of artistic and literary talent, contributed significantly to his career as a director. His films testify to the tradition of art behind them.
A keen collector of women as well as art, Huston liked to put his girlfriends at ease by showing them illustrated art books and impressing them with perceptive explanations of the pictures. He loved the colourful work of the Impressionists, but his favourite painting, Rembrandt’s Night Watch (1642), in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, reveals his attraction to character and conflict. Rembrandt’s group portrait of an armed burger company on their way to a shooting contest has the striking realism, complex movement, pictorial spectacle, and drama of light and dark in glowing chiaroscuro that Huston achieved in many of his films.
As a collector, Huston had catholic tastes and preferred not to specialise. He made a great deal of money, but never saved it and was always in debt. He acquired art, as he acquired mistresses, wives and exotic pets, while roaming all over the world to make his movies. He preferred primitive to Greco-Roman art, and owned a lot of readily available pre-Columbian statues – most of them smuggled out of Mexico and some of them fake – and many Japanese and West African tribal masks. This ‘heavy blood stuff’ from a culture that practiced human sacrifice matched his taste for hunting foxes and shooting big game. He had a classical, third century BC horse’s head, a seventh- to eighth-century Chinese Tang horseman, a fifteenth-century wooden Christ figure and a massive, four-poster Florentine marriage bed.
Huston owned paintings by Paul Klee, Maurice Utrillo, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, Rufino Tamayo and the American Expressionist Morris Graves. In 1952, while making Moulin Rouge in France, Huston bought one of Monet’s huge Water Lilies (1919, now in the San Francisco Legion of Honor Museum) from a dealer in Deauville for the unusually low price of ten thousand dollars. His jockey friend and art dealer, Billy Pearson, who claimed to work as an agent for wealthy clients and promised to bring in more business, persuaded the seller to lower the original price. But Huston, who did not have the money in hand for this tempting bargain, repaired to the local casino and won the necessary cash. He also collected flamboyant posters by Toulouse-Lautrec, and may have owned works that portrayed the very people who were characters in his film: the performers La Goulue, Jane Avril and Aristide Bruant.
Huston sometimes converted his salary into objects and possessions that reflected his taste and improved his collection. While acting in The Cardinal, directed by Otto Preminger in 1963, he took two paintings by Jack Yeats (brother of W. B. Yeats) instead of a fee. In 1966 he got fiftythousand dollars’ worth of art for playing Noah in The Bible. He owned a bronze head, sculpted by Jacob Epstein in 1963, of the American filmmaker Robert Flaherty, who had made a greatly admired documentary of the Aran Islands. Epstein’s biographer called it ‘a heroic portrait, the portrait of a visionary, the portrait of an Irishman [sic]’.
Huston also owned works by the tall, handsome, aristocratic and adventurous, Russian-born Parisian painter Nicolas de Staël, who had joined the cavalry of the French Foreign Legion during World War II. He was an abstract artist who returned to brightly coloured realism, and in 1955 killed himself by jumping out of the window of his studio in Antibes. Douglas Cooper’s description of de Staël, who sounds like Huston, explains why he was drawn to this artist: ‘He was a complex and in many ways contradictory character: autocratic, exacting, exuberant, morose, charming, witty and uncompromising.’
The only painting, apart from Monet’s Water Lilies, we can precisely identify as belonging to Huston (Sotheby’s, which sold some of his collection, has no record of Huston’s art sales) is Juan Gris’s Arlequin (1925) – a present from his second wife. This traditional character in the Italian commedia dell’arte is a tall, powerful, standing figure, with dark skin, thick Roman nose and bull-like neck. He wears a wide, curved, two-pointed black Napoleonic hat, apron, collar and diamond-patterned costume with a buckled black belt. He rests his huge right hand on his hip and with his huge left hand opens a stage curtain to begin the show. Huston was clearly drawn to this popular theatrical figure.
Huston was a conquistador of art who captured sculpture from Mexico, Africa, Greece, China and Japan, and bought paintings by artists from Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Russia, England, Ireland, America and Mexico. His great collection was sold when he left St. Clarens in 1973. Some of the drawings and paintings by Huston are now owned by his friends and children; the rest mysteriously disappeared after his death.
Throughout his life Huston studied the masterpieces of European art in the major picture galleries and museums of America and Europe, and learned most from nineteenth-century painters like Cézanne, Monet and Seurat. He composed each scene of his films with the scrupulous care of an artist creating a picture, and the frame of the shot, the focus, lighting and atmosphere were all inspired by great art. Huston confirmed, ‘I’ve always felt I learned a lot about film by studying art. It’s very important, for example, to use your lighting to capture the mood of the scene. … Paintings have a frame the same as those shadows you see on the screen’.
When Huston took up the challenge of transforming a literary work into film (which he often did), he thought about its visual appeal and researched the artistic record of the era and its characters. Taking his cue from the flatness, coarse grain and white sky of Mathew Brady’s Civil War photography, he decided to intensify the emotional effect by shooting Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1951) in black and white. A historian wrote that in his novel Crane, who had never seen actual battles, ‘made use of [Brady’s] reproduced photographs. … He studied [them] as the equivalent of first-hand accounts’. The historian added that Brady, like his followers Crane and Huston, composed his scenes to create a morbid theatrical effect: ‘Civil War photographers frequently resorted to stagecraft, arranging scenes of daily life in camp to convey a look of informality, posing groups of soldiers on picket duty – perhaps moving corpses into more advantageous positions for dramatic close-ups of littered battlefields.’
Brady, with his cumbersome equipment, could not film the actual battles, but recorded in horrifying images the blighted landscapes and rows of neatly arranged dead bodies. There was a striking, ironic contrast between the heroically posed commanders before the battles and the carnage of war that followed. A contemporary report in the New York Times said that Brady’s shocking photographs had ‘done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.’ Huston’s battle scenes achieved the same verismo effect.
Huston once planned to write a book about the lives of French painters. Though he never wrote that book, he did make Moulin Rouge (1953), about the life of Toulouse-Lautrec. In the musical cabaret scenes he recreated the flat planes of discrete colours and subtle chromatic palette of the artist’s posters, and contrasted it to Lautrec’s personal deformity and squalid surroundings. ‘One of the things I look for in a coloured film is the palette,’ Huston remarked. ‘Just as a painter, when he approaches a subject, decides what colours and tonalities’ to use.
Technicolor is a three-colour process in which three different negatives – individually sensitive to red, green and blue – are run through the camera and printed together. Huston’s cinematographer, Ossie Morris, removed one colour negative and replaced it with a black and white one to get the special texture Huston wanted. Huston explained that Technicolor wished ‘to make everything equally bright and sharp and clear,’ and that he wanted to create subtler effects. His colour ‘was hazy in some places, was light or dark according to one’s mood, sometimes showed the central figures clear and then let the background go into vagueness.’ After the picture was released, Morris wrote a furious letter to the photographer Eliot Elisofon, condemning him for repeatedly telling journalists that it was he who had invented the colour and who had been the cameraman on Moulin Rouge: ‘I really do not think you are serious when you expect any of us back here to believe any of your excuses … for taking the credit for other people’s honest efforts to create something a little different in the world of Cinema.’
The colour in Moulin Rouge had a soft edge; the colour in Moby Dick (1956) had the hard edge of the nineteenth-century steel engravings of whale hunts that appeared behind the opening titles. They portrayed the small whaleboats, with harpooners standing in the bow and sailors pulling at the oars, fighting the giant leviathan. Huston and his technicians developed a new silvering process that softened and toned down the Technicolor images, and fortified them with a sharp, clearly defined appearance. He explained, ‘From the colour film we made two sets of negatives – one in colour, one in black and white. The two negatives were printed together on the final print, achieving a completely new tonality.’
In a key scene in Freud (1962) Huston carefully reproduced the appearance, costumes and mise en scène of the figures in Pierre-André Brouillet’s painting A Clinical Lecture at the Salpêtrière (1887). In this Parisian home for aged and mentally afflicted women Freud’s teacher, Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot – surrounded by students, interns, hospital staff, journalists and politicians – demonstrates that the symptoms of hysteria are as real as those of organic disease. His patient is the classically hysterical Blanche, her blouse lowered in a striking décolletage, swooning into the arms of an astonished doctor. The black and white photography and heavy, murky Biedermeyer interiors suggest the oppressive conventions that Freud’s work contravened.
Christopher Fry, the screenwriter of The Bible (1966), said its spiritual truths had to be conveyed in images. Huston based the appearance of Adam and Eve, their pose around the snaky Tree of Knowledge and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, on the figures in Masaccio and other Renaissance masters. He gave Eve long, blond tresses to cover her nakedness and satisfy the religious censors. His treatment of the Flood was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s dynamic drawings of the swirling, foaming, tempestuous waves that nearly destroyed the Ark in which Noah rescued the animals.
In Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) Julie Harris’s pathetic, severely disturbed character is suggested by a famous painting that hangs on the wall of her bedroom. Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World (1948) portrays a scrawny, crippled woman who crawls through a field of brown grass toward an unreachable destination. In this innovative film, Huston continued his experiments with colour, begun in Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick, to enhance and soften the mood of the movie, which takes place in a harsh military setting. He achieved a muted, subtle, autumnal quality, and what he called ‘a golden effect – a diffuse amber colour – that was quite beautiful and matched the mood of the picture. … [The golden hue] served to separate the audience somewhat from the characters, who were in various ways withdrawn from reality, and make their story a bit more remote and erotic’.
The film critic Pauline Kael admired Huston’s ‘“desaturated” [toned down] colour process – golden hued, with delicate sepia and pink tones’. The ‘golden eye’ effect was also praised by the director William Wyler, who ‘believed the colour print … is a most remarkable example of the way to use colour for the proper mood of a film’. The playwright William Inge agreed that ‘Reflections is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen’. When the Technicolor officials objected to Huston’s variations of their process, Huston defended his work: ‘Audiences must not be denied the right to see Reflections at its best: I do not intend to see the content or impact of Carson McCullers’ great novel diminished by showing it in old fashioned calendar colours.’ But the studio executives, as usual, put financial above artistic considerations and had the last word. Despite his personal prestige and fierce defence, Huston lost this fight. The studio’s telegram insisted: ‘Warner distribution organisation completely convinced full colour more desirable from commercial point of view than desaturated version.’ As a ‘compromise’, they used Huston’s golden tones for the first two weeks, then released the inferior version.
The poignant diner scene at the end of Fat City (1972), in which two washed up and now hostile boxers find they have nothing more to say to each other, recalls Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942). This painting, itself influenced by Hemingway’s ‘The Killers’, tells a story. The bright, glaring light bounces off the yellow walls and tall metal coffee containers in an all-night diner, and illuminates the dark, empty street, lined with vacant store fronts and red brick tenements. Inside Hopper’s cinematic scene, beneath a sign advertising cheap Phillies cigars, a crouching, whiteuniformed attendant serves – on a high-stooled, triangular, shiny brown counter – a single man (his back to the window) and a pale, garishly dressed redhead with her dark-suited companion. The late nighters or insomniacs, with nowhere else to go, have found their last refuge. Hopper’s portrayal of these isolated, lonely figures in an indifferent or even hostile city is menacing, chilling – even spooky.
In contrast to Huston’s use of Wyeth’s and Hopper’s iconic American paintings, the costumes in The Man Who Would Be King (1975) came from an obscure source. In his autobiography he recalled that ‘the inspiration for the designs in this instance – the manner of draping the materials, the hair styles, diadems, armlets, pins – were Greek Tanagra figurines’. Dating from the third century BC, these small, delicate, elegantly draped, painted terracotta statues show women in the costumes of daily life. The popular figurines spread from Greece to Afghanistan, the location of the movie, through the conquests of Alexander the Great.
Under the Volcano (1984) used popular folk art behind the titles and in the cemetery on the Day of the Dead, and was filmed by the Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa in the chiaroscuro style of Goya’s lights and shadows. One critic noted that ‘Figueroa’s use of overexposed day scenes adds dry textures, palpable heat, and a feeling of suffocation’. In the climactic scene, when Albert Finney’s character is killed in the brothel, the satiric caricatures and fantastic figures – the syphilitic prostitutes, repulsive transvestites and malignant dwarf, the Mexican Nazis, corrupt police and brutal murderers – depict with Goya-esque cruelty and horror the modern world propelled toward another apocalyptic war.
According to the producer Wieland Schulz-Keil, when Huston, slowly dying of emphysema, was planning his last masterpiece, The Dead (released just after his own death in 1987), a friend sent him a copy of Wisconsin Death Trip (1973). This cult book contained studio photographs taken between 1890 and 1910 (the film takes place in 1904). These desperate records of survival were meant to be placed in tombstones, and the humble and obscure subjects had the melancholy satisfaction of knowing they would be immortalised after death. The book includes portraits of Indians and Blacks, and some shocking pathology: maniacs, dwarfs and children in coffins. These often grotesque photos portray degeneracy and decline, suicide and murder, morbidity and death, and suggest the effect of time on human mortality.
The theme of Joyce’s story and of Huston’s film is the enduring influence of the dead on the living. At the party that takes place throughout most of The Dead, the camera focuses on and recalls the framed photos, on the dresser and mantelpiece, of beloved dead members of the family. The guests at this festive, yet strangely tense party are aware – in a similar way – of their own impending deaths. In the hotel room at the end of the film Gabriel Conroy imagines the death of his aged Aunt Julia. Huston composes the imaginary death chamber scene exactly like Edvard Munch’s turn-of-the-century Chamber of Death (1896). In Munch’s painting the anguished mourners gather, in the Spartan room and around the deathbed, in attitudes of supplication, grief and horror.
The close correspondence between Huston’s love of the fine arts and his cinema concerns the widest implications of perspective, and reveals how he shaped his vision of the world and conveyed his way of seeing to his audience. As Charles Baudelaire wrote in his essay on Delacroix, ‘one of the characteristic symptoms of the spiritual condition of our age is that the arts aspire if not to take another’s place, at least reciprocally to lend one another new powers’. Like the director Josef von Sternberg, Huston could say that actors were ‘tubes of colour which must be used to cover my canvas’, and he transformed films, quite literally, into moving pictures. His best work was enhanced by his painter’s eye and inspired by allusions to a wide range of fine arts that gave it a new dimension of richness and complexity: Greek statues, folk art, steel engravings, American photographs, artists’ palettes, works by Renaissance masters, da Vinci’s drawings, Goya’s chiaroscuro, Lautrec’s posters and specific paintings by Brouillet, Munch, Hopper and Wyeth. It is entirely fitting that at the end of his life Huston’s daughter Anjelica got special permission to push the wheelchair-bound invalid through the Metropolitan Museum of Art after closing hours for a final gaze at his beloved masterpieces.