“Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences”

The visually complex and thematically rich cinema of Alfred Hitchcock has inspired numerous artists at work today, as evidenced in “Notorious: Alfred Hitchcock and Contemporary Art,” a 1999 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford. Yet despite all the homages, allusions, appropriations, and deconstructions of Hitchcock that have appeared in recent art, what has not been recognized is the degree to which he as a filmmaker drew his own creative inspiration from a diverse range of modern artists.

That's no longer the case, thanks to the extraordinary exhibition “Hitchcock et l'art: coincidences fatales / Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences,” which originated at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and traveled to the Centre Pompidou in Paris. I've never seen a more synapse-popping art show than this, which imaginatively juxtaposed Hitchcock production stills, storyboards, props, film clips, movie posters, sound-track sequences, and set re-creations with famous and not-so-famous instances of modern painting, sculpture, photography, and literature. In Paris the exhibition was supplemented by two excellent film series, one devoted exclusively to Hitchcock's movies and the other to movies influenced by him.

The introductory wall panel identified Hitchcock as a “major artist who brought the Romantic and Symbolist traditions of the nineteenth century into the twentieth century and provides artists on the cusp of a new century with a boundless wealth of imagery.” These bold claims were substantiated by the ensuing exhibition in a series of provocative visual references, comparisons, and frisson-producing aperçus. Robert Bresson once described film editing as “making connections that have never been made before,” and that's precisely what “Hitchcock and Art” accomplished.

The show was arranged thematically, with galleries organized by topics such as voyeurism, dreams, terrors, idols, anxiety, and fetishes. These topics inevitably overlapped one another, and thus the experience of proceeding through the exhibition was one of déjà vu, or repetition with difference, for the viewer kept returning to the same places, figuratively speaking. The geometric form best characterizing the show was the spiral, that most Hitchcockian of signhers, which coils throughout Vertigo as the paradigm of Jimmy Stewart's repetition compulsion.

Before entering the first gallery, the visitor was at once seductively lured and anxiously stirred by the impassioned strains of Bernard Herrmann's magisterial film music emanating from behind a set of closed doors. On the other side of these portals a strange and melancholy scene awaited. Pinpoint spotlights stabbed out of the darkness at twenty-one small display cases mounted on a grid of twenty-one black columns. Each glass case bore a single cherished object arranged on a bed of red satin: the gleaming scissors from Dial M for Murder, the bread knife from Blackmail, the key from Notorious, the cigarette lighter from Strangers on a Train, the black brassiere from Psycho. Twenty-one fetish objects that had occupied positions of utmost importance in twenty-one Hitchcock films were now gathered together as if for an occult mass. Herrmann's chords from Vertigo, Psycho, and North by Northwest, heard muffled before, now resounded through the gallery with aching urgency.

And this was only the beginning. A later gallery demonstrated that Hitchcock's visual style emerged from the art of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Symbolists. Kim Novak's staged suicide attempt in San Francisco Bay could be seen to derive, art historically, from Victorian images of Ophelia's drowning. Another gallery drew connections between Hitchcock's longstanding fascination with the inherent eroticism and violence of the metropolis and the work of the Weimar Republic's Neue Sachlichkeit painters, who, like the filmmaker, revealed—and reveled in—the decadence of modern city life.

Other sections of the show convincingly compared Hitchcock's work to that, for example, of de Chirico (the disquietude engendered by open spaces), Magritte (strange, disturbing private dwellings), and Munch (the vampiric nature of erotic love). One brilliant insight tossed off almost casually was that Hitchcock's famous technique of circling the camera around a pair. of embracing lovers (e.g., Notorious and Vertigo) echoed his phenomenological experience of walking up to and around his favorite works of modern sculpture, such as Rodin's The Kiss.

The final gallery of the exhibition was devoted to The Birds. It included art by Braque, Ernst, and Magritte, as well as a large-scale 1997 photographic diptych, No, by the Canadian artist Eldon Garnet. The left-hand panel offered an extreme close-up of a bird's razor-sharp beak, angled apart like a pair of scissors and slathered with blood. The second panel presented a nude female torso, its pubic hair shaved away to expose a slit of flesh that seemed at once a gash or wound caused by the adjacent beak but also, in its sharp parallel lines, a visual analog to the beak, thus rendering the implied meaning of the photograph indeterminate: Is woman sexual victim or castrator, innocent recipient of male violence or cause of it? The question is perfectly Hitchcockian, posed in one form or another throughout his oeuvre—and throughout the exhibition.

“Hitchcock and Art” also included a chilling full-size replica of the studio set for the motel room in Psycho (with the bathroom shower glimpsed through the open doorway) and a sculptural re-creation of the jungle gym on which the crows gathered in The Birds. Every once in a while, without warning, a fury of flapping wings would echo sharply through the gallery, causing visitors to jump out of their skins.

That's precisely the effect that Hitchcock, as a mass entertainer, was after in his films. But as the exhibition also made resplendently clear, the compulsion to shock, disorient, and defamiliarize viewers was, in fact, one that the filmmaker shared with other great visual modernists from as far back as the middle of the nineteenth century all the way to the end of the twentieth.

David M. Lubin is Charlotte C. Weber Professor of Art at Wake Forest University.