If you’re looking for a positive spin on art history in the media, you’ve come to the right place.
My name is Anna Thompson, an undergraduate in my second year at the Courtauld, wondering how people in the wider public can feel less afraid to talk about and enjoy art.
Visual media is something that nobody feels afraid of accessing. Yet, when translated to painting, sculpture, and architecture, most people will say with certainty that ‘they don’t know much about art’. In this column (you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled to see how regular it is), I will explore whether placing visual art in popular media helps us understand it better. Art is made for humans by humans and for the most part – it is not meant to put us off it.
For my first exploration, I decided to investigate a film that contrasts a character that is least likely associated with the stereotyped seriousness of the art world or the beauty of it: Mr Bean. (spoilers ahead, obviously).
Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie was released in 1997, and growing up I thoroughly enjoyed it for its silliness and humour, long before I had heard of the concept of ‘art history’. I was therefore excited to watch the film through an art-historical lens and see how art and the art world is portrayed. In short, the art world is portrayed as snobby, overly intellectual, and boring, but also crucially lacking in substance, which is a popular myth that is still widely believed today. To change this myth, the solution would be giving more people access to study art history – but that’s just my opinion, so let’s get on with the film.
In the film, the National Gallery in London is initially show accompanies by classical music, which once again perpetuates the idea of the art gallery as ‘higher’ than an everyday place. The Gallery tries to fire the “worst employee in the museum’s history”, Mr. Bean. His role as an invigilator shows him turning up late for work and sleeping whilst on the job. But given nobody is in the gallery while he is sleeping, he is surely not actually causing too much harm. After one staunch defender of Bean stops him from being fired, Bean is sent to California to the (fictional) Grierson Gallery to assist with the movement of Whistler’s Mother or Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler from the Musée D’Orsay in Paris. The mainly old, white, male figures of the boardroom laugh at the thought of sending him there, with one even remarking that “Britain’s loss is America’s gain”. As viewers, we know that sending Bean out as an art scholar with “great substance” is going to ensure comedic chaos, as Bean is presented as a man who only speaks through grotesque facial expressions instead of words, and who even gets tissue stuck up his nose when he sneezes.
Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, James McNeill Whistler, Oil on Canvas, 1871, 144.3cmx162.4 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Source: Wikipedia.
Already on Bean’s journey to America, there is a set-up for how chaotic he can become, though for the most part he is well intentioned. For example, when trying to cheer up a sick child on a first-class flight (once again surrounded by classical music), he accidentally puts the child’s vomit on a sleeping passenger. These actions implicitly show that he does not belong in this ‘high’ world of sophistication.
The status of the painting is really vamped up, and I’d like to argue that the status of it is celebrated more than the artwork itself. For example, it is referred to as “the greatest painting ever by an American artist” and the “most historic American purchase”, being bought for $50,000,000. In the first press conference concerning the work, one journalist asks “when can we see her?”, as if the painting is a person of celebrity status. The film comments on how the art world can be quite snobby and take names for granted. For example, Dr Bean is considered to be a great scholar because he is coming from the Royal National Gallery. When asked what his position is, he says “I sit in the corner, and look at the paintings”. Being so caught up in the idea that Bean is named a “scholar”, the curator remarks that Bean’s response is “brilliant” and that, essentially, the art world would be better “if more scholars could do that”. This demonstrates the curator’s assumption that Mr Bean has a deep and intellectual understanding of the art world when we all know that he does not. Mr Bean keeps trying to communicate that he is not a doctor but, because of the focus on reputation and appearances, no one has time to listen to him and instead they focus on taking photos with him.
A particularly comical aspect of the film is the way in which the gallery tries to market and make merchandise out of the artwork. One marketing individual suggests bringing Jon Bon Jovi in to raise the profile of the work, but the curator, who is called David, argues that Bon Jovi knows “nothing about nineteenth-century art” and insists that Bean is the one who does, and with this the situational irony of the movie persists. Then there is a presentation of all the products the Californian gallery is going to produce as merchandise: a bath towel depicting Whistler’s Mother, a pornographic print of Whistler’s ‘sister’, Whistler’s whistle, and even narrow cat sunglasses, which are popular among millennials today, that also incorporate the artwork. This presents the gallery as only being interested in making money to the dismay of David, who is seemingly the only person interested in the content of the artwork.
What’s noticeable about the film is that none of the museums or galleries portrayed is filled with visitors. It is important to note that there is more focus placed on the behind-the-scenes of working at a museum. Even when they do show the galleries during working hours, there is rarely anyone there, except the singular viewers who are either looking inside with sunglasses and cool clothes or are presented as nerds scrutinising the artwork.
Although he hears no other facts about ‘Dr’ Bean, the curator David is so impressed with his status of working at the Royal National Gallery that he decides to host him in his house for two months, much to his family’s dismay. When meeting David, there is further foreshadowing of how Mr Bean will treat the Gallery’s art when he manages to break a frame of David’s wedding portrait and nearly drops a glass swan. However, the curator soon falls into despair when he realises that the English scholar knows absolutely nothing about art, which is illustrated by how Bean says that Leonardo da Vinci was a basketball player when asked.
The biggest comic moment of the film is yet to come. While a group of people leave Mr Bean alone with the painting to attend a security meeting, Mr Bean sneezes on the artwork and even spreads ink on it. He then proceeds to pick it up and remove it from the wall and uses spit to clean it. He then tries lacquer thinner, which makes the canvas bubble, eventually leading to the face of the mother being scrubbed out. Bean draws over the face, and when the curator sees this destruction, he descends into madness, claiming that his career and his life are over.
Screenshot from Mr Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie, 1997, Working Title and Tiger Aspect Films. Source: https://www.redbubble.com/people/andraskiss/works/12850964-whistlers-mother-mr-bean?p=poster
However, although Bean is presented as a bumbling idiot who does not ‘belong’ in an art gallery, he is much smarter than we give him credit for. When deciding that he has to replace the damaged artwork to save David’s life and sanity, he has the cunning plan of putting laxative in a security guard’s coffee to sneak into the gallery. Furthermore, he finds an imaginative way of applying a poster replica to the frame by sticking it down with chewed gum and using a mixture of egg white and other liquids to give the artwork the glazed appearance. He skates away into the night, physically bumping into a sculpture that looks quite similar to an Alexander Calder mobile sculpture, which I also found quite funny. Using artworks as part of physical comedy to me is brilliant because it helps to challenge the idea that art is serious or should be solemnly respected.
The film definitely has some contradictions. When Whistler’s Mother is finally revealed, there is a smoke show in front of it and lots of flashing lights, which would definitely damage the painting, but luckily it is not actually the original painting but a poster. The excitement over the work, which is actually a replica, shows us how realistic photographic reproductions can be and how the image itself should be more important than the actual artwork.
Even the donor of the artwork, an army general, is presented as not knowing anything about the work. At the ceremony, he remarks, “the only reason I am here is because I am a nationalist and I hate the idea of France having America’s ‘greatest’ painting.” Again, this encourages the idea that people buy artworks for their status rather than their actual content. When Bean is asked to make a speech, the director of the art gallery asks him to not “go on too long and to try to make a joke”, implying that even he as a director doesn’t care that much about the artwork, and he only cares about the money and things that will grab the attention of the press. Although Bean is panic-stricken at the thought of making a speech, what he says resonates profoundly with the press.
“First of all, it’s really big, which is good because if it was really small then not many people would be able to see it and that would be a tremendous shame.” He then asks, “why was it worth this man here spending fifty million on this portrait? The answer is that this picture is worth a lot of money because it’s Whistler’s mother… And by staying with David’s family, I’ve learned that families are very important. Although even Whistler was perfectly aware that his mother was a hideous old bat that looked like she had a cactus stuck up her backside, he stuck with her and even took the time to paint this amazing picture of her. It’s not just a painting, it’s a picture of a mad old cow who he thought the world of and that’s marvellous.”
Now, it’s clearly not the language I would use to get a First in my degree, but the language is simple and makes a strong impact. The film does not state if the press was there for the fame of the work, or if they were actually there for the art historical content of it. Therefore for Bean to create an emotional connection between the viewer and the artwork through the use of families means that a lot of people would be more interested in this work. I even found a quote from Whistler, who said, “One does like to make one’s mummy just as nice as possible.” I personally think that this quote sounds like something Mr Bean would say, but here there is not too much elevation of the subject and it works well with Bean’s visual analysis.
I’m personally inspired.
The main message I got from the film is that you do not have to find a deep and scholarly meaning to enjoy art. You can enjoy it at face value or relate to it emotionally, and through this get meaning from it. What’s interesting is that I re-watched it at a time in second year when I was studying iconographical interpretation, which is something that focuses on how further interpretation must be sought from an image. I thoroughly enjoyed re-watching this movie as a great distraction from essays, with its covering of themes such as art, knowledge, and art conservation. When you type “art restoration” on Google, the first thing that comes up is “art restoration fail”, which provides as comical of a reaction as the film does.
Relating art history to today, whether it be in memes, music videos, or in films, only helps to serve our understanding of the subject and can do nothing but bring more people to it. My aim in writing for the Courtauldian is to further explore these examples.
Until next time,