arts

Netflix's 'Velvet Buzzsaw' and the sinister world of haunted art

Published 13th February 2019
Toni Collette as art consultant Gretchen in "Velvet Buzzsaw."
Credit: Claudette Barius/Netflix
Netflix's 'Velvet Buzzsaw' and the sinister world of haunted art
Written by Thomas Page, CNN
Morf Vanderwalt, the acerbic art critic played by Jake Gyllenhaal in Netflix film "Velvet Buzzsaw," is never short of a bon mot. For him, becoming the recipient of even the most insouciant of hatchet jobs remains an honor. "A bad review," he argues, "is better than sinking into the great glut of anonymity."
But what if an artist seeks -- nay, demands -- obscurity? That's the premise of Dan Gilroy's contemporary art world satire-cum-horror, in which the dying wish of a hermit painter is ignored and his works fed into the hungry mouth of the market instead of being destroyed.
Art historians might point out he should have pulled a Claude Monet or Gerhard Richter; both took the time to destroy many of their works while they were still alive. But then we wouldn't have Gilroy's deliciously wicked tale that cuts close to the bone for anyone involved in the industry.
Zawe Ashton (Josephina) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Morf) in "Velvet Buzzsaw" as conspiring cogs in the art world machine.
Zawe Ashton (Josephina) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Morf) in "Velvet Buzzsaw" as conspiring cogs in the art world machine. Credit: Claudette Barius/Netflix
When gallery associate Josephina (Zawe Ashton) discovers a stash of paintings by newly-deceased neighbor Vitril Dease, she brings them to Vanderwalt for appraisal. They're "visionary; mesmeric," he claims, sparking a buying frenzy from which Josephina, her boss Rhodora (Rene Russo) and a motley crew of LA art bubble stereotypes all plan to get filthy rich.
The spirit of Dease has other ideas, however, and conducts murderous revenge through his art. Hands reach out from inside picture frames, paintings self-combust; galleries swallow victims whole. And there's myriad real-world inspirations lurking behind it all.
Production designer Jim Bissell oversaw the creation of much of the film's artworks. He said during a phone interview that Dease's character is "loosely based on the notion of an outsider artist like Henry Darger."
A section of "Realms of the Unreal" by Henry Darger, the American outsider artist whose life story shares parallels with the fictional Vitril Dease.
A section of "Realms of the Unreal" by Henry Darger, the American outsider artist whose life story shares parallels with the fictional Vitril Dease. Credit: Wellspring/Everett Co
There's substantial overlap. Darger was a Chicago janitor found dead by his landlord in 1973, leaving a 13,000-page mixed media artwork known in shorthand as "Realms of the Unreal." The artist had a troubled upbringing and was committed to a state hospital, before going on to live as a recluse while creating his disturbing magnus opus -- a fairytale fever dream by way of Hieronymus Bosch, featuring a multitude of girls, many naked.
Darger biographer John MacGregor reportedly described him as "psychologically a serial killer," while there has been wild and unfounded speculation attaching him to an unsolved murder. Today Getty considers Darger "one of the most notable American 'outsider artists.'"
Gallery owner Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) assesses a Dease in "Velvet Buzzsaw."
Gallery owner Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) assesses a Dease in "Velvet Buzzsaw." Credit: Claudette Barius/Netflix
To create the Dease collection, Bissell said Gilroy hired art advisor David Hundley, who worked with digital artist Saxon Brice to conceptualize the works, before fellow artist Alexander Panov painted the designs on canvas. "Of course, (Dease's) artwork is a MacGuffin," Bissell argued. "It has to look like it represents a tortured soul, but it can't really be too powerful, because (it) can't really be about Dease's art. It's got to be about these characters and the way they interact with it."
Not so fast. Bissell, quite pragmatically, said his team "tried as much as possible to find our own visual language" and noted that "especially with living artists (and) recent artists, we have to be extraordinarily careful ... (Art is) not only a highly-commodified industry right now, it's a highly-litigious one." Nevertheless, influences abound.
"Man in Blue VI" (Francis Bacon, 1954). Production designer Jim Bissell says the artist proved an inspiration, and "we started doing effects on (the Dease pieces) like the blurred heads, à la Bacon."
"Man in Blue VI" (Francis Bacon, 1954). Production designer Jim Bissell says the artist proved an inspiration, and "we started doing effects on (the Dease pieces) like the blurred heads, à la Bacon." Credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Bissell mentioned Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud in our interview, but there's also arguably some Edvard Munch too -- no stranger to depicting tortured scenes like in "The Dead Mother" (1900). Dease, we learn, used blood as a medium in his paintings. The characters appear shocked, perhaps ignorant of Vincent Castiglia, who paints with human blood, or forgetting Marc Quinn, whose "Self" sculpture series has used pints of the artist's blood for decades.
There's further potential allusions in the film to Bruno Amadio and Bill Stoneham, both of whom produced 20th century works some claim to be haunted.
A painting of "The Crying Boy" by Bruno Amadio/Giovanni Bragolin, c.1950s outside an antique shop in Edinburgh.
A painting of "The Crying Boy" by Bruno Amadio/Giovanni Bragolin, c.1950s outside an antique shop in Edinburgh. Credit: Alan Wilson/Alamy Stock Photo
Prints of Amadio's kitsch paintings of crying boys, signed "Giovanni Bragolin," were blamed for multiple house fires in the UK by tabloid newspaper The Sun in the 1980s. Known as "The Curse of the Crying Boy," while homes burned the painting would reportedly remain unscathed. In "Velvet Buzzsaw" it is Dease himself who survives a suspicious house fire as a boy.
(In 1985, The Sun put a call out for unwanted Bragolins and constructed a bonfire to end the curse "for good." A 2010 investigation by BBC Radio concluded the paintings might be finished with a fire-retardant varnish.)
"The Hands Resist Him" (Bill Stoneham, 1972) became an online sensation when it was listed for sale on eBay in 2000.
"The Hands Resist Him" (Bill Stoneham, 1972) became an online sensation when it was listed for sale on eBay in 2000. Credit: courtesy Darren Kyle O'Neill
Meanwhile, Stoneham's 1972 painting "The Hands Resist Him" features a boy (based on the artist) alongside a doll girl set against a window filled with hands groping from the darkness. In "Velvet Buzzsaw," there's comparable imagery involved in one character's death.
Stoneham's work caused a furor in 2000 when an anonymous seller on eBay listed the artwork claiming it was haunted, along with a lengthy description detailing how the picture changed form at night and a gun appeared in the girl's hand. It's since passed on into internet legend; a whole book was written about it and its author, Darren Kyle O'Neill, is exploring options for a film adaptation.
Daveed Diggs and John Malkovich as two artists at different stages of their careers, awed by Dease in "Velvet Buzzsaw."
Daveed Diggs and John Malkovich as two artists at different stages of their careers, awed by Dease in "Velvet Buzzsaw." Credit: Claudette Barius/Netflix
Speculation notwithstanding, there's a roster of real artworks alongside Dease's for connoisseurs to soak up: Freud, Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Andreas Gurksy, JR, Shepard Fairey and, standing in as the works of fictional artist Piers (John Malkovich), Marc Chiat.
Bissell said the psychology behind good art is moving enough without supernatural interference. "If it's powerful art, there comes a point when the mechanisms of our ego dissolve and we start to lose ourselves into the art. That's a particularly vulnerable point for anyone's psyche," he explained.
"It's that psychological state that we were trying to mimic: where your ego and your perception see something as a work of art, or see it as artificially created, but suddenly it starts to turn real."
"Velvet Buzzsaw" makes this sensation all very literal. "Before the sublime, the whole body quivers," a buyer says breathlessly, taking in a Dease. Forty-five minutes later she's dead, lost to the art. Perhaps she should have heeded the warning signs.