Finding Connections

I have studied art and art history for a significant amount of time.  Fifteen years of education and 10+ years of college teaching means that I know a lot of works of art; its like I have a database of images in my head.  I also like to watch movies and I often find that works of art turn up in film.  Sometimes its just a reference to a style or an artist, but sometimes a specific work of art shows up as a prop within a film.

I have seen Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film, 12 Monkeys, several times.  I admit to being a fan of Gilliam’s work and his film, Brazil, has remained on my “Top 5” list of films since it came out in 1985.  I respond to the surreal and magical realist worlds he creates and the story lines that, more often than not, tell the same story:  the individual against the system. A friend of mine, Graham Boettcher, a curator at the Birmingham Museum of Art, posted this image on his Facebook wall last week and I was surprised that I didn’t remember it from the film.

Still from “12 Monkeys” (1995), directed by Terry Gilliam

The basic premise of the film is that human civilization of the future has been forced underground by a human-made virus that decimated the population in the 1990s.  The main character, James Cole, is a convict who is promised his freedom if he will help a team of scientists by allowing himself to be inserted into the past to try and find out exactly what happened.  The scientists of the future hope to be able to stop the virus from being released.  Cole is dropped into several wrong time periods (including into the middle of a World War I battlefield) before he is finally placed into the right place and time.

After he is extracted from one of the wrong time-places Cole is shown recovering in the hospital bed with a landscape painting hanging over it.  The scene is predictably weird — it is shot with a fresnel lens which causes a strange myopic distortion, the scientists wake Cole up by serenading him with “Blueberry Hill,” and above the bed hangs Yosemite Valley (1868) by the renowned landscape painter, Albert Bierstadt.

Albert Bierstadt, “Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Park” (1868)
Collection of the Oakland Museum
Image source: Wikipedia Commons

If the painting looks familiar to you its because its very similar to Bierstadt’s Looking Down Yosemite Valley (1864) that is on display at the Birmingham Museum of Art.

Albert Bierstadt, Looking Down Yosemite Valley (1864)
Collection of Birmingham Museum of Art
Image source: Wikipedia Commons

So, what’s this painting doing in Gilliam’s film?  Why would a painting of a sublime and picturesque landscape be considered restorative?  Why Yosemite Valley?  Why Bierstadt?  Believe it or not, the answers to these questions are embedded in the content of this course, “The National Parks, Landscape Art, and the American Imagination.”

Yosemite, by the way was a place beloved by both John Muir and Frederick Law Olmsted — two people who deeply impacted the design and development of the national parks system. As you might expect, we’ll be talking about them quite a bit in this course.  In addition, Olmsted’s vision of nature is also seen all around us every day on the campus of the University of Montevallo.


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