Art and Ray Harryhausen

Ahead of the blockbuster exhibition in the summer of 2020 we look at the influence that artists such Gustave Doré and John Martin exerted on the art and film-making of Ray Harryhausen.

In the summer of 2020, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art will host an exhibition unlike any that it has seen before. Instead of the masterpieces of twentieth century art often found within its walls, the galleries of Modern Two will be filled with genuine movie stars. Made of foam latex and rarely larger than a foot or so, these movie stars owe their existence to one man. They are all the creations of special effects titan and pioneering stop-motion animation master Ray Harryhausen.

In films spanning five decades Harryhausen breathed life into his foam latex creations through the process of stop-motion animation. He set them among living actors to create fantastical creatures that enchanted and terrified audiences worldwide. His film credits include classics such as Jason and the Argonauts, with its uncanny sword-fighting skeletons and towering living statue Talos, and Clash of the Titans featuring Medusa, one of the most frightening and iconic monsters to slither across the flickering screen.

Jason fights the Hydra in Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Columbia Pictures Industries Inc.
Talos from Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Columbia Pictures Industries Inc.

Although the sources for Harryhausen’s monsters often came from existing material – from myths and legends (Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans and his trilogy of Sinbad films), the fantastic literature of H.G. Wells (First Men in the Moon), Jules Verne (Mysterious Island) and Jonathan Swift (Three Worlds of Gulliver), they always contain something of his own genius. Harryhausen’s creatures are special because he made them so. He endowed them with personality. They are characters in his films rather than mere special effects. The love of their maker is in them. The time and care that Ray took over his creation is right there on the screen for all to see.

Two Skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts
Medusa from Clash of the Titans

Despite his undoubted skill and imagination, Harryhausen was always humble and openly acknowledged those that had gone before. This inspiration came not just from cinema but from the wider visual arts.

One artist above all can be seen to have had a lasting impact on Harryhausen’s work. Gustave Doré (1832–1883) was a French artist whose book illustrations brought him great financial success and acclaim. During a long and illustrious career, Doré lent his technical mastery and imagination to many classic works of literature. His images gave visual form to the fevered imaginings of authors such as Verne, Milton, Poe and Cervantes, just as generations of filmmakers would for years to come.

Gustave Doré, Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones (detail), illustration from the Book of Ezekiel (1866)
Gustave Doré, illustration from Atala (detail)

Doré casts a long shadow on cinema; his influence stretching all the way back to silent film pioneer Georges Méliès, the father of fantasy cinema. Méliès may well have had Doré’s illustrations for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (a story that Harryhausen himself once hoped to bring to the screen) when he created perhaps the most iconic image in all of silent cinema: the face in the Moon in his most famous film A Trip to the Moon [Le voyage dans la lune] (1902). From then on, Doré’s images have continued to inspire filmmakers throughout the twentieth century. His illustrations for Baron Munchausen inspired Karel Zeman’s 1962 masterpiece Baron Prásil [The Outrageous Baron Munchausen]. Visually sumptuous and eye-poppingly imaginative, Zeman’s film looks for all the world like the illustrations from Doré have come to life on the screen. When Terry Gilliam saw the film at the BFI he was inspired to make his own equally beautiful film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). And one need only compare images of John Neville as the eponymous hero in Gilliam’s film to Doré’s illustration to see that his influence survived.

Gustave Dore, illustration from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
John Neville in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), directed by Terry Gilliam

Harryhausen clearly saw Doré’s images in cinematic terms.

While Harryhausen was already familiar with Doré from a young age, it took his own cinematic mentor, Willis O’Brien, to truly open his eyes to Doré’s influence. It was a screening of King Kong (1933) (for which O’Brien created the special effects) that set Harryhausen on his path to becoming a visionary filmmaker in his own right. O’Brien became Harryhausen’s mentor, schooling him in both filmmaking and the influence of artists such as Doré.

King Kong (1933), RKO Radio Pictures

This image of the fallen log crossing a ravine would surface in Harryhausen’s own work in a particularly beautiful matte painting in Mysterious Island that managed to pay homage to both Doré and O’Brien.

Ray Harryhausen, Waterfall and Log, Key Drawing for Mysterious Island (about 1961), The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation
Scene from Mysterious Island (1961), Columba Pictures Industries Inc.

Harryhausen was blessed with the ideal combination of talent and practical know-how for his craft. His skill with a pencil would come in very handy when trying to convince others with less vivid imaginations than his own to back his film projects. Through his beautiful and detailed drawings Harryhausen could demonstrate his vision and it was often these drawings that would greenlight a project. This is just as well, as Harryhausen could conjour up some remarkably spectacular imagery.

Ray Harryhausen, Skeleton Fight, Key Drawing for Jason and the Argonauts (about 1962), The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation
Ray Harryhausen, Medusa in the Temple, Key Drawing for Clash of the Titans (about 1979), The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation

In this respect he was indebted to a pair of nineteenth-century British painters: John Martin (1789–1854) and Joseph Gandy (1771–1843). Harryhausen’s films are always spectacular, but with his two Greek myth films, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981), the spectacle became epic. The influence of Martin and Gandy can be seen in both films. This is particularly true of Clash of the Titans, where the budget of the film finally matched Harryhausen’s vision.

Joseph Michael Gandy, Jupiter Pluvius, The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation
Ray Harryhausen with the model of Olympus from Clash of the Titans, The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation

Harryhausen would turn to both artists in order to achieve his vision of the home of the Gods on Mount Olympus. Jupiter Pluvius by Joseph Gandy hung over the mantelpiece in Harryhausen’s London home for years and it is easy to see why this spectacular painting would appeal to him and how it would exert its influence on the filmmaker over the years. Although Gandy is a little-known painter, this work was very important to Harryhausen, who wrote that it was ‘a huge inspiration to me throughout my career, teaching me to think big and give my imagination free reign’.

John Martin Macbeth About 1820
John Martin, Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon,1816, Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

In contrast to Gandy, Martin was much more well known – his spectacular painting illustrating Macbeth’s meeting with the witches in Shakespeare’s play has been a popular work in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland for many years.

Once again it was the spectacle that drew Harryhausen to Martin’s work.

Harryhausen writes that, when Martin’s paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy in London, they ‘caused a sensation, making a huge impression on the public even though the critics were less impressed (a reaction with which I am more than familiar)’.

Indeed, it seems particularly fitting that Martin’s work should get such a reception as it mirrors, in some respects, Harryhausen’s own experiences. While Harryhausen’s films were not considered high art when they were released, they have exerted a powerful influence on the imagination of generations of audiences and filmmakers ever since. His commitment to giving full reign to his imagination allowed others to dream big, to realise their vision. If Doré, Martin, Gandy and of course Willis O’Brien were partly responsible for Ray Harryhausen, then Ray Harryhausen, as we will see in our next blog, was partly responsible for Star Wars, Mars Attacks, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and many other defining moments of modern cinema.

In partnership with

The Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation

For more information on the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, visit www.rayharryhausen.com

17 June 2019