something to remember

Madonna seriously. Everything what's epic, iconic and what you must remember.


Art (in) Pop

Tamara Lempicka, Frida Kahlo, Latin American surrealism, Horst, Bourdin, classical film and theater works... Madonna’s music videos are full of references to art.

First music videos were made as early as in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until Madonna and Michael Jackson came around that the world learned how they should be done. MTV started off around that time and played a major role in creating the biggest icons of pop culture of the 1980s. Madonna is an undisputable leader when it comes to MTV awards, which were initiated as a mean to acknowledge best videos. Out of 68 nominations (!) she has won as many as 20.

Every video I’ve ever done has been inspired by some painting or some work of art.

These are the words Madonna said in an interview for the Aperture magazine in 1998, which was the time of her last triumphs at MTV Video Music Awards. Despite a dozen of nominations in the following years, her videos wouldn’t win any statuettes. Therefore, let’s go back to the time when her clips were true masterpieces and analyse what other artists’ works inspired them.

Open Your Heart (1986)

The fourth videoclip promoting the True Blue album was filmed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino, although originally it was rumored that Sean Penn would be the director. “Open Your Heart” was nominated to 3 MTV VMAs, but in the most important category lost to... “Papa Don’t Preach”. Nonetheless, VH1 placed the video at number 35 on their 50 Sexiest Video Moments list.

In the opening scene, we can see reproductions of paintings by Tamara Lempicka, which make a collage above the entrance to the erotic theater. The woman with shining nipples is Andromeda (1929) and on the side places La Belle Rafaela (1927) – these two works Madonna would use again in her “Vogue” music video. Lempicka’s paintings also appear on the walls of the room, where audience is seated. Madonna combines Liza Minnelli’s image from Cabaret and Marlene Dietrich’s from The Blue Angel, and the scene with pulling a glove off the arm is inspired by the film Gilda, starring Rita Hayworth.


Express Yourself (1989)

Taken as the second single off the Like a Prayer album, “Express Yourself” received a clip directed by David Fincher. For the first 3 weeks, MTV had an exclusivity for the music video and would broadcast it every hour. The clip was nominated to 5 MTV VMAs, eventually receiving statuettes for Best Direction, Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography.

In 1930, the famous photographer Lewis Hine was asked to capture the process of erecting of the Empire State Building, what resulted in a photo shoot called Men at Work. Earlier, in 1921, Hine took one of his most famous photographs, “Steamsfitter”, which would serve as an inspiration for the “Express Yourself” music video almost 70 years later. Madonna said: “The image that always struck me was (…) a really sort of Cubist photograph (…) [of] a man working on some big, huge piston-shaped cylinder”.

Another major inspiration here was the film Metropolis, the 1927 masterpiece by Fritz Lang. This silent film was released almost 100 years ago, but still inspires many filmmakers and musicians alike. The idea of “borrowing” scenes from Metropolis came from Madonna and easily fit also into Fincher’s concept.

Vogue (1990)

Another David Fincher’s production and another success, this time on an even greater scale. The “Vogue” music video still holds the number 2 spot in the list of the best videos ever, right after Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. The clip was nominated in 9 MTV VMA categories, what is still the greatest achievement from all Madonna’s music videos, eventually winning 3 statuettes: Best Directing, Best Editing and Best Cinematography.

The clip is full of references to the golden age of Hollywood and Art Deco. It begins with a scene boasting paintings by Tamara Lempicka: The Musician (1929) and La Belle Rafaela (1927), the latter rotated by 90 degrees. 1929’s Nana de Herrera and Andromeda briefly appear in the video as well, straight from Madonna’s private collection. Her passion for Art Deco is revealed also in the set design throughout the video.

But most of all, “Vogue” is a display of Horst’s exceptional skills and talent. Madonna and David Fincher wanted to pay a homage to the photographer by “animating” his images. Unfortunately, Horst misinterpreted their intention and sued the director... The video references classic photographs Mainbocher Corset (1939), Lisa with Turban (1940) and Carmen Face Massage (1946), and the scenes throughout the clip revive the atmosphere of Horst’s work.

Bedtime Story (1995)

The video for the third single off Bedtime Stories, directed by Mark Romanek. It didn’t earn any nominations for MTV VMA, most probably because it was too experimental and ahead of its time. Another reason might have been the form of release. For the first time, Madonna didn’t want to debut her new video on MTV. Instead, the song was sent to radio and the music video dropped... in cinemas. The clip is a visual masterpiece, blending ancient and Middle Eastern symbolism with surrealism and New Age. MTV called it highly artistic, critics accordingly proclaimed it a masterpiece, and even after many years, the video is still a source of inspiration for other artists. The clip was exhibited in Museum of Modern Art in New York and Museum of the Moving Image in London (now defunct) as well as many other exhibitions devoted to contemporary art.

The symbolism in this video is so rich and omnipresent that it deserves a separate article. Therefore, let’s focus exclusively on paintings. Although no actual paintings were used in the videoclip, many scenes reproduce themes from famous surrealistic works. “My “Bedtime Story” video was completely inspired by all the female surrealist painters like Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. (…) There’s a little bit of Frida Kahlo in there, too” said Madonna. Observant fans and art lovers will easily spot out references to Fisher King and The Giantess by Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo’s Los Amantes (1963). 

“Bedtime Story” also borrows from works by Leonor Fini: Le Bout du Monde (1948), L'Amité (1958), and in the scene of levitation, Vision Roja (1984).

Frozen (1998)

This clip promoting Ray of Light was directed by Chris Cunningham and won an MTV VMA for Best Special Effects.

The video is quite an original idea, but one can notice inspirations from contemporary cinema (The English Patient, The Sheltering Sky). Again, present are references to famous photographs. Not many people know, but the idea of the giant dress has drawn inspiration from a series of photographs of Martha Graham, what Madonna herself admitted. Specifically, the series Martha Graham in Lamentation (1937) by Herta Moselsio.

Everything you need to know about "Frozen" video
Read more: Frozen

Hollywood (2003)

The video for the second single from American Life, directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino, didn’t win any awards, but the song opened MTV Video Music Awards in 2003.

“Hollywood” remains Madonna’s only post-2000 video with obvious inspiration drawing from art. This time around, the point of reference is the work of French fashion photographer Guy Bourdin. Madonna mentioned his images in a late 1990s interview with Aperture: “I’ve got a couple of his photographs in my bedroom that I wake up to every morning”. A few years later, she revisited the concept of “animating” still images for the “Hollywood” videoclip. And just like the last time, the homage resulted in a lawsuit.

MS / transl. Matt

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