The Hollywood effect: Maud Lewis and other painters who got a bump from the movies

Maud Lewis' exuberant art regularly turns up at Canadian auctions. But the high-profile new film Maudie has sparked a wave of fresh interest in the beloved Nova Scotia folk artist's oeuvre. Call it the Hollywood effect.

From Maudie to Big Eyes to The Shining, pop culture depictions can introduce painters to new audiences

Sally Hawkins in the film Maudie, which has sparked fresh interest in the art of Maud Lewis. (Duncan Deyoung/Mongrel Media)

Maud Lewis's exuberant art regularly turns up at Canadian auctions. But the new, high-profile film Maudie has sparked a wave of fresh interest in the beloved Nova Scotia folk artist's oeuvre. Call it the Hollywood effect.

"When somebody sees a painting sell for six figures in the news, there isn't always an appreciation of the importance of the work culturally," noted Rob Cowley, president of Consignor Canadian Fine Art.

"Anytime you have a situation like this, where pop culture has come into play, it provides a link to the public," he explained. "It makes art a lot more approachable, to be able to have that background."

Here are four recent cases of painters getting a pop culture boost.

Maud Lewis in the Maudie spotlight

Toronto-based Consignor typically sees between five and eight Lewis works turn up for auction each year, but interest this spring has been unprecedented.

"We moved Three Black Cats — maybe her best known image — to the main floor and it's incredible how many people come in, just make a beeline there first and start having a discussion about her, about the movie and instantly recognizing the work and getting excited about it," Cowley said.

These three Maud Lewis paintings -- (clockwise from left) Three Black Cats, Children Walking in the Snow and Winter Sleighing Scene -- will be sold by Consignor Canadian Fine Art in Toronto as part of its spring auction on May 25. (Consignor Canadian Fine Art)

Lewis's engaging life story — a self-taught artist who, despite severe rheumatoid arthritis and poverty, created a vast amount of uplifting work — has always drawn people in.

"She was an individual who didn't have formal art training. She didn't go to Europe to learn to be an artist. She didn't exhibit with other artists.... She had so many challenges and lived in this tiny space. Many people could have found depressing aspects to that life. Meanwhile, she painted these incredibly joyful works of art," Cowley said.

Maud Lewis is seen in this file photo posing with one of her paintings in front of her Nova Scotia home. (Art Gallery of Nova Scotia)

Maudiea blockbuster in Atlantic Canada, arrives amid growing values for Lewis's work, currently offered for upwards of $7,000 — double the estimates a decade ago.

The sales record for a Maud Lewis work at auction had been $22,000 (paid for The Family Outing in 2009 at a Bonhams Canada auction), but an Ontario thrift store find that was sold as part of a charity auction went for $45,000 on Friday night.

Portrait of Eddie Barnes and Ed Murphy, Lobster Fisherman, Bay View, Nova Scotia was auctioned off by the Mennonite Central Committee Ontario and sold for nearly three times the price at which it was appraised. It was originally valued at approximately $16,000.

This Maud Lewis painting, found in an Ontario thrift shop, sold for nearly three times its estimated value at auction last week. (MCC Ontario)

Margaret Keane sees Big Eyes boost

In a similar vein, there's been a resurgence for Margaret Keane since the release of Tim Burton's 2014 biographical drama Big Eyes. The American artist rose to fame in the 1950s and 1960s for painting "doe-eyed waifs", which her then-husband Walter Keane took credit for. A court case ultimately confirmed that she was in fact the true creator.

Margaret and Walter Keane rose to fame in the 1950s and 1960s for their big-eyed paintings, which were later fully attributed to Margaret. (Bill Ray/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Following the movie, the market for Keane's work — which some critics have dismissed as kitsch — began gaining strength, Cowley said. Prior to Big Eyes, Keane paintings sold for $2,000 to $3,000 US or sometimes went unsold at auction. Now, her paintings can fetch between $5,000 to $10,000.

Like Lewis and her folk art landscapes, Keane's works depict a genre — in this case portraiture — considered appealing to and more approachable by the public. An artist's value definitely can get a boost "when you add that kind of attention, that kind of biography in film, to the artist's history," Cowley said.

Lawren Harris-champion Steve Martin

For the visual arts, there's always a struggle to dispel the perception of stuffiness many people continue to have with art, art galleries and auction houses, Cowley said. 

So when big biographical films are released or major art exhibitions open, "there's a humanity that's added to the artists that helps tremendously."

Actor, comedian, writer and musician Steve Martin focused renewed attention to Group of Seven founder Lawren Harris with his exhibition The Idea of North. (Craig Boyko/Art Gallery of Ontario/Canadian Press)

Steve Martin's recent Lawren Harris exhibit The Idea of North sparked a flood of articles reinvestigating the artist's life. For many Canadians who might have known the name of the Group of Seven founder — but little else — his work then becomes more approachable, Cowley said.

Buzz about the Martin-curated show, which hit Los Angeles and Boston before arriving in Toronto, helped stoke widespread interest in Harris and was likely a factor when one of the canvases included in the exhibition blasted past estimates and became the most expensive Canadian artwork ever sold at auction last fall.

Alex Colville in The Shining (plus Moonrise Kingdom and more)

The Art Gallery of Ontario's 2015 Alex Colville retrospective — which also travelled to the National Gallery of Canada — featured a fascinating thread that delighted art fans and cineastes alike: that the Canadian artist's work served as an inspiration for films, including Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, and more. 

Incorporating video and panels, part of the well-attended show explored Kubrick's insertion of four Colville works — including his famed work Horse and Train — into key scenes of his classic horror film.

Meanwhile, Anderson somewhat recreated Colville's To Prince Edward Island for one scene of his nostalgic Moonrise Kingdom and creators including writers Ann-Marie MacDonald and Alice Munro, filmmaker Sarah Polley and singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn have all been inspired by the East Coast artist.

"We still see people coming in and talking about that [Colville] show" and the Kubrick connection when they see his artwork, Cowley said.

The Art Gallery of Ontario's recent Alex Colville retrospective included a section discussing pop culture works inspired by his art. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Whether it's Van Halen using William Kurelek's The Maze to cover its 1981 Fair Warning album to Breaking Bad characters debating the Georgia O'Keeffe painting My Last Door, the intersection of pop culture and the visual arts can be a valuable gateway for people to learn more about art.

After all, "everybody knows The Scream, the Mona Lisa, Warhol's style of portraiture, Picasso's style," Cowley said. 

"When there are exhibitions of those major artworks or artists, people flock to them, not only because they're famous individuals, but also because they've had this support through other media."


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