March 7th 2019 marked 20 years since the passing of Stanley Kubrick, not long after he had completed work on his last feature film, Eyes Wide Shut. When it comes to filmmakers, Kubrick is held up as being one of the all-time greats; not only has he frequently been acclaimed by colleagues, peers and those who followed him in the industry as being undoubtedly one of the most influential directors of all time, but his skills had also been spotted by Orson Welles, someone who’d himself been an influence on Kubrick.
During the course of his career, Kubrick turned his hand to many different genres, refusing to be pigeonholed or stereotyped as just one type of director; in almost 50 years working behind the lens, he tackled historical and period pictures, war films, darkly comic satire, thrillers, horror, and sci-fi both dystopian and psychedelic. No challenge seemed too great or onerous for the indomitable Kubrick, and everything he did had great precision and a striving for perfectionism; sometimes, this came at the expense of his relationship with the cast, such as Shelley Duvall while making The Shining.
If you were to look up “meticulous” in the dictionary, you wouldn’t find a picture of Stanley Kubrick, because that’s not how a dictionary works. But if it did, then you’d be fairly certain of seeing him there, as he was a stickler for thoroughness and detail in everything he did. During the course of his career, Kubrick worked with some of the most highly regarded designers in all areas, from clothing and costumes to sets and graphic design: he wanted the best of the best, and he got it. It’s fitting that design is one of the things he’s remembered for, as he strove to give each movie a distinctive look and feel.
To mark two decades since we sadly lost him, the Design Museum in Kensington is currently holding a major celebration of his life’s work, in Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition. It brings together more than 700 pieces – some original, some replicas, and much previously unseen on display in the UK – which give us some insight into a man whose output has cast an incredibly long shadow across all cinema. It follows another significant display of pieces from Kubrick’s personal archive, which went on show between October 2012 and June 2013 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and prior to that in 2004 at the Deutsches Filmmuseum. This exhibit shares much of the same content as seen in those earlier installations.
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The entrance is carpeted with the Hicks’ Hexagon design, as seen in the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, so it seems that every effort has been made to create an atmosphere even before you get into the exhibit proper; this is built even further by a series of large screens in a darkened antechamber, playing a short montage of clips, showing some of Stanley Kubrick’s most iconic moments. You then pass into the display main area, where ephemera and materials from across his career are gathered together, showing everything from his only Oscar for 2001: A Space Odyssey (Best Visual Effects), to his director’s chair, his editing equipment, and personal papers from his archive.
It’s a fascinating snapshot of his working life, taking you through from his start as a photographer, to his first major break in making a movie, and his ascent through to being the filmmaker we’re celebrating here. One of the most fascinating aspects of this part of the exhibit is the focus on his unmade works – notably, a Napoleon biopic which was only abandoned when his financial backers pulled out after the similarly-themed Waterloo had failed to recoup its costs; and The Aryan Papers, a Holocaust-themed project which Kubrick dropped when he found Steven Spielberg was making Schindler’s List.
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Attention is also drawn towards Kubrick’s collaborations with the legendary graphic designer Saul Bass, fitting in well with the overall ‘design’ theme of the collection. It gives us a look at the process taken in the creation of a poster for The Shining, with a series of false starts and wrong turns on display, along with Kubrick’s handwritten notes making comment or critique on the different takes, before finally arriving at the finished item. It’s one of many such fascinating examples presented here of the lengthy journeys on which Kubrick and his cohorts would go in order to try and realise his vision, and lets us see the creative process in full flow.
We are then led through different areas, each dedicated to one of his films, taking us through his body of work, focusing on each one in greater detail. You might be expecting a linear trip, from first to last, but instead it jumps around his personal timeline, so this means we go from Full Metal Jacket, to Lolita, and then onto A Clockwork Orange. One thing that really does become clear is the lengths to which he went to find locations in the UK where he could recreate overseas locations here, avoiding the need to leave the country; it becomes especially evident with the Full Metal Jacket display, which shows how he transformed Beckton Gasworks into a war-torn Vietnam.
The final – and perhaps biggest – display for a single movie comes with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which gives a wealth of materials, showing the sheer effort that went into world building, with all sorts of different corporate bodies being involved in envisioning what their brands would potentially be like some 30+ years hence. It’s a truly absorbing vision of what’s now become a future past, and while some of the pieces now look dated, others are still remarkably prescient and feel startlingly contemporary. It just seems a pity Kubrick didn’t make it to 2001, to see for himself how much he actually got right in design terms.
Even taking things at a relatively steady pace, you could easily spend a good two or three hours at Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition, and still not manage to see everything, such is the sheer amount of material on show. An exhibit for casual viewers as much as diehard aficionados, this really is 2019: A Kubrick Odyssey.
Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition is on at the Design Museum until 15th September 2019.