Recently, a reader commented about of one of his favorite movie/TV art pieces from the classic show, Columbo. The only thing I love more than 80s TV is a mystery and the only thing I love more than a mystery is a mystery with some artwork in it. Check. Check. And Check! Needless to say, I was more than happy to do a little sleuthing of my own about this piece and its intriguing artist.
The piece the reader was referring to appears in an episode of Columbo called Murder, A Self Portrait. It’s actually more of a TV movie because of its length, but it’s all semantics because the most important thing is the Columbo is in it. The plot of this episode involves a famous European artist, Max Barsini who has a notorious past. His first ex-wife makes some threats about revealing the past, she’s knocked off, and an investigation occurs. Obviously it was a murder (or it wouldn’t be on TV) and even more obviously, it is the husband. Now, here’s the kicker, as Columbo goes to arrest Barsini for the murder of his wife, Barsini reveals his latest piece: a portrait of none other than Columbo himself. But it’s better than that because the Columbo’s face has this great little smirk on it like Barsini knew he was going to be caught the whole time. Really, you have to hand it to the writers.
You really can’t ask more out of a portrait. It captures a remarkable likeness of Peter Falk and also creates the perfect reaction from the audience to the scene. A seemingly ordinary scene becomes extraordinary because this portrait adds depth to Barsini and the scene itself. And you know me: give me a portrait that’s more than a portrait and I am simply thrilled. And give me a piece that plays an important part in the plot itself, that is required by the plot and I’m just ecstatic.
As you may have surmised from previous posts, finding artists is usually quite a drag. But that was certainly not the case for this piece. Immediately I found that this painting was created by apparently a very big name. When I looked more into Jaroslav Gebr’s career, I found out it was, or should be, a huge name. Gebr was born in Eastern Europe, studied there and later fled the Communists and arrived in Hollywood. He began in the art departments of Fox and MGM and eventually ended up at Universal’s Television studios where he led their Art Department for years. This seems all well and good but once you begin viewing his resume, it’s actually quite impressive.
Most notably, Gebr created the title cards for the Redford/Newman flick, The Sting (expect post later), which have a very iconic Americana look. But Gebr had incredible talent and large artistic versatility. He was able to copy almost every style and did throughout his career. Among the high points in his career were his murals for the MGM studios, Michaelangelo frescoes for MGM’s The Shoes of the Fisherman, and art in almost every style for some of the huge shows of the time including The Lucy Show and Murder, She Wrote. Most recently, he did work for one of my favorite chick flicks, The Princess Diaries. In addition, Gebr found time to paint portraits of Hollywood’s top names, like Orson Welles and make storyboards for his studios. Needless to say, the man had talent.
Gebr may not have been the most technically perfect artist, I’ll concede that. But really, that wasn’t his job. His job was to create art quickly and well, which he did. I read that he had extremely high standards, despite his often ridiculously short deadlines. If you glance at his work, this is fairly evident. They added to the artistic vision of the set and piece and more importantly filled necessary voids in storylines. Who cares if some of his pieces appear on screen for mere seconds? When they do appear, they shock, impress or create whatever emotion needs to be created in the story with remarkable accuracy. More importantly, you art snobs, his work was probably seen by more of the general public than some of the high art “geniuses” of his day. I think it’s pretty clear who made a bigger difference.
Back to the painting itself, this piece served an important part in the plot of one Columbo episode. But it also serves as a prime example of a great artist’s work and captures an important part of Columbo’s character, and in a way, Peter Falk’s screen persona. Despite its brief appearance, I believe it’s a hugely important and tremendous piece if only because of the impact it makes. And really, that’s what matters.
Also, this fits very nicely into my "Moving Pictures" theme as this piece is, at its simplest level, a wonderfully evocative portrait of the great Peter Falk. I'm getting two birds with one stone with this truly wonderful painting.
If interested, check out more of Gebr's work at http://www.gebrart.com/Portfolio__2.html, a site dedicated to his artwork. Expect to hear more about him and his work in the future!