Among the more than 1,000 objects on display in “Stanley Kubrick” -- a massive exhibition devoted to the legendary filmmaker that opens Thursday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art -- the piece that perhaps best captures the director’s singular style isn’t related to cinema at all.
Tucked away in the middle of the show, and encased in a transparent box as if it were a scientific specimen, is Kubrick’s personal chessboard set.
It’s an easy item to overlook amid the exhibition’s encyclopedic aggregation of documents, photographs and on-set material -- almost all of which comes from Kubrick’s personal archives in England. Chess was a favorite pastime of the late director, who was sometimes seen absorbed in a match between takes on a set.
But chess was much more than just a game for Kubrick. In many ways, the aesthetics of chess -- logistical precision, total mental control and a cold emotional detachment -- matched the director’s artistic sensibility.
The LACMA exhibition, which runs through June, marks the first time that a museum show devoted to Kubrick will be seen in the U.S. The show, which debuted in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2004, is a continuation of LACMA’s recent effort to make cinema a key part of its curatorial mission. (The museum hosted a Tim Burton exhibition last year.)
The idea to bring the show to L.A. came in large part from Terry Semel, a former Warner Bros. executive and current co-chairman of the LACMA Board of Trustees. The studio worked with Kubrick for nearly three decades, starting with “A Clockwork Orange” in 1971 and ending with “Eyes Wide Shut,” released four months after Kubrick’s death in 1999, at age 70.
Semel said he lobbied LACMA President Michael Govan to host the exhibition. “To some degree, I’ve been a pain,” Semel said in an interview. “I saw the show in Europe. I thought it was nice but it could be delivered in a more exciting way. I kept saying to Michael that in our generation, Kubrick would be the person we would want to know more about and see more about.”
The museum is co-presenting the show with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is providing some of the financing. It is the first formal collaboration between the two institutions since their announcement of a new academy museum to be built on the LACMA campus, set to open in 2016.
An academy spokeswoman said LACMA was already planning the Kubrick show when the academy joined as a co-presenter. She added that the two organizations are in talks to form a multiyear partnership to present film-related exhibitions at the museum.
For the Kubrick show’s U.S. debut, LACMA has reconfigured the layout of the previous exhibition, adding a new video montage of his movies as well as some new archival material. The most significant change is an emphasis on Kubrick as a visual artist, with his films placed in the context of an art museum.
The exhibition highlights scenes in his movies that were directly influenced by works of art -- the spectral twins in “The Shining” that were inspired by the photographs of Diane Arbus, and numerous shots in “Barry Lyndon” that were based directly on 18th century paintings by Thomas Gainsborough, William Hogarth, George Stubbs and others.
On display is a collection of lenses that belonged to Kubrick, who started his career as a still photographer in New York. A section of the exhibition is devoted to his early work for Look magazine, for which he shot sporting events, cityscapes, musicians and celebrities. There’s even a scrapbook created by Kubrick’s mother, Gertrude, devoted to her son’s journalistic accomplishments.
A supreme example of a studio auteur, Kubrick developed a signature visual style and exercised complete control over his movies. As Semel recalled, “We would never say, ‘Don’t do this.’ Stanley was the master, and from my standpoint, when there was something he wanted to do, 99.9% of the time, I thought it was terrific.”
Objects in the show were pulled from about 800 boxes in which Kubrick stored material for his projects. Jan Harlan, the director’s brother-in-law and executive producer on many of his movies, oversaw the exhibition with the German Film Museum in Frankfurt.
“He never threw anything away,” Harlan said in a phone interview from the Kubrick estate in Hertfordshire, England. “We only looked for things that are suitable for an exhibition and not private. What I find so satisfying is that people will realize how difficult it is to make a good film -- how much work it is.”
The show has already traveled to multiple cities, including Paris; Rome; Brussels, Melbourne, Australia; and Amsterdam. Harlan acknowledged the irony of creating a museum exhibition devoted to one of the most private film directors in history. Kubrick famously shunned the media and virtually withdrew from public life after moving to England with his wife, Christiane, and their daughters in the late ‘60s.
“This could never have happened during his life,” Harlan said. “But there is no question in my mind, or his wife’s mind -- he didn’t keep these boxes for someone to just throw away. There must have been an idea behind it.”
The exhibition is organized mainly by movie and contains enough material to satisfy the most obsessive Kubrick-phile.
A random sampling: a call sheet for the filming of “Paths of Glory”; a letter from a church minister decrying the “degenerate” nature of “Lolita”; props from “A Clockwork Orange”; an elaborate card catalog containing research for his abandoned biopic “Napoleon”; an ax from “The Shining”; a treatment for his abandoned Holocaust movie, “The Aryan Papers”; the orgy masks from “Eyes Wide Shut.”
LACMA hired film and TV production designer Patti Podesta to design the exhibition. “Kubrick’s work is defined by the fact that each film is very different from the others,” she said, adding that she designed the show with the intention of intensifying isolated moments from his movies.
Throughout the display, the museum has placed works of art that have close thematic ties to Kubrick’s movies. The “2001: A Space Odyssey” section features a John McCracken plank that closely resembles the rectangular monoliths in the movie. (Despite popular belief, the late artist did not work on “2001.”)
A Cold War-themed screen print by Robert Rauschenberg, “Stoned Moon Series: Sky Garden,” is juxtaposed with items from “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”
“I think the exhibition shows that artists do not work in a bubble. Filmmakers are looking at visual artists, and artists are looking at filmmakers,” said Jarrett Gregory, a curator at LACMA who is overseeing the show.
Kubrick’s perfectionism is the stuff of movie legend -- the obsession with technology, the numerous takes, the absolute control over all aspects of a movie. “Stanley was such an incredible perfectionist that he believed every frame of film should be sharp,” said Douglas Trumbull, the visual effects artist who worked on “2001.”
Many of those who knew Kubrick recalled a warmer, less intimidating man away from the set.
Matthew Modine, who played Pvt. Joker in “Full Metal Jacket,” said Kubrick welcomed him into his home to watch films. “He wasn’t more than a man who loved making movies, loved his family, his pets, and his friends. Kind of in that order,” said the actor via e-mail. (Some of Modine’s photographs from the “Full Metal Jacket” shoot are featured in the exhibition.)
“We watched movies one reel at a time and would discuss the film, digest them, while we spooled up the next reel,” Modine said. “His theater wasn’t fancy. Some old sofas, easy chairs, and his dogs farted a lot (he said it was the dogs...)."
Keir Dullea, who played astronaut David Bowman in “2001,” said he never found Kubrick to be cold. “Yes, he was a perfectionist,” the actor said by phone from Minneapolis, where he was working at the Guthrie Theater. “He was very quiet and he never raised his voice. He had a quiet sense of humor.”
Semel, who has donated some of his personal photographs of Kubrick to the show, recalled that he developed a routine to accommodate the director’s dislike of flying.
“He would call and say, ‘I’m ready for you to come to London,’” said Semel, who ran Warner Bros. for more than 20 years with Robert Daly.
“It would usually be a day or two later that I arrived. It was usually the same hotel room. Stanley would call to make sure I was going to sleep early. Jan would show up early the next day and give me the script to read. I would read it and make notes, and then call Stanley to say I’m ready. And then we would spend as much time as it took at his house.”
Those who knew Kubrick say that despite the cold nature of his movies, there was also a strain of wit throughout his body of work.
The exhibition features a quote from Kubrick -- the quote is in the show’s main video montage -- that encapsulates that duality: “A satirist is someone who has a very skeptical view of human nature, but who still has the optimism to make some sort of a joke out of it. However brutal that joke might be.”