Rosso Fiorentino has no star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And why should he? Born Giovanni Battista di Jacopo in Italy in 1494, he spent most of his career as a painter in his native Florence, later working in Rome before moving to France to serve at the court of King Francis I; he died there in 1540. His contribution to culture happened a long time ago and far, far away from the film studios of Los Angeles.
But Rosso (his nickname, “the red Florentine,” alludes to his fiery shock of hair) does have a significant presence in the City of Angels. One of his most enigmatic and startling paintings, An Allegory of Salvation, counts among the treasures of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). (The picture currently hangs at the Getty Museum on long-term loan while LACMA completes its renovation project).
Painted in oil on a large wood panel, the subject of the picture still confounds: angular, long-limbed figures interact in a mysterious communion difficult to match with traditional Christian iconography. We recognize the Christ Child in the arms of his mother Mary, dressed in blue; the sleeping nude boy must be the young John the Baptist; the aged woman, her elbow resting on a book, most likely represents John’s mother Elizabeth; two angels fly above, one smiling, the other perhaps singing.
The generic title, An Allegory of Salvation, given by modern art historians underscores the cryptic subject. Rosso himself might have been unclear in his intentions: he left the painting unfinished, the figures are drawn in black chalk but with only the first layers of oil color brushed on. For this reason, the painting offers fascinating insights into the technique of a great Renaissance artist.
An Allegory of Salvation entered LACMA’s collection in 1954, the gift of Dr. and Mrs. Herbert T. Kalmus. Though not a household name, Herbert Kalmus was a towering figure in Hollywood. He founded Technicolor, the company that first perfected the color film process used by Hollywood studios for several decades. Kalmus does have a star on the Walk of Fame.
Trained as a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (hence “Technicolor”), Kalmus and his partners formed the company in 1914. After years of struggle, Technicolor found its first great success with MGM’s production of The Viking in 1928, the earliest fully-realized color feature. Kalmus consolidated Technicolor’s power in Hollywood in 1932 when he brokered a deal with Walt Disney, producing a series of color cartoons called Silly Symphonies and culminating with Disney’s first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, using the newly developed three-strip dye-transfer process.
Kalmus was not the only power behind Technicolor’s success. His first wife, Natalie, served as technical advisor on most Technicolor productions during its heyday. Though no star memorializes her, she was a creative force in the industry (her IMDb page lists 384 credits, most as “Technicolor Color Director”). She advised on color in all aspects of a film’s look, from set design to wardrobe.
A formidable, exacting woman in a business dominated by men, Natalie clashed with A-list directors, from Vincente Minnelli to Alfred Hitchcock. Her perfectionism so disrupted the production of Gone with the Wind that the producer, David O. Selznick, allegedly threatened to switch the picture to black and white just to get her off the set. But no one can deny her significance in motion picture history. She was the guiding hand behind the astonishing fade from sepia to full color as Dorothy enters the magical land of The Wizard of Oz.
I wonder what the Kalmuses thought of Rosso’s Allegory of Salvation. Herbert acquired it in 1939 as a gift from his German cousin Ernest Remak, whom he had helped escape Europe at the outbreak of the Second World War. J. Patrice Marandel, former Robert H. Ahmanson Chief Curator of European Art at LACMA, recounts the moving story of this act of conscience in his 2017 memoir Abécédario: Collecting and Recollecting.
Looking at the painting in Los Angeles sometime after The Wizard of Oz wrapped production in March 1939, Herbert and Natalie might have noticed uncanny echoes of the Wicked Witch in the sharp-nosed, rail-thin Saint Elizabeth, or compared Rosso’s bulky angels to the Flying Monkeys.
Maestros of color, they surely puzzled over the painting’s pale hues. Perhaps they discussed how best to “colorize” it. As an artist, Rosso had learned the importance of disegno (drawing or design) in conveying an artistic idea and knew how eye-catching color (colore) could distract a viewer.
Kalmus had himself expressed similar suspicion of color for its own sake in movies in a 1938 lecture. “You cannot make a poor story good by sound, by color, or any other device or embellishment. But you can make a good story better,” he said.
Rosso, in fact, could be a provocative colorist. We get hints of this in An Allegory of Salvation: the cool blues, pale pinks, and yellows of the draperies and in the wings of the angels suggest how vibrant the work would have been had he finished it. True to his nickname, Rosso used the color red as a kind of signature, often incorporating redheads in his paintings. The Allegory features one such personification in the ginger-haired angel at the upper right.
Natalie Kalmus believed color should advance a film’s narrative and help shape the audience’s reactions. In a 1935 essay, “Color Consciousness,” she advocated looking at Old Master painters. She cited Rembrandt and Velázquez, among others, and assigned emotions to colors. Red, which “can suggest love, passion, anger, tragedy,” intrigued her most of all. She approved switching the color of Dorothy’s slippers from silver to ruby red, the better to contrast with the Yellow Brick Road. Natalie never made more expressive use of red than as the person in charge of “colour control” for The Red Shoes, a celebrated 1948 British movie starring the redheaded ballerina Moira Shearer. A painter named “Rosso” must surely have appealed to her.
Herbert and Natalie’s long personal and professional relationship ended in 1948 (they had divorced in 1921 but had continued to work and live together). Legal wrangling left Natalie cut out from the Technicolor company, with the inevitable result that her role in the history of color film was soon forgotten.
Herbert kept possession of Rosso’s Allegory of Salvation when he married Eleanore King in 1949, and it is Eleanore, the second Mrs. Kalmus, not Natalie, who is credited as one of the donors of the painting to LACMA in 1954.