As Salome carries his head on a silver platter, John the Baptist opens his eyes and sings a merry little melody to the camera.
That scene—enacted by members of the French-American indie pop band Hold Your Horses!—helped turn the music video for their song “70 Million” into a viral hit on the Internet, viewed nearly 300,000 times within two weeks of its being posted on the Web site Vimeo.
But it wasn’t this live-action restaging of Caravaggio‘s Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist alone that did it. The three-minute video, created by the small production house L’Ogre, careens through 25 tableaux vivants of iconic works, ranging from Velázquez‘s Las Meninas to Munch‘s The Scream, from Manet‘s Olympia to Klimt‘s The Kiss.
All this art history was filmed over two weekends in a parking garage in Paris, using chalk drawings as backdrops and a smoke machine for fog. To re-create the cloudy sky in Michelangelo‘s Sistine Chapel ceiling, the production team ripped out the stuffing from 200 pillows. “The idea was to make the paintings youthful and funny and rock-and-roll,” the video’s director, David Freymond, says. “We were not trying to be too academic.”
The video begins with Jesus, from Leonardo‘s The Last Supper, drumming on a pot with a pair of wooden spoons. Frida Kahlo (from her self-portraits), van Gogh (from his Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear), and Picasso‘s muse Dora Maar (from his Portrait of Dora Maar) are among the recognizable characters taking subsequent turns with the upbeat tune. One band member sings while smoking a cigarette, interpreting Otto Dix‘s Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden.
The music video “breaks with the image of a rock band,” Freymond says. “This poor band has to get naked—to re-create Renaissance paintings.” Well, not entirely naked: the Venus of Botticelli‘s The Birth of Venus wears a guitar as a cover-up.
The irreverent effort—for an enigmatic song the band claims is about the shifting feelings in a romantic relationship—required feats of costuming. A head covering and the perfect piece of jewelry turned guitarist Charles van den Boogaerde into Vermeer‘s girl with a pearl earring. A bowler hat transformed bassist Robin Montmusson into Magritte‘s Son of man. The same hat, adorned with a feather, appears in a staging of Holbein the Younger‘s Henry VIII.
To become van Gogh’s sunflowers, band members covered their arms in green paint. Cellist Simon Tordjman had his face painted white, blue, red, yellow, and black to approximate a Mondrian painting. And six of the band’s seven members got to play the part of Warhol‘s Marilyn Monroe. They all wore the same wig, spray-painted a different color for each shot.
Part of the fun is watching unlikely subjects bang out the tune. The cadaver in Rembrandt‘s The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp reaches over to play a few notes on a melodica, for example. In an evocation of Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters, by an unknown 16th-century painter, a shirtless musician sways his head to the beat as he pinches the nipple of a comrade strumming a guitar. In most cases instruments are not in the original artworks, with Chagall‘s The Bride a notable exception: as in the painting, in the music video a goat (or rather a man with a goat mask attached to his head) plays the cello.
Florence Villeminot, drummer and vocalist, has starring roles in the stagings of The Creation of Adam, from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Leonardo’s The Last Supper, and Eugène Delacroix‘s Liberty Leading the People. “I was happy because I got to be God, the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and Liberty. That was my goal when I joined the band,” Villeminot quips.
25 Paintings to Rock With
In order of “appearance” in the Hold Your Horses! music video for “70 Million”:
Leonardo, The Last Supper (1492–98)
Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (ca. 1485)
Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp (1632)
Holbein the Younger, Henry VIII (ca. 1536)
Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring (ca. 1665–66)
Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa (1818–19)
Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat (1793)
Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam (ca. 1511)
Magritte, The Son of Man (1964)
Mondrian, after various compositions
Frida Kahlo, after several self-portraits
Picasso, Portrait of Dora Maar (1937)
Munch, The Scream (1893)
Van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889)
Warhol, after various Marilyns
Unknown artist, Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters (ca. 1594)
Cenni di Pepo, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Six Angels (ca. 1280)
Caravaggio, Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist (1606–7)
Manet, Olympia (1863)
Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (1830)
Otto Dix, Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden (1926)
Klimt, The Kiss (1907–8)
Chagall, The Bride (1950)
Velázquez, Las Meninas (ca. 1656)
Van Gogh, Vase with 12 Sunflowers (1888)