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Vincent Price: Monster Masterpieces!

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If you’re anything like me, October means turning out the lights, settling down with some popcorn, and bingeing on the films of horror master Vincent Price.  Fans of all ages remember him around Halloween season for his badass rap voiceover in Michael Jackson’s Thriller.  Admit it, you know you’ve drunkenly busted out those thriller moves and quoted Vincent Price at a Halloween party sometime in your life.  Those of us from the Tim Burton generation fondly recall his last big-screen appearance as “The Inventor” in Edward Scissorhands, and the animated short Vincent, based on his screen persona.  My personal favorites are his B movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s, such as The Fly, the original House on Haunted Hill, and his series of deliciously kitsch portrayals of Edgar Allan Poe characters.  

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Price channels his inner Salome, a la Hans Cranach the Younger in this publicity still from The Raven (1963).

His horror movies are wonderfully spooky, often campy, sometimes good for a laugh, but always entertaining.  One thing that is rarely said of them, however, is that they are high art, so let’s focus on some things about Vincent Price you may not know.

For one thing, old Vinny was kind of a dreamboat.

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Price’s come hither gaze works its magic on Madame Grand by Louise Vigée Le Brun, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Price became an instant matinee idol as the dashing, young Prince Albert in Victoria Regina on the Broadway stage.  Women next lined up around the block to see him in his tights and codpiece in an Elizabethan production by Orson Welles.  Seriously, boy-band levels of hotness.

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In the Loge by Mary Cassatt, at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

It was only a matter of time before Hollywood came knocking, and pretty-boy Price even auditioned for the role of Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind.  Now that would have been something to see.

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But, in the immortal words of Derek Zoolander:

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To show that he was more than a pretty face, or a frighteningly ghoulish face as the case may be, Price threw himself full force into artistic pursuits.  He was bitten by the art bug at an early age:

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He started his collection at the age of 12, purchasing a Rembrandt etching using his pocket money to pay in $5.00 installments.  Most kids just buy candy.  We assume (based on absolutely zero evidence) that his etching looked something like this:

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Seated Female Nude by Rembrandt van Rijn, at the University of Arizona Museum of Art.

Oh, Vincent.  You dirty boy, you!

At Yale, he majored in English with a side interest in Art History courses, proving yet again that a Humanities degree can lead to success.  He grew up to be a big-league collector, boasting modern artists such as Jackson Pollock, as well as a massive collection of Native American and pre-Columbian art.

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The young scholar/collector at work.

Price and other artistically inclined stars founded an informal artists salon in Hollywood.  At one point, he even teamed up with Ten Commandments co-star Edward G. Robinson to start a gallery.  Like Price, Robinson was renowned for playing unsavory characters on the screen.  Like Vincent, he also had a face for San Quentin, but a taste for the finer things in life.  Robinson was a particular patron of Diego Rivera, but also counted names like Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Vincent van Gogh in his collection.

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Original gangsta Eddie G. lights up next to one of his prized Modiglianis. What would the conservators say?

Like other celebrities famous for grotesque makeup and despicable on-camera behavior (Kardashians, we’re looking in your direction) Price ended up with his own line at Sears.  

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Unlike the sisters K. however, he wasn’t motivated by mercenary commercialism, shameless publicity seeking, or selling out to the man.  Rather it was a labour of love.  Price was a true believer who wanted to bring beauty and fine art into the homes of ordinary, middle-class Americans.  He hand-selected and promoted a collection of affordable home decor by legitimate artists such as Man Ray, Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian.

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Price inspects a selection for his Sears line of fine art.

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Sears advertisement for the Vincent Price collection, featuring Picasso and Modigliani with models in themed outfits.  Read the captions, they’re priceless: “Sometimes square can be hip!”  Oscar Wilde wishes he could write this.

Vincent Price always wanted art out of the hands of the elite, and into the hands of the underdog.  When he gave a commencement speech at East LA College in 1957, he was so moved by the passion and achievements of the school’s primarily working-class, Latino student body that he donated 90 works from his personal collection to start the Vincent Price Art Museum on the school campus.  The collection eventually grew to 8,000 works (2,000 personally donated by Price), and is one of the world’s premier collections of indigenous and Mesoamerican art.

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Price cradles one of his Pre-Columbian treasures.

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The Vincent Price Art Museum as it appears today.

Despite his zeal, Price was never one to take either himself or his passions too seriously.  He loved doing hammy, over-the-top roles, with a devilish glint in his eye that showed you he was in on the joke.  He had a similar sense of humor about art, which he felt, after all was really about having fun.  He once said, alluding to his macabre reputation, “Art need not be so deadly serious.”

Vincent Price has long since passed, but thanks to his fantastic body of films, and his contributions to the art world, his legacy is very much alive.

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By: Griff Stecyk

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Griff Stecyk

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