When an artist becomes an adjective—think Orwellian, Kafkaesque, or Joycean—one of two things can happen: their work can be superficially appropriated, reduced to a collection of obvious gestures clumsily combined in bad pastiche. Or their distinctive style can inspire artists with more skill and depth to make original creations that may themselves become touchstones for the future. What might distinguish one from the other is the degree to which we understand not only the work of Orwell, Kafka, or Joyce, but also the work that influenced them.
When it comes to David Lynch, there’s no doubt that the “Lynchian” stands as a model for so much contemporary film and television. But while some directors make excellent use of Lynch’s influence, others strive for Lynchian atmosphere only to reach a kind of uninspired, unintentional parody. The sublime balance of humor and horror Lynch has achieved over the course of his extraordinary career seems like the kind of thing one shouldn’t attempt without serious study and preparation.
Without Lynch’s surrealist vision, oddball characterization and dialogue fall flat—as in Twin Peaks’ second season, which Lynch himself says “sucked.” So what defines the Lynchian? A very distinctive use of music, for one thing. And as the video essay above by Menno Kooistra demonstrates, the significant influence of painting. Lynch himself began painting and drawing at a young age and studied art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the sixties. While he found his calling in film, his art education prepared him to dream up the unforgettable compositions of the Lynchian world.
Rene Magritte, Edward Hopper, Arnold Böcklin, and the master of psychological horror, Francis Bacon—all of these painters have directly informed Lynch’s nightmarish mise-en-scène. As you’ll see in Kooistra’s video, in side by side comparisons, Lynch adapts the work of his favorite artists for his own purposes. In an interview clip, he says he discovered Bacon at a gallery in 1966 and found the experience “thrilling”—later using the painter’s work as inspiration for The Elephant Man and Twin Peak’s disorienting Red Room.
We see Lynch’s homage to his favorite painters in Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, as well as the current, third season of Twin Peaks, over which he has (as he well should) complete creative control. You may not find Francis Bacon’s disturbing portraits quite as thrilling as Lynch does, or draw on Edward Hopper for a warped version of 1950’s Americana. These are Lynch’s references; they resonate on his particular frequency, and hence provide him with visual frames for his own personal dream logic.
But what we might take away from “The Art of David Lynch” is that the Lynchian is necessarily tied to a painterly sensibility, and that without the influence of fine art on composition, color, and framing, a Lynchian production may be in danger of looking—as he says of that disappointing Twin Peaks’ second season—“stupid and goofy.”