The Rocky Horror Art Show
“Let’s do the Time Warp again!”
Dr Frank-N-Furter blazons during the 1975 film come-cult-classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Little did we know, the fishnet and latex corset-clad messiah of the Gothic, fever dream mansion that virginal protagonists Brad and Janet stumble across was talking about iconic works of art and sculpture (at least, I like to think he was). So, leave your heteronormativity and puritanism behind, as we pelvic thrust into the world of sexy, recontextualised art.
Among the sex-crazed and glittery mirage that is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, one can find numerous nods to instantly recognisable works of art - each with cult values of their own. Herein lies an absurd, but surprisingly poignant contrast between the absolute sexual ecstasy in Rocky Horror, and the vanilla heterosexual eroticism of works like Michelangelo’s David and Rodin’s The Kiss: both of which pop up in the film.
One of the very first scenes one sees in the film finds Brad and Janet at their friend’s wedding. At its core, this is a ceremony that represents the same conservative and institutionalised values that the film works to reject.
Amid the wedding’s musical number are a pair who are a direct copy of American Gothic - a work by Grant Wood. From the very outset of the film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show makes no mistake about telling the audience exactly the kind of ride they are in for: one which parodies works of classical art, or embodies those works which had a similarly satirical spirit.
Once Brad and Janet enter Frank-N-Furter’s psychedelic sex palace, first-time watchers (and maybe second and third) are wondering what on earth is happening. Rather than a directorial choice, I see this to be a deliberate and psychologically driven decision. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is bizarre; So much so that the mere 1 hour & 41 minute run time is enough to indoctrinate the viewer into a rubber-smelling, lipstick laden cult. I am convinced that it’s only through being a member of this imaginary cult that one can truly understand the use of art in the film; without it, they stand simply as works of magnificent art taken grossly out of context.
Amidst some of the more energetic & theatrical scenes, the not-so-hidden works of art become even more noticeable. Among these images are Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, Rodin’s The Kiss, and two classicised statues of Venus. In my opinion, the most symbolic artworks are those whose original context promote ideals of male physicality and beauty; two such works appear behind Rocky as he is birthed from a mummified womb. To this day David, acts as an archetype of sculpted, muscular masculinity. This largely adheres to toxic binaries of male and female beauty. The character of Rocky himself can also be viewed in this way, being a conventionally attractive sex doll of a man who is born - both literally and figuratively - to fulfill these societal expectations.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show, however, uses these images of masculinity as a satirical counterpoint with which to contrast the gender-bending, ‘sweet transvestite’ Dr. Frank-N-Furter.
In a near final shot of the film, Frank-N-Furter lays in a pool with Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam printed onto the bottom tiles, where they appear in the middle of God and Adam. This shot sums up perfectly the use of works of art throughout the entire film, positioning Frank as someone who is neither god nor human, rather someone who is unapologetically themself; a power which is almost godly in it’s own right. It is through such rejection of categories and embracing of identity that the film has become so impactful; this is also why it shocked audiences when it was first released in 1975.
The tagline of Rocky Horror, “give yourself over to absolute pleasure”, seems even more relevant after excavating meaning from the use of art throughout the film. Instead of being puritanical and conventional, they are used as symbols of desire, identity, and pure earthly pleasures. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a sexy and confusing reminder to artists of all disciplines to recontextualise, and give new meaning to works otherwise untouched by the dust and cobwebs of the past.
Freya Markula is a 19-year-old creative based in Auckland, and a guest contributor to Youth Arts New Zealand’s blog. She is studying English and Art History at the University of Auckland, and is especially interested in writing about texts/moments where these two subjects overlap.