The top ten art biopics

Maria do Carmo da Pontes  -  November 9, 2018

Our selection of art biopics follows up the list of art movies that we published a few months ago. But this new one calls for rainy afternoons…

The first issue with compiling such list is that, unlike films that use art as an element of their narrative or documentaries, several passages within this genre are highly romanticized. Who can describe exactly all the joy and anxiety that was going through Van Gogh’s head when Gauguin was about to come and visit him in Arles? Or the pain that Camille Claudel’s troubled relationship with Rodin inflicted in her heart? Yet biopics have given pleasure and content (though this shouldn’t necessarily be taken as facts) to audiences around the world. As the cold months approach in the Northern Hemisphere, here’s a list of some excellent ones:

Basquiat, by Julian Schnabel, 1996.

Main subject: Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 – 1988).

Unlike other films in this list, where the crew had to work with third-part accounts of an artist’s life, director Julian Schnabel was a friend and supporter of Basquiat during the latter’s short-lived life, and he’s loosely portrayed here as fictional painter Albert Milo (Gary Oldman). Basquiat perfectly embodies the joys and pains of overnight success: one day he was living rough on the streets; the next he was everyone’s darling among NY’s elite. Such abrupt change had a high bill for the ambitious, heroin-addict Basquiat, who started his career as a graffiti artist. It brought jealousy (from old pals), narcissism (of his own) and ultimate enclosure (by an upper class that he could not truly penetrate), leaving him increasingly alone. In his last years, Andy Warhol was his only friend and collaborator – of a group of works, it must be said, that was a true disaster. When Warhol passed, Basquiat’s life went down the hill as quickly as it had gone up; he died of a drug overdose several months later, aged 27.

Camille Claudel, by Bruno Nuytten, 1988.

Main subject: Camille Claudel (1864 – 1943).

Camille Claudel was a brilliant artist at a time when, even in progressive France, it was quite tricky to be a female practitioner – women weren’t allowed to study at the École des Beaux-Arts, for instance. To make matters worst, both her brother and her mother weren’t supportive of her. This didn’t barred Claudel to pursue her talent, first at the tutelage of Alfred Boucher and then Auguste Rodin – a relationship that would shape, for better or for worst, the rest of her life, both in private and artistic terms. Rodin became her mentor, and lover – though he never divorced –; she turned into his favourite pupil and muse. The relationship eventually turned sour, most likely – as the film is fair in pointing out – due to Rodin’s jealousy of her growing skills. With great performances by the beautiful Isabelle Adjani as Claudel and the quintessencial Frenchman Gérard Depardieu as Rodin.

Caravaggio by Derek Jarman, 1986.

Main subject: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610).

The further we go in history, the harder it gets to know how events have unfolded. Thus Derek Jarman wisely takes some artistic liberties as means to highlight the storytelling dimension of the narrative – such as the presence of electronic devices and cars. The whole cinematography of the film is very much aligned with Caravaggio’s own somber choice off palette, which gives way for a beautiful aesthetic. The little we know for sure about the artist – his reputation as a troublemaker, taste for drinking and presumed bisexuality – is there. The love triangle of the film is between the artist, Lena (Tilda Swinton) and Ranuccio (Sean Bean), both actors in their debut role; as it often happens, Caravaggio is played by different men depending on his age. Both a visual delight and an immersive narrative.

Frida, by Julie Taymor, 2002.

Main subject: Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954).

Perhaps the biggest blockbuster of this list, one of the highlights of the film is its music, with compelling performances by Caetano Veloso, Chavela Vargas and Lila Downs, among others (the picture received the Academy Award for Best Original Score). It starts with Frida’s (played by Salma Hayek) teenage years as a student, right before the infamous accident which left her with painful lifetime injuries; it was in the aftermath of this accident that she started painting her now famous portraits and self-portraits. This tragedy, however, didn’t impede her to live a bohemian and brave lifestyle, full of love affairs with men and women – Trotsky being simply the most famous of them – and rebellious positions. For years she was mostly known as the wife of muralist painter Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), and as it’s often the trope with non-European/ US born artists, she first achieved recognition outside her native Mexico. Her signature style remains highly influential today, with the V&A in London currently hosting a major retrospective focusing on her wardrobe and the recent release of a Frida Kahlo barbie doll. Based on a biography, written by Hayden Herrera (1983).

I Shot Andy Warhol, by Mary Harron, 1996.

Main subjects: Andy Warhol (1928 – 1987) and Valerie Solanas (1936 – 1988).

An independent production – and director’s Mary Harron’s debut – it centres on the well known episode of Andy Warhol’s attempted murder by Valerie Solanas in 1968. The narrative starts with Solanas being held in custody after the shooting, and unfolds to certain episodes of her life in form of flashbacks. All elements of a brewing disaster were there: troubled childhood where she suffered abuse, poverty and subsequent hustling to make ends meet, insecurities of all kinds and so forth. Solanas is a writer who harasses Warhol – with whom she was previously acquainted with via Candy Darling – to produce her play, Up Your Ass. At the same time, she is commissioned by a publisher to write a pornographic novel. Solanas becomes increasingly paranoid of the world, forging an inexistent plot between the artist and the editor to sabotage her, which leads to the shooting. She didn’t succeed in killing Warhol, but left him with lifetime injuries and a permanent sense of persecution; the episode further had an enduring impact in Warhol’s subsequent practice.

Lust for Life, by Vincente Minnelli, 1956.

Main subject: Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890).

The plot spins around the story of Vincent Van Gogh, whose tragic mystique places him among the best known painters in today’s world. Noteworthy, other films were made about this artist and Julian Schnabel has recently finished one, arguing that his death was not suicide. Here the title role is convincingly played by Kirk Douglas. The narrative follows the Dutch’s footsteps, from his days as a church minister in a poor mining community – where according to the film, he first drew his attention to true Christian ideals of humbleness – via his several love deceptions, his days in Paris, the legendary and infallible support of his brother Theo, his troubled days in Arles with Gauguin – think of the sliced ear – mental institutions and ultimately to his untimely death. The film is based on an homonymous novel by Irving Stone (1934), who by turn based his book in the abundant correspondence between the Van Gogh brothers.

My Left Foot, by Jim Sheridan, 1989.

Main subject: Christy Brown (1932 – 1981).

A touching tale of Christy Brown, inspired by his homonymous 1954 autobiography. Brown was an Irishman, born with cerebral palsy in an enormous and poor family in the early 1930s. The only part of his body he could control was his left foot, an ability that he eventually used to write ‘mother’ on the floor of his house with a piece of chalk; after this event, his skeptical father started to pay more attention to him, hailing Christy as a ‘true Brown’. With the ever present support of his mother, Christy goes on to use his left foot to paint, and with the help of his doctor – with whom he develops a romantic, albeit non-correspondent romantic interest – manages to exhibit his work at a local gallery, to critical acclaim. Daniel Day Lewis’ exquisite performance as Christy Brown earned him several awards of Best Actor – including a BAFTA and an Oscar.

Nightwatching, by Peter Greenaway, 2007.

Main subject: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 – 1669).

As of Caravaggio, it’s specially hard here to know true facts due to the historical distance of the subject matter. As of Jarman, Peter Greenaway makes use of dramatic artifices to embed such difficulty within his signature style. The whole film takes place mostly indoors, as if it could be a theatre play. Even when it’s outdoors, there’s a massive theatricality to it, in form of the lightening and the camera placing. Showcasing known events of the painter’s private life, the film centres around the commissioning, and subsequent process of painting, of The Night Watch (original title Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq), viewed by many as Rembrandt’s masterpiece. This monumental work, completed in 1642 after years on the making, shows the Captain’s militia in near human dimensions, conveying a sense of movement never before seen in portraiture; it further attests to the Dutch absolute control of light. In Greenaway’s narrative, it also hides a conspiracy theory of murder. The Rijksmuseum, which houses the work, has recently announced that it will undergo a massive restoration process while on exhibition, in front of the public eye.

Pollock, by Ed Harris, 2000.

Main subject: Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956).

This is a true labour of love, starring Ed Harris as director and as Jackson Pollock. The legend tells that Harris’ father gave him a copy of Pollock’s biography (Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith) in 1986, as he thought his son and the late artist looked alike. This event then triggered Harris to a project that took him over ten years to complete, to which – as a veritable method actor – he learned how to paint, smoked Pollock’s cigarettes, slept in his bed and so forth. The results payed off, as in addition to the two men physical resemblance, Harris emulates the painter’s every gesture, in a truly convincing role that didn’t earned him an Academy Award, but earned one to Marcia Gay Harden, who plays Pollock’s patient wife Lee Krasner (for Best Supporting Actress). Nevertheless, Pollock’s troubled life and abusive personality, which was cut short by a car accident where he was drunk and fast driving, is portrayed here with excellence.

The Danish Girl, by Tom Hooper, 2015.

Main subject: Lili Elbe/ Einar Wegener (1882 – 1931).

Based on an homonymous novel from 2000 by David Ebershoff, this film has been heavily criticized precisely for the amount of artistic freedom that director Tom Hooper took in telling this story – an argument that had already been made against the book, and to which Hooper argued that his version is actually closer to reality than Ebershoff’s accounts. Elbe may not have been the first transgender in history, the dates of events may have been altered for narrative purposes, but nevertheless this is a captivating tale of a female soul trapped in a male’s body. One indisputable historical fact is that artist Wegener (played by Eddie Redmayne) was asked to dress as a woman for his wife, portrait artist Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), as one of her models couldn’t come and sit for a painting. Wegener then starts to grow increasingly uncomfortable within his male body, which after a series of events, culminates in him agreeing to perform a sex-change operation.