Why Movies About Artists Suck

By Yehudit Mam, August 9, 2012

How many movies about visual artists have you ever seen that are not a total drag? Like most biopics, the lives of famous artists, whether painters, writers or composers, are usually not as dramatic and interesting as the lives and work of the artists themselves. Watching someone paint, write or compose music is like watching paint dry. It’s paradoxical: even if the life of the artist is extremely dramatic, the movies about them tend to be either super cheesy (Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh, Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo) or lifeless, like picture postcards or dry encyclopedia entries. You would think the visual component would help, but it’s very hard to find a balance between the personal drama and the visual aspect. Hence, it’s no coincidence that there aren’t many movies about visual artists. Somehow what visual artists do doesn’t translate easily into compelling dramatic narratives.

A case in point is the movie Frida, by Julie Taymor, which is a saccharine, Disneyfied version of the tumultuous life of an incredibly charismatic woman, Frida Kahlo. The movie looks gorgeous (shot by Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who has an innate and exquisite sense of the color of Mexico), but Kahlo’s story is completely defanged of what made her such an interesting artist: it is stripped of pain. In fact, there is a Mexican movie about Kahlo, by Paul Leduc, also called Frida, which is much better.

So cheesy…

In contrast, Pollock, directed by and starring Ed Harris, is quite a gripping film, because it concentrates on Jackson Pollock’s personal demons, but it is not very telling about his art. Still, when it comes to biopics of artists, it will always be more interesting to watch the juicy gossip than dwell on the artistic process. How art is made is ineffable, and better served by a documentary instead of a dramatization. But let’s think about movies about visual artists that do work.

Pollock works. It’s an intense movie about an intense artist, and a passion project for actor-director Ed Harris.

Love Is The Devil, about Francis Bacon, with Derek Jacobi in the title role, is satisfyingly disturbing. Francis Bacon, like his paintings, was a piece of work, and a great subject for a movie. Daniel Craig plays the perverse love interest!

Caravaggio, by Derek Jarman, is not a conventional biopic, but the Caravaggioesque cinematography by Gabriel Beristáin is a marvel to behold.  And it’s Tilda Swinton’s first movie.

Basquiat, by Julian Schnabel, is a keeper. Perhaps because Schnabel is an artist and Basquiat’s contemporary, he is able to capture the genius and the zeitgeist of Jean Michel Basquiat’s life. All the actors in the movie are spot on as visual artists, particularly the great Jeffrey Wright in the title role. And David Bowie as Andy Warhol!

Vincent and Theo, by Robert Altman is sad and desperate, and you get to see Tim Roth as Van Gogh.

Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev is supposed to be good. Tarkovsky usually puts me to sleep and this one was no exception. But saying Tarkovksy bores you is tantamount not eating your broccoli. So there you have it.

Seraphine, a movie about a simple cleaning lady who turned out to be a great artist. With a great performance by Yolande Moreau.

Check out this list of movies about visual artists. You’ll find the good ones above and a bunch of duds.

Artists fare better in documentaries. Here are some excellent ones for your enjoyment:

Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry.  Powerful and inspiring.

Andy Goldsworthy: Rivers and Tides.  Goldsworthy makes art with stuff that doesn’t last. He makes art in nature. Beautiful and arresting.

Crumb. A fantastic documentary about comic book artist and professional eccentric R. Crumb and his crazy family.

Louis Kahn: My Architect. A very moving portrait of a genius architect by his son, who found out that this famous architect was his father.

Exit Through The Gift Shop (fake documentary by Banksy). Whether this is a mockumentary or not, it is a brilliant exploration of fame and mediocrity. Lots of fun.




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