Inspired by a recent viewing of Peter Watkin’s biopic Edvard Munch, I will be looking briefly at a number of films about artists. There have been countless films concerning famous painters over the years, but I have narrowed my selection down to a few favourites, an eclectic bunch of films. I will be focusing my attention on Andrei Rublev, Basquiat, Nightwatching, Love is the Devil, Caravaggio and Life Lessons from New York Stories.
ANDREI RUBLEV (DIR. ANDREI TARKOVSKY, RUSSIA- 1966)
Andrei Rublev is perhaps the most ambitious film about an artist alongside Edvard Munch. For me Andrei Tarkovsky’s best film, combining dazzling visuals and unforgettable set pieces (the balloon escape, the pagans by the river), with philosophical and religious themes. Anatoli Solonitsyn plays the 15th century painter, struggling in a turbulent period of Russian history. This is painting as a religious experience, mirrored by Tarkovsky’s transcendental cinematic vision.
BASQUIAT (DIR. JULIAN SCHNABEL, USA, 1996)
Directed by Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), Basquiat stars Jeffrey Wright as the New York painter. A penniless street artist, he is discovered by some fashionable art insiders and lauded as the next big thing. Basquiat shows the artist’s fertile imagination and creativity, while strongly evoking hip 1980’s New York. An all star cast including Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken add to the glamour.
NIGHTWATCHING (DIR. PETER GREENAWAY, HOLLAND/FRANCE/GERMANY/POLAND/CANADA/UK, 2007)
This is essentially a Dutch film about an iconic Dutch painter. Peter Greenaway, a British exile working in Holland, is a huge admirer of Rembrandt’s work. Martin Freeman plays the title character with both dry humour and a hint of resignation. The film is one of Greenaway’s most moving, but what is most impressive is the way that the mise-en-scene and cinematography conspire to ape Rembrandt’s own paintings. The striking use of light and sparse sets almost seem at one with the subject.
LOVE IS THE DEVIL (DIR. JOHN MAYBURY, UK, 1998)
Derek Jacobi turns in an excellent performance as Francis Bacon in this bleak biopic. The film focuses on his relationship with George Dyer (Daniel Craig), a gangster-like younger man who steals (literally) into his life. Their volatile love affair entwines with Bacon’s ugly/beautiful paintings, filled with distorted bodies. Director Maybury signals how Bacon’s masochistic impulses in life filtered into his artwork.
CARAVAGGIO (DIR. DEREK JARMAN, UK, 1986)
The tumultuous life of the Italian painter is brought to screen by Derek Jarman. Actually, Nigel Terry’s portrayal of the artist is fairly tame when you consider the stories of him as a hellraiser. Sure, there are infidelities, assaults and even murder, but Jarman portrays this almost as a natural progression for Caravaggio. The film looks beautiful and stark, similar to Nightwatching. A striking depiction of a life lived on the edge.
LIFE LESSONS (DIR. MARTIN SCORSESE, USA, 1989)
New York Stories is a little seen trilogy of mini films directed by the finest New York directors of the 70’s. Woody Allen’s comedy is a joy, but Francis Ford Coppola’s segment (co-written by a pre-pubescent Sofia Coppola) is a fluffy, misguided kids film. My favourite is Martin Scorsese’s Life Stories, starring Nick Nolte as a middle aged professional painter. This is the only non-biopic in this piece, but I thought it was worth including because of it’s depiction of the actual practice. Tormented by impatient dealers and temperamental lovers, Nolte’s character throws himself into violent bursts of painting. Scorsese’s camera lingers over the vigorous brushstrokes as the Rolling Stones’ boom out of the record player.