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By Martin Keady · April 14, 2015
Film is essentially a visual medium, so it stands to reason that there should be a plethora of fine films about art and artists. However, unlike art, film is also essentially a narrative medium and all too often films about art and artists lack the great story that is essential for a great film, with the unfortunate result that too many of them end up being as visually exciting as watching paint dry.
The following Top 10 Films About Artists avoid inflicting that agony and instead create something of the ecstasy of great art. They are a mixture of documentaries, biopics and even the odd art-experiment, but they all communicate through cinema the effect of the finest art: the ability to make the moving world stand still and to compel us to contemplate it.
10. THE MADNESS OF VERMEER
(2003, Written and Presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon, Directed by Roger Parsons)
Andrew Graham-Dixon’s BBC film, The Madness of Vermeer, is the finest documentary about an artist that I have ever seen, successfully conveying the intricate genius of the great 17th century Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer (It certainly does so more successfully than Girl With a Pearl Earring, the feature film about Vermeer’s most famous painting that was released in the same year and that The Madness of Vermeer was ostensibly a television tie-in with.).
Graham-Dixon is probably Britain’s premier television art historian, having made several series for the BBC about the art of many countries, including Britain, America and China. However, his finest series may be the three-part The Secret Lives of the Great Artists, of which The Madness of Vermeer is the stand-out. Graham-Dixon travels to Vermeer’s home town of Delft to tell the story of Vermeer’s extraordinary life and art, culminating in an exquisite analysis of one of his most famous paintings, View of Delft, which shows the remarkable lengths Vermeer went to in order to create the effect of sunlight on rainy rooftops. Graham-Dixon sees this image as the perfect metaphor for Vermeer’s own life, which at the end was turbulent and tragic but ultimately left a legacy of astonishingly beautiful art.
(1993, Directed by Derek Jarman)
Derek Jarman’s Blue shows art as the background or backdrop to life, as a single shot of blue colour fills the screen for nearly 80 minutes while Jarman and some of the actors who had appeared in his earlier feature films recount anecdotes and stories about his life. Such a dry description makes Blue sound dull, but it is emphatically not: the blue screen becomes a tabula rasa (or more specifically, a cerulean tabula rasa) onto which the viewer can literally project their own ideas and associations. It is for that reason that I can still remember seeing the film when it was first released, as it was the appropriately austere backdrop for the ending of a love affair.
Jarman, of course, was an artist himself, but one who saw no strict division between the traditional artistic media of painting and sculpture and the new visual media of cinema and television. Famously, he found art everywhere, even in the shadow of the nuclear power station at Dungeness, where he lived and created a beautiful garden made of shingle. And like all great artists, he found art even in personal tragedy, as Blue is a recreation of his own narrowing field of vision as he lost his sight in the last months of his life. Blue focuses on one image, but in the process it shows an entire world of art, in which personal suffering can be transmogrified into universal understanding and empathy.
8. MR. TURNER
(2014, Written and Directed by Mike Leigh)
Mike Leigh is a great cinematic miniaturist, whose best films, such as Nuts in May, Life Is Sweet and Secrets and Lies, depict seemingly tiny lives that nevertheless attain an epic kind of grandeur. My personal favourite “Mike Leigh Moment” is in Life Is Sweet when Stephen Rea’s inebriated Patsy, a diehard Spurs fan, falls off a bar stool after lamenting that for him football died the day that “Arsenal won the double.” Even as an Arsenal fan myself, I still laugh at the memory of it.
Mr Turner, however, is different to most Mike Leigh films in that it is about a life that is already large, even epic, telling the story of J.M.W. Turner, the man generally regarded as Britain’s finest painter (and regarded by some, including Andrew Graham-Dixon, as a forefather of Impressionism). As befits a biopic, the finest thing in Mr Turner is the lead performance of Timothy Spall, so often Leigh’s leading man but here revelling in the paint-spitting, mast-strapping antics of a genuinely eccentric genius. In true Mike Leigh “method” style, Spall effectively had to become an artist himself to make his performance as convincing as possible, and he succeeds, confirming what Leigh and many others (myself included) have long thought: that the man who came to fame as “boring Brummie Barry” in Auf Wiedersehn, Pet has become Britain’s greatest character actor.
(2002, Directed by Julie Taymor, Based on Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera)
Frida is probably the greatest film about a female artist, but in keeping with its subject – Frida Kahlo, the brilliant, bisexual Mexican painter – the gender of the artist is less important than her genius. And unlike most films about artists, Frida shows the genesis of that genius, as the film begins with Kahlo’s tragic accident: she is impaled on a metal pole after a road crash and takes up painting as a release from the physical suffering that she endures for the rest of her life.
Where gender is important in the film is that Frida also suffers terribly from the serial infidelity of her husband, another great Mexican artist, the muralist Diego Rivera. The film strongly suggests that her bisexuality is at least in part a response to Rivera’s roving eye, as she takes on a series of male and female lovers, including at one time enjoying (and enduring) a relationship with the same woman who Rivera betrays her with.
As with Timothy Spall in Mr Turner, the great triumph of Frida is the lead performance of Salma Hayek, a Mexican herself for whom the making of Frida (she co-produced it, as well as starring in it) was obviously a labour of love: a celebration of her love for her homeland and its most famous daughter. It would be tempting to say that Hayek, who bears a considerable resemblance to Kahlo, plays her beautifully, except that it is her insistence on occasionally looking ugly that is the true testament to her desire to pay tribute to Kahlo. This is a great portrait of a great artist – warts, hairy upper lip and all.
6. VINCENT AND THEO
(1990, Directed by Robert Altman and Written by Julian Mitchell)
Vincent and Theo was the last film that Robert Altman made at the end of his troubled 1980s, when, after his miraculous, decade-defining output of the 1970s (which included epic masterpieces such as McCabe and Mrs Miller and Nashville), he struggled to generate funding (or even interest) from major studios and production companies and instead focused on smaller, more intimate films, often for television. Vincent and Theo was originally conceived of as a mini-series for the BBC, but Altman obviously felt that the subject matter was sufficiently cinematic to deserve a theatrical release, which ultimately paved the way for his majestic 1990s big-screen rebirth with further classics such as The Player and Short Cuts.
However, Vincent and Theo is more than just a “bridging” or “transition” piece from Altman’s 80s TV and theatre work to his early to mid-90s mature film masterpieces. It is a fine film in its own right, and an especially fine film about art and the cost that its creation can impose. It concentrates on the close relationship between the Van Gogh brothers: the painter Vincent (played by Tim Roth in one of his finest early film performances); and the art dealer Theo (played by Paul Rhys, who may not have achieved the fame of Roth but in this film at least is his acting equal). Vincent and Theo shows that it can be just as tormenting to be related to a great artist as it is to be a great artist, as Theo struggles, ultimately in vain, to save the older brother he idolises.
5. THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT
(1982, Written and Directed by Peter Greenaway)
The Draughtsman’s Contract was the breakthrough movie of one of the greatest visual and story-telling geniuses of cinema in the last quarter of the 20th century, Peter Greenaway. It was originally made for Britain’s then newest TV channel, Channel 4, and was part of the extraordinary initial outpouring of that channel and its contributors, which also included films by Stephen Frears (Walter, the story of a mentally disabled young man that was shown on the channel’s first night of broadcast) and Michael Apted (P’tang, Yang, Kipperbang, the greatest cricket-based coming-of-age story ever made).
The Draughtsman’s Contract is a perfect title, as it summarises the movie’s plot: the hiring of a draughtsman, or artist, by a wealthy aristocratic woman to produce 12 landscape drawings of her estate, seemingly to please her estranged husband who dotes on the estate, but in reality to try to produce a male heir, as the contract includes a requirement that the artist have sex with his patron.
The Draughtsman’s Contract is many things, including the beginning of the fruitful relationship between Greenaway and his composer, Michael Nyman, who produced a Purcell-inspired soundtrack to complement Greenaway’s Rembrandt and Caravaggio-inspired cinematic compositions. Above all, however, it is one of the most suspenseful films about art, as it is a marvellously complex murder mystery in which the draughtsman’s paintings themselves become vital clues, first to the whereabouts of the mysteriously missing husband and then to the grisly fate of the draughtsman himself, when he is confronted by the missing husband’s family members and friends.
Art remained an obsession of Greenaway’s in many of his later films, not least Nightwatching, which is about the creation of Rembrandt’s most famous painting, The Night Watch, and which is another “artistic murder mystery.” However, he never again achieved such artistic success in documenting his love of art as he did in his debut, The Draughtsman’s Contract.
(1986, Directed by Derek Jarman and Written by Jarman, Suso Cecchi d’Amico and Nicholas Ward-Jackson )
Caravaggio is the second Derek Jarman movie on this list and it is completely different to Blue: where Blue was his powerful and defiantly personal statement about the meaning of art, Caravaggio is a biopic of the great Italian Baroque artist. However, it is not a conventional biopic, as it flits between different periods of Caravaggio’s life (opening with his death before reflecting back upon his life) and deliberately includes anachronisms, such as the use of a typewriter (itself now, of course, an anachronism in our age of the computer keyboard), just as Caravaggio himself often anachronistically depicted Biblical figures in 16th century costume.
As befits its subject, Caravaggio is a lusciously and lustrously beautiful film, much of the credit for which must go to the production designer, Christopher Hobbs, who was also responsible for the reproductions of Caravaggio’s paintings that are used. But it is also beautifully acted, not least by the uniquely beautiful Tilda Swinton in her first major screen role as Caravaggio’s muse and lover Lena, and by Dexter Fletcher, who plays the young Caravaggio. His portrayal in the film (and on its poster) is one of the most ravishingly beautiful depictions of an artist in all of cinema: he looks like a Caravaggio self-portrait brought to life.
3. THE DAY OF THE LOCUST
(1975, Directed by John Schlesinger, Written by Waldo Salt, based on the novel by Nathanael West)
The Day of the Locust is the great film about cinematic art: the art of set and production design. While there are dozens of films about writers and directors in Hollywood, Locust is the only major film I know of whose hero is a set designer, Tod Hackett. He dreams of creating great paintings but has to survive by building studio sets, one of which (a recreation of the battle of Waterloo) ultimately collapses, nearly killing several actors, in a perfect metaphor for Hackett’s own career struggles.
Hackett is superbly realised by a young William Atherton, who obviously recognised a kindred spirit given his own career struggles: he had made his screen breakthrough a year earlier in Steven Spielberg’s debut feature, The Sugarland Express, which did not have anything like the success of Spielberg’s follow-up, Jaws. However, he is not the only “wannabe” in the film, as it tells the story of a succession of hapless or luckless actors, film-makers and even lizard-starers (when you see the film, you’ll know what I mean), culminating in a brutal riot at a movie premiere. However, in a final, surreal, life-imitating-art twist, Hackett, who survives the riot despite being badly injured, imagines other rioters taking on the appearance of figures from his own would-be masterpiece, The Burning of Los Angeles, which itself became eerily prophetic of the later riots (in the 1960s and 1990s) that would enflame and engulf America’s movie-city.
2. LUST FOR LIFE
(1956, Directed by Vincente Minnelli and Written by Norman Corwin and Irving Stone, based on Stone’s novel of the same name)
Vincent Van Gogh is the ultimate cinema artist: there are almost as many movies made about him as there are about every other artist put together, and I include two of them in this list. The reason is simple: Van Gogh’s life is the life of an artist that most perfectly fits the classic template of a movie, with a tragic life (featuring poverty, artistic failure and ear-slicing) ultimately being superseded by absolute artistic triumph. But the best “Vinnie movie” by far is, fittingly, one made by another great Vincent (or Vincente, to be precise), Vincente Minnelli’s Lust For Life.
Lust For Life was based on Irving Stone’s 1934 novel of the same name and the title is telling: hitherto, Van Gogh had been seen largely as a purely tragic, even miserable, figure, but Stone showed how, despite all the personal and artistic obstacles he had to overcome, Van Gogh somehow maintained a desire to live and to represent life in art.
It is appropriate, therefore, that the Van Gogh of Lust For Life is played by Kirk Douglas, an actor who positively exudes (even oozes) life in his finest roles, including in Spartacus, Paths To Glory and The Bad and The Beautiful (which Minnelli also directed). With dyed red hair and a red beard to conceal his trademark cleft chin, Douglas embodied Van Gogh, capturing the primal, almost animalistic, energy that he sought to convey in his painting.
1. DREAM OF LIGHT (or THE QUINCE-TREE SUN)
(1992, Directed by Victor Erice and Written by Erice and Antonio López García)
Although it is generally known in the English-speaking world as The Quince-Tree Sun, the original title of Victor Erice’s 1992 masterpiece, Dream of Light, is more appropriate – the perfect title for the perfect film about art, because ultimately art, like cinema, is a dream about light and how to capture it.
Dream of Light is about a real artist, Antonio López García, who also co-wrote it, and documents his attempts to capture in paint the sunlight that shines through the titular quince tree in his garden. From this simple starting point, Erice (the masterful director of a mere handful of movies, most notably 1973’s The Spirit of the Beehive, about a young girl in Franco’s Spain who becomes obsessed with the original Frankenstein movie) makes a film about the attempt of all art to portray the ceaselessly shifting and changing nature of life. He slowly, methodically shows how Garcia paints, and even prepares to paint, and then expands his canvas, as it were, to include García’s meditation on the painting The Last Judgement by Michelangelo, the ultimate “artist’s artist.” Finally, it becomes apparent that the ultimate conflict is not between art and life, but between life (including art) and death, as García attempts to complete his painting of the quince tree before his own, inevitable demise.
I began this list by saying that the worst art movies feel like watching paint dry. Well, at the risk of contradicting myself, the best thing that I can say about Dream of Light is that it is exactly like watching paint dry (at times, paint is literally shown drying on the canvas), only it doesn’t just dry but metamorphoses before our eyes into something else, something greater – something truly artistic.
CINEMA (AND THE OTHER SIX ARTS)
Cinema is often called “the seventh art”, after the term coined by the early 20th century Italian film theorist, Ricciotto Canudo, who believed that cinema could be a synthesis of the traditional six art-forms (architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry and dance). However, although cinema has often succeeded in representing music, poetry and dance, it has usually been less successful in depicting visual art and artists. But these 10 films all show that cinema can successfully depict visual art and those who make it, and in the process attain new artistic heights itself.