Movies about artists are never about art. You won’t learn about Abstract Expressionism from Pollock, or Surrealism from Frida. Artist biopics are about fame, addiction, money, sex, prejudice, freedom, and the curse of being ahead of your time.
The titles of these movies will always be one name—Modigliani, Renoir—serious, timeless, just like on a museum poster. They’ll be a story of rags to riches, a struggle against great odds. The artist will be flawed, rebellious, romantic, tragic. An asshole, even. Never, as most artists are, ordinary, holding down day jobs.
If it’s a film about a woman, it will be about her men: Frida Kahlo’s tempestuous marriage to muralist Diego Rivera (Frida, with Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina as the turbulent couple), Dora Carrington’s posh bohemian suitors (Carrington, starring the painfully English Emma Thompson as Dora). Despite the range of materials that artists have utilized since the dawn of art, invariably these movies will be about painters.
All of them will pose the same quaint question. It’s asked in Henrik M. Dahlsbakken’s sumptuous new biopic of Edvard Munch, entitled, naturally, Munch. A sanatorium doctor is examining the artist, who is suffering from alcoholism and a severe breakdown. “One of my great interests is the spiritual or psychological anatomy of the genius,” explains the doctor. “Sick or genius?”
Blame Vincent van Gogh, the one-eared archetype of tortured creativity. He has been the subject of four major movies since the 1950s, with Kirk Douglas playing him in Lust for Life, Tim Roth acting the role in Vincent & Theo, French rock star Jacques Dutronc trying his hand in Van Gogh, and, most recently, Willem Dafoe taking a stab in At Eternity’s Gate. This isn’t even mentioning Martin Scorsese’s performance as the artist for a chapter of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. “Sick or genius?” could be the tagline for them all.
Munch also indelibly linked anguish to artists. When he painted The Scream, in 1893, he produced one of the great icons of angst in the Western canon. But he faced hostility to his work and battled personal demons.
Dahlsbakken’s Munch shuttles between four different actors portraying four stages of the artist’s life, from shy yet determined twentysomething to octogenarian curmudgeon. It’s beautifully shot, the performances are skilled, but the act of painting, the center of Munch’s life, seems secondary to the miseries it brought to its creator.
The artist will be flawed, rebellious, romantic, tragic. An asshole, even.
By contrast, in 1974, the maverick English director Peter Watkins made Edvard Munch, which was conceived as if a modern film crew were shooting a fly-on-the-wall documentary in 19th-century Norway. Nearly three hours long, with dialogue improvised by the cast, and weighted with facts about the social conditions and moral attitudes of the time, Watkins’s film shouldn’t work. That it does is because it shows what complex forces shaped the artist’s painting, rather than romanticizing art-making as an inchoate obsession that makes monsters, or victims, of those in its grip.
Film directors always face the same problem in trying to depict the creative process: cinema demands movement, of plot, actors, images. The camera is restless, but painting and sculpture are often slow, solitary, and sedentary. So directors reach for familiar conventions to keep the screen busy: the artist prowling the studio alone at night with furrowed brow and pent-up energy. Ed Harris nailed this style in Pollock. Rapturous music heralds inspiration, paint slathers every surface to remind us that tidiness is bourgeois and the artist must be free—see Jeffrey Wright in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat. When the work is finished, the artist is spent, but art history is changed forever.
(Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, starring Timothy Spall as the great landscapist, depicts the artist strapped to a ship’s mast in a storm, giving physical manifestation to his internal struggle, but more importantly giving the camera a welcome release from the confines of the garret.)
Mimicry is another method filmmakers enjoy. Derek Jarman’s inventive Caravaggio is lit in the chiaroscuro style of its subject. Caravaggio’s Shadow, Michele Placido’s recent swashbuckling take on the painter’s life, borrows the same technique. Love Is the Devil, John Maybury’s film about Francis Bacon, which stars a catty Derek Jacobi as the artist and a pre-Bond Daniel Craig as his bit of rough, uses extreme shallow-focus shots to simulate Bacon’s violent, blurred brushwork.
In Fur, Stephen Shainberg strains a little too hard to evoke the inner life of Diane Arbus, who sympathetically photographed those on America’s margins. He imagines a romance between Arbus, played by Nicole Kidman, and her neighbor, a man supposedly suffering from hypertrichosis (excessive hair growth), played by a heavily made-up Robert Downey Jr. Unfortunately the effect is entirely comical. Downey Jr. looks like a blow-dried Chewbacca.
New films are currently being made about Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. Will they embrace the clichés? Basquiat, the heroic painter burning bright yet tragically fast, Warhol mumbling “It’s so glamorous” as assistants screenprint canvases in the background.
Good artist biopics, like good artists, should ignore the rules. Edo Bertoglio’s Downtown 81 sent the real-life Basquiat on a fictional quest for a mysterious woman, running into downtown bands and personalities along the way. The story line is thin, the acting barely there, but Downtown 81 captures the energy and ruin of early-80s Manhattan in ways that a period costume production can only sanitize.
A similar effect is produced by A Bigger Splash, Jack Hazan’s portrait of David Hockney. It’s a dreamlike documentary, blending hazy fiction and erotic fantasy, that casts Hockney and his milieu as themselves, traveling between London, Los Angeles, and New York. It’s more mood than story, but the 1970s fashions are fun, and Hazan captures Hockney working in his studio during a pivotal period. Significantly, A Bigger Splash rejects the “Sick or genius?” question. “The truth is,” says Hockney in the film, “I just really enjoy painting.”
Dan Fox is a former co-editor of Frieze magazine. He is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters and Limbo. He lives in New York