Fine Art Films: Cinema Paradiso's Gallery of Great Painters

As Sara Driver's documentary, Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, goes on general release, Cinema Paradiso explores the ways in which the lives of the great artists have been presented on screen.

Films for art lovers

Despite the mesmerising sight of Spanish artists Pablo Picasso and Antonio López García respectively in the throes of creation in Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Mystery of Picasso (1956), and Victor Erice's The Quince Tree Sun (1992), film-makers have often found it difficult to depict the art of painting on screen. The contrasting sketching sequences in Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse (1991) and James Cameron's Titanic (1997) rather confirm the point. Thus, directors have tended to focus on friendships and feuds or the psychological strain that many renowned artists had to endure in coping with a lack of appreciation for their work. 

This is particularly true in the case of Vincent van Gogh, who has been the subject of more biopics than any major artist. Whether played by Kirk Douglas in Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life (1956), Tim Roth in Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo (1990), Jacques Dutronc in Maurice Pialat's Van Gogh (1991) or Benedict Cumberbatch in Andrew Hutton's Van Gogh: Painted With Words (2010), the Dutch Post-Impressionist has been presented as a tormented soul. Yet Martin Scorsese's quirky cameo in the beautiful Arles vignette in Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990) best conveys the thrill that Vincent experienced while creating. 

Director Phil Grabsky also delves into his psyche in Vincent Van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing (2015), one of many intelligent documentary introductions available to rent in the excellent Exhibition on Screen series that also covers several of Van Gogh's peers. This fin-de-siècle golden age has also inspired such portraits as Gilles Bourdos's Renoir (2012), Danièle Thompson's Cézanne and I (2016) and Edouard Deluc's Gauguin (2017), as well as Bruno Nuytten's Camille Claudel (1988) and Bruno Dumont's Camille Claudel 1915 (2013), in which the troubled French sculptor is respectively played with touching sensitivity by Isabelle Adjani and Juliette Binoche. 

Female artists have rarely been given their due on screen. But a few have been admirably represented, including 17th-century pioneer Artemisia Gentileschi (Artemisia, 1997), Frida Kahlo (Frida, 2002), Margaret Keane (Big Eyes, 2014) and Georgia O'Keeffe (Georgia O'Keeffe, 2009). Mostly, however, women have had to be content with inspiring male artists like Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, whose respective relationships with muses Lee Krasner and Edie Sedgwick are examined in Ed Harris's Pollock (2000) and George Hickenlooper's Factory Girl (2006). 

It's rare that films about artists are considered great art themselves, although Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1966) and Peter Watkins's Edvard Munch (1974) prove triumphant exceptions to the rule. Nevertheless, playing a painter seems to inspire actors, with those rising to the challenge including Derek Jacobi as Francis Bacon (Love Is the Devil, 1998), Colin Firth as Johannes Vermeer (The Girl With a Pearl Earring, 2003), John Malkovich as Gustav Klimt (Klimt, 2006), Robert Pattinson as Salvador Dalí (Little Ashes, 2008), Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe (The Danish Girl, 2015), Pekka Strang as Touko Laaksonen (Tom of Finland, 2017) and Geoffrey Rush as Alberto Giacometti (Final Portrait, 2017). Yet, only three performers have won Oscars for their artistic portrayals: Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin in Lust for Life. Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown in Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot (1989) and Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krasner in Pollock

A quick flit through the Cinema Paradiso catalogue reveals numerous movies about fictional painters available for rent, with William Dieterle's Portrait of Jennie (1948), Ronald Neame's The Horse's Mouth (1958), Aki Kaurismäki's The Bohemian Life (1992) and Jean Becker's Conversations With My Gardener (2007) being among the best. The standout, however, sees Tony Hancock make a mockery of the Parisian art world in Robert Day's The Rebel (1961), with the scene of him explaining to landlady Irene Handl the finer points of his sculpture, 'Aphrodite at the Waterhole', hilariously summing up the lot of the undiscovered genius.

  • The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

    2h 13min

    When 20th Century-Fox bought the rights to Irving Stone's biographical novel, Fred Zinnemann was slated to direct Charlton Heston as Michelangelo and Laurence Olivier as Pope Julius II. However, production delays saw Rex Harrison don the papal robes and Carol Reed call the shots on a meticulous reconstruction of the Sistine Chapel on a soundstage at the Cinecittà studios. Despite playing down Michelangelo's homosexuality, the scenario is laudably historically accurate and a hint of the off-screen tension between Heston and Harrison informs their disputes over the ceiling frescoes. Contemporary critics were lukewarm. But the drama is consistently involving, as Michelangelo battles his doubts and demons, while Jack Martin Smith's sets and Leon Shamroy's cinematography remain imposingly impressive.

    Director:
    Carol Reed
    Cast:
    Charlton Heston, Rex Harrison, Diane Cilento
    Genre:
    Drama, Classics, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray
  • Caravaggio (1986)

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    1h 29min

    As a painter himself, director Derek Jarman was perfectly placed to collude with production designer Christopher Hobbs and cinematographer Gabriel Beristain in recreating the chiaroscuro that characterised the canvases of Michelangelo Caravaggio. The subdued lighting reinforces the sombre mood, as Caravaggio (Nigel Terry) lies on his deathbed in Porto Ercole in 1610 and reflects upon his youth (when the aspiring artist is played by Dexter Fletcher) and his often tempestuous relationships with married models, Ranuccio Thomasoni (Sean Bean) and Lena Antognetti (Tilda Swinton). Exploring the extent to which art can convey lived experience and emotional truth, this is as much an academic dissertation as a period drama. But the blend of performance, passion and poetry is potent and compelling.

    Director:
    Derek Jarman
    Cast:
    Noam Almaz, Dexter Fletcher, Nigel Terry
    Genre:
    Drama, Collections, Special Interest, Romance
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray
  • Nightwatching (2007)

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    2h 16min

    Given the excellence of Charles Laughton's performance, some might be surprised not to see Alexander Korda's Rembrandt in this slot. But Peter Greenaway's ingenious speculation on Rembrandt van Rijn's motives for painting 'The Night Watch' is not only gripping in itself, but it also comes with a ready-made companion piece in Rembrandt's J'Accuse, in which Greenaway delves more deeply into this 1642 masterwork. Himself an accomplished painter and art historian, Greenaway is in his element as he posits that Rembrandt (Martin Freeman) was goaded into exposing the crimes of his sitters by their nouveau riche arrogance. But he also considers the artist's domestic arrangements with an atypical compassion that is almost as captivating as the exquisite tableaux.

  • Utamaro and His Five Women (1946) Utamaro o Meguru Gonin no Onna

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    1h 30min

    Making his first postwar film, Kenji Mizoguchi seemed to have settled for a safe topic in adapting Kanji Kunieda's novel about 18th-century artist Kitagawa Utamaro (Minnosuke Bando), who was feted for his bijin okubi-e studies of female beauty. Yet, by contrasting the court-approved methods of kano with the bold ukiyo-e style that Utamaro employed in his paintings and woodblock prints, Mizoguchi was able to smuggle political messages about contemporary Japan past the censors imposed by the occupying American forces. Moreover, in focusing on a courtesan, a geisha, a peasant, an artisan and an artist's daughter, Mizoguchi drew comparisons between Utamaro and himself, as each was known for his empathy with the lost souls dwelling in the capital's Floating World.

    Director:
    Kenji Mizoguchi
    Cast:
    Minosuke Bandô, Kinuyo Tanaka, Kôtarô Bandô
    Genre:
    Drama, Classics, Collections
    Availability:
    Blu-ray
  • Mr. Turner (2014)

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    2h 24min

    Even though Timothy Spall spent two years studying Joseph Mallord William Turner's elusive style, rarely has the act of creation played such a minor part in an art biopic than in Mike Leigh's illuminating portrait. Such is cinematographer Dick Pope's majestic use of light, however, that his widescreen imagery evokes the incandescent pre-Impressionist ephemerality that seems so at odds with the social gaucheness of the inarticulate, cantankerous and reclusive Londoner, whose home life was as complicated as his relationship with the denizens of the Royal Academy, who were so perplexed by his radical style. Struggling to understand his own talent as his light fades, Spall is outstanding and thoroughly deserved his Best Actor win at Cannes.

    Director:
    Mike Leigh
    Cast:
    Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson
    Genre:
    Drama, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray
  • Moulin Rouge (1952)

    1h 54min

    Hammer stalwarts Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee took small roles in John Huston's lavish adaptation of Pierre La Mure's novelisation of the short, sad life of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. But fellow horror star Vincent Price was less than impressed with its 'sentimental soap opera'. Huston was less concerned with the facts of Toulouse-Lautrec's excruciating childhood and adult struggles with alcohol and unrequited love, however. He wanted to translate the vibrancy of his art into sensual imagery and invited celebrated photographer Eliot Elisofon to help cinematographer Oswald Morris use filters to tone down the sharp contrasts of the Technicolor stock. Yet, while production designer Paul Sheriff and costumier Marcel Vertes won Oscars for their exceptional contributions, Morris wasn't even nominated.

    Director:
    John Huston
    Cast:
    José Ferrer, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Colette Marchand
    Genre:
    Drama, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD
  • Loving Vincent (2017)

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    1h 31min

    Seven years in the making and containing around 65,000 frames that were individually hand-painted by some 125 artists, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman's innovative investigation of Vincent van Gogh's last days in the French towns of Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise references over 130 of the artist's most cherished canvases. Following the efforts of Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) to deliver a letter, the flashbacking structure recalls Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, as the postmaster's son becomes increasingly convinced that the anguished Dutchman was the victim of murder rather than suicide. The storyline is consistently intriguing, while the attention to detail in the rotoscoped images ensures that the first oil-painted animation in screen history is often deeply moving and overwhelmingly beautiful.

  • Montparnasse 19 (1958) Les amants de Montparnasse / Hero of Montmatre / The Lovers of Montparnasse

    1h 48min

    It's impossible to watch this stylised recreation of tubercular Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani's last months without being moved by the fact that both leading man Gérard Philipe and the two directors involved with the project, Max Ophüls and Jacques Becker, would be dead within two years of its completion. Screenwriter Henri Jeanson was so disappointed with Becker's fantasia that he removed his name from the credits, while Jean-Luc Godard claimed 'everything rings true in this totally false film'. The scenes centring on Modigliani's relationships with aristocratic poet Beatrice Hastings (Lilli Palmer) and bourgeois art student Jeanne Hébuterne (Anouk Aimée) are engrossing, if conventional. But the insights into the demeaning disparity between the artist's toil and reward add humanist grit.

    Director:
    Jacques Becker
    Cast:
    Gérard Philipe, Lilli Palmer, Lea Padovani
    Genre:
    Drama, Classics, Romance, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray
  • Seraphine (2008)

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    2h 1min

    The winner of seven Césars, Martin Provost's life of French primitive painter Séraphine Louis is a thought-provoking treatise on deceptive appearances, treacherous celebrity and unendurable isolation. Yolande Moreau excels as the free spirit who is shunned by the residents of Senlis, as she performs menial chores to afford the materials she requires for her gloriously colourful pictures of flowers and fruit. However, the dramatic focus falls on her relationship either side of the Great War with gay German collector Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), as her trust in his acceptance corrupts her innocent attitude to both her life and art. Impeccably designed by Thierry François, this masterpiece is photographed by Laurent Brunet with a deceptive simplicity that matches Séraphine's own style.

    Director:
    Martin Provost
    Cast:
    Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur, Anne Bennent
    Genre:
    Drama, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD
  • Basquiat (1996)

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    1h 47min

    The first commercial feature about a painter to be directed by a fellow artist, Julian Schnabel's memoir of Jean-Michel Basquiat has divided opinion. Numerous critics praised it for its evocation of the New York art scene in the early 1980s, while there was universal acclaim for Jeffrey Wright's pugnacious performance as the teenage graffiti artist who burned brightly before being extinguished by heroin at the age of 27. Yet Wright has questioned the manner in which Schnabel turns the spotlight away from Basquiat through the alter ego character played by Gary Oldman. So, perhaps the best way to appreciate Basquiat's personality and achievement is to view this biopic in conjunction with friend Tamra Davis's documentary, The Radiant Child.

    Director:
    Julian Schnabel
    Cast:
    Jeffrey Wright, Michael Wincott, Benicio Del Toro
    Genre:
    Drama, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD
You can find even more artistic titles by visiting our Antiques & Fine Art films page!

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