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.