Portraits of the artists – the films that reveal the grubby reality of life as a troubled painter

Life rarely ran smoothly for Vincent van Gogh. Born in the Netherlands, son of a minister, he dabbled with art dealing, teaching and the church before settling on painting in his late twenties. His chosen calling would give him passion, a sense of purpose but little success and no money. He would have starved or died in a ditch were it not for the tireless efforts of his younger brother Theo, and during a chaotic final year he cut off his ear, was in and out of asylums and created many of his most famous paintings before dying from a gunshot wound that may or may not have been self-inflicted.

This febrile time is memorably recreated by Julian Schnabel in his new film, At Eternity’s Gate, which opened here yesterday. It stars Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh, who’s at a loose end in Paris in 1888 when his friend Paul Gauguin (Oscar Issac) suggests the Dutchman travel south for a change of light.

He goes to Arles and is instantly energised, sent half crazy by the colour, the sunshine, the glorious Provençal light. But when Gauguin comes to stay with him, the pair fall out, and this row sets in train a fateful chain of events.

This is not the first film about Vincent van Gogh – in fact there have been at least a dozen, including Vincente Minnelli’s enjoyable 1956 melodrama Lust for Life, which starred Kirk Douglas as a flame-haired, impassioned Van Gogh who’s so driven mad by his perfectionism that he shoots himself.


Timothy Spall in Mr Turner
Timothy Spall in Mr Turner

Though they cover many of the same events, the contrast in styles between Lust for Life and At Eternity’s Gate is striking. While Minnelli’s film is bold, beautiful, lush and epically tragic, casting Van Gogh as a kind of tormented secular saint, Schnabel’s biopic is less triumphalist, and probably gets closer to the grubby reality of the painter’s life.


At Eternity’s Gate review: ‘Willem Dafoe ought to have won the Best Actor Oscar instead of Rami Malek’ 

It tries to see the world as he saw it, explores his attitude to painting, and does not shirk the sad fact that the artistic life brought him much pain, little joy and ended in madness, failure. When you watch Dafoe’s Van Gogh shuffling around the backroads of southern France in rags with his an easel on his back, the posthumous fortune his works would accrue seems like a sick cosmic joke.

The two films highlight the stark choice facing anyone who sets out to make a biopic about an artist. Either you portray them with a flourish as secular saints or seers in the grand 19th-century tradition of the starving, misunderstood artist, or you move beyond all that to try and discover the actual person behind the myths. The best films about artists have opted for the latter approach.


Willem Defoe in At Eternity's Gate
Willem Defoe in At Eternity’s Gate

Few are better than Andrei Rublev, a fascinating 1960s epic based on the life of a 15th century Russian icon painter. Andrei Tarkovsky’s enthralling drama explored the dilemma of a tired, sensitive artist who’s decorating a theatre when he’s asked to paint scenes of souls in torment, and baulks (see panel).

Rarely seen but boldly original, Peter Watkins’ biopic film Edvard Munch (1974) used a spare, docudrama-style approach to its subject. Despite his talent, and eventual success, the great Norwegian Expressionist painter was a high-strung, unstable soul, and his early to middle years were blighted by drinking, fighting and breakdowns. Watkins used a largely amateur cast of Norwegians to tell his story, some of whom would pause and speak to camera. As Munch faced an angry public backlash to his work, Watkins hired people who didn’t like his paintings to make their testimonies more convincing.


Salma Hayek as Mexican painter Frida Kahlo
Salma Hayek as Mexican painter Frida Kahlo

The myth of the tortured, suffering artist was magnificently exploded by Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner (2014), which starred Timothy Spall as a taciturn, business-like, working-class Joseph Turner, who treats painting as his trade and despises all the talk and critical chatter his work inspires (see panel). To hear this Turner talk, you might imagine him a cabinetmaker.

 

If Montparnasse 19, by contrast, dived straight into the bathos of the impoverished artist, its subject matter didn’t leave it much choice. The Italian-Jewish early 20th century painter Amedeo Modigliani, who would become posthumously famous for his beautiful, elongated portraits of women, spent much of his short life leading a bawdy, squalid existence in Paris. Poor health and lots of alcohol would kill him at 35, and his besotted young wife died by suicide in solidarity shortly afterwards, but Max Ophüls’ 1958 film steers clear of melodrama for the most part, and instead explores the tragedy of a brilliant man whose work is so far ahead of public taste that he feels a failure.

The talent of Frida Kahlo was only recovered from beneath the hefty shadow of her lover Diego Rivera decades after her death. Julie Taymor’s 2002 biopic Frida sometimes struggled to keep up with the Mexican painter’s hectic, helter-skelter life, but got its casting spot on: Salma Hayek was utterly convincing as the passionate, free-spirited Kahlo.

Art films don’t always have to be about great artists. I greatly admired Tim Burton’s 2014 drama Big Eyes, which told the rather melancholic story of Margaret Hawkins (Amy Adams), a 1950s housewife who ran away from a bad marriage and began painting cartoonish pictures of wistful, huge-eyed waifs that would later become must-have items of decor in 1970s homes across the western world. Margaret reckons that things have looked up when she meets Walter Keane, a raffish amateur artist and market stall owner. They marry, and start making money, but then she finds out Walter has been passing her paintings off as his own.

And I did love Séraphine (2008), Martin Provost’s tender-hearted biopic based on the life of Séraphine Louis, a French maid who painted in secret until her colourful talent was discovered by a German collector. But success unhinged her: she began walking through her town in a wedding dress talking of messages received from the angels. So it was off to the asylum with poor Séraphine.

Painting, then, would appear to be a risky business. Julian Schnabel made his debut as a film-maker back in 1996 with a film about Jean-Michel Basquiat, the New York graffiti artist whose bold neo-expressionist paintings propelled him to fame before a heroin overdose killed him at 27. The late David Bowie made a remarkably convincing cameo as Andy Warhol. Odd, though, that no one’s ever done a biopic on Warhol himself: there’s a life story worth telling.

The three best art films

Andrei Rublev

 

 

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Andrei Rublev

 

 

The Soviet authorities took a dim view of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 film, and banned it for being too spiritual! In it we watch the icon painter Rublev toil through a 15th-century Russian winter as he ponders the discord between Christ’s message of love and the Church’s cruelty.

Mr Turner

Mike Leigh’s masterful biopic plunges you into the grime of early 19th-century London, and stars Timothy Spall as the gruff, brilliant, taciturn Turner, whose passion for his work grows more intense as his powers fade.

La Belle Noiseuse

In Jacques Rivette’s long but riveting meditation, Michel Piccoli plays a painter who’s retired to the countryside with his wife (Jane Birkin) when a younger artist turns up with a beautiful girlfriend (Emmanuelle Béart) in tow. The older man is inspired, in more ways than one.

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