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Ruin & Ritual: A Few Great Artist Biopics

Ruin & Ritual: A Few Great Artist Biopics

Illustration by Drew Bardana
Illustration by Drew Bardana

Whether traditional or avant-garde in style, biopics featuring fine artists usually come with an air of cinematic cachet. We are drawn to the mercurial otherness of The Artist—something about the combination of intensity and mystery is intoxicating to watch. This year, audiences were treated to two ambitious yet very different examples of the artist biopic. Mr. Turner is Mike Leigh’s phenomenal, delicate portrayal of the last twenty-five years of the cherished 19th century British artist J.M.W Turner. The second, Big Eyes, directed with uncommon nuance by Tim Burton, is the story of Margaret Keane, whose husband stole credit for her wildly popular paintings—usually young children and animals with garishly large eyes. While I recommend you take a look at these films, here are some other great films about fine artists to whet your palette (pun very definitely intended).

The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

Rex Harrison plays Pope Julius II, who commissioned Michelangelo—played with an unkempt, aggressive energy by Charlton Heston—to paint the Sistine Chapel. These two raging egos battle it out against the backdrop of one of the greatest masterpieces of Western Art.

Vincent & Theo (1990)

Robert Altman directed this look at the life of Vincent Van Gogh and his turbulent relationship with his brother Theo, who was his lifelong champion as well as his art dealer. It was filmed on location in France and Holland, a sumptuous look at a complex man and his unparalleled talents. If you like this film, check out another Van Gogh biopic, Lust for Life from 1956.

Frida (2012)

Julie Taymor and Selma Hayek made one of the most amazing, surrealistic, gorgeous biopics around. The story of Frida Kahlo is a fraught, impetuous one—her myriad talents were overshadowed in her personal life by her turbulent marriage to artist Diego Rivera, lovers, political upheaval, and a crippling disability. Taymor and Hayek do her justice by treating her story with the dignity she so often did not receive in life.

Pollock (2000)

Ed Harris plays the monumental talent (and cad) of the 1940s and 50s art world—Jackson Pollock. While Harris is phenomenal as Pollock, the supporting cast is what really makes this film shine—especially Marcia Gay Harden as equally talented and overburdened wife Lee Krasner.

Basquiat (1996)

The eponymous film titles continue! Basquiat follows the spectacular rise and fall of one of the great art stars of the 1980s. The young Haitian-American artist whose graffiti-esque paintings made him the toast of the New York gallery scene. Jeffrey Wright stars as Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Gary Oldman appears as fellow artist Julian Schnabel (who also directed this film). David Bowie contributes one of my favorite supporting performances as Andy Warhol.

Camille Claudel (1988)

This film follows the troubled life of French sculptor Camille Claudel and her long relationship with legendary sculptor Auguste Rodin. Beginning in the 1880s with a young Claudel’s first meeting with already-infamous Rodin, the film traces the rise of their long romantic relationship as well as the rise of Claudel’s career, with Rodin in equal parts tormentor and champion. Claudel is played by French actress Isabel Adjani and is absolutely intoxicating to watch. Another Claudel film worth noting stars Juliette Binoche, Camille Claudel, 1915.

Rembrandt (1936)

Alexander Korda’s biopic about the life of Rembrandt van Rijn. Starring Charles Laughton as a Rembrandt at the height of his fame, it quickly tracks his descent into loneliness and isolation after the death of his wife. Filmed in black and white, Rembrandt is shot by cinematographer Georges Périnal with an attention to light that is particularly Rembrandtesque.

There are so many great artist biopics, I have no room for them all. Here are a few honorable mentions:

Artemisia (1997): An Italian film about the most famous female artist of the 17th century, Artemisia Gentileschi.

Moulin Rouge (1952): A bit more tame then the Nicole Kidman version, this film looks at the life of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his relationship to the notorious club.

Séraphine (2008): The true story of Séraphine de Senlis, a profoundly devout housekeeper who, at forty one and entirely self taught,began painting brilliantly colorful canvases.

Oviri (1986): Donald Sutherland stars as Paul Gaugin, who upon returning to Paris from an extended trip to Tahiti must confront the people who he left behind.

Caravaggio (1986): 1986 was a good year for the artist biopic. Directed by Derek Jarman, this film is a surreal account of the life of the celebrated 17th-century painter through his brilliant, blasphemous paintings. »

– Rachael Haigh