Artist biopics are an odd breed of film. There seem to be a number of them being released at the moment. Mr Turner (focusing on the later years of British painter J.M.W. Turner) hit the screens not too long ago; Effie Grey (based on the teenage bride of John Ruskin) is just about to land and Tim Burton’s Big Eyes (about artist Margaret Keane) will be out at the end of the year. After watching and re -watching some of the classics of the genre I noticed some prevalent trends. It appears that if you want to make a film about an artist you can just follow seven simple steps.
We have this notion that artists are different from us, and films about artists play this up as much as possible. Artists are sensitive, volatile bohemians. They live exciting lives full of sex, booze, drugs and coffee breaks. This notion probably best fits artists of the last 150 years, but the idea is a pervasive one throughout history.
This bohemian stereotype certainly comes to the forefront in Caravaggio, the 1996 Derek Jarman film. We do see some shots of the eponymous seventeenth-century Italian painter working, and tableaux of the people he is painting. Most of what we see, however, is the artist sharing kisses and lust-filled looks with his two conquests (played by a spectacularly young Sean Bean and Tilda Swinton). Two different biopics, Basquiat and Pollock, show artists urinating in inappropriate places: Jean-Michel Basquiat in a friend’s stairwell and Jackson Pollock in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace. Peeing somewhere stupid is clearly what great artists do. They are too iconoclastic (and by that I mean drunk, or on drugs) to use toilets like the rest of us, Philistines that we are.
Artists that were always accepted and did not have to struggle are not artists to make films about. For one thing, people love an underdog. There is a widely pervading idea that struggle is a key component in the life of an artist. The legacy of Vincent Van Gogh may well had something to do with this; he does seem to be the ultimate misunderstood artist. Female artists and artists of colour are also good film subjects for the same reason. Their gender and/ or race mean that, from the start, they appear ‘other’, separate from the established stereotype of the artist. In this scenario, it is important that their art addresses this difference; you can’t have a film about a female artist in which the art she makes does not address her gender. Basquiat questions how the artist’s race affects his work; Pollock does not. White men, it seems, have the luxury of making art about whatever they choose, not limited by their race or gender. But they still need to be outcasts in some way; preferably their art will have been misinterpreted and badly received.
As I watched these films I noticed that everyone around the artist seemed very concerned in what the ‘art’ means, how it was made and from where the artist drew inspiration. The artists themselves, however, not so much. Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s wife, spends much of Pollock telling people, including her husband (Ed Harris) what his influences are. Pollock does not seem that interested in discussing this, he just wants to paint. Likewise, Christopher Walken’s ‘The Interviewer’ in Basquiat keeps trying to prompt Basquiat to name his sources and influences. Basquiat is represented as equal parts bemused and annoyed. The artists themselves project an air of uninterested, raw creativity. They are not really shown to have an agenda, a message, or a game plan. In one scene in Pollock, Lee Krasner shouts at Pollock “What are you doing, Jackson? Don’t tell me you don’t know what you are doing.” Which is a fair question, but film audiences are not, apparently, interested in artists who are thinking about creating great art, who have knowledge of art history and their place in it. Perhaps it is simply an anti-intellectualist position; we don’t like to think of art as something that can be learnt, it must be organic and innate. Frida Kahlo (played by Salma Hayek) does not seem uninterested in her craft, yet spends much of Frida disparaging her work. While everyone around her sings its praises and talks about how she is painting her pain and emotion, she shrugs it off. This is odd given that the representation of Kahlo in the film is one of a confident, self-possessed woman. All the same, she is still not shown as having a real intellectual process.
Cinema is well suited for representing art because, obviously, they are both visual mediums, plus, film allows the directors to show both the process of creating art and the finished product. Hans Namuth’s documentary films, like Jackson Pollock 51, give an authentic insight into the artist’s method, and this is something that Pollock, the feature film, recreates. This approach, however, becomes problematic when watching the way films recreate well-known works of art. Films that show artists making their work tend to favour close-ups of paint palettes with large blobs of paint, or zoom in on very small sections of the painting. When the artist is finished they tend to zoom out and show the completed work. The scenes often feel a little ploying, as if they are baiting the audience that know the works well to guess which painting it is going to be before the big reveal.
Directors often show tableaux of the compositions of well-known pictures (this is only true for figurative works, naturally); as an attempt to take the art out of the painting and into the real world. Frida does this in an interesting way. At times, compositions of her better-known works become an integral part of the film itself: the art and the movie becoming one unified visual medium.
Nothing is better for a film about an artist than to have the likes of Andy Warhol or Leon Trotsky walk on screen. It adds a bit of drama and excitement; audience members can whisper to their friend, “Oh look, it’s Peggy Guggenheim…” This can, however, backfire, as they might equally say, “Oh look at Geoffrey Rush pretending to be Trotsky”, or “Isn’t David Bowie convincing as Warhol”? It is also a problem that when high profile historical figures are involved, it is difficult for the actors to play them as human beings, rather than public personas Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan), in Pollock, for example never seems to be a ‘real person’, instead she is a caricature. Films have a similar problem when the character of the actor is bigger than the character they are playing. However good the acting, people are as likely to see Ed Harris or Kurt Douglas before they see Jackson Pollock or Vincent Van Gogh, flipping them out of out of the immersive experience of the film and back to the reality of recognition.
Effie Grey, Girl with a Pearl Earring (the story behind the painting, of the same name, by Vermeer), Factory Girl, (chronicling Edie Sedgwick’s transformation from socialite to Warhol ‘superstar’) and Camille Claudel 1915 (a film about a former lover of Rodin) are all films about artists, but as the titles suggest, the artist is not their focus. There is something romantic about the notion of the muse, however complicated the relationship with the artist might be. But a beautiful woman helping inspire great (male) artists is cinematic gold. Audiences like films focusing on muses because they add narrative to the artworks that feature said muses. Anyone who’s seen Girl With a Pearl Earring, the painting, will have wondered to themselves who she is and what the story behind her sitting for Vermeer was. Just watching Vermeer sitting and painting for a couple of hours would be dull. But if we imagine the whole act is full of forbidden lust then, well it’s still pretty dull if I’m honest, but you get my point.
Having a big name helps, just in case people are not that familiar with the artist being portrayed. Get an A-list director, or an actress like Selma Hayek, Scarlett Johansson or Nicole Kidman involved, so you can put them on the poster. This ‘Hollywoodisation’ reflects the nature of the audience who go to see these films. What do they learn by watching artist biopics? Does knowing about the artists’ personal lives help them understand or appreciate their art? Frida Kahlo’s work might benefit, but does Jackson Pollock’s? Now that they know he drank a lot and died in a car accident, alongside his mistress and her best friend, do his paintings take on a different meaning?
A film of anyone’s life is going to be subjective and limited. It will miss out select information and present events from a certain perspective. Some years ago the BBC broadcast a series about the Pre-Raphaelite painters and took some spectacular liberties with the timelines of their work. John Everett Millais, as a young man, was shown being laughed at by his friends for painting Bubbles – the painting he in fact made of his grandson in much later life. This minor oversight highlights a common facet of the artist biopic: if you know anything about the artist and their work, these films are liable to frustrate you, and if you don’t, they are, at best, misleading, and, ultimately, the misrepresentations become a focal point which can draw away from the cinematic experience. When you know little about the subject, however, you can leave the cinema not much closer to the truth. What difference would it have made had it all been fictitious?
Now we’ve gone through how to make these films I thought I would suggest some artists that I think would make possible subjects for a biopic. Hannah Höch seems a good choice. Firstly, she was a woman, so we’ve already got the outsider thing down. Next, she was bi-sexual, married twice and enjoyed a long-term relationship with a woman in between. She worked as an avant-garde artist in interwar Germany. So she had to deal with censorship and a fraught political landscape.
Russian-born American conceptualists Komar and Melamid also have a lot going for them. Firstly, there are two of them, so you can have plenty of scenes of them arguing over creative differences. They were arrested while producing work in their native USSR. Then they emigrated, first to Israel, then New York; so lots of dramatic stuff there.
Keith Haring’s life would also make an interesting film. In fact, I find if it difficult to believe that someone in Hollywood hasn’t got round to it. His work is instantly recognizable to people on the street; then you’ve got New York City in the ’80s, sex, drugs, politics and HIV. You’ve also got the option to have Andy Warhol and Madonna popping in. Haring’s life has the benefit of a readymade narrative arc, with him starting out as a street artist before making it big. So you can push the anti-intellectual aspect and the idea of him as an outsider. Any number of the large-scale projects he undertook would allow for very cinematic shots of him at work. All you need, really, is a big name actor and director, or maybe Jennifer Lawrence playing a young Madonna, and you’ve got the ultimate artist biopic blockbuster.