Films about artists

To celebrate the general release of director Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner, we’ve compiled a list of films, biopics of artists from the 1930s to the present day.

Georgia Korossi

Mr. Turner (2014)
Mr. Turner (2014)

J.M.W. Turner's Self-Portrait, c. 1799
J.M.W. Turner’s Self-Portrait, c. 1799

The last years in the life of English Romantic landscape painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) is the subject of director Mike Leigh’s latest film starring Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson and Lesley Manville. It won Spall the best actor prize at Cannes this year for his performance as J.M.W. Turner, the finest of his career to date.

Following its premier at the BFI London Film Festival earlier this month, Leigh’s biopic of the English artist and associate of the Royal Academy since 1799, has already been received with positive reviews by critics. The film’s cast give a superb performance including Dorothy Atkinson’s as housewife Hannah Danby with whom Turner had a sexual relationship, Marion Bailey’s as Margate widow Sophia Booth (Turner’s late-life relationship) and Joshua McGuire’s act as writer and patron John Ruskin.

With cinematographer Dick Pope in charge, Mr. Turner is beautifully shot with the distinctive colouring of a calm morning like Turner’s paintings from his early career in the first decade of the 19th century, which recognised him as a prodigy. But the British director of Naked who also wrote the script for his latest film, brings back to life an artist’s genius of contrasting character with Mr. Turner. What is fascinating in Leigh’s film is how strongly bonded Turner was with his father, who lived with him for 30 years and worked as his studio assistant.

Here we’ve compiled a number of films about artists alongside their real-life portraits and sample of their work to try and imagine their spectacular creativity.

Mr. Turner is out in cinemas on 31 October and the exhibition Late Turner – Painting Set Free, devoted to the work of J.M.W. Turner between 1835 and his death in 1851,  runs at the Tate Britain until 25 January 2015.

Peace - Burial at Sea of the Body of Sir David Wilkie, 1842
Peace – Burial at Sea of the Body of Sir David Wilkie, 1842

Rembrandt (Alexander Korda, 1936)

Charles Laughton as Rembrandt
Rembrandt (1936)
Rembrandt (1936)

Based on a story by Carl Zuckmayer with music score by Geoffrey Toye and cinematography by Georges Périnal, Rembrandt is a biographical film of the life of 17th-century Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and starred by Charles Laughton. In 1940 Dutch filmmaker Gerard Rutten directed a film also portraying the life of Remmbrandt under the same title and performed by Jules Verstraete and a 1942 film was also made by German director Hans Steinhoff, starring Ewald Balser (The Woman at the Crossroads).

Rembrandt van Rijn's Self-Portrait with Two Circles, 1660
Rembrandt van Rijn’s Self-Portrait with Two Circles, 1660
The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1631
The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1631

The one (and only) explanation surviving about what Rembrandt wanted to achieve with his art, is in a letter to poet and composer Constantijn Huygens where he wrote: “the greatest and most natural movement, translate from de meeste en de natuurlijkste beweegelijkheid.” The word “beweechgelickhijt” is argued to mean “emotion” or “motive.” Rembrandt’s painting The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633) is still missing after the robbery from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.

Lust for Life (Vincente Minnelli, George Cukor, 1956)

Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh
Lust for Life (1956)
Lust for Life (1956)
Vincent van Gogh's Self-Portrait, 1887
Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait, 1887

In the role of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Kirk Douglas famously practiced painting crows to closely imitate van Gogh at work in Vincente Minnelli and George Cukor’s biographical film about the Dutch painter. Anthony Quinn’s performance as Van Gogh’s friend Paul Gauguin, earned him an Academy Award for best actor in supporting role. Lust for Life is based on Irving Stone’s 1934 novel and the film was received with praise upon its release. On 18 September 1956, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote about the production team: “consciously made the flow of color and the interplay of compositions and hues the most forceful devices for conveying a motion picture comprehension of van Gogh.”

A Pair of Shoes, 1886
A Pair of Shoes, 1886

Vincent van Gogh was influenced by Impressionism, Neo-impressionism and Japanese prints and he painted peasant subjects in earthly colours. While in Paris in 1887, Vincent and his brother Theo met and befriended Paul Gauguin who had just arrived in the city. A year later van Gogh went to Arles and was joined by Gauguin shortly afterwards. But their violent arguments led van Gogh to his first mental crisis and cut off his own ear. His Sunflowers are the most recognizable series of paintings in all art.

Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)

Anatoly Solonitsyn as Andrei Rublev
Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)
Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)

Named as the best arthouse film of all time by the Guardian, and placed in the top 30 within the BFI’s once-a-decade greatest film poll, Andrei Rublev is a 205-minute epic story about the greatest medieval Russian painter of Orthodox icons and frescoes. A feast in the language of film, Andrei Tarkovsky‘s biopic of Andrei Rublev (c.1360-c.1428), also known as The Passion According to Andrei, depicts a portrait of a turbulent 15th century Russia that resulted to Tsardom.

Due to pressure from Soviet officials and the film’s religious themes, Andrei Rublev was not released in Russia for years after its completion except from a one off screening in Moscow in 1966. It screened at Cannes Film Festival in 1969 but again due to pressure from the Soviet Union it was not eligible to compete for the Palme d’Or or the Grand Prix awards. It did however win the FIPRESCI prize of national organisations of professional film critics and film journalists from around the world.

Holy Trinity, c. 1400
Holy Trinity, c. 1400

Little is known about the life of the painter. The first mention of Andrei Rublev is in 1405, in the list of masters who created the icons and frescos for the Cathedral of the Annunciation of the Moscow Kremlin. His name is listed together with Byzantine master Theophanes the Greek who had moved to Russia and is believed to have trained Rublev.

Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 1974)

Geir Westby as Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch (1974)
Edvard Munch (1974)

Writer-director Peter Watkins’s drama about the Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was originally created for TV but got its theatrical release in the US as a three-hour biopic in 1976 and screened at Cannes Film Festival in the same year. It is an extraordinary account of Munch’s life and influences that shaped his art, the gratification of disease and death in his family and his attempts to explain life with his art and through his emotional and psychological states.

Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch
Summer Night (Inger on the Shore), 1889
Summer Night (Inger on the Shore), 1889

The Scream, which exists in four versions – two pastels (1893 and 1895) and two paintings (1893 and 1910) – is Munch’s most famous works. He left all the works in his possession to the City of Oslo to form a Munch Museum.

Schalcken the Painter (Leslie Megahey, 1979)

Jeremy Clyde as Godfried Schalcken
Schalcken the Painter (1979)
Schalcken the Painter (1979)
Godfried Schalcken's Self-Portrait, c. 1695
Godfried Schalcken’s Self-Portrait, c. 1695

Shot in a docudrama style, Leslie Megahey’s Schalcken the Painter was aired on 23 December 1979 as part of the BBC’s arts documentary programme Omnibus. It is an adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s gothic story Strange Event in the Life of Schalcken the Painter inspired from the atmospheric work of Dutch portrait painter Godfried Schalcken (1643-1706). Magically shot by cameraman John Hooper to closely illustrate the Dutch painter’s studio, director Megahey was influenced by Polish director Walerian Borowczyk’s film Blanche (1971).

Cephalus and Procris, c. 1680
Cephalus and Procris, c. 1680

Schalcken drew small scenes lit by candlelight and examples of his work can be found in the National Gallery, London, the Louvre and Dresden Gallery.

Caravaggio (Derek Jarman, 1986)

Noam Almaz as boy Caravaggio, Dexter Fletcher as young Caravaggio, Nigel Terry as Caravaggio
Caravaggio (1986)
Caravaggio (1986)
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, portrait by Ottavio Leoni c. 1621
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, portrait by Ottavio Leoni c. 1621

Artist-director Derek Jarman spent seven years experimenting with 8mm films and raising money for his 1986 biopic Caravaggio, a fiction film on the life of Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Funded by the BFI and for the first time with the help of the British television company Channel4, Caravaggio saw Jarman’s first collaboration with actor Tilda Swinton. Her role in the film as Lena was her first film role and in real life Swinton and Jarman established a long and strong friendship until the director’s passing in 1994.

Marking Jarman’s new phase in his filmmaking career, which opened up the opportunity of support received from television companies for his films’ distribution, Caravaggio screened at the 36th Berlin International Film Festival and was awarded the Silver Bear for outstanding single achievement.

The Musicians, 1595
The Musicians, 1595

With superb visuals, live representations of Caravaggio’s most notable work and outstanding production designs by Christopher Hobbs, Caravaggio is Derek Jarman’s most notable works alongside his 1977 daring film for its originality in the punk genre, Jubilee.

Camille Claudel (Bruno Nuytten, 1988)

Isabelle Adjani as Camille Claudel
Camille Claudel (1988)
Camille Claudel (1988)
Camille Claudel
Camille Claudel

Based on the book by Reine-Marie Paris, Bruno Nuytten’s biopic film about 19th century French sculptor and graphic artist Camille Claudel (1864-1943), was seen by almost three million in France alone upon its release on 7 December 1988. Co-produced and starred by Isabelle Adjani, whose performance earned her the Academy Award and Silver Bear at the 39th Berlin International Film Festival for best actor, the picture’s cast and crew also took the Academy Award for best foreign language film. Gérard Depardieu stars in the role of Auguste Rodin, with whom Claudel had a long and depressing relationship. Later in 2013 Bruno Dumont also wrote and directed Camille Claudel, 1915, a riveting portrait of the artist powerfully performed by Juliette Binoche.

Vertumnus and Pomona, 1905
Vertumnus and Pomona, 1905

Camille Claudel was one of the first artists to exhibit at the Salon d’Automne annual art exhibition in Paris since it was initiated in 1903 and novelist and art critic Octave Mirbeau once described her as: “A revolt against nature: a woman genius.”

My Left Foot (Jim Sheridan, 1989)

Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown
My Left Foot (1989)
My Left Foot (1989)
Christy Brown and family
Christy Brown and family

Based on his autobiography of the same name, My Left Foot tells the story of Irish writer-painter Christy Brown (1932-1981) who was born with cerebral palsy and could only have unequivocal control of his left foot with which he wrote and sketched. Brown’s story was adapted by Shane Connaughton and director Jim Sheridan and during production Daniel Day-Lewis could only manipulate his right foot to perform the scenes from the film thus many of them were filmed through a mirror. Day-Lewis’s performance earned him the Academy Award for best actor alongside his co-star Brenda Fricker in the role of Brown’s mother Brenda, who also received the Academy Award for best actor in supporting role.

Church Interior, 1959
Church Interior, 1959

Van Gogh (Maurice Pialat, 1991)

Jacques Dutronc as Vincent van Gogh
Van Gogh (1991)
Van Gogh (1991)
Noon Rest from Work (after Millet), 1890
Noon Rest from Work (after Millet), 1890

As with Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, a film that looked at the last years in the life of J.M.W. Turner, Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh follows the last 67 days of the Dutch artist. Contrasted with Minnelli’s film Lust for Life mentioned earlier, Pialat’s approach is on the 19th century society and the artist’s relationships with his brother Theo, his physician Paul Gachet and the women in his life.

Surviving Picasso (James Ivory, 1996)

Anthony Hopkins as Pablo Picasso
Surviving Picasso (1996)
Surviving Picasso (1996)

Shot in Paris and Southern of France, star Anthony Hopkins in the role of Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist and stage designer Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) gives an all together bold performance but the artist himself comes out as cold and careless. Directed by James Ivory, Surviving Picasso is seen through the eyes of his lover, French painter and author Françoise Gilot (Natascha McElhone) and other women who were influential in his life.

Pablo Picasso by Michel Sima, 1948
Pablo Picasso by Michel Sima, 1948
Bullfight, 1934
Bullfight, 1934

Basquiat (Julian Schnabel, 1996)

Jeffrey Wright as Jean-Michel Basquiat
Basquiat (1996)
Basquiat (1996)
Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat

Basquiat was the debut feature about a painter made by a painter-filmmaker, Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). With generally favourable reviews, including Roger Ebert’s high rating in the Chicago Sun-Times, art press reviews were unconvinced by Schnabel’s idea. Nevertheless, Basquiat, the biopic based on expressionist and graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) is a fearless film, bold for its subject, its trying difficulties (Schnabel was not permitted to film Basquiat’s work by the artist’s agency so he had to recreate it all by himself) and performances by Jeffrey Wright in the main role and David Bowie as Basquiat’s friend and mentor Andy Warhol.

Untitled (Fallen Angel), 1981
Untitled (Fallen Angel), 1981

Pollock (Ed Harris, 2000)

Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock
Pollock (2000)
Pollock (2000)

A long-term dream of Ed Harris, his biopic of American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) in which he also stars in the lead role, is a fierce portrait of the artist’s volatile personality. Harris created all the paintings in the film himself and co-star Marcia Gay Harden‘s performance as Pollock’s wife and artist Lee Krasner earned her an Academy Award for best actor in supporting role.

Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Summertime Number 9A, 1948
Summertime Number 9A, 1948

Pollock signed a gallery contract with Peggy Guggenheim in 1943 and is thought to be the first artist to have originated the term action painting through his technique of pouring and dripping paint to his canvases from all directions.

Frida (Julie Taymor, 2002)

Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo
Frida (2002)
Frida (2002)
Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo

Winner of two Academy Awards for best makeup and best original score, Julie Taymor‘s film biopic Frida tells the story of life and art of surrealist Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). With an exemplary performance by Academy Award nominated for her role as Frida, Salma Hayek alongside Alfred Molina as her husband and painter Diego Rivera, Taymor’s film is perhaps one of the most adorable art biopic films worldwide and its total gross reached more than $56,000,000.

The Little Deer, 1946
The Little Deer, 1946

Due to an accident while on a bus ride at the age of 18, Kahlo suffered from multiple injuries including a broken spinal column. As a result, a great deal of pain persisted throughout the rest of her life. Her work is celebrated in Mexico and around the world for its indigenous tradition and by feminists for its representation of the female experience. She created more than 140 paintings alongside dozens of drawings and studies.

Séraphine (Martin Provost, 2008)

Yolande Moreau as Séraphine Louis
Séraphine (2008)
Séraphine (2008)

Séraphine is a portrait of French painter Séraphine Louis (1864-1942) who found inspiration in nature from where she collected her material (soil, dead pig blood) while walking to work every day. Martin Provost’s film is an inspiring work elegantly telling the story of a talented housekeeper, self-taught artist and the prize of being a creative in a narrow-minded society.

Séraphine Louis
Séraphine Louis
The Tree of Life, 1928
The Tree of Life, 1928

The film explores the relationship between Louis and German art collector Wilhelm Uhde when they first met in 1912 and won a number of awards in France including the César Award for best film and best actor for Yolande Moreau in the lead role.

Renoir (Gilles Bourdos, 2013)

Michel Bouquet as Auguste Renoir
Renoir (2013)
Renoir (2013)

Based on the last years of leading impressionist painter Pierre-August Renoir (1841-1919), Gilles Bourdos’s film is a celebration of colour, light, flesh and beauty with a voyeuristic eye. It tells the story of French actress Andrée Heuschling (known as Catherine Hessling), Renoir’s last model and first actress in the films of his son, Jean Renoir destined to become one of the greatest film directors of all time.

Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, 1876
Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, 1876
Pierre Auguste Renoir, c. 1910
Pierre Auguste Renoir, c. 1910

Georgia Korossi is editor of 11polaroids, writer and curator of film based in London and Athens. You can read more of her writings here.

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