From left: Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh in Vincente Minnelli’s ‘unabashedly gorgeous’ Lust For Life (1956); ‘raw, restless’ Jeffrey Wright in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996); the Swedish artist and mystery Hilma af Klint in the documentary Halina Ryschka Beyond the Visible (2019). Koba/Rex/Shutterstock; Zeitgeist moviesComposite: Koba/Rex/Shutterstock; Zeitgeist movies
It’s strange that visual arts don’t always translate that naturally to cinema as a subject. Just as you don’t get the full impact of a painting from a coffee table book, the camera can cut distance from the art at hand – a secondary perspective that isn’t really needed. Wim Wenders supports that trend, however, in his wonderful documentary Anselm Kiefer Anselm (Curzon Home Cinema), which feels fully alive to the angular, nature-based textures of the German painter and sculptor’s work. It is extremely exciting as a study of process – of the large-scale action that goes into the dynamic movement of art itself.
Much of his reward, on the big screen, came from Wenders’ continued imaginative embrace of 3D technology. Now on VOD, the film loses that element but is still attractive because of the connection it draws between Kiefer’s own prickly persona and the work itself, and the elegant connection between the artist and his younger self. As a documentary about an artist who clearly shows how their vision stems from their character, Anselm It’s not as honest as Jack Hazan’s 1973 landmark A Bigger Splash (Netflix), but it applies in that series just the same. Hazan’s film closely traces the breakdown of David Hockney’s relationship with ex-lover Peter Schlesinger over a period of three years, and the impact it had on Hockney’s work and perspective. It alternates between fly-on-the-wall observation and flights of distinctly queer fantasy, serving its subject with an interest that never feels fawning.
Corinna Belz’s clear title Painting by Gerhard Richter (2011) is a simpler documentary that, nevertheless, feels just as clear about the work and the sensibility of the subject – largely because he has the patience to stand and watch as Richter prepares and lays out his canvases (the procedural nature of the film is very engaging) . It is a relatively rare portrait, along with those of Wenders and Hazan, of an artist renowned in his own time. Document 2019 Halina Ryschka Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint rather it is a dedicated attempt to raise the status of a female artist – the now famous Swedish abstract mystic – who never got her due by the time of her death in 1944. Af Klint’s own radicalism is not involved in the documentary, but it does her case persuasively.
Other great pre-existing artists must be involved in the classic biopic treatment, with the same names appearing again and again. Film makers can’t leave Vincent van Gogh alone, for example. Kirk Douglas gave him a tortured brawniness in the romantic but unabashedly gorgeous Vincente Minnelli Lust for Life (1956); Willem Dafoe probably came closer to the mark recently At the Gate of Eternity, although his fellow artist Julian Schnabel’s film was overworked; and the exercise in detail Loving Vincent (2017) lets the pictures do the literary talking. (1990 by Robert Altman Vincent & Theoprobably the best of them, unfortunately they can’t be streamed anywhere in the UK.)
Artist Schnabel’s eye for his subject had a more kinetic effect in his debut in 1996, Basque (Apple TV), aided by a raw, stirring performance by Jeffrey Wright as the disreputable young postmodernist. I’ve always loved the emotional volatility of Ed Harris Pollock, which portrays the stoic masculinity of Jackson Pollock and his mania, and which earned him an Oscar for Lee Krasner played by Marcia Gay Harden. Maybe Mike Leigh’s has the beauty of a National Trust Mr. Turner, but it implicitly digs into the English complacency that JMW Turner’s canvases were tackling. Julie Taymor on Frida it showed the reckless visual humor of Frida Kahlo’s painting, albeit largely in relation to its larger subject matter – and a desperate need for the untethered sensory experimentation that Derek Jarman so aptly brought to his erotic gold speech . Caravaggio.
Artist biopics often fare better, however, when they take on less obvious subjects. At the close end of that scale, I’m very fond of Maudie, Aisling Walsh’s tender, touching study of arthritis-stricken country artist Maud Lewis, beautifully played by Sally Hawkins. But they are all the big daddy of Andrei Tarkovsky Andrei Rubala portrait of a 15th-century Russian icon painter who distills an entire national relationship with art, poetry and faith into a single life story.
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