This week, we’re off to the movies.
It turns out that the lives of famous artists provide rich fodder for film makers, so there’s no shortage of movies to choose from.
I’ve selected films about 9 artists, for my list - from Michelangelo to Frida Kahlo, but beware, not many of these movies would qualify for my ‘feel-good film of the year’ award. There seem to be murders, rapes, bankruptcies and madness in most of them - perhaps explaining why they are so cinematic - nevertheless, it’s enriching to know more about the lives behind the canvas, so, here it is…
Artists At The Movies…
Proving that Hollywood has been mining the stories of artists for a long time, the first film on my list is the 1936 movie starring Charles Laughton - Rembrandt. It’s the story of Rembrandt’s troubles after the death of his wife and his relationship with his maid, which scandalised Dutch society.
However, a younger Rembrandt also features in the 2007 film by Peter Greenaway, Nightwatching, starring Martin Freeman, which offers the premise that his most famous painting, The Night Watch, contains Rembrandt’s encoded denunciation of the men featured as murderers, thieves and villains. A conspiracy film that makes you wonder.
Staying in seventeenth century Holland, our next film is the 2003 ‘ Girl with a Pearl Earring’, starring Colin Firth as the painter Johannes Vermeer and Scarlett Johansson as his maid/muse/model, Griet. This is an entirely speculative drama, originally a book by Tracy Chevalier, but it’s become something of a favourite, perhaps because it seems to use Vermeer’s colours and composition, or perhaps because the music by Alexandre Desplat is so memorable.
No list of films about artists would be complete without The Agony and the Ecstasy, the 1965 epic, starring Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison as Michelangelo and Pope Julius II. Very much of it’s time, but a classic all the same.
Next, the 1974 docudrama by Peter Watkins about Edvard Munch. Edvard Munch was originally made as a three part drama, but subsequently made into a very long film - featuring lots of death and disease. Makes you want to scream.
Derek Jarman’s 1986 film, Caravaggio has serious helpings of sex and violence, but also a young Sean Bean and Tilda Swinton (who clearly hasn’t aged at all since then). Gruesome. Mark Kermode’s review tells it best.
For a continuing controversy, try (albeit in French) Artemisia, the 1997 film directed by Agnes Merlet. It features the life of Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the first professional female artists whose work has survived. The film is controversial, because it suggests she was not raped by her art tutor, Agostino Tassi, whereas the trial transcripts, which still exist, are less clear.
Frida Kahlo’s life was hardly less complicated than Artemisia’s, 300 years later. The 2002 film, starring Salma Heyek, tells her complex life story. Another with significant amounts of sex and violence.
Before I finish this list, with a look at Hollywood’s favourite painter, I just wanted to include the 2014 film, directed by Mike Leigh - Mr Turner. Starring Timothy Spall as JMW Turner, it tells the story of the artist’s last 25 years. Unlike most of the other films on the list, this one actually does make you feel good!
So, finally, we come to the artist who sold only one painting during his lifetime, but who has to date inspired at least four movies - and countless documentaries and plays, who else but Vincent Van Gogh. Here are the four films. Sadly, it’s always the same ending.
Lust for Life - 1956. Kirk Douglas.
Vincent & Theo - 1990. Tim Roth.
Van Gogh - 1991. Jacques Dutronc.
At Eternity’s Gate - 2019. William Dafoe.
Proof, I suppose, that an artist’s life isn’t always a happy one? Or perhaps Hollywood just prefers a tragic story.