From Basquiat to Pollock: Seven Seminal Artist Biopics

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Basquiat (1996)(Film still)

These compelling portraits of artistic genius are integral viewing for all art and film lovers

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that this month marked the opening of the Barbican’s long-awaited Basquiat retrospective, the UK’s first large-scale show to be dedicated the pioneering Neo-Expressionist, who died in 1988 at the age of 27. Titled Boom For Real – and well timed to coincide a new documentary, BOOM FOR REAL: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat – the exhibition comprises over 100 artworks, from iconic paintings to lesser-known works in collage, Xerox and performance, as well as graffiti and music, all of which serve to highlight Basquiat’s “encyclopaedic interests and his experience as a young black artist with no formal training,” in the words of curators Eleanor Nairne and Dieter Buchhart. 

As with all great artists, it’s impossible to understand Basquiat’s output without understanding the world that he inhabited – namely the creatively vibrant, increasingly commercial art scene of 80s New York so brilliantly evoked in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic, Basquiat. At their worst, artist biopics condense the lives of incredible talents to a timeline of mechanically conveyed events, but at their best, they can provide an immersive, informative and enriching entry-point into creatives’ lives, minds, experiences and surroundings, distilling greatness to its essence. Here, we present a list of seven of the genre’s best films, beginning with Schnabel’s spellbinding recreation of Basquiat’s universe.

1. Basquiat (1996)

Artist Julian Schnabel was particularly well equipped to tell Basquiat’s story on film: not only was he a member of the New York scene that launched the young drifter to fame, but he was also a friend of the painter, who died from a heroin overdose just eight years prior to the movie’s realisation. Basquiat was Schnabel’s directing debut and is a remarkably accomplished feat, following the softly spoken dreamer, played by Jeffrey Wright, on his speedy ascent from homeless graffiti artist to celebrity painter in 1980s Manhattan. It is a poetic musing on creative genius and self-destruction, enlivened by a stellar cast, ranging from David Bowie as Andy Warhol and Courtney Love as Madonna to Dennis Hopper as renowned art collector Bruno Bischofberger. What more could you ask for? 

2. Séraphine (2009)

This arthouse drama from French director Martin Provost, featuring a breathtaking turn from Belgian actress Yolande Moreau in the title role, spotlights the sad but compelling tale of little-known painter Séraphine de Senlis (1864-1942), a shepherdess and cleaner whose intense emotional and spiritual connection with nature compels her to paint. Inspired by religious artworks, she sources materials from anywhere and everywhere, from animal blood to dirt and candle oil, to create visceral floral tableau in intense colours. Her talents are discovered, accidentally, by German art critic Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) in 1914 during a sojourn in her small French town. But the highs brought about by a short burst of success are soon dampened by the realities of war and the Great Depression, which threaten the mentally fragile artist’s chances of success and happiness. A heart-wrenching introduction to an oft-overlooked innovator.

3. Pollock (2000)

Ed Harris directs, co-produces and stars in this 2000 portrait of abstract expressionist pioneer Jackson Pollock – he also slept in Pollock’s bed, smoked his brand of cigarettes and spent six years learning to paint for the purpose. And happily it pays off. Refusing to romanticise Jack the Dripper’s rocky road to fame, Harris instead conjures an unflinching image of our grumpy and tormented protagonist, beginning in New York in 1941, when the artist, in the throes of alcohol addiction, meets his future wife and fellow painter Lee Krasner (an Oscar-winning Marcia Gay Harden). With her support, he captures the attention of Peggy Guggenheim and thereafter the art world at large, changing the course of modern art in the process. Pollock is a clever investigation into the excruciating self-doubt that plagued the American “art star” throughout his lifetime – one which he imagined that fame would cure, but which instead it exacerbated, with fateful consequences.

4. Tom of Finland (2017)

The latest offering from Finnish filmmaker Dome Karukoski, Tom of Finland traces the journey of the erotic cartoonist Touko Laaksonen from repressed soldier to gay art icon. Laaksonen, played by Pekka Strang, returns from war a decorated officer and takes up a position in a Helsinki ad agency, living out his homerotic fantasies of bulging, uniformed men in secret through impressive sketches. His attempts to sell his art in his distinctly homophobic homeland prove almost impossible, but with a new nom de plume and an LA publisher keen to champion his talents, he soon becomes an unwitting cult figure in 70s California in what is an artfully told tale of love, liberation and leather.

5. Frida (2002)

Salma Hayek mesmerises as Frida Kahlo in Julie Taymor’s visually arresting biopic of the impassioned Mexican painter, which guides us through the defining moments of her extraordinary, pain-punctuated life. These span her first encounter with the rotund and entitled muralist Diego Rivera (excellently captured by Alfred Molina), who would become her husband not once but twice over the course of their turbulent relationship; her life altering tram accident in 1925; her various love affairs (including a dalliance with Leon Trotsky) right up until her early death at the age of 47. Taymor’s use of Kahlo’s artworks, which frequently blend with the character’s reality, serves as a compelling tool in demonstrating the painter’s intensely personal practice, which served as her principal escape from physical and emotional anguish.

6. Camille Claudel 1915 (2014)

A tough but rewarding watch from cult French filmmaker Bruno Dumont, Camille Claudel 1915 tells the story of the brilliant French sculptress, onetime lover and protégé of Auguste Rodin, whose mental breakdown in 1913 sees her placed in an Avignon asylum by her devoutly Christian family. It is there that she will remain for the final 30 years of her life, forbidden from producing art, and there that the film finds her in 1915, awaiting a visit from her brother, the poet Paul Claudel, and tragically hopeful for release. Juliette Binoche is wonderful in the leading role, her portrayal of Claudel at once angry and dignified as she lives out her austere present and pines her bohemian past.

7. Final Portrait (2017)

This new Giacometti biopic by American multihyphenate Stanley Tucci arrived as a timely accompaniment to the Tate’s acclaimed retrospective dedicated to the Swiss painter and sculptor, and proves just as enlightening. Rather than attempt to guide us through the various chapters of Giacometti’s storied past, Tucci instead focuses in on a single period: the completion of one of his last masterpieces, a portrait of his old friend, the American critic James Lord, in Paris in 1964. Geoffrey Rush gives one of his finest performances to date, embodying Giacometti’s chaotic, cantankerous genius to a T, while Armie Hammer carries off the charming and exasperated role of Lord with equal capability, with often hilarious results that bring both the artist and his era to vivid life.

 Basquiat: Boom for Real is at Barbican Art Gallery from 21 September 2017 – 28 January 2018.