Can Mike Leigh's Portrait of J.M.W. Turner Redeem Cinema's Legacy of Botched Artist Biopics?

Mike Leigh © Featureflash/Shutterstock; JMW Turner ‘Self-Portrait’ via Wikipedia
Mike Leigh © Featureflash/Shutterstock; JMW Turner ‘Self-Portrait’ via Wikipedia

There are few more enigmatic figures in the arts than painters, which makes them particularly prone to romanticized rock star portraits in movies. This is especially true of Jean Michel Basquiat whose work is now on display at the Gagosian gallery in New York City. Basquiat was also memorably lionized by his friend and fellow ‘80s art world icon-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel in his 1996 directorial debut, “Basquiat.” Proof of just how over-the-top and reductive Schnabel’s portrayal of his neo-expressionist pal can be found in Tamra Davis’ 2010 documentary, "Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child," which offers a much more comprehensive and even-handed portrait of the artist and his enduring influence, personally and creatively.

Over the weekend at the Berlin Film Festival, writer-director Mike Leigh announced he intends to contribute to the growing collection of painter biopics with a profile of British landscape artist J.M.W. Turner. Turner himself was an eccentric and controversial figure whose life contains no shortage of sensationally odd choices (i.e. he lived most of his life alone with his father, who served as his assistant). But given what we know of Mike Leigh’s populist approach to filmmaking, this film is likely to be as understated and captivating in its pared-down simplicity as Turner’s paintings. In fact, it’s safe to assume that Leigh will resist all temptation to exalt his subject as an eighteenth-century equivalent of a rock star, and is much more likely to conjure a portrait of the artist as an everyman.

Of course, no artist has become more mythologized in all media as a loved and loathed art world godhead than Andy Warhol, an artist whose work is synonymous with Warhol’s notoriety and the very idea of fame itself. Warhol has made frequent appearances on the big screen, portrayed by a wide variety of actors including Jared Harris (“I shot Andy Warhol”),  Guy Pearce (“Factory Girl”),  David Bowie (“Basquiat”), Greg Travis (“Watchmen”), Sean Sullivan (“54”), and Crispin Glover (“The Doors”). It doesn’t take a hardcore cineaste to determine which of these portrayals was most, shall we say, a la mode. (Hint: He’s the one whose day job is as a space oddity who once performed with the Spiders from Mars). In this unique case, perhaps it does take a real rock star to accurately capture an artist’s mojo on screen.

Overall, however, history’s most revered pain-stained geniuses have not fared well on the big screen. We cringe at the memory of John Leguizamo hobbling around on his knees like some kind of lecherous absinthe-soaked pirate in his caricature of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec in Baz Luhrmann “Moulin Rouge!” Equally blasphemous was Robert Pattinson’s stiff and smoldering portrait of Salvador Dali in 2008’s “Little Ashes.” Also, regrettable: John Malkovich playing the title role in Chilean director Raoul Ruiz’s “Klimt,” a kaleidoscopically surreal look at the Austrian painter’s sexploits.

On the upside, Hollywood has produced a few noteworthy artist biopics. Here are a few the standouts: “Love is the Devil: Study for the Portrait of Francis Bacon,” “Vincent & Theo,” “Andrei Rublev,” “Frida,” and “Pollock.”

What are some of your most and least favorite big screen renderings of iconic painters?

  • PaulH

    Andrey Rublev is one of the best films made anywhere by anyone. In addition to the films you cite, another film that devotes intimate attention to the practice of drawing & painting is Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse.

  • SlaterSan

    1. Rublev, but the heart of the film is not really a film of a painter, but one boy's quest to wrestle with fate. It's easily on the list of best narrative film ever made. I find the first two hours to be a bit boring, but if you can make it through, the second half lives up to the legend and leaves you breathless. Reminiscent of "There Will Be Blood," if Daniel Plainview was an 11 year old boy.

    2. Noiseuse is a wonderful movie of the artistic process and the nature of the artist model relationship. A loose adaptation of Balzac's "The Uknown Masterpiece" it's also a bit out of date and sexist, as only the French can really do. Still, a beautiful film with great performances by all.

    3. Quince Tree of The Sun aka Dream of Light. A beautiful docudrama by Victor Erice about one man's quest to paint a quince tree every day in the perfect light. Sounds boring? It's riveting.

    4. Painted Fire by Kwon-taek Im. A little known (in the states) Korean gem that came out in 2002, and perhaps the best of the lot. It's moving, epic in its tale of 19th Century court painter Owon. Highly recommended.

    5. New York Stories - Life Lessons - by Martin Scorecese. Nick Nolte brings Lionel "The Lion" Dobey to life in this 45 minute short film that is a loose adaptation of Dostoyevsky's "The Gambler" by Richard Price. A bravura performance by all involved, including a young Rosanna Arquette as Dobey's muse, ex lover, and rival. In all its romanticism it's not only one of the best films ever made of painting (which makes sense since Scorcese reportedly wanted to be a painter, but was allergic to the oils) this mostly forgotten little gem may be one of Scorcese's all time best films. There I said it. And look out for the small guest star by a young Steve Buscemi as a 1980s NY performance artist Dobey can't stand.

    "Basquiat," yeah, yeah, yeah. It's over the top, romantic, print the legend kind of film making, but Schnabel's sheer creative originality in bringing the perception and perceptions of the artist to life are more than worth the price of admission. Add to that Geoffrey Wright's undeniable performance as Basquiat and you could do a lot worse than this film's expressionistic earnestness. All the elements that would flower in Schnabel's later films are here, but on a more low budget scale. Take it with a grain of salt and enjoy the ride through this evocation of the 1980s New York art world.


  • SlaterSan

    By the way, Frida is an utter and complete abomination in every sense of that word. Vanity film making at its worst (Salma Hayek and Julie Taymor.) Thanks God it's been all but forgotten. Hopefully it stay that way as Frida and Diego only recently stopped rolling in their graves.

Live a Life Well-Read Get the best of news, culture, and books delivered weekly. Join the Signature newsletter