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?