I have long believed that filmmakers enjoy a special relationship with all other artists because their art form, the cinema, shares elements in common with all other art forms. From painting it draws compositional principles and the interplay of lights and shadows. From music it borrows rhythm, as expressed through film editing, as well as incorporating music into its soundtrack. It shares the expressive use of movement with dance and the interplay of solids and spaces with sculpture and with architecture. And, of course, it shares the rich heritage of storytelling devices with literature and the crafts of performance and staging with drama.
All of this should give filmmakers an especially keen insight into the telling of stories about artists, whatever the medium. Certainly it is true that filmmakers have returned often to the subject of artists' lives. A recent example is "Pollock," in which Ed Harris portrays American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock. For a sampling of earlier films about the lives of historical painters, look for these titles on home video.
"Rembrandt" (1936). The definitive film portrayal of the great Dutch master was the work of one of British cinema's master directors, Alexander Korda. In the title role, the estimable Charles Laughton creates one of his finest performances ever, which is saying quite a lot. The film confines itself to the latter part of Rembrandt's life, following the death of his first wife. As we watch his personal decline, we are reminded that great art comes, after all, from mere mortals, who are subject to the same vicissitudes of life as the rest of us.
"Moulin Rouge" (1952). In 1950, Jose Ferrer had won an Academy Award for portraying Cyrano de Bergerac, a Frenchman who was psychologically scarred by a physical abnormality. Here he goes to the same well a second time, portraying Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the Parisian painter whose growth was stunted by a childhood accident. To approximate the artist's diminutive stature, Ferrer played the role walking on his knees. Although it didn't net him a second award, his performance is nonetheless a virtuoso turn. The film was directed with great gusto by John Huston, one of the great American maverick filmmakers. A promotional trailer for "Moulin Rouge" is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.
"Lust For Life" (1956). During the 1950s and 1960s, novelist Irving Stone became a brand name author on the strength of a series of popular biographical novels, fictionalizing the lives of historical figures. One of his most popular was "Lust For Life," his novel about the turbulent life of Vincent Van Gogh. In a bravura performance, Kirk Douglas takes on the role of the volatile Van Gogh. Vincente Minnelli (Liza Minnelli's father), one of the top talents from Hollywood's glory days, directed with his usual style and taste.
"The Agony and the Ecstasy" (1965). This story of Michelangelo was adapted from another of Stone's enormously successful novels. The film focuses on the clash of wills between Michelangelo (Charlton Heston) and Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison), who orders him to decorate the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo is at first repelled by the idea of working on something as trivial as a decorative fresco. Then, the Renaissance genius is seized by an inspiration. Unfortunately for the impatient Pope, it takes years for this inspiration to come to fruition.
"Andrei Rublev" (1966). Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky built one of his most celebrated films around the life of 15th Century Russian artist Andrei Rublev. The film is structured episodically, almost like a collection of short stories about Rublev's life. As the episodes unfold, we watch Rublev become so filled with disgust at medieval humanity's cruelties that he eventually abandons his art, until a young man's creative courage inspires him to take up the craft again. This film is not for all tastes; it is long, meditative, and deliberately paced. Still, those who have the patience to stay with it will find themselves richly rewarded.
Each of these films recounts the life story of an actual artist. Liberties are taken with the facts of their lives, to be sure, but the stories are nevertheless historically grounded. Some of the best movies about painters, however, are built around painters who never lived at all. Next week we'll have a look at some of the screen's most memorable fictional artists.