Film gives us the invigorating opportunity to see long dried canvases shine bright and wet again. Telling a beloved artist’s story to the world’s satisfaction is more than just a process of retracing her brushstrokes, though. Our first five selections for best art movie are willing to take as many creative risks as the artists they profile.
Frida (2002)– This biopic of the Mexican surrealist was stalled for years until Salma Hayek took the helm as producer and lead. Hayek and director Julie Taymor paint the story of an artist who suffered through crippling physical mutilation and bottomless heartache with the most vivid palette. That was Kahlo’s outlet and weapon, after all, even as she lay in bed while her sometime husband Diego Rivera gained global notoriety for his own work. It helps to know the story’s true ending, even if it would be a bit capitalistic for Kahlo’s tastes. It’s not Rivera’s face you’ll find in the window of every Santa Fe gift shop.
Lust for Life (1956)– A bearded, bedraggled Kirk Douglas is mesmerizing as Vincent van Gogh in this classic portrait filmed in Holland and France. It’s a career highlight for Douglas, but Anthony Quinn steals the show in his Oscar-winning turn as Paul Gauguin, who admires Van Gogh’s work but finds that he can’t stand the man himself. Some of the film’s best scenes are in its quieter moments, when the famously volatile Van Gogh picks up a brush and pours out his emotions on canvas.
Modigliani (2004)– “The future of art is in a woman’s face. Tell me, Picasso, how do you make love to a cube?” sneers Modigliani, waving a rose in the air. It’s Modigliani‘s best moment, and it really happened. The rest of director Mick Davis’ high energy film bends the truth a bit, but it all works in the way Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris did. Famous figures are always dropping by for self-aware bit parts that keep the film light on its feet. It’s the artist’s story told in the manner that Parisians must have gossiped about it just after his death at 35. All of the pieces are there, but their order gets more muddled with each delicious glass of absinthe.
Pollock (2000)– Director Ed Harris’ film is as much about Jackson Pollock’s alcoholism as his art, and though we know that the artist’s addiction will win in the end, all of the tension of his controversial rise, tumultuous personal life and tragic death in a drunk driving accident holds us captive. Harris, who plays Pollock, and Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krasner are so driven in their portrayal of abstract expressionism’s royal couple that when the paint starts flying, you’ll believe it’s really Pollock holding the brush.
Artemisia (1997) – Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi’s long, extraordinary artistic career is often eclipsed by the events surrounding her rape as an 18-year-old. Director Agnes Merlet chooses to tell only that small piece of her story in Artemisia, and fudges the details a bit by turning it into a love story. The film’s saving grace is Valentina Cervi, who plays Gentileschi with fierce passion. When Cervi’s face fills the screen, as it often does, her expressive eyes tell the whole story.