Movies about artists — must they suck?

I will always check out any movie that’s about an artist (the cheesy Basquiat biopic directed by an artist (Julian Schnabel) remains one of my faves) but I have never found one that made me want to rush home and draw or taught me much about what it’s like to actually be an artist at work.

Why are movies so awful at capturing how artists work? The creative process is a part of moviemaking so you’d think directors and writers would know it intimately.

Lust for Life has lots of weeping and teeth gnashing but the process of van Gogh actually working out how to make a painting — the stumbles, the experiments and risks, the satisfaction, the exhaustion — is never there. The cartoon Loving Vincent was a lot of work to make but left me feeling hollow.  The new van Gogh movie, (also by Schnabel) certainly has lots of scenes of deFoe/van Gogh actually painting but it just doesn’t recreate how the actual process unfolds, the feeling of what it is to make art all day, the drive, the rewards, the challenges. (And it advances the ridiculous theory that Vinnie was murdered by school boys).

The closest I’ve seen might be Scorsese’s episode in New York Stories in which Nick Nolte shoves a paint smeared cassette into a boom box and then attacks a canvas with gusto in the middle of the night, but it still feels kinda bogus.

I must say I’m intrigued by this trailer for a doc about Chinese factory painters:

In your opinion, what movies capture the process of art making best?

30 thoughts on “Movies about artists — must they suck?”

  1. One of the cheesiest movies about the art world we watched a few weeks ago on Netflix. The Velvet Buzzsaw is so awful it’s fantastic. You’re right, there does seem to be something magical about the process that filmmakers have trouble catching. I’m a fan of The Agony and the Ecstasy but when I saw it I was a kid so I might feel differently if I watched it now. Frida and Big Eyes are worth seeing, IMO.

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    1. Velvet Buzzsaw was horrible, like some ’70’s exploitation film. Big Eyes was so ham-fisted about how dreadful the husband was that I lost interest. I loved the Frida movie, as a movie, but again, it just didn’t capture what art making is all about. At least to me.

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  2. I didn’t like “Lust for Life” (TCM) with Kirk Douglas because there was just too much Kirk Douglas, and the peppy music was just ridiculous. I saw “Loving Vincent” in the theater, and as cool as I thought the idea was (I enjoy stop action, claymation stuff), it was distracting. I suppose I liked “At Eternity’s Gate” (tracked down at Redbox) best because I loved the visual part of the movie, the light he chased, the fields blowing in the wind, how quiet it was, no goofy music. I’ve read books of his letters to his brother, and seeing that portrayed was moving probably because I like the letters so much. So maybe I liked the idea of the movie instead of the actual movie…? At any rate, I thought about it for days after. Also, I thought about your essay “How to Feed Your Soul” and “your body is the dog of your mind” for DAYS. I thought it was brilliant. I love that you’re blogging again, and that essay struck a huge chord for me. As always, thanks for sharing.

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    1. I agree with you on every single point, Stacy. You’re a genius. I sprinted to see Willem van Gogh and it was so depressing. He made Vinnie seem like a dangerous homeless person, joyless, creepy, malodorous. Ugh. And I have serious issues with Naifeh/Smith’s hypothesis that he was shot buy some local teenagers and the fact that it is blithely and unconvincingly shoved into the climax of the movie is a crime.
      The thing I quite like about Kirk Douglas is that he conveys how passionate van Gogh became about painting but it is so loony that it is overwhelmed by all the scenery chewing.

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  3. Curious Worlds: Art & Imagination of David Beck and The Secret Life of Lance Letscher are documentaries that I have watched multiple times and highly recommend, eye candy for me if you will.

    Filming living artist making art is more inspirational for me. Looking at art books of both living and deceased artist gives me more time to be an art detective on creativity and process. But on the other hand I would love to see a proper art movie made about Joseph Cornell showing him collecting materials from old shops in NYC and making his box assemblages.

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  4. I like ‘Downtown 81’ and think it is a more apt representation of Basquiat and the LES art scene than Schnabel’s biopic. The reason I like ‘Downtown 81’ is because it feels like a day in the life of the LES cultural scene (because it basically is – combined with fantasy of course).

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  5. What do you think about the 2016 movie “Maudie” the fictionalized biography of Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis? It stars Sally Hawkins as Maud and Ethan Hawke as her husband.

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  6. I liked “Final Portrait“ very much. To me the more or less obsessive search for some specific expression that drove Alberto Giacometti was captured beautifully. The process of working on a painting and also his never ending experimenting with sculptures left me wanting to create more, try more, dare more.
    And I loved his chaotic studio / working place.

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  7. @Danny – have you seen Never Look Away? The semi-fictionalized Richter biography that came out recently? It absolutely blew me away. Definitely the best movie about an artist that I’ve ever seen!

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  8. Here is a YouTube video that is of a phenomenal sketch artist who is an autistic savant artist. There are several videos about him but I really like this one because his sister talks about him and it really shows the process.

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    1. You’re right. Ed Harris portrayed a compelling Pollock. My problem with that movie, and most accounts of Pollock is how Lee Krasner’s influence on Jackson (and painting at large) gets erased from the narrative.

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  9. Maud Maud Maud!!! The film about the Canadian folk painter, Maud Lewis, played by the actress, Sally Hawkins. Such a beautiful and tragic story. When Maud just has to paint, with whatever house paint she can afford, and when she looks out her window and sees with her “art eyes”, i wept with that beauty. Have you seen it?

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  10. What are your thoughts on Surviving Picasso? I was a teenager when I watched it so I really don’t remember much, but I love Picasso’s work, and Anthony Hopkins is one of my favorites…..it seems like perhaps there was some good angst and emotion which was fueling some of the creative process?

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  11. My simple reply was deleted earlier. It was just this: the 2016 movie “Maudie” about the Canadian folk artist, Maude Lewis, played by Sally Hawkins. Ethan Hawke portrayed her husband. I liked it, her absolute need to do her art. Don’t know how true to life it was.

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  12. I agree completely, they never capture what an artist’s life is *really* like and seem to reduce it to clichés. Maybe they do it to make it more cinematic? My art life is actually rather boring and the frustration and joys are mostly internal. There are rarely moments of wadding up a bath towel size drawing that took weeks to draw and throwing it cathartically out the window when the spouse said “what’s that supposed to be?” Nor is there triumphant capering around the room after a particularly nice brushstroke. Maybe I’m just not doing it right, but a movie about my process would be about as exciting as … watching paint dry. Then there’s that other quote which Garson Kanin attributed to both Picasso and Renoir …. “Picasso says that when art critics get together they talk about content, style, trend and meaning. But when painters get together, they talk about where you can get the best turpentine.”

    It’s rather hard to make a compelling movie about turpentine. (Or Gamsol, which I prefer, because it’s odorless and has very good oil thinning and brush cleaning properties but is more comfortable to have in a closed studio, although some say that just because you don’t smell it doesn’t mean that it’s not toxic … )

    See, I’ve put you to sleep, now, haven’t I?

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  13. How about Modigliani with Andy García? I thought they cramped a lot of torment in every artist, with the exception of Picasso. I’m not so sure that watching this movie made me run and get me some oil paints and brushes, but left me feeling amazed at the commitment and passion of these men. Another one that grabbed me was “Bride of the Wind”, which is a film about a woman muse and her creative love interest. The intensity of Oskar Kokoshka left me thinking that perhaps I’m not an artist unless I’m tormented.

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  14. Hi Danny

    Link to the trailer didn’t work for me. Is there another way?

    thanks, nancy Nancy Moskovitz

    Currently reading :

    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

    Recently read: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng …..I liked better than the above Eleanor Olifant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman State of Wonder : a Novel by Anne Patchett My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor nonfiction

    facebook https://www.facebook.com/Nancy-Moskovitz-Fine-Arts-and-Whimsy-113466018691967/ website http://nancymoskovitz.com

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  15. I’m not sure a fictional movie about an artist can capture how “the actual process unfolds, the feeling of what it is to make art all day, the drive, the rewards, the challenges.” This is partly because the emphasis of a lot of scriptwriting is on showing the ‘hero’s journey’ archetype and in that case the artist must be seen as hero victorious (over society, over personal demons) or hero defeated (by society, by personal demons). One film I’ve seen that really succeeds at showing this is Bruno Wollheim’s documentary about Hockney’s return to England, available here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/116394. I’m curious to see Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner – some of the reviews I’ve read suggest it fits your bill, Danny.

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    1. I liked the Turner movie. It has a lot of interesting art supply shopping, BUt it was still hard to get into his mind or understand his thought process or feelings about art.

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  16. I enjoyed Faces Places very much, but it was a documentary. Very insightful about what the artist is thinking but at the same time, very accessible people.

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  17. For some reason, “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus” with Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey Jr. haunted me for a long time after watching it. Very poetic.

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