Visual Culture

6 Critically Acclaimed Films about Artists, from Caravaggio to Grandma Moses

Jackson Arn
Feb 22, 2019 6:35PM

Still from Grandma Moses, directed by Jerome Hill, 1950. Courtesy of Jerome Foundation.

Even if you’ve never met a great artist, you know all about them from movies. Great artists are moody. They don’t bathe for long stretches. They have “demons.” They spend their nights fighting said demons, usually while hunched over a canvas with a bottle of gin, illuminated by a sinking fire. They’re starving, obviously.

A typical film about an artist (Pollock, say, and a sizeable chunk of Woody Allen’s output) probably contains as much truth as a typical film about a zombie invasion. But there are exceptions—and, to be fair, some clichés have a basis in fact. The following six films—some good, some great, all engrossing—add a welcome dose of nuance to the way we think about great artists.

Grandma Moses (1950)

The challenge of watching Jerome Hill’s Oscar-nominated documentary short is separating propaganda from reality. Early in the film, we’re informed that this will be “a portrait of the artist as an American”—but it’s an advertisement, really, for the U.S.’s newfound cultural supremacy following World War II, with the folk artist Anna Mary “Grandma” Moses cast as its poster child. The narrator drones on about how Moses’s work upholds America’s rich traditions and triumphant legacy; Moses, meanwhile, opens her mouth only once.

Squeezed between all the midcentury jingoism and sexism, however, is some undeniably great art. The greatest virtue of Hill’s documentary is that it lavishes attention on its subject’s paintings, even as it tries to smother them in corny slogans. Grandma Moses’s work, as anyone who watches Grandma Moses can see, is too strange and melancholy to be reduced to a facile point about spacious skies and amber waves of grain. Sometimes, it’s enough for a filmmaker to point the camera at an artist’s work and let the viewer do the rest.

Edvard Munch (1974)

At a glance, Peter Watkins’s docudrama, filmed three decades after the artist’s death, is brimming with clichés—but then again, so was the life of Edvard Munch, the neurotic, dipsomaniacal, breakdown-prone godfather of Scandinavian Expressionism. What makes the film extraordinary is Watkins’s attentiveness to the narrow gap between cliché and life, between the artist as he wanted to be remembered and the artist as he existed from day to day.

Recent biographers tend to portray Munch as a genuinely troubled man who was also a brilliant self-mythologizer—it’s been suggested that his reputation as a tormented genius was a canny exaggeration of reality not unlike his paintings. There are moments when Watkins seems to take this reputation at face value, milking his protagonist’s affairs and hospital-bed epiphanies for all they’re worth.

Elsewhere, Watkins subtly undercuts Munch’s solemn, late-Romantic persona. Around the two-hour mark, the camera pans across Munch’s Melancholy (1891), and the narrator notes that the artist savvily allowed “the preliminary drawings to remain in the final work, to show its spontaneity.” There is probably no bigger myth about artists than the notion that they create straight from the heart—that all you need to do to paint a masterpiece is sit down and bleed. In Edvard Munch, Watkins suggests that the legendary rawness of Munch’s art was a kind of illusion, as cunningly crafted as the Mona Lisa.

Frida (2002)

One of the reasons directors love making movies about famous painters is that, almost by definition, these movies feature beautiful, iconic images. Julie Taymor’s Oscar-winning Frida Kahlo biopic, starring Salma Hayek, contains its fair share of eye-popping shots, but only a few of these show Kahlo’s paintings—at almost no point in the film, in fact, do we see Kahlo making art. Instead, Taymor uses intimate, first-person camerawork and her usual lush set design to uncover the artistic genius in Kahlo’s life itself.

This gambit doesn’t always pay off, but when it does, it yields some stunning results, such as the early, phantasmagorical scene in which a gravely injured Kahlo hallucinates a hospital full of skeleton-surgeons. A more literal-minded director might have ended this scene with footage of Kahlo’s paintings inspired by her brush with death, but Taymor opts for something more challenging: She conveys Kahlo’s feverish creativity by showing us the hospital directly through her eyes.

My Left Foot (1989)

The titular body part in Jim Sheridan’s undeniably effective Oscar-winning crowd-pleaser, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, belonged to Christy Brown, who used it to create some of the finest art and literature of the last century, despite being born with cerebral palsy. Few people who’ve seen the film know about the enraging conclusion to Brown’s story: After his death, multiple sources alleged that Mary Carr, his wife and nurse, had been abusive and unfaithful to him.

It would be difficult to think of a better example of what’s unsatisfying about artist biopics: Most of the time, the subject’s actual life is messier, but ultimately more compelling than the onscreen version. As artist biopics go, however, My Left Foot distinguishes itself by paying a remarkable amount of attention to Brown’s creative process; it’s hard to think of another movie that gets half as much drama out of the act of touching brush to canvas. Every stroke feels like a victory—and, after all, it was.

Caravaggio (1986)

This Derek Jarman film, which stars Nigel Terry and debuts both Sean Bean and Tilda Swinton, is to the typical artist biopic what the Sex Pistols’s “My Way” is to the Frank Sinatra version: a top-to-bottom revamp of a classic, with the original bits snapped apart and reassembled into a jagged new whole. That analogy isn’t quite as arbitrary as it sounds—Jarman’s Dionysian direction has been called the closest thing to punk in British cinema, and as such, it’s the perfect fit for a film about Caravaggio, the Sid Vicious of 17th-century Italy.

This is a life of Caravaggio that features, in no particular order, motorbikes, leather jackets, neon signs, one-night stands with both sexes, throat-slitting, and typewriters. Inappropriate, some might say—but inappropriateness seems wholly appropriate for a film about a man who loved boozing and brawling, killed a man, and scandalized his contemporaries by dressing his biblical subjects in modern garb. The less-historically accurate Caravaggio is, in other words, the truer it is to its subject.

Yumeji (1991)

The title of Seijun Suzuki’s film may be the cheekiest joke in his long, cheeky career. The film features a character named Takehisa Yumeji, who appears to be based on the famous early 20th-century painter and poet of the same name. But Yumeji isn’t about Yumeji in the same sense that Edvard Munch is about Munch or Frida is about Kahlo. This is the artist film to end all artist films: a big middle finger pointed at all the biopics that claim to know what made their subjects tick.

In Yumeji, characters die and come back to life without batting an eye. Wild dream sequences become suddenly, hilariously mundane. Characters scream, or run away, or have sex for no reason—after a while, you realize that Suzuki couldn’t explain his own artistic choices, let alone Yumeji’s.

Perhaps the most important reason for the enduring popularity of movies about artists is that they purport to let theatergoers into one of the most mysterious places in the world: the mind of a genius. In his final masterpiece, Suzuki offers a cannier point of view: As much as we like to pretend otherwise, none of us knows exactly what makes great artists great. If we did, would we still idolize them?

Jackson Arn

Thumbnail image: Salma Hayek on the set of the film Frida Kahlo. Photo by Susana Gonzalez/Newsmakers via Getty Images.