Top 10 movies about art and artists

From Sunshine Artist Magazine, December, 2006

When compiling a list of the greatest motion pictures about art, one must start with the observation that every movie is itself a work of art. From the askew black-and-white landscapes of Fritz Lang to the animated classics of Walt Disney to the visual masterpieces of Stanley Kubrick, film is the planet’s most pervasive art form, despite the fact that most movie-goers see it as cheap entertainment. But with this list, I’m putting aside the larger discussion of what movies have made the greatest artistic contribution to cinema to instead focus on the non-documentary films that have art and artists as their subject matter.

A lot of relatively recent films, such as The Draughtman’s Contract (1982), Vincent (1987) and What Dreams May Come (1998) spring to mind, along with the soon-to-be-released film by Milos Forman, Goya’s Ghost, and at least two versions of the life of Rembrandt van Rijn (the 1936 classic with Charles Laughton and the 1999 Charles Matton production). There are also a host of excellent films, such as Somewhere in Time (1980), Titanic (1997) and Déjà vu (1997), that feature art, but unless that’s the movie’s central theme or, at the very least, what sticks with you after you’ve left the cinema, I’ve excluded them from this list. Finally, several interesting films throughout the years have been set in museums, notably House of Wax (1953), Russian Ark (2002) and the opening segment from Three Cases of Murder (1955). However, there’s only room for 10 at the top.

10. Surviving Picasso (1996). Though the accents are muddy and the film doesn’t address the truly productive part of Picasso’s life, Anthony Hopkins gives another of his inspirational performances in this James Ivory production. Focusing on Picasso during the 1940s and the woman who dominated his life during that time (played by the stunning but ill-suited Natascha McElhone), the film offers great insight into the character of the artist, a brilliant yet selfish and egocentric man who loved but then tossed aside his women as if they were used canvases.

9. Lust for Life (1956). Originally hailed as one of Kirk Douglas’s greatest accomplishments, the actor’s portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh seems not as impressive today. And having been shot in the 1950s, the film understandably fails to fully address Vincent’s alleged homosexual attraction to Paul Gaugin, famously played here by Anthony Quinn. However, the movie is still a must-see for any Van Gogh fan and includes nice color footage of many of the artist’s original works.

8. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). The most famous movie — or story for that matter — about portraiture contains some haunting images and gripping scenes, even though it fails to capture all the emotion of the Oscar Wilde tale. The dialects are inconsistent and a few of the performances are stilted, but the tale of a man whose portrait ages while he remains forever youthful is just as chilling as the day it was written. Particularly effective are the performance of George Sanders (All About Eve, The Jungle Book) as Dorian’s friend and the film’s use of color (in an otherwise black-and-white film) in scenes featuring the portrait. (Also take note of the swinging light in the murder scene — surely an influence on Hitchcock’s Psycho.)

7. Basquiat (1996). A star-studded cast (Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Benicio Del Toro, Parker Posey, Courtney Love, and David Bowie as Andy Warhol) bring to life the fad-driven New York art world of the 1980s, but it’s Jeffrey Wright’s performance as Jean-Michel Basquiat — the graffiti artist with a mostly undeserved fame of quite a bit more than 15 minutes — that sets this film apart. It’s the only movie on the list that makes you question what passes for art in the Neo-expressionist world. And it forces you to answer that question yourself, as no one in the film can do it for you, least of all Warhol, who tells Basquiat, “I can’t even see what’s good any more.”   

6. Frida (2002). Surprisingly fresh and even funny at times, the film about the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo seduces you with its beauty, sensitivity and art. Although we rarely see Frida (Salma Hayek) actually painting, director Julie Taymor brings the artist’s work to dazzling life through creative cinematography. Frida suffered a horrible injury, an often-painful marriage to fellow artist Diego Rivera and, ultimately, an early death, yet the film is bright and inspiring, oozing with a love of art.

5. Pollock (2000). Why are artists such tortured souls? Does it have something to do with genius? I’m reminded of the line in the film Arthur: “Not everyone who drinks is a poet. Some of us drink because we’re not poets.” Well, that’s certainly not the case with Jackson Pollock, an out-and-out drunkard but one of the most influential painters of the 20th century. Ed Harris directs and stars, and he ably captures what almost no other director or actor has: a vivid portrayal of an artist at work. We don’t just hear about Pollock’s style of throwing paint — we see it.

4. Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003). Quite simply, this is the most beautiful film ever made about an artist, and it’s not just because of Scarlett Johansson, who plays Vermeer’s peasant maid and model for one of his most famous paintings. The entire movie is sumptuous, as if each frame were lifted straight from the canvas of the 17th-century Dutch painter. It’s also one of the best tales of an artist’s obsession with his subject matter.

3. The DaVinci Code (2005). Ron Howard’s adaptation left many fans of Dan Brown’s book disappointed, but whether you love or hate the film, you have to admit that it has stirred up almost as much interest in and debate of art as of religion. When watching the film, you want to be right there with Tom Hanks in the Louvre, to study Madonna of the Rocks and to get lost in the Mona Lisa’s smile. You also want to know if Leonardo’s brushstrokes were just that, or whether they contain some hidden message (fictional as it may be) about the origins of Christianity.

2. As Good as It Gets (1997). This is the best film on the list, but it’s also the one that has the least to do with art. However, artistic inspiration can be drawn from small moments. Although most of James L. Brooks’ movie focuses on the lives of the characters played by Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, it is Greg Kinnear’s character that steals the show — and captured a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination — for playing an artist struggling to recover from emotional and physical wounds. In the end, it is his drawing that brings meaning back to his life when, in a fit of passion, he tears the cast off his once-broken hand, lets out a joyous shout and starts to sketch.

1. Vincent and Theo (1990). Not only the definitive picture about VanGogh’s life (and his close relationship with his brother), the Robert Altman film is also the definitive depiction of the inequity between talent and wealth in the art world. Opening his film with the real-life footage of Sunflowers being auctioned at Christie’s in London for 39.9 million pounds, Altman then fades to a penniless, scruffy Van Gogh (Tim Roth), thereby focusing on the irony of the artist’s tragic life. Oh, there’s enough tragedy to go around in this film, which is by far the most depressing on the list. But it’s also the best ever made about the life of an artist.

Copyright 2006 © Palm House Publishing

Note: Since this article came out in 2006, there have been several notable films about arts and artists. The one standout is Mr. Turner, from 2014, which would easily make the top three of this list.