Impressionist & Modern Art

Art Imitating Life Imitating Art: Five Artists Whose Life Stories Make Great Movies

By Vivienne Chow

V incent van Gogh, Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo, Caravaggio and Pablo Picasso are not only among the greatest artists the world has seen. The events of their life journeys have also proven to be perfect source materials for the big screen and television for decades. Biopics retelling the life stories of these creative geniuses offer far more than an introduction to their artistic inspirations. The trajectories of their tortured souls mirror the historical evolution of the time and space they lived in, giving art aficionados the context required to deepen their understanding of the masterpieces by these artists.

Here are some of the best biopics of these five great artists that are not just entertaining but also offer great insights into their artistic worlds.

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At Eternity's Gate (2018)

Directed and co-written by artist/ filmmaker Julian Schnabel, the film focuses on the final years of the dramatic and tragically-short life of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). The story revolves around his encounter with Paul Gauguin, his relationship with brother Theo and his struggle as an artist. The style of the film is driven by impressionistic visuals comparable to Van Gogh’s own painting style rather than conventional plot and dialogue, Schnabel leads the audience into his imaginary world of Van Gogh with his artistic eye while speculating the cause of death of the artist: his death 30 hours after taking a gunshot wound by an assailant else rather than the widely-believed suicide attempt, a theory put forward by biographers Steven Naifen and Gregory White Smith. Willem Dafoe won the coveted Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the 75th Venice International Film Festival for his soulful portrayal of the Dutch master as he restlessly searched the French countryside for artistic inspiration. The film is a gorgeous meditation drawing the audience into the mind of this great artist.


Vincent and Theo (1990)

Robert Altman’s tale of the Dutch master is in fact a double portrait of the Van Gogh brothers, Vincent (Tim Roth) and Theo (Paul Rhys), as they navigate the 19th-century European art world with all its different levels of agonies. One a creative madman and the other a businessman forced to sell art that he despised, the fates of the two brothers are bound by blood ties, love and sacrifice. Vincent and Theo follows the artist’s descent into insanity and tells a deeply sympathetic tale of humanity. The scene in which Van Gogh smashes his canvas in rage amid a field of sunflowers remains one of the finest moments of cinematic art today.


Little Ashes (2008)

Director Paul Morrison takes us through a journey of entangled friendships and life-consuming passion, as the movie portrays a young Salvador Dali (1904-1989), played by Robert Pattinson, at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando with poet Federico García Lorca (Javier Beltrán) and filmmaker Luis Buñuel (Matthew McNulty). This romantic story of unrequited love reveals the early struggles and determination that laid the foundation for this creative genius’ future. Throughout life, his changing political beliefs mirrored the tumultuous history of the 20th century.


Salvador Dali (1966)

Andy Warhol took a wildly different directorial approach in his 35-minute film of the famed surrealist, starring none other than Dali himself. With his flamboyant upturned moustache, Dali is probably one of the most recognizable figures of the 20th century. One of Warhol’s 500 black-and-white “screen tests”, the film follows Dali on a visit to The Factory where he meets the rock band The Velvet Underground. Both Dali and Warhol enjoyed great fame and success in life, though the two superstars seemed to have inhabited different universes. Such an unlikely collaboration of two eccentric artists have real resonance and offers a glimpse into what it was to be larger than life.


Frida (2002)

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) captivated the art world with her bold self portraits, which drew inspiration from a life troubled by poor health against the backdrop of Mexican cultural roots and nature. But it wasn’t until the film Frida that made Kahlo an international household name. Salma Hayek’s earnest and sincere portrayal of the celebrated painter landed her an Oscar nomination as well as global fame. Directed by Julie Taymor and based on Hayden Herrera's biography of Kahlo, the film offers a haunting and heart-wrenching account of a painter and iconoclast, and provides insight into her rocky relationship with Diego Rivera. Nearly two decades since its release, this film is still considered one of the best biopics on an artist and gives voice to women both in the cinematic and art worlds.


Frida Still Life (1983)

Life for Kahlo was far from easy, as she struggled with health problems throughout life. A bout of polio at a young age affected her spine and legs, and severe injuries from traffic accident at age 18 left Kahlo in great pain throughout her life. This critically acclaimed film by Mexican director Paul Leduc finds a fragile Kahlo on her deathbed, recounting the events of her life in vignettes that depict strength and determination in the pursuit of art, as well as the artist’s radical politics and her love affairs, in particular her marriage with Diego Rivera. Frida Still Life was selected as Mexico’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 58th Academy Awards.


Caravaggio (1986)

The tale of the famed Caravaggio (1571-1610) by the late British filmmaker Derek Jarman is a powerful work of cinematic art. Caravaggio was a painter famous for the dramatic realism of his art, just as he was infamous for the personal scandals and provocative depictions that stirred up controversy with religious authorities. His career was short-lived, as the quarrelsome painter fled from Rome to escape a murder charge, and subsequently lived the rest of his life on the run. Jarman’s non-linear narrative depicts some of the most intense and conflict-ridden episodes of the artist’s life that might offer a clue into the artist’s dramatic realism. These episodes include the fatal brawl with Ranuccio and his relationship with Lena, played by Tilda Swinton in her first film role. The movie won a Silver Bear for outstanding single achievement at the 36th Berlin International Film Festival.


Genius: Picasso (2018)

The average run time of a feature-length film could hardly do justice in covering the entire life and career of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), a prolific master whose vast body of work and diversity of styles remain unparalleled. The solution might come in the form of National Geographic’s prestige anthology drama Genius, which explores the lives 20th century giants. Told in 10 episodes, the life of the Spanish art genius takes center stage in the second season. Picasso is played by the acclaimed Spanish actor Antonio Banderas, who was born in the same city as the Spanish modern art master. The series chronicles Picasso’s life from a struggling child prodigy to celebrated master. The Oscar-winning director and actor Ron Howard is one of the executive producers of the series.


Surviving Picasso (1996)

Picasso was not only a prolific artist but also a notorious lover. Throughout his life, the Spanish master had no shortage of women. Whether it was his legally married wife, Olga Khokhlova, a former Russian ballet dancer, or mistresses such as surrealist photographer Dora Maar or the young and docile Marie-Thérèse Walter, women played muse to Picasso’s art. In return they were destroyed by his capricious affection, with the exception of Francoise Gilot. This 1996 biopic, directed by James Ivory adapted from Arianna Huffington’s book Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, is shot from the perspective of Gilot who was an artist as well as the only woman who survived Picasso’s consuming passion and walked away. The film did not show much of Picasso’s art because of an alleged rights issue. Even so, it depicts the emotional rollercoaster of this life against the backdrop of political turmoil, as reflected by Picasso’s creation of Guernica, arguably the most important anti-war painting in the history of art.

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