Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity's Gate
Contemporary Art

Art World Movies Take the Oscars by Storm

By Martin Dean
The art world is at the forefront of this year’s Academy Awards as two dramatic biographies of major 20th century artists – Vincent Van Gogh and a character based on Gerhard Richter — attract Oscar nominations. Read on to find out more about the nominated films and the artists whose lives they explore.

H ollywood and the art world have come together at this year’s Academy Awards, and the lives of two important 20th century artists brought to the big screen in two powerful and visually magnetic films: At Eternity’s Gate, which follows the troubled life of Vincent Van Gogh, and Never Look Away, inspired by the life of Gerhard Richter.

At Eternity’s Gate

Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity's Gate
Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity's Gate © Lily Gavin

At Eternity’s Gate, which sees Willem Dafoe (nominated for Best Actor) cast in the role of Vincent Van Gogh, explores the sheer aesthetic impact of the world upon the artist and his feverish attempts to depict it, as his relationship with society and friends comes under increasing strain.

Prod DB © CBS Films - Riverstone Pictures - SPK Pictures - Rocket Science - Rahway Road Productions - Iconoclast / DR
de Julian Schnabel 2018 SUI./GB/FRA./USA/IRL.
Willem Dafoe.
biopic; biographie; biography; Vincent van Gogh; peintre;
Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity's Gate © CBS Films

Directed by Julian Schnabel, a painter himself, the film attempts to convey the intimate connection between the artist and his world using handheld cameras and other innovative techniques, and is shot in the locations where Van Gogh lived and worked, Arles, Saint-Rémy, and Auvers-sur-Oise.

"Van Gogh says, 'I don’t invent these paintings. They already exist in nature, and I just have to free them.' That’s profound to me."
William Dafoe in Vox

To get inside the mind of the artist, Dafoe returned to painting, and under the direction of Schnabel, tried to think and paint like Van Gogh. “He taught me a different way of looking, a different way of seeing”, Dafoe said in an interview with Vox. “To express something may mean making a painting that doesn’t look like exactly like what it “looks like.” So Julian taught me to paint lights. It was great, and scary, because I was his creature. I was his Van Gogh”.

Never Look Away

Cai Cohrs as the young Kurt Barnert in Never Look Away Photo: Caleb Deschanel / © Sony Picture Classes / Courtesy Everett Collection

Never Look Away (nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography) draws on the early life of contemporary German artist Gerhard Richter as inspiration for its fictional main character, Kurt Barnert, portrayed by Tom Schilling. Barnert’s childhood years are spent under the Nazi regime among the apocalyptic destruction of wartime Germany, and his aunt, a schizophrenic, is murdered under the dictatorship’s eugenics programme.

Tom Schilling as Kurt Barnert in Never Look Away © Sony Pictures Classics/Entertainment Pictures

“He’s greatly traumatised by the war years” Tom Schilling says in an interview with FilmBizNews. Later, after the war, the character makes the decision to study as an artist “But he soon realises that he’s not happy with the artistic dogma of socialist realism, and makes the decision to flee”.

Both films bring the importance of art to the fore, its relationship with individuality and liberty, and the imperative intimacy with the world it brings about, both for the painter and the viewer. But an overemphasis of its connection with suffering, as is often the case with Van Gogh, misses the point, Willem Dafoe observes. “Suffering is sometimes about not being content or trying to investigate a kind of dissatisfaction, or trying to find yourself, trying to make yourself whole” he tells us. “It’s a spiritual impulse, I think, as well. To deal with this dissatisfaction is such a huge part of being human.”

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's