Mr. Turner On Film – Chipping Away At The Art Biopic

With the opening of Mike Leigh’s film ‘Mr. Turner’, starring Timothy Spall as the great British painter Joseph Mallard William Turner, Artlyst turns its eye toward the art biopic. Considering the visual nature of art and film, one may think visual art a fitting topic for celluloid – or is experiencing the clichéd story arc of suffering for one’s art to become great like chipping away at a large block of marble?

Whether a great biopic or a terrible one; most fit a template based on a particular romantic cliché of a misunderstood genius, tortured by his or her need to create. The focus of all art biopics invariably rests on the character of the artist and negates any detailed summation of the art; an example of this would be the Merchant-Ivory drama ‘Surviving Picasso’ – with Anthony Hopkins’ shaved cranium shining at the camera – which tells the story of Francoise Gilot, the only lover of Pablo Picasso who was ‘strong enough to withstand his ferocious cruelty’. The focus of the film is not only on Picasso himself; but all the artworks that appear on film are in fact fictitious works; as any reproductions of Picasso’s artwork were not allowed to be used in the film – however, the estates of Henri Matisse and Georges Braque did allow their work to be represented – an art biopic without the art? One wonders what the actual point is?

Having said this; it isn’t to say that all art biopics should be conservatively documentary in nature; one cannot help but smile at films such as ‘The Agony And The Ecstasy’, and ‘Lust For Life’ – where a muscled and butch Charlton Heston stands off against a slightly camp Rex Harrison, like two gun-slinger’s in a ‘art western’, or Kirk Douglas’ portrayal of a drooling, and drawling Vincent van Gogh. Both of which are rather wide of the mark but deeply entertaining. Just as I love to chuckle at David Bowie’s portrayal of Andy Warhol, alongside Dennis Hopper in the Julian Schnabel directed bio ‘Basquiat’. Such is the director’s inability to avoid his own ego; that Schnabel has the ever-intense Garry Oldman play his part in the proceedings; where Oldman portrays Schnabel as the great and wise benefactor; the only sane voice in the film.

So sometimes the bending of the truth can lead to entertaining fare, or even farce, but surely this goes against the supposed nature of a biography? It could be argued that the truth of these artist’s lives are always subjective tales; sometimes entertaining – but also – it could be said; a little depressing on occasion. John Maybury’s film ‘Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon’ [gasp]; is a great film, and actually has a great performance by British thesp Derek Jacobi as the hard-boiled Francis Bacon. The biopic revolves around Bacon slowly torturing his lover, George Dyer, to death – metaphorically speaking, I think, considering the painter’s predilections – with a lisping Tilda Swinton as the dystopic Murial Belcher watching through the twisted lens of a champagne glass – yet this is also another film where the estate of the artist refused license to use images of actual paintings. A film about Francis Bacon without a Pope screaming from his entombed void hardly bares consideration?

It would seem that the art biopic is always guilty of a focus that entirely rests upon the artist as protagonist, and never the art. One of the best films about the artist’s grand endeavour is Andrei Tarkovsky’s utterly compelling ‘Andrei Rublev’, the irony of which is that the film is utter fiction; as little is actually known about the medieval painter’s life. The film begins with the artist’s period of exile from his own work and ends with his return to it. The complete lack of information allowed Tarkovsky the ultimate in artistic license, resulting in a masterful work on film.

And now we have Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival to rave reviews. Its subject is the great British Romantic landscape artist, Joseph Mallard William Turner, focusing on the artist’s later work which transcended Romanticism and anticipated 20th-century abstraction.

Leigh’s film focuses on the final 25 years of Turner’s life, and the consequences of ruthless self-interest; artist as the central focus will always be the heart of the art biopic given our interest in the artist as romantic figure; artist as character, as hero, the central figure is always made of flesh, and never paint.

Words: Paul Black © Artlyst 2014

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