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The 20 Best Movies about Art and Artists

22 April 2015 Features, Film Lists by Leo Greene

Films about art and artists covers a variety of things, from biopics about artists dead or imagined,
to documentaries on living ones. However, the best of them are the ones that are able to teach us
something about the medium they depict, or about the people who create it.
These films portray artists as compelled to create from an inner need, whether for therapeutic,
spiritual, or philosophical reasons. They celebrate the unique worldviews such individuals often
possess, while outlining their limitations, from their heightened emotionality to their predisposition to
mental illness.
At the same time, they explore the relationship between art and the viewer, as well as arts
somewhat unsettling contiguity to wealth and power.

20. The Agony and the Ecstasy / 1965 / Carol Reed

As films about famous artists go, The Agony and the Ecstasy may be about as conventional they
come, but this does not stop it from being enormously entertaining.
The film depicts the tumultuous relationship between Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) and Michelangelo
(Charlton Heston) that resulted in the painting of the Sistine frescoes. Harrisons performance is
spirited, as is Hestons (albeit sometimes excessive), and the monumental sets do not fail to impress.
The Agony and the Ecstasy is technicolor majesty through and through.

19. Frida / 2002 / Julie Taymor

Art, politics, and romance are on equally full display in this visually flooring biopic about Frida Kahlo.
Featuring an irresistible and career-defining performance from Salma Hayek and an equally superb
Alfred Molina in the role of Diego Rivera, the film celebrates both Kahlos freewheeling sexuality and
courageous persistence in the face of debilitating injury.
Julie Taymor attempts to translate Kahlos unique visual sensibility to the screen through vivid, liveaction recreations of scenes from her paintings. In some of the films best moments, painted
backdrops, stop motion animation and digital effects intermix until the constituent elements are
indistinguishable. These scenes wonderfully approximate the kind of subjective experience that
artists always seem to be searching for.

18. Caravaggio / 1986 / Derek Jarman

A seminal work of New Queer Cinema, British auteur Derek Jarmans Caravaggio draws equally
from colorful rumors about the painters life and an intimate appreciation of his art. Biographical
details, from his boyhood apprenticeship in Milan, escape to Rome, and patronage from the Cardinal
Francesco del Monte are depicted, as are his notorious taste for street fights and carousing.
As he would do in his other biopics, Jarman makes use of his protagonist to celebrate the wide
panoply of human sexuality. We see young Caravaggio (Dexter Fletcher) hustling, taunting an older
gentleman client. Later a love triangle develops between a slightly older Caravaggio (Nigel Terry), a
street fighter named Ranuccio (Sean Bean) and his girlfriend Lena (Tilda Swinton).

When Caravaggio starts painting however, all other details (including the occasional anachronistic
object) seem irrelevant. Jarman filmed every scene indoors, allowing him to give the painters live
models a tenebrous, yet glowing look that mimics the original paintings astonishingly well.
Mirroring art-critical speculation that Caravaggios Young Sick Bacchus exhibits signs of jaundice
and depicts the artist himself, Jarman included a scene in which the young Caravaggio lies sick in
bed next to that painting, speaking to his patron of his desire to be true to life.

17. All the Vermeers in New York / 1990 / Jon Jost

Jon Jost has explained that the title All the Vermeers in New York reflects both the citys unrivalled
collection of paintings by the Dutch artist, and its former identity as New Amsterdam, founded
roughly where Wall Street now stands. This seemingly random yet
uncanny connection between the worlds of art and money is a good metaphor for the films subject
matter, which inhabits the place where beauty, chance and love meet greed, power and materiality.
Mark (Stephen Lack), a New York stockbroker who finds looking at art therapeutic, meets Anna
(Emmanuelle Chaulet), a young actress from France in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts Vermeer
room. He tells her she resembles his favorite Vermeer, the Portrait of a Young Woman, and asks her
to coffee.
Meanwhile, in a private gallery an artist (Gordon Joseph Weiss) desperately harangues his gallerist
(Gracie Mansion) for a cash advance on his upcoming show. On the other side of the door, Felicity,
(Grace Phillips) the wealthy heiress of an art collector and friend of Annas waits and listens,
determined to acquire a piece from the ongoing exhibition at any cost.

25 years after its release, many aspects of the film, from its depictions of New York life to its broader
underlying critique of the art world remain relevant, and its largely improvised dialogue is a breath of
fresh air.

16. Camille Claudel / 1988 / Bruno Nuytten

A melodrama of monolithic proportions, Bruno Nuyttens Camille Claudel adapts Reine-Marie Paris
biography Camille: The Life of Camille Claudel, Rodins Muse and Mistress for the screen.
Showcasing thrilling performances by Isabelle Adjani as Camille and Gerard Depardieu as Rodin, in
many ways the film comes across as a blockbuster la Franaise. The emotions are pitch-perfect,
the tempo is lively throughout, the camerawork is dynamic, and the soundtrack, a set of four
orchestral suites by film composer Gabriel Yared, is worth the price alone.
The film begins shortly after Camille first meets Rodin. Impressed by her talent, Rodin offers her
work in one of his studios. A torrid romance then develops between the two sculptors,
which does more to tarnish Camilles reputation amongst the salon society of Paris than it adds to
her notoriety. At first Camilles greatest desire is to have the great Rodins signature grace one of her
sculptures, but when Rodins support begins to waver, she decides to strike out on her own.

15. Lust for Life / 1956 / Vincente Minnelli, George Cukor

Lust for Life is the quintessential Hollywood biopic about the quintessential tortured artist. Kirk
Douglas plays Vincent Van Gogh, who leaves his Dutch homeland for Paris to live with his brother
Theo, played by James Donald.
Theo introduces his brother to the French Impressionists, including Pissarro, Seurat and Gauguin,
the latter who eventually joins him in Auvers. Unwilling to compromise his artistic vision, Vincent
grows estranged from his friends, setting the stage for his descent into madness. Shot in technicolor
and featuring a rousing score, this film has everything you could ask from a classic Hollywood biopic.

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14. Camera Buff (Amator) / 1979 / Krzysztof Kielowski

There are many superlative movies about filmmaking, the so-called seventh art as the French say.
8, Day for Night, and The Bad and the Beautiful come quickly to mind. These films frequently
highlight the collaborative aspect that has come to define the filmmaking process since the advent of
the Hollywood studio system. Camera Buff instead offers a vision of filmmaking as the intensely
personal labor of a solitary artist.
Affectingly acted by Polish film star Jerzy Stuhr, Filip is an ordinary factory worker who develops an
obsession with moviemaking after buying an 8mm camera to commemorate the birth of his daughter.
He begins tirelessly documenting the world around him, from friends and family, to workers at the
factory.
While his peers are quick to recognize the value of his work, his wife deplores the strain it has placed
on their relationship. When Filip finds himself at odds with his superiors over the subject of one of his
films, he is forced to come to terms with the revelatory power of his art.

13. The Hand (Ruka) / 1965 / Ji Trnka

Jiri Trnka first became famous in Czechoslovakia for his puppet-animated adaptations of local
legends and fairy tales, and is sometimes referred to as the East European Walt Disney. That
moniker could not be more off the mark when it comes to this film however, which is both his last and
most personal. Only 20 minutes long, it is as simple and austere as a parable.
A potter lives alone with his wheel and a potted plant. One day a gloved hand comes knocking at his
door. He wants a sculpture in his image. The potter refuses, shutting him out of his room. As the
days go by, the hand becomes increasingly harder to dismiss. Eventually, he has no choice but to
comply.
Baldly autobiographical, the film comments on the situation once faced by Trnka, as well as that of
any other artist forced to work under a restrictive political regime.

12. An American in Paris / 1951 / Vincente Minnelli

Its plot may not be anything special, and it may not have anything profound to say about art or
artists, but An American in Paris can be faulted for little else.
Starring the legendary Gene Kelly and featuring a classic Gershwin score, the musical unfolds
against dazzling reproductions of Parisian locations, culminating in an extended ballet sequence
inspired by famous French paintings. An American in Paris comes off like an extravagant love letter
from Hollywood to Paris.

11. The Blood of a Poet (Le sang dun poete) / 1930 / Jean Cocteau

Jean Cocteaus The Blood of a Poet is about as much about art and artists as a surrealist film can
be. Described as a group of allegories, the film is composed of four distinct segments which trace
the theme of the danger and turmoil inherent in the artistic life. In the first segment, the Poet is
drawing at an easel while the Battle of Fontenoy rages outside.
Even though he has managed to evade the ravages of war, Cocteau insinuates, he remains at the
mercy of the violent act that is artistic conception. With charcoal, the Poet draws a face, which
suddenly starts to move its mouth. Terrified, he attempts to smear it away, only to discover it has
moved to his palm. After trying to drown it, he turns the mouth on himself in a symbolic act of
onanism.
Cocteau was known as an artistic chameleon; part writer, part painter and part filmmaker, and The
Blood of a Poet is a perfect demonstration of this. Every scene is overflowing with illustrations,
spoken verse and sculpture, often within a single frame. Theres simply nothing quite like it.

10. My Left Foot / 1989 / Jim Sheridan

Bolstered by stellar performances and a remarkable true story, My Left Foot: The Story of Christy
Brown is an inspiring tribute to the life of an Irish painter and writer who lived with severe cerebral
palsy. Daniel Day Lewis tackles the daunting role of Cristy with astonishing convincingness, unafraid
to hint at the less savory aspects of his personality.
The film traces Cristys development as an artist, from his early attempts at painting to his later
recognition as an author, juxtaposing episodes from his autobiography with a romantic side-story. My
Left Foot is the essential motivational film about an artist.

9. The Horses Mouth / 1958 / Ronald Neame

Alec Guinness both wrote and starred in this adaptation of Joyce Carys The Horses Mouth. By that
time, Guinness had attained the status of a household name in the UK for his work with David Lean
and with Ealing studios.
Gulley Jimson is a grizzled but talented painter with a prickly personality. He lives on a ramshackle
houseboat on the Thames adjacent the local pub, run by the equally ill-tempered Ms. Coker (Kay
Walsh). Newly released after a short stint in jail for harassing a wealthy patron, Jimson starts
scheming ways to pay back his lengthy bar tab, all the while looking for the perfect wall for his next
masterpiece.
If you enjoy British comedy, this is unmissable.

8. F for Fake (Vrits et mensonges) / 1973 / Orson Welles

This is the last (finished) Orson Welles film, and by far the most unusual. Think of it as a cinema
essay dressed like a B movie, or an avant-garde mockumentary. Whether it was to escape critical
pigeonholing, or more due to the influence of his newfound cameraman Gary Graver, a low-budget
filmmaker and occasional porn director, F for Fake is totally unique, yet distinctly Wellsian.
Building on documentary material shot by Franois Reichenbach about the art forger Elmyr de Hory,
interviews with de Hory biographer and fellow conman Clifford Irving, newsreels and stock footage,
Orson Welles and his girlfriend Oja Kodar hatched this ingenious but rambling meditation on
authorship, art, and illusion.
Stories of de Horys most high profile frauds are recounted by the man himself, who also agreed to
be filmed while painting several astounding imitations of Picasso, Matisse, and Modigliani. It is a
hodgepodge of different film stocks, edited together with an exuberance bordering on naivety. We are
even witness to home-movie style interjections featuring Welles, flushed with wine and surrounded
by middle aged women as he officiates for the camera in some dimly lit restaurant.
This film was widely panned on its release, but hindsight has revealed it as truly ahead of its time.
Fans of Exit Through the Gift Shop in particular should appreciate the many similarities between the
two films.

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7. Hunger (Sult) / 1966 / Henning Carlsen

Based on Knut Hamsuns pioneering modernist novel, Hunger is a masterful character study about a
starving writer adrift in 19th century Oslo. Helmed by Per Oscarsson in a virtuoso performance that
won him Best Actor at Cannes, the film lays bare the paradoxical extremes of the artistic
temperament.
Pontus may be homeless, but his pride is without bounds. He writes on park benches, but cannot
stand to share one. He asks the butcher for scraps to eat, claiming they are for his dog, yet
assiduously declines the charity of others. He tries to pawn his glasses, but when he finds money he
gives it all away. The only thing able to distract him from his work are the glances of the mysterious
woman he calls Ylajali.

6. The Draughtsmans Contract / 1982 / Peter Greenaway

Peter Greenaways second film is a beautiful work of craftsmanship: richly costumed and ornately
scripted, it is also self-aware in the manner of something by Alain Robbe-Grillet.
Set in 17th century Britain and featuring a mock-Purcell score by Michael Nyman, it concerns a
roguish sketch artist Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins) who is hired by the wealthy matriarch Mrs. Herbert
(Janet Suzman) to produce drawings of the estate grounds while her husband is away on business.
A contract is drafted, which stipulates that Mr. Neville must also comply with Mrs. Herberts demands
in the bedroom if he expects to receive his money.
In terms of plot, The Draughtsmans Contract is like a maze. Its virtually impossible to appreciate all
its intricacy in one sitting.

5. The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova) / 1969 / Sergei Parajanov

The filmography of Sergei Parajanov straddles three cultures. A Soviet citizen, he was born in
Georgia to Armenian parents, and lived for many years in Ukraine. The Color of Pomegranates, his
second official film is a cinematic portrait of Sayat Nova, the important Armenian poet and musician
from the 18th century.
However, as an intertitle explains at the beginning, the film is not meant to capture the biographical
details of his life so much as his inner world, using the images and metaphors of the Ashough
(medieval Armenian poet troubadours). What this amounts to is a procession of tableaux vivants
divided into seven chapters, each representing a different stage of his life.
While the films relative lack of plot and foreign symbolism demand something from the audience, the
effort is repaid in full by the astounding uniqueness and richness of its images.
One of the most daring formalistic experiments in the history of cinema, The Color of Pomegranates
has deeply influenced several generations of experimental filmmakers, even if it has not received the
universal acclaim of its predecessor Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.

4. Edvard Munch / 1974 / Peter Watkins

From the first scenes of Edvard Munch, the 3-hour long biopic about the eponymous painter, one is
struck by a number of odd details. The film is first presented under the guise of a documentary,
ostensibly focused on the suffering of the urban poor of Kristiania, and narrated by Watkins own dry
commentary. We are introduced to Edvard largely through cinma vrit style interviews with his
friends and family.
The obvious anachronism of the films presentation contrasts with other painstakingly realistic
details, from the almost exclusive use of Norwegian non-actors, real locations, and dialogue sourced
from Munchs own diaries. This rigorous and unconventional method allows Watkins to depict Munch
both in his exterior aspect as well as from a privileged psychological viewpoint, offering a portrait of
unprecedented intimacy which at times borders on the hyperreal.

3. Crumb / 1994 / Terry Zwigoff

Crumb is an incredible documentary first of all because Robert Crumb makes for an incredible
documentary subject. His physical appearance is exaggerated like one of his cartoons, his selfdeprecating wit is omnipresent, and his personal life is almost too insane to believe.
Director Terry Zwigoffs close friendship with Crumb allowed him to spend almost a decade recording
him and interviewing his friends and family. The portrait that results is unsurprisingly one of rare
candor. It also serves as an interesting case study about the link between artistic talent and mental
illness.

2. La Belle Noiseuse (Sweet Troublemaker) / 1991 / Jacques Rivette

Jacques Rivettes inspiration for this film was Honor de Balzacs short story Le Chef-duvre
inconnu (the Unknown Masterpiece). Balzacs story, highly regarded by Cezanne and Picasso,
concerns a trio of artists, the distinguished painters Frenhofer (here played by Michel Piccoli), Porbus
(Gilles Arbona) and the young Poussin (David Bursztein).
Frenhofer is a quasi-mythical figure, capable of performing miracles on the canvas, but is also
wracked with hesitation and doubt. He tells the other two about an unfinished project, La Belle
Noiseuse he abandoned 10 years ago, lacking a model. Porbus, unable to contain his enthusiasm,
suggests Poussins beautiful lover Gillette (Emmanuelle Bart), and Poussin eventually agrees.
While not exactly an adaptation, Rivettes film borrows the storys principal characters and scenes,
but adds considerable dimension to the plot with the addition of two female characters: Liz, the
jealous wife and erstwhile model of Frenhofer (Jane Birkin), and Julienne (Marianne Denicourt) as
Poussins sister and confidante.
Leveling out the male-female ratio of the cast, this addition adds interesting symmetries to the plot,
turning the fable into a nuanced chamber drama. Lasting almost 4 hours, the film significantly alters
Balzacs ending, and Rivette included numerous subtle allusions to the text and to French artists that
rewards repeated viewings.

1. Andrei Rublev / 1966 / Andrei Tarkovsky

This sophomore film by Andrei Tarkovsky is a miracle arguably never has a film wagered so much
yet succeeded to such a degree. Its stylistic vision was drastically new, yet already fully formed, and
Its subject matter could not have been more lofty, nor more politically inopportune coming from an
atheistic USSR.
The titular character, played by Anatoly Solonitsyn in his debut role, is loosely based on the medieval
religious painter and Russian Orthodox saint. The film consists of 15 novellas, broken into 7
chapters, a prologue and epilogue. Most chapters depict the painter at formative points in his life and
career, but the films narrative flow and perspective are occasionally interrupted.
For the most part the film was shot in black and white and employs Tarkovskys signature extended
takes, which help convey a contemplative mood. The films atmosphere is equally indebted to
historical documents from the period as it is to the directors own system of visual symbols, which
lend a dreamlike feel. Other scenes contain impressive crane shots framing large crowds and vast
expanses, giving the impression of an epic.
With Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky sought to illustrate the complex relationship between an artist and his
time. Highlighting the humanistic character of Rublevs work, he imagines the artist as a Christlike
figure, a receptacle for the hope and pain of others, yet whose own faith is constantly being tested.

Author Bio: Leo Greene is a cinema major graduate from NYU, some of his favorite filmmakers are
Tarkovsky, Robbe-Grillet, Tati, Bunuel, Bresson, Oshima and Zanussi.

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