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Painting, movies, and painting in movies

On the face of it, the arts of painting and filmmaking should make for sterling cinematic pairings. Both are primarily visual mediums, after all, and film can be used to capture not only the finished product, but the actions that went into creation. It certainly should work better than, say, the craft of writing, a solitary art that offers little in the way of kinetic energy to translate to a moving picture.

Why, then, do so few movies accurately capture the craft of painting? Just as most sports movies fail to capture the actual science behind the sport (watch the Muhammad Ali documentary When We Were Kings for true insight into how a sport can also be viewed as an art), few movies accurately capture the artistry behind artistic creation. Movies show us the “how” of painting, but rarely the “why”. They too often hide behind the concept of the “tortured artist” as being more interesting than the art itself.

MaudieAnd unless the painter in question is an actual person (with, you know, actual artwork to back up the claim), the resulting paintings are regularly subpar, at best suitable for display above a bed in a hotel room. Or Thomas Kinkade.

So in honour of the recent biopic Maudie—based on the life of famed Atlantic Canadian artist Maud Lewis (an artist dear to Goose Lane hearts)—we thought we should put together an absolutely non-comprehensive and easily expanded list of the some of the finer (and not-so-finer) attempts to portray the artistic intent behind the art.


Pollock (2000, Ed Harris, dir.)

  • Artist: Jackson Pollock
  • The life of Pollock, an artist who devised “a technique of splashing paint on canvas that had early critics calling him Jack the Dripper.” Rolling Stone notes the movie embraces the tortured artist formula, portraying Pollock as “angst incarnate … an angry, abusive alcoholic.” In the end, the screenwriters “paint themselves into a box of clichés.” However, the review singles out the movie’s approach to painting. “Harris brings an energy to these action-painting scenes that is pure and exhilarating… a towering performance of bruising inspiration.”

New York Stories (1989, Martin Scorsese, dir.)New York Stories

  • Artist: Lionel Dobie (fictional)
  • Roger Ebert praised Nick Nolte’s performance as “a large, shaggy painter who works in a loft, weaving back and forth in front of his canvas like a boxer… He uses a garbage can lid as a palate, and there is a voluptuous scene in which the camera follows his brush back and forth from paint to canvas.” Unlike most (fictional) movie painters, the artwork presented resembles, well, art. This is likely because, as Observer reports, the character was based on Chuck Connelly, a celebrated, self-destructive painter whose artwork and loft Scorsese borrowed for the film.

Max (2002, Menno Meyjes, dir.)

  • Artist: Adolf Hitler (fictional)
  • Yes, a movie about art and Adolf Hitler. Loosely based on Hitler’s history as an art student, the titular Max Rothman, a fictional art dealer, takes a young Hitler under his wing. Roger Ebert appreciated the movie’s understanding of the innate power of visual art. “We are reminded that, in power, both the Nazis and the Soviets banned and burned abstract art. Curious, that art which claimed to represent nothing nevertheless represented so much to them. Perhaps art is a threat to totalitarianism when it does not have a clear, censurable subject and is left to the musings of the citizen.”

Fargo (1996, Joel Coen, dir.)

  • Artist: Norm Gunderson (fictional)
  • It’s not about art per se, but Fargo’s secondary character of Norm Gunderson makes a living painting wildlife. Norm does what he loves, and if his works aren’t appreciated as quality artwork, he’s about to have one of his ducks on a stamp, likely placing him near the top tier of artists (financially speaking).

Synecdoche, New York (2008, Charlie Kaufman, dir.)

  • Artist: Adele Lack (fictional)
  • From Complex: “In probably the most realistic portrayal of a modern artist put on screen, Adele Lack's tiny paintings are not only made with, but meant to be viewed through, a magnifying glass. Her tiny works contrast her husband's, a playwright who is building bigger and bigger sets until he has built an alternate Manhattan in which he loses himself. As she goes on to acclaim in Berlin, her paintings approach invisibility in a commentary on conceptual art that creates a priceless reaction in the face of her estranged husband as he tries to understand what he isn't seeing.”

Basquiat (1996, Julian Schnabel, dir.)

  • Artist: Jean Michel-Basquiat
  • From Reelviews.net: “The fictionalized biography of graffiti artist-turned-international sensation… the latest in a long line of "suffering artist" motion pictures... a skewed and often shallow look at the man who became an icon … we never really connect with the painter. His influences, both artistic and personal, are presented in a perfunctory and unsatisfactory manner… As for the pressure and inner pain that drive him to drug use -- we've seen it all before, better portrayed and more convincingly dramatized.”

Frida (2002, Julie Taymor, dir.)

  • Artist: Frida Kahlo
  • From Slate: “Director Julie Taymor has a thrilling visual idea and a crippling visual idea. It's the same idea: to treat [Mexican painter Frida Kahlo] as a figure in a Frida Kahlo painting. Thanks to some of the most exquisite special effects you'll ever see, flat paintings suddenly acquire three dimensions, and three-dimensional people freeze and become part of a larger canvas… If you want to know why Frida Kahlo is more than a painter—she's an icon, a mass-culture phenomenon, a cottage industry—look no further: Taymor prints the legend.”

Art School Confidential (2006, Terry Zwigoff, dir.)

  • Artist: Jerome (fictional)
  • A comedic look at the battle between art and commerce. As Jerome fights his way through art school, his passion for the craft is constantly at odds with his desire to earn a living. The movie was poorly received, but The Onion A.V. Club remarked that the movie earns “big, consistent laughs… especially in a standout early sequence with Jim Broadbent as a bitter art-school alum who looms as a horrifying vision of what [Jerome’s] future might hold.”

And a few more, now that your appetite is whet:

Did we leave out your favourite? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter.

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