A Deep Dive Into Visual Artists On The Small Screen

Visual art, oddly, doesn’t always translate that naturally to cinema as a subject. Just as you don’t get the full impact of a painting from a coffee table book, the camera can impose a distance from the art at hand – a secondary perspective that isn’t really needed. Wim Wenders bucks that trend, however, in his marvellous Anselm Kiefer documentary Anselm (Curzon Home Cinema), which feels fully alive to the angular, nature-based textures of the German painter and sculptor’s work. It’s especially exciting as a study of process – of the grand-scale action that goes into the art’s own dynamic movement.

A large part of its reward came, on the big screen, from Wenders’ continuingly imaginative embrace of 3D technology. Now on VOD, the film loses that element but remains engaging for the connection it draws between Kiefer’s own thorny persona and the work itself, and its elegant bridging of the artist with his dramatised younger selves. As a documentary about an artist that makes clear how their vision emerges from their character, Anselm is not as scrappily candid as Jack Hazan’s 1973 landmark A Bigger Splash (Netflix), but belongs in that league just the same. Hazan’s film intimately traces the breakdown of David Hockney’s relationship with former lover Peter Schlesinger over a three-year period, and its effect on Hockney’s work and perspective. It alternates fly-on-the-wall observation with flights of overtly queer fantasy, serving its subject with a fascination that never feels fawning.

Anselm Kiefer cycling around his warehouse studio in Wim Wenders’ Anselm. Photograph: Road Movies

Corinna Belz’s plainly titled Gerhard Richter Painting (2011) is a more straightforward documentary that nonetheless feels just as illuminating on its subject’s work and sensibility – largely because it has the patience to stand by and watch as Richter prepares and layers his canvases (the procedural nature of the film proves rather riveting). It’s a relatively rare portrait, alongside those by Wenders and Hazan, of an artist who is famous in their own time. Halina Ryschka’s 2019 doc Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint is instead a dedicated effort to elevate the status of a female artist – the now celebrated Swedish abstract mystic – who never got her due by the time of her death in 1944. The documentary lacks Af Klint’s own radicalism, but it persuasively makes its case.

Other great artists of yore have to make do with the classic biopic treatment, with the same names surfacing repeatedly. Film-makers simply cannot leave Vincent van Gogh alone, for example. Kirk Douglas gave him a tortured brawniness in Vincente Minnelli’s romanticised but unabashedly gorgeous Lust for Life (1956); Willem Dafoe probably came closer to the mark in the recent At Eternity’s Gate, though fellow artist Julian Schnabel’s film was fussily overworked; and the elaborately animated exercise Loving Vincent (2017) simply lets the pictures do the literal talking. (Robert Altman’s 1990 Vincent & Theo, probably the best of them, alas can’t be streamed anywhere in the UK.)

‘Close to the mark’: Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate. Photograph: Curzon

Schnabel’s artist’s eye served his subject to more kinetic effect in his 1996 debut, Basquiat (Apple TV), assisted by Jeffrey Wright’s raw, restless performance as the doomed young postmodernist. I’ve always liked the stripped-down emotional volatility of Ed Harris’s Pollock, which captures Jackson Pollock’s stoic masculinity and his mania, and deservedly won an Oscar for Marcia Gay Harden’s seething Lee Krasner. There may be a National Trust beauty to Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, but it digs intelligently beneath the English complacency that JMW Turner’s canvases raged against. Julie Taymor’s Frida reflected the reckless visual iridescence of Frida Kahlo’s painting, though dramatically it was stodgier stuff – in sore need of the unbound sensual experimentalism that Derek Jarman so aptly brought to his gilded erotic ode to Caravaggio.

Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis in Maudie (2016). Allstar

Artist biopics are often best off, however, when they take on less obvious subjects. At the intimate end of that scale, I have great affection for Maudie, Aisling Walsh’s tender, tactile study of arthritis-stricken folk artist Maud Lewis, beautifully played by Sally Hawkins. But the daddy of them all is Andrei Tarkovsky’s immense Andrei Rublev, a portrait of a 15th-century Russian icon painter that distils a whole national relationship to art, poetry and faith in its one brooding life story.

All titles available to rent on multiple platforms unless specified.

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