The best films about artists' lives
From Salma Hayek's Frida Kahlo to Kirk Douglas' Van Gogh, here are the greatest portraits of the great artists
It's strangely comforting, almost cosy, to see someone be so cantankerous and badly-behaved: it's reassuring to be reminded that this is what famous artists do.
But if you walk around the five-star Giacometti exhibition at the Tate Modern, taking in the actual artwork on display – which you really should – you might find yourself wondering whether the man himself was actually anything like Rush played him. Surely he was more subtle than that, more tasteful? Surely the man who created these marvels was a little bit more refined?
It's tempting to think so, but there seems to be little correlation between aesthetic sensitivity and social grace, at least where genius is concerned. This couldn't be better news for biopics, of course, which thrive off indulgent and outré characters. Below are the best movies that have captured the disordered lives of the great artists.
Factory Girl (2006)
Technically this is a biopic of an artist's muse rather than an artist – the titular 'Factory Girl' is Edie Sedgwick, actress, model, and one of Andy Warhol's 'superstars'. But the film does such a great job of portraying the volatile relationship between Sedgwick (Sienna Miller) and Warhol (Guy Pearce) – including a bitter little coda in which Warhol washes his hands of Sedgwick the day after her death by overdose – that it more than earns its place on this list.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2006)
This is the only documentary on the list, and that's because while Basquiat is an inherently cinematic figure – a young, beautiful, tragic enfant terrible – the 1996 Julian Schnabel feature film Basquiat is surpassed by footage of the man himself. Director Tamra Davis filmed Basquiat when they first met in 1985, and preserved twenty minutes of the young star to magnetic effect.
Mr Turner (2014)
The chief benefit of Mike Leigh's film is in how it upends the national conception of England's 'greatest painter'. The self-portrait of J. M. W. Turner that we tend to think of when we imagine the man himself – slightly fey, with cherry-red lips and black eyelashes – was painted when the artist was only twenty-four; during most of his period of fame, however, he more closely resembled Timothy Spall's bristly, grunting, distinctly unromantic character.
Love is the Devil (1998)
Although it now tends to be dismissed as myth, Francis Bacon's story of how he met his lover George Dyer is too good for any filmmaker to pass up. Therefore, Love is the Devil begins with young East End criminal Dyer (Daniel Craig) breaking into Bacon's studio in the middle of the night. Discovering him there, Bacon (Derek Jacobi) makes him an offer: Dyer can steal anything he likes as long as he comes to bed first... It was the start of a long and intense relationship, but (like Factory Girl) Love is the Devil is the story of an artist-muse relationship that ends badly for the muse.
Lust for Life (1956)
You might think that the 1990 film Vincent & Theo would be the definitive Van Gogh movie, seeing as it was directed by renowned auteur Roger Altman. But it was actually one of Altman's rare miss-steps; as the titular Vincent, Tim Roth is so over the top that he's totally lost sight of it. Curiously, the slightly corny Lust for Life is more compelling. Maybe it's the way that Kirk Douglas' Hollywood hunk-ness actually captures Van Gogh's physicality rather well, or how the film's technicolour brings out the vividness of his paintings?
A film about the relationship between two artists rather than an artist-muse relationship, Frida shows that when two free-spirit bohemians fall in love they both give as good as they get. Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) marries Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) with the expectation that he will cheat on her. He does – and she one-ups him by sleeping with multiple men and women, including one of the women Rivera is sleeping with; similarly, when he has an affair with her sister, she goes one better and has an affair with Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush again).