Art and culture schlock

Hollywood created the superstars of art. All three of them. David Sweetman wonders why the establishment still sniffs at biographical populism
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You recognise the scene - it's that night cafe in Arles, the one in the Van Gogh painting. And there, sitting at a round table, is the artist (Kirk Douglas) describing to Gauguin (Anthony Quinn) how he did it...

Van Gogh (agitated): I painted it blood-red, dark yellow, a green billiard table, four lemon-yellow lamps - orange, green - in an atmosphere of pale sulphur like a furnace. I tried to show a place where a man could ruin himself, go mad, commit a crime.

Gauguin (cheesed off): What's all this talk about Arlesienne women? I haven't seen a good one yet.

Van Gogh (smiling): They must have heard you were coming and they locked them up. Ah, wait till you see, Paul, there's something about them, the way they carry themselves, even the old ones, a certain classic grace.

Gauguin: Dignity? I'm talking about women, man - women! I like 'em fat and vicious and not too smart - nothing spiritual. To have to say "I love you" would break my teeth. I don't want to be loved.

Van Gogh: You really mean that, Paul?

Gauguin (rising): Let's get out of here. Show me the rest of the town.

They leave. In the street Gauguin has a fight with a Zouave outside a brothel.

It was raucous scenes like this that made Lust for Life the most popular art film ever, transforming Van Gogh into a superstar and earning an Oscar nomination for the actor who portrayed him. If people were honest, they'd admit that almost everything they know about the artist comes from the film, but the usual face-saving formula is to pass it off as amusing schlock on a par with Ben Hur.

Inevitably, it is the experts who get most worked up - 30 years on, many academic studies of Van Gogh still open with an assault on the myth of the tragic artist as immortalised in the film. Yet the Irving Stone novel on which it was based started life as a seriously researched biography that was only "loosened up" under considerable pressure from its publisher. Even then, Stone was too devoted to his subject to fake the dialogue, and that conversation in the cafe can be traced to Van Gogh's letters or Gauguin's memoirs - schlock it may sound, but it was also art history of a kind.

Much academic distaste comes from a disapproval of the whole notion of biography for tending to make too direct a connection between the life and the art. The result has been a curious tug-of-war that has distorted the exhibition policies of major galleries around the world. While the experts would prefer to organise thematic presentations that concentrate on the canvases, the need to raise cash has obliged them to return again and again to mega-shows of the tiny handful of superstars made famous by Hollywood. Faced with this irritating necessity, many connoisseurs have adopted an ostrich-like pose: witness the copious catalogue for the 1992 Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, which contained a scholarly article by Claire Freches-Thory of the Musee d'Orsay listing the major exhibitions and publications that created the artist's posthumous reputation. What she left out was any mention of the novel Moulin Rouge by Pierre La Mure, or John Huston's 1952 film of the book in which Jose Ferrer transformed the crippled artist into a hero and star on a level with Van Gogh. You might not like the film, but how could you deny its role in making its subject known to millions of people?

Given this antipathy, it is all the more surprising that the Royal Academy should have decided to collaborate with the National Film Theatre on a season of "Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Painters on Film", a tie- in with the exhibition "From Manet to Gauguin" at the Academy's Sackler Gallery.

Could this be a belated admission that films that popularise an artist aren't so bad after all? You can forget the portentous title for the season - there are no films about Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pissarro or Cezanne - though Renoir was randy enough and Cezanne crazy enough to pad out a script. All we get are the superheroes, the only three artists out of the entire history of Western art that everybody everywhere knows something about: Van Gogh (his ear), Gauguin (he sailed away to sun and sex), Toulouse-Lautrec (he was a drunken dwarf who liked tarts).

One wonders if the Academy realises the dangers involved in such associations? Hollywood's sanctification of promiscuous, white male artists has already caught the attention of the new generation of feminist art historians who have chosen to see the films not as fictional distortions but as reflections of the dubious myth-making originally encouraged by the artists themselves. In 1992, Griselda Pollock of the University of Leeds published Avant-Garde Gambits 1888-1893, a book that took as its starting point that scene in the cafe in Arles as a way of showing how the sexually thrusting Gauguin snatched artistic leadership from the enfeebled Van Gogh.

Surprisingly, Pollock saw nothing wrong in treating what had, until then, been viewed as a mere piece of entertainment as if it were now a primary source, a cultural phenomenon, affecting millions and conditioning the way that they engage with the art of two of Europe's cultural giants.

Pollock reveals what a previous generation of art historians did not want to accept: that far from having traduced their subjects, writers like Stone simply transferred the artists' own boastings and lies straight on to the page and thence on to the screen. Gauguin spent a lot of time bragging about his child-brides in Tahiti, and if he comes across as a swaggering stud in Lust for Life it's hardly the fault of the director.

Perhaps aware of this, the Royal Academy and the National Film Theatre have tried to elevate their season by including more recent films that claim to be based on deeper research - but to no avail. Only The Wolf at the Door (1986), by the Danish director Henning Carlsen, gets anywhere near bucking the trend - by being entertaining yet reasonably accurate, proving the rule exemplified by Lust for Life and Moulin Rouge: that the more a film works in cinematic terms the better its subject is served, though this inevitably leaves a gap between historical and dramatic truths that the experts will continue to bemoan.

Oddly enough, two forthcoming events may somewhat dampen their wrath - this autumn will see the publication of a life of Suzanne Valadon by June Rose with the undeniably cinematic title Mistress of Montmartre, while at the same time we will have Emma Thompson playing Dora Carrington in the first bio-film of a woman artist. If either of these helps launch a female star into the limited male artistic firmament, then perhaps we lovers of culture schlock will no longer need to hide our secret vice.

n 'Painters on Film' starts today at the NFT (0171-928 3232). David Sweetman is the author of 'The Love of Many Things: a Life of Vincent Van Gogh' and 'Paul Gauguin'.