Hollywood loves painters - they go mad, shoot each other, OD on Class A drugs. We've had Kirk's Van Gogh and Charlton's Michelangelo; soon we'll see Hopkins' Picasso and Bowie's Warhol. But are these portraits really art?
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There are painters, writers and composers who have had long, tranquil and productive lives. So it seems. Pierre Bonnard painted his wife, the meal table and the garden for decades, without deviation or dismay. He may have felt some private despair, agonising over colours and compositions; he may have dreamt of greater fame, big money and limos to Monte Carlo. But he didn't trash the garden, betray his wife or cut off body parts. And there has never been a movie about Bonnard. More or less, the same, even tenor of life seems to cover Nabokov, Stephen Sondheim and Titian, whose lives, as we know them, show no graver trait than perfectionism. Of course, perfectionism will kill you, too, and can be brutal on others; and even smooth appearance may be a clue to subterfuge and turmoil. As Thoreau might have said, if he'd studied artists instead of pond life, most artists lead lives of quiet desperation.

"Why complain?" you ask - "they have their calling and purpose." But suppose they don't want it; suppose their vocation feels like a malady they cannot shrug off? Then, to do their work, artists must enter into a strange pact in which they allow us to feel that their consuming-but- insoluble tasks are easy - or natural. Beyond that, they can't explain and shouldn't complain, for their lack of choice over what to do in life (their calling, their curse) is also their terrible strength. The Mozart of Amadeus (1984) is like that - a child, a buffoon, a beast, unfit to possess his own music. That's how the bitter Salieri sees him. He can't explain Mozart, so he complains. As he sees it, Mozart is a drain through which glory flows in helpless mix with dross. But Salieri is too much the connoisseur of critical taste to be as natural or accepting as Mozart. He does not comprehend the gap between Wolfie and that music, or the savage facility with which Amadeus closes it. It would have been easier for Salieri if he'd never met Mozart.

It reminds me of Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon. As the author sits at the bullring reflecting on the mysteries of the corrida, he gets to talking with an old lady, a Mrs Grundy or Mme Salieri, the spirit of respectable gentility doing her best with a challenging new experience. At last the author insults this stooge he has invented, and she is pained.

"You know," she says, "I like you less and less the more I know you."

"Madame," he replies, sticking in the sword, "it is always a mistake to know an author."

Yet authors and artists cannot just be exiled to the island of their own self-absorption. For we expect them to know life, to be experienced, and to have enough sense of the human heart to create characters as odd and believable as the old lady in Death in the Afternoon or the mortified Salieri.

SUCH thoughts are prompted by the banality of the new film from Ivory- Merchant (I prefer that ordering of their names because it suggests how close their metier is to the making of pretty knick-knacks, like dentures or cigarette holders). Surviving Picasso (15) maintains in its credits that it is derived from Arianna Stassinopoulos's biography, Picasso, Creator and Destroyer, a title so blurbish that the travail of reading it can be skirted. Yet I-M are trading on this insubstantial book to sustain their enterprise: the central characters of their film are Picasso and Francoise Gilot, the young woman who met the painter during the Second World War, who lived with him, had two of his children, and who went on to write the vivid Life with Picasso, a valuable piece of emotional journalism and the first revelation of Picasso as a celebrity monster. Although Francoise narrates the film, and Ivory recreates some of its illustrations, the Gilot book is not mentioned in the credits - because its author disapproved of the project. More damning to the venture, Francoise's son, Claude (who administers the Picasso estate), refused to let the film use any of Picasso's art.

So Surviving Picasso offers a series of fake Picassos whenever the story has to show us what the master is doing. James Ivory has even claimed in an interview that this masquerade hardly matters, since so few viewers will be able to pick imitations from the real thing. It is another cornerstone of that kind of contempt that Anthony Hopkins can "be" Picasso by way of combed white hair and brown contact lenses. It doesn't work. Picasso's eyes still burn and tease us from photographs, but Hopkins only brings Peter Cook to mind - "He's got the eyes, Dud, the eyes that follow you around the room. Eyes to undress you, Dud."

For I-M it hardly matters that the paintings are wrong if their Francoise (Natascha McElhone) takes her clothes off occasionally to inspire the painter. It is this Francoise, in the film's plaintive mood, who "survives" Picasso. Lovely young thing that she was, she comes into the painter's orbit, serves as his muse, bed-mate, cook and general worrying post, all for bare expense money, mothers his children and then has to watch him taking up with a younger, fresher female body. Never mind, say I-M and their screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Francoise is plucky, steadfast and her own woman. (On screen, though, she has little to offer except McElhone's chronic, rhapsodic smile.)

If you're smelling something, it's a large, days-dead rat. The real Francoise Gilot was a smart, tough, strong woman who took her chance with the monster. She had ample evidence of the women Picasso had glorified, exhausted and discarded already. She was shrewd enough to pose and know that the paintings were her shot at immortality. And if she ever thought her fate might be different, she was practical enough to get a book out of it. She wasn't a pushover, or a victim. Indeed, the real Gilot could encourage the idea of a very different film, one in which an unsentimental muse and model gives Pablo what he wants and leaves him, taking the pictures as settlement. (This is a storyline played with in Orson Welles's F for Fake (1973), one of the most penetrating films about artistry, forgery and authenticity, and what we, the public, can be made to swallow.)

The naive attitudinising of political correctness is like a back-projection throughout Sur-viving Picasso - it leaves the light feeling sapped. Yet in any film about a painter, the light should vibrate with drama. One day the public may learn to tolerate the role of real, flawed people in creating the art we crave, just as we must admit democracy's reliance on men and women with imperfect human records. (Again, perfectionism can lead to dictatorship and killing consequences.) America may or may not come to terms with the gang of skeletons in Clinton's cupboard. We have learned recently that even Albert God-bless-him Einstein dumped an early wife on his way to E=mc2. There may be grief and damage in living too close to an artist, whether that involves Picasso's women, the children photographed with such unsettling sensuality by their mother, Sally Mann, or anyone who feels exploited in having a part of their life, their look or their words stolen away for posterity. Artists do use people: they spy on us; they reinvent us. They are the scorpion to our frog. But they also give back, in stories and pictures that may make life more appealing. That is not always a wholesome or comfortable exchange. But that is a private matter, best left to those who have been through it.

Strangers and beneficiaries need not blame dead artists - or over-romanticise them. Consider instead how much artists blame themselves. Many work out of a stew of manic-depressive energies; most of them are certain they have failed. Surviving Picasso rarely looks beneath Picasso's bravado cockiness, yet in his work there are so many studies of weeping women, painted almost in anguish, and that body of late drawings in which the elderly artist is befuddled and humiliated by young models. I don't propose succumbing to an artist's self-pity (a fund often as deep as the talent), but there is no point in boasting of survival. We are all wounded by Picasso's beautiful renderings of pain. It is only with that in mind that we can begin to understand his brilliant, burning eyes, and feel in contrast the doused balefulness in Hopkins.

THAT tradition of the burning or Promethean artist was laid down in Lust for Life, the 1955 movie adaptation of Irving Stone's novelised biography, directed by Vincente Minelli, with Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh. To put it mildly, Douglas identified. He was Van Gogh, and so Vincent became every desperate searcher after fulfilment that Kirk had ever played. The actor did resemble the great self-portraits, but it was vital to the film's plan that Douglas's face seemed as fiery and unsettled as the stippled brushwork Van Gogh favoured. The texture of the movie was true to the paintings.

Lust for Life comes from an age when movies had less shame or irony than now. It was a soaring melodrama about a man in agony, a visionary tormented by madness and his failure in all other aspects of life. Nothing threatened Van Gogh's drama. By contrast, Maurice Pialat's far quieter Van Gogh of 1991 gave us a morose, awkward man who just happened to paint. Douglas's artist was passionate and uncouth; he couldn't endure ordinary hypocrisy; he had no friends, and no women who could live with his violent tenderness. But he was alive, or "alive!". Today, that extremism is harder to take; some audiences laugh. Until the close. For after Van Gogh shoots himself in the wheat field, with crows as his furies, the Cinema-Scope frame fills in peace and vindication with a succession of the paintings that billionaires now bid for. And which, for the moment, are accepted as masterpieces.

Lust for Life is uninhibitedly romantic, and I would guess that Vincente Minelli had as deep an identification with the painter as Douglas. The film's faith in creative compulsion is akin to the way the ballerina in The Red Shoes (1948) has to dance, at the expense of order and happiness, in that thing called "her life". Obituary reverence makes that indulgence easier to take. In practice, Van Goghs are now given Lithium or Prozac to make them less troublesome. The billionaires who want Van Gogh on the wall would not endure his riot in their lives. And who knows whether even Van Gogh might have been tamed by just 10 per cent of the money and adulation he has earnt since death? Not the least achievement in Picasso's career is his contempt for fame.

MUCH has changed since Lust for Life. Television documentary has showcased so many prominent artists, sat them down with some Melvyn Bragg or other, and called for explanation. Not everything is explained, maybe. But many painters can do smooth self-promotion and play the art game that Van Gogh resisted. That world intrigues us now: many movie people buy paintings, support the excellent Los Angeles museums, and mingle with the art community. The best things in Surviving Pic-asso are his teasing of dealers who come to play court, and the depiction of his secretary, Sabartes (very well played by Peter Eyre), a quiet fanatic who has abandoned his own life to attend Picasso.

Most artists on television are duller than Kirk Douglas's Van Gogh. But most artists reckon they lead monotonous lives: they work, they eat, they sleep, they work - and sometimes the sleep is hard to come by because the stubborn motifs from the work will not lie still long enough for their owners' peace. The movies lust for more, for family abandoned or forgotten, money squandered in picturesque ways. In such melodrama, sooner or later, the painter paints with life - that's so much easier in movies than the intense but invisible debates with an empty canvas. That's the legacy of Van Gogh's ear, the one thing everyone knows about the painter. And in the forthcoming film Basquiat, the young Haitian graffiti artist who wows New York lives and dies by his private melodrama, heroin. But Basquiat is especially intriguing because it is made by a painter, Julian Schnabel, who acknowledges the treacherous role of fame in the art world - the thing the film calls "the Van Gogh train", as in gravy train.

And so this cool, stoned enfant sauvage, Jean-Michel Basquiat, inspired by Guernica and beguiled by friendship with a comically listless Andy Warhol (David Bowie), becomes a "famous painter". Schnabel was a friend and supporter of Basquiat, but his movie leaves us to wonder whether this kid is a genius, or whether we are being asked to admire the emperor's gaudy clothes. This movie, too, is the more enigmatic because the Basquiat estate forbade use of the real paintings. And so it is said, Schnabel did some "Basquiats" himself - odd proof that anyone can paint that crudely.

But it is not easy in movies, somehow, to let the work settle doubts. That the final survey of Van Goghs is so potent in Lust for Life is a testament to how the rest of the film has made us share the painter's experience and the nervous energy in his brush-work. By contrast, the Sistine Chapel that Charlton Heston "does" in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) arouses odd suspicions of a gang of set decorators after a bottle of tequila. All too often, within the frame of film's own rather strident art, paintings look staid, dilute and - as it were - quoted. It's that hint of speciousness that makes Alan Rudolph's film The Moderns (1988) so subtle and sub- versive, for it understands how (just like the movie business) the art scene knows noth- ing and is waiting to be seduced and hyped.

The Moderns and F for Fake are more alert and intelligent than, say, Surviving Picasso. They never settle for artist-worship (or abuse), but they see the process of painting struggling to emerge from a flighty, pretentious, devious context. Basquiat is an ordinary film. Jeffrey Wright is quite good as the painter, but neither the script nor the finished film is disposed to do much with the character. Far more impressive is the portrayal of the coterie of critics, dealers and entrepreneurs, and the way in which Warhol's camp indifference has undermined America's trust of art. One scene, in which Bowie's Warhol and a jittery collector (played by Dennis Hopper) haggle over Basquiat postcards, is itself enough to explain why so many painters prefer not to know their public.

Of course, Warhol was a film-maker as well as a painter, and his pervasive influence on the American arts has made for yet another movie in which he is both character and climate: Mary Harron's I Shot Andy Warhol (18), which tells the story of Valerie Solanas, the woman who tried to kill Warhol in 1968. As superbly played by Lili Taylor, Solanas is that rare figure in such a film, a deeply creative person who has no talent (Ed Wood told the story of another intense loser, and had the wit to make a rapture of it, instead of a tragedy). In I Shot Andy Warhol, Solanas believes Warhol has stolen a play she had written. This triggers her paranoia. For all artists, that pit of serpents may be the most troubled obstacle. It is also the warping mirror in which the failures can glimpse the glory that has been denied them.

PARANOIA may be hilarious or tragic, depending on your point of view. But it is a way of defining the modern artist as an archetype. He or she is someone designated as a communicator; but the creative identity must build up walls against the uncaring world. Do artists feel they have communicated - or ridden themselves of some depleting burden? Even as the load goes, though, doesn't the need re-gather and intensify? It may torment the artist that the old ladies admire his search for himself. But from within, that drive can seem like a prolonged, forlorn attempt to escape.

That paradox is hard to pin down, but it helps explain why the artist is a model for our times, someone unsure where self-expression ends and mania takes over. We are due to have more films about painters - there are Jackson Pollocks in the offing. And just as we are drawn to great leaders who are cheats, so we are fascinated by the mix of fraud and genius in artists. Still, there's a case to be made that the best film ever made about a painter is 1958's The Horse's Mouth (from a Joyce Carey novel) in which Alec Guinness played Gulley Jimson. No gall-ery has Jimsons today, of course: he was invented (though John Bratby did paintings for the movie). The Picasso of F for Fake is nearly as much of an invention, and a lasting delight. As for the Picasso of Surviving Picasso, one can only say that the real painter wins by a knockout, that the people in his life should quit complaining, and that the great Pablo was a more passionate actor than Anthony Hopkins. But perhaps his life depended on it.

! `I Shot Andy Warhol' (18) is released on 19 Nov. `Surviving Picasso' (15) is released on 3 Jan 1997. `Basquiat' (no cert) plays at the London Film Festival (0171 633 0274) on Saturday; it goes on general release on 28 Mar 1997.