Portrait of the artist: angry, alienated or Existential sexbomb?

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The Independent Culture
This week sees the opening of a new film about an artist - Julian Schnabel's Basquiat, about the black American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died from a heroin overdose in 1987, aged 27. What makes it different from the usual art biopic is that Schnabel himself is an artist. Movies about art and the artworld are a mystery to most artists. Why are they so unrealistic? Why is the acting so hammy, the scripts so daft? The main offender here is the one most ordinary people love, Lust for Life, made in the 1950s with the hugely unlikely Kirk Douglas playing Vincent Van Gogh, which made it impossible for the world ever again to imagine Van Gogh without an American accent.

Who can forget Kirk / Vincent's tortured grimace as he crouches over his canvas like a lion at the kill, blazing candles tied to his straw hat, his regulation light-blue artist's smock flecked with angry paint spatters? "I don't have time to blend the colours!" he snarls contemptuously at the departing figure of Gauguin, played by Anthony Quinn, who has just been offering some ill-judged advice on how to paint chairs nicely.

Less commercially successful was The Agony and the Ecstasy, made at the beginning of the 1960s about Michelangelo's mural for the Sistine Chapel. Handsome Charlton Heston played the 15th-century Renaissance genius (who in reality was homosexual and quite ugly). He spent most of the film hanging from the ceiling. Lovely Rex Harrison played the Pope. "When will it be ready?" Rex would cry periodically throughout the three-hour epic. "Soon! Soon!" would come the heroic but mendacious reply from the rafters.

Since Lust and Agony, which portrayed artists as angry and alienated but basically extremely rugged with big sex appeal, the artist as Existential sexbomb has made a number of memorable filmic returns - most laughably in last year's Surviving Picasso, starring our own Sir Anthony Hopkins. Nick Nolte made a better effort as a grunting, hunky beatnik dauber for ever annoying the neighbours with his paint-blobbed cassette-player blasting out Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" in Martin Scorsese's section of the 1989 four-parter, New York Stories.

Art is always a turn-on, of course. Kim Basinger masturbates to slides of oil paintings in 91/2 Weeks; and in both Slaves of New York and After Hours (another Scorsese artworld-based film), all the women in the downtown New York artworld are portrayed as kooky nymphomaniacs.

Art is sexy but it can also turn nasty. In the 1985 thriller, To Live and Die in LA, the villain, played by Willem Dafoe, is a modern-day grim, black-clad painter of anguished figure scenes (the paintings provided by German artist, Rainer Fetting), who earns a living on the side as a counterfeiter and murderer. During the 1980s - the decade when greed was good, even in the artworld - art's nasty side was a recurring Hollywood theme. There was Legal Eagles, with Robert Redford, Oliver Stone's Wall Street, with Kirk's son Michael, and Beverly Hills Cop, with Eddie Murphy. In all these films the baddies are either dealers in contemporary art or owners of contemporary art. Ruthless, phoney, devious money-grabbers, perpetually shoving cocaine up their noses, but utterly at ease in the world of palettes and pentimenti.

But art isn't only either sexy or evil. It is loveable and wacky too. In An Unmarried Woman, Jill Clayburgh's marriage to a besuited straight guy fails and she finds solace in the arms of a free-spirited, joke-cracking painter. The last scene shows Clayburgh in the middle of a busy street struggling to hold on to a six-feet high abstract canvas that the artist, played by Alan Bates with a beard, has just thrust into her hands as a gift, on a whim. The golden rule for all art films, then, is that directors may not know much about art but they know what their public want - complete nonsense, apparently. But Basquiat has a good go at breaking this rule. Schnabel knew the subject of the film personally and is in an excellent position to offer an account of the conflicts that tormented Basquiat. Schnabel himself was already successful and glamorous in the early 1980s when Basquiat, who started out as a graffiti artist, signing his works on the streets of New York "Samo" (meaning "Same old shit") was first discovered by the prestigious Annina Nosei gallery.

Basquiat is a sympathetic portrait of a real artist, directed by a fellow artist. Is it any good? On the whole, yes. It isn't realistic exactly. The hero has visions, for one thing. But the fantasy parts are well pitched and appropriate for the kind of art Basquiat made, which was romantic and imaginative, not naturalistic. And it isn't de-bunking. Basquiat really did lead an adventurous, intense, colourful life, and the film is all those things. On the other hand, it isn't sensational in the wrong way. While it is clear that Basquiat took drugs, and died from them, the film doesn't harp on about this aspect of his life.

The only real problem with it is the lines given to the Schnabel character, played by Gary Oldman, which make him out to be unbelievably deep and wise. This is unfortunate, considering the intelligence of the rest of the writing, the way it cleverly exposes the psychology of the artworld - the way envy works, and the problems that can arise for an artist when they achieve success at an early age. But it is a forgivable weakness. If you're looking for a film about art that is both informative and moving, and not just camp parody or hoary cliches, then this is the one. A mould- breaker.