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

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor