Simm to play Van Gogh as TV makes drama of art

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The tense relationship between Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin while they were housemates in the south of France is to be explored in a drama for Channel 4.

John Simm, who starred in the BBC1 drama Life on Mars, will play the Dutch artist in the film. It is due to be screened next year and confirms a trend towards screen depictions of the lives and works of great painters.

Eight artists are featured in Simon Schama's Power of Art, which is being shown on BBC2. In the cinema, Goya's Ghosts, featuring Natalie Portman, will be followed next year by Nightwatching, a dramatisation of the painting of Rembrandt's The Night Watch, featuring the actor Martin Freeman as the Dutch artist. A biopic of Gustav Klimt, starring John Malkovich as the Austrian artist, is awaiting release.

The lives of artists is a recurrent theme in the history of film, with their scandalous or tragic tales of at least as much interest as their paintings. It also gives film stars the chance to bolster their artistic credentials by portraying tortured creative souls.

In the latest addition to this genre, Channel 4 is focusing on a period when Van Gogh and Gauguin cohabited in Arles in the South of France. John Lynch, who played the mysterious Nemo in the BBC's recent adaptation of Bleak House, will play Gauguin, starring alongside Simm, who has enjoyed critical acclaim for his appearances in the television dramas State of Play and Sex Traffic.

The film's title, The Yellow House, refers to the address in Arles which the two men shared in November and December 1888.

In the TalkbackThames production, the artists will be shown as they approach middle age, still flat broke, and abandon respectability, family and friends to commit themselves to painting.

Their last hope is each other, but only if they can get along. Gauguin rightly fears that Van Gogh is on the brink of a psychological crisis; Van Gogh claims that Gauguin puts too much salt in the stew.

They drink, argue, and visit prostitutes, but most of all, paint together, sharing their obsession. During the two months they produce paintings that are now acknowledged as masterpieces of modern art. The film explores to what extent this period of creativity affected them personally and whether their friendship - the last chance either has of having any kind of relationship - can survive.

Simon Schama's Power of Art underlines the popularity of artists on the small screen. The series, broadcast at 9pm on Fridays, examines eight artists starting with Caravaggio and ending with Rothko. Schama, explaining the concept behind the series, said: "This is not a series about things that hang on walls, it is not about decor or prettiness. It is about the force, the need, the passion and power of art."

Mark Kines, of the independent film company Cassava Films, said: "The films are almost never hits. The average filmgoer couldn't give a damn about these [artists]. As long as history provides us with unhappy, abusive, depressive, suicidal, alcoholic painters - some of whom managed to do brilliant work - filmmakers and actors will exploit their stories."

From canvas to celluloid

* Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo

Hayek played the surrealist Mexican painter in the 2002 biopic Frida. Nominated for six Oscars, it charts Kahlo's life from her early struggle with disability to her tempestuous relationship with her artist husband.

* Anthony Hopkins as Pablo Picasso

Seen through the eyes of Picasso's lover Francoise Gilot (Natasha McElhone), the 1996 film Surviving Picasso concentrates on the artist's personal life and relationships rather than his works of art.

* Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock

Directed by and starring Ed Harris, Pollock, depicts the artist's turbulent career from struggling painter to celebrity, and the emotional torment which fuelled his work and led to his death.

* Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh

Douglas played the painter in Lust for Life, a 1956 biopic directed by Vincente Minnelli and adapted from the novel by Irving Stone. Tim Roth also played Van Gogh - in Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo in 1990.