Tragic obsessions keep cinema hooked on art

Film-makers love painters, especially if their lives were violent, says Matthew Mezey
Why make films about painters and painters' lives? One reason, claims the art critic Brian Sewell, is that they provide a good justification for portraying sex, violence and drug-taking.

Whatever the reason, they are booming. Basquiat, the film of graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat's rise to become the darling of the New York art scene before overdosing on heroin aged just 27, is only the latest such offering, and film-makers' appetite for painters appears to be increasing.

On the horizon are films about Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Diane Arbus as well as the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

Shooting begins next month on Love is the Devil, a British film written and directed by John Maybury about the dissolute life of painter Francis Bacon in 1960s Soho. Derek Jacobi, Tilda Swinton and Rupert Everett are likely to be confirmed as leads.

Bacon, who died in 1992, gained a world reputation for his paintings which often depicted the twisted bodies of isolated and despairing figures, a reflection perhaps of the troubled upbringing which saw him horse-whipped by a groom on the orders of his father, who hoped to turn the effeminate youngster into a real man. The film centres on Bacon's gay relationship with George Dyer, a subject of many of his paintings.

Michelle Pfeiffer is to take the lead role as artist Georgia O'Keeffe, famed for her paintings of flowers and skulls, in Paramount's film of her relationship to photographer and gallery-owner Alfred Stieglitz.

The stormy marriage and tumultuous life of the New York-based abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, who pioneered his famous drip paintings in the postwar years, provides the subject matter for not one, but two, films.

Ed Harris has been mentioned to take the role of the alcoholic artist whose early death in 1956 in a road accident helped propel him to legendary status. A second film in development is a joint venture from Robert De Niro's and Barbra Streisand's production companies and was originally set to star the pair.

Pollock is said to have once told a restorer to chuck away one of his damaged abstract creations and do one himself as no one would know the difference as long as the signature was there.

"Film-makers are looking for authority for sex and violence, and if you pick a figure who is venerated, like a Jackson Pollock or a Georgia O'Keeffe, it is justified and you can get away with it," says Sewell, art critic of the London Evening Standard.

"When sex and violence is under threat from a moralising middle class, it gives it authority. It is a response to impending censorship.

"It's all the things the Whitehouse brigade would have us leave out. If you want to make a homosexual film, you make one about Francis Bacon, and Jackson Pollock gives a licence for violent heterosexual activity, drunkenness, drug-taking and eventual death."

Both Keanu Reeves and Stephen Dorff have been mentioned to play the lead in Somebody's Sins, a projected film about the controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and his relationship to the rock singer-cum-poet Patti Smith.

In his work Mapplethorpe sought the perfect male form, usually black, and many of his disastrous relationships were with his photography subjects. He died from an Aids-related illness in 1989.

Also in the pipeline is a film about Diane Arbus and a screen-version of Steve Martin's off-Broadway comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile about a fictional meeting between Picasso and Einstein in a Paris bar. Einstein's explanation of his theory of relativity to the painter, who was recently played by Anthony Hopkins in the Merchant/Ivory film Surviving Picasso, inspires him to finish a new painting.

A fictionalised account of art- world intrigue, Incognito is due for release in the autumn and concerns the expert forger of a Rembrandt whose skill puts his life in danger.

Three other possible films include Al Pacino's pet project, a film of the final days of Modigliani, who struggled in Paris against poverty and tuberculosis and died at 35, as well as the stories of Lee Miller and Frida Kahlo, with which Madonna's name was earlier linked.

Leslie Felperin, deputy editor of the film magazine Sight and Sound, argues that the public's fascination with tragedy and obsession is at the root of the popularity of artists in film.

"People are fascinated by the private lives of artists, ever since Van Gogh and the tragedy of his life, the myth of the romantic artist toiling in their garret, for art, and for us all.

"All of us would love to do something that pure, even though in the real world art is very commercialised, as the film Basquiat showed.

"It is a compelling subject because audiences are drawn to that myth, that romance. Films about artists are always great tragedies."

"They're dead and they can't sue," says Boyd Farrow, editor of Screen International. "This means more artistic licence for the film-makers, and everybody wants to make their movies as colourful as possible. If you look at America there are a tremendous number of biopics at the moment. People do like to know that there are true stories.

"And if you can give something an extra hook like an anniversary link as well then it's a ready-made marketing frenzy."

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