x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

Cinema’s fascination with telling the stories of tortured artists

We look at why cinema is awash with biopics about famous and not-so-famous artists.

Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis in Maudie. The film, directed by Aisling Walsh, has become a hit in Lewis’s homeland. Duncan Deyoung / Sony Pictures Classics
Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis in Maudie. The film, directed by Aisling Walsh, has become a hit in Lewis’s homeland. Duncan Deyoung / Sony Pictures Classics

For the uninitiated, Maud Lewis – the subject of Aisling Walsh’s biopic Maudie – was a Canadian folk artist famed for her simple, brightly coloured pictures of the natural world.

A self-taught artist, she painted compulsively, despite suffering from the debilitating conditions of rheumatoid arthritis and, later, emphysema.

While she never had huge commercial success in her lifetime – she died in 1970 at the age of 67 – her art has increasingly become valuable over time.

Former US president Richard Nixon bought two of her paintings for the White House, while much of her work is on display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

It is no wonder, then, that Maudie – the latest offering in Vox Cinemas Diff365 programme – has become a hit in Lewis’s homeland; in the Atlantic Canada region, it beat even blockbuster Fast & Furious 8 at the box-office.

Largely a two-hander, Maudie focuses on the painter – played by British actress Sally Hawkins, who was nominated for an Oscar in 2014 for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine – and her husband Everett (Ethan Hawke), a misfit who barely scrapes a living selling fish.

As The Hollywood Reporter put it, this oddball central pairing “represents the antithesis of what most paying customers of the cinema want to see”. And yet it would seem as if this is exactly what audiences are interested in, given cinema is awash with biopics about famous and not-so-famous artists.

Another movie that might appeal to fans of Maudie is 2008’s Séraphine, which starred Yolande Moreau as another real-life self-taught painter, Séraphine de Senlis, a working-class housekeeper in the early 20th century. Inspired by her faith, she painted in secret by candlelight, until her work was discovered by a German art collector. But the Great Depression left her penniless, and she was admitted to an asylum for treatment for chronic psychosis.

This is typical of cinematic portrayals of artists, where genius goes hand in hand with torment.

Think of the Oscar-nominated Ed Harris in his self-directed film Pollock (2000), in which he played abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock. Despite periods of sobriety, Pollock battled with alcohol for years, suffering from depression and fits of rage. He was killed in 1956, at the age of 44, after his car hit a tree – the artist was drunk at the wheel.

Actress Salma Hayek found one of her best roles as Mexican surrealist artist Frida Kahlo in the 2002 film Frida. It’s another impressively staged tale of catastrophe. Early in her life, Kahlo’s back and pelvis were horribly injured in a bus accident. Here, we get not only physical torment, but also psychological, through her marriage to philandering muralist Diego Rivera, played by Alfred Molina.

Even when artists make films about artists, they find it hard to resist the tempestuous narrative.

Celebrated painter Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film Basquiat starred Jeffrey Wright as Brooklyn street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Bowie as his mentor, Andy Warhol. Despite his rise in the New York art world, Basquiat died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27 – the same age as musicians Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix when they died.

It is perhaps the dangers that come hand in hand with artistic expression that draw audiences and filmmakers alike to these stories.

As Schnabel put it: “I know what it’s like to be attacked as an artist. I know what it’s like to be judged as an artist. I know what it’s like to arrive as an artist and have fame and notoriety…I know what it’s like to be appreciated as well as degraded.”

Little wonder sanity can be a precious commodity among the greatest artists.

It is, therefore, hardly a surprise that so many films have been made about Dutch post- Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh – from Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life to Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo. The artist, who famously cut off his ear, killed himself at the age of 37.

Yet while it is understandable that filmmakers might be tempted to try to sculpt drama from these tortured tales, it is more intriguing when they find other routes of expression.

Take Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (2014), a brilliantly conceived work that stars Timothy Spall as 19th-century Romantic painter JMW Turner. True, Turner had his complexities, including his refusal to acknowledge the paternity of his children. But as Leigh notes, Turner did not forge his art in the very fire of his internal dramas.

“He doesn’t struggle with his demons – his demons don’t get in the way of his art,” the director says. “He’s not struggling against his demons to create his art.”

Indeed, perhaps the best film about a painter – Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot (1989) – is about overcoming obstacles. As played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Irishman Christy Brown didn’t let cerebral palsy prevent him from painting (or writing), using his foot to hold his brush.

As in Maudie, physical impairment is not seen as a barrier to creating great art. All you need to do is find your canvas.

Maudie is at Vox Cinema Mall of the Emirates from tomorrow. www.voxcinemas.ae

artslife@thenational.ae