Twenty-three minutes into Miloš Forman’s final feature Goya’s Ghosts (2006), the film takes leave of the usual “artist biopic” conventions. To this point, the script has trod familiar ground: the clashes of Francisco Goya (Stellan Skarsgård) with censorious authorities of the Church (concentrated in the character played by Javier Bardem); his regular commissions to paint portraits of wealthy aristocrats and royalty (who don’t like the way they look in his depictions); his sentimental attachment (freely invented for the movie) to a young woman (Natalie Portman) who serves as his model, and who will encounter a tragic, historically emblematic destiny.
Suddenly, the film departs from presenting the traditional medium of painting – and even from Goya’s interactions with individuals and institutions. We observe, for almost three, detailed minutes, the process of producing one of Goya’s aquatint etchings. The sequence largely eschews the faces of the artist and his four busy assistants; we observe the actions of hands and, above all, the effects of the tools prepared and used at each transformative stage of the proceedings: boiling water, cleansing cloths, and so on. In this series of gestures, the “creative flourish” of the artist is decisive, but also merely a link in the chain of a fully technologised operation. In hindsight, for contemporary viewers, the scene is surely meant to recall the stages of photographic creation, at least in its pre‑digital form: the successive capturing, developing and treating of an image.
This three‑minute dive into the material process of art – and not the artist’s psychology or his relationships with friends or foes as the titular focus of Goya’s Ghosts – makes for a refreshing change in the context of a biopic. As a general rule, whenever biopics concentrate on moments of actual art‑making, they play up the dramatic, even histrionic quality of emotional projection, artists in a trance‑fever of unmediated creativity as they pour their soul onto the canvas. That is surely a very old‑fashioned, Romantic‑era conception inadequate to the age of 20th‑century modern, abstract, and especially conceptual art, you might think. But just take a peek at the agonies of Nick Nolte as Lionel Dobie as he savagely applies paint to a huge canvas, Jackson Pollock‑style, to the beat of his favourite rock’n’roll tracks in Martin Scorsese’s episode in the trilogy, New York Stories (1989).
Abstract Expressionism, however abstract, is still expressionism, and that’s the hook that biopics generally hang onto, taking it to mean an expression of the inner self. Australian artist Davida Allen’s today little‑screened and rather charming semi‑feature film Feeling Sexy (1999), starring Susie Porter as the artist’s alter ego, follows a similar line, tying the effusions of Allen’s painting (described by Lynne Seear as her “gestural signature style”) to her erotic fantasy life. So, too, Alfonso Cuarón’s contemporary version of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1998), starring Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert De Niro, re‑envisions Pip as an artist granted an opportunity to exhibit in a major New York Gallery, with paintings of Gwyneth as Estelle by Francesco Clemente. But what of the more severe case of Gerhard Richter and his thoroughly conceptual art practice?
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away (2018) adopts a curious path into Richter’s life and work. The artist (who briefly collaborated with the filmmaker before shunning the project) is lightly fictionalised as Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) – with Joseph Beuys, his charismatic teacher at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, becoming Antonius van Verten (Oliver Masucci). Richter’s childhood and marriage, and the volatile periods of German history through which he passed, are foregrounded. It thus follows a standard biopic model, with a somewhat larger perspective than Hollywood usually allows.
Donnersmarck fastidiously recreates, in a key scene, Richter/Barnert’s material methods of producing paintings using photographic projection as an alternative to personal expression or painterly style – to instead more thoroughly investigate this auratic reality of the photographic image. This is, in fact, the key moment when the artist achieved his first successful, highly unconventional work championing this extraordinary slippage between painting and photography. But what, for the film, is its significance? Richter, whose experience of moving from East to West Germany, led to his professed aim to achieve ideological neutrality, is in Donnersmarck’s dramatisation defined more overtly by familial and Romantic relationships.
The painting technique of Richter/Barnert is also harnessed to “unconsciously,” even magically, express this hidden truth of biography, and the complex outcomes and impacts of National Socialism and the artist’s own family history and Nazi connections. This inadvertent and cryptic self‑revelation is backed up by a scene in which van Verten/Beuys, despite all the intellectual rhetoric, talks to Beuys’ own cult of personality through an obsessive materiality—most notably, through his trademark use of fat and felt—as a form of survivor’s guilt in accounts of his wartime experience. So, Beuys, too, was a closet Romantic artist, after all. Ironically, the film’s original German title translates as “Work without author.” If only!
Let us refocus on the role of technology, as the films so far mentioned only fleetingly do. I intend technology here in its widest sense: not just industrially produced machinery, but every kind of tool, support or device that aids in the art‑making process, from the most‑humble brush to the most sophisticated computer software. If we concentrate, the biopic can be reframed as our royal road through the text, framed by the workings of technology rather the minutiae of a gifted individual’s life. Such an approach tallies with the insights that have recently arisen from the field known as media archaeology, and from the earlier writings of prophetic thinkers including Vilém Flusser: it is the tools that shape the art – and that shape us as its creators – as much, if not more, than it is us who commandeer the tools in order to express our inner visions.
Two films that would, at first glance, seem to be far from the milieu of art provide handy, alternative models to the traditional biopic. Both of them depict a historic changeover in technological modes, which is one particularly fertile way to dramatise the role of tools and media.
The first, Olivier Assayas’ Sentimental Destinies (2000), adapted from a series of autobiographical novels by Jacques Chardonne, places its interpersonal drama within the context of changes in the manufacturing industries of the early twentieth‑century – specifically, the making of porcelain tableware. We follow the gradual but revolutionary passage from artisanal to assembly‑line production. In many films of this type, the detail of such alterations occurring in factory or workshop would be, at best, a backdrop, sketched in fleeting, representative details as the main characters swiftly promenade through the space. Assayas, to a large extent, upends this typical hierarchy of foreground human interest to background historical context. We are asked to pay equal attention – and to care equally – about the evolution of technology and the vicissitudes of intimate and familial relationships.
The second model is more bizarre, but no less compelling. It is Paul Schrader’s showbiz biopic Auto Focus (2002), based on the rather tawdry life and death of Bob Crane (played by Greg Kinnear), star of the popular 1960s TV series Hogan’s Heroes. The film is a veritable study in modern alienation – and this alienation is both the symptom and the effect of a media‑driven society. One feels that Schrader, almost perversely, decided to take a greater interest in the changing forms and uses of technology than in the psychology of his characters – or even to see the latter as an effect of the former. Auto Focus traces an indelible archaeology of audio‑visual media encroaching, step by step throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, into the intimate, domestic sphere. When he is just a voice on radio, Crane is popular, but not yet a star. It is his success on TV – a medium that adds voice to body in order to form a complete “image” – that incites and inflates his narcissistic fantasy. Crane’s escalating mania is attached first to still photography, then the “live” recording and playback of early video technology, and finally to the domestic cataloguing and editing of his serial sexual conquests as captured on videotape cassettes.
It was almost inevitable that the meeting of the traditional arts with cinema in the twentieth century would raise the issue of changing technology and the transformations it can wreak. At the same moment in France in the late 1940s André Malraux was creating collage‑like arrangements of fragmented details from great paintings in the layout of his books (thus evoking what he called an “imaginary museum” or “museum without walls”) and a young Alain Resnais was experimenting with diverse ways of filming paintings in his shorts Van Gogh (1948), Guernica (1950) and Paul Gauguin (1950): getting in close to small details, using camera movement to create specific itineraries for our gaze, sparingly deploying poetic voice‑overs and musical accompaniment as aural counterpoint to the visual realm.
The legendary film critic and theorist André Bazin referred to the work of Resnais and others as the “first revolution” to occur in films about art. For Bazin, “this revolution resided in the abolition of the frame, whose disappearance insures that the pictorial universe is at one with the universe tout court.” In other words, the camera – as a prosthetic or bionic extension of the human eye – provided a viewing perspective that was not the usual experience of living spectators seeing these works in a museum. By going right inside a painting, ignoring its frame and its placement within a gallery or museum setting, film offered a new, technologically determined way of seeing and experiencing works of art, complete with a “certain descriptive or dramatic duration.” But this revolution was limited; Bazin saw it as essentially spatial and not yet truly temporal in nature. The genuine liberation of art by film had not yet occurred.
The second revolution, in Bazin’s view, arrived with Henri‑Georges Clouzot’s remarkable The Mystery of Picasso in 1956. This film invents an ingenious intermeshing of Pablo Picasso at work with the machinery of filming: a specially designed transparent screen and lighting arrangement, plus the ability to ultimately flip the screen’s image left and right, allowed Clouzot and cinematographer Claude Renoir to film the Great Artist as he painted – but without having to include or somehow shoot past the figure of the man himself. What we witness is the “live” coming‑into‑being of pictures, all erasures and revisions included. It is an extraordinary record of the process of art‑making, containing many surprises (such as the way Picasso changes sketched human figures into animals or objects as he goes along).
Picasso took the idea of this project to heart so completely that he decided the works produced should exist only in and for the film; he destroyed most of the resulting canvases. As Bazin summed it up, “the canvas exists only as a screen.” Long before Roland Barthes’ famous essay “Death of the Author,” Bazin was sensitive to and excited by partial displacement of the figure of Picasso himself in The Mystery of Picasso. To use slow motion in order to display the brushstroke technique of an artist (as François Campaux had done in his 1946 documentary Henri Matisse) was not enough; as Bazin suggested, we need to penetrate the material secrets of art‑making, not the mythology of individual “genius.”
Perhaps the French‑Chilean director Raúl Ruiz had Bazin’s analysis in mind, four‑and‑a‑half decades later, when he went so far as to attach a tiny camera directly onto the paintbrush of his friend Jean Miotte – resulting in a merry chaos of abstraction that is, in a new sense, right “inside” the artwork and its evolving process (Miotte vu par Ruiz, 2001). As the avant‑garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas commented: “It’s a combat between Miotte and his canvas – like two boxers in the ring.”
The Mystery of Picasso ends with a glimpse of Picasso walking off the set and right past the sculpture he left behind as a gift for the crew: a figure, ambiguously human and/or animal, that is comprised of mocked‑up parts of a camera and/or projector. The cinematic apparatus itself has fully become a part of the game of creation.
One of the most fascinating and unusual of all artist biopics is Peter Watkins’ three‑hour and forty‑minute Edvard Munch, made for Norwegian television in 1974. It can be seen as a grand, unstable depository of virtually all the experiments with and enlargements of the traditional biopic form that I have so far mentioned. At the same time, it also retains, within its innovative format, some quite traditional elements. Edvard Munch presents itself, in the vein of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) or Orson Welles’ F for Fake (1973), as a film of total montage. That is, every scene is grist to the mill of a vast editing mosaic that compares fragments of incidents across time, and overlays the sound of one event over the image of another. Watkins regularly returns to the same material, churning it around to the extent that the film seems only occasionally to “move forward” in its chronological timeline.
On top of that, Watkins deploys his signature Brechtian device: the deliberately unreal conceit of a TV crew anachronistically darting around inside the scenes (including the most intimate) of the artist’s life, gathering images in reportage mode and pushily interviewing everybody for their “spontaneous” impressions. This results in the characters casting endless looks into camera, as if under the pressure of a live media event. Edvard Munch equates its own aura of disruptive, charged modernity with Munch’s art. On the one hand, the project embraces the Romantic code of the artist’s self‑expression as completely as two prominent Van Gogh biopics, Vincente Minnelli’s underrated Lust for Life (1956) starring Kirk Douglas or, more recently, Julian Schnabel’s woeful At Eternity’s Gate (2018) starring Willem Dafoe. Watkins’ scenes of Munch (incarnated soulfully by non‑professional actor Geir Westby) painting are constantly yoked to the artist’s surges of emotion, his moods, his sick fevers and mental perturbations.
Then again, it is hard to decide whether this ode to expressionism is a straightforward identification on Watkins’ part (for he, too, has weathered much criticism, censorship and difficulty in his career), or a more ironic, “second degree” pastiche of the standard modes of art history (with its emphasis on the artist’s “breakthroughs,” “triumphs” and “setbacks”) and Hollywood biopic alike. For the film clearly has much more on its mind than an individual’s agony and ecstasy. The filmmaker’s voice‑over narration punctuates the montage with often surreal recitations of dates and events around the world contemporaneous with Munch’s life and times: various wars and natural calamities, but also the invention of the machine gun and the birth of Hitler! And this historical, contextual frame includes, insistently, an emphasis on the double standards that constrained women, both in the interpersonal and artistic spheres, around the turn of the twentieth century.
Once again, I find the most engaging passages of Edvard Munch to be those that involve close attention to the tools of painting – a fine level of observation matched subsequently in film history only by Maurice Pialat in Van Gogh and Jacques Rivette in La Belle Noiseuse (both 1991). Watkins recreates the first, 1885 version of The Sick Child and the gradual process of Munch progressively scratching and scouring the canvas (using, for instance, the wooden end of his paintbrush), reducing the image to its essential, sketch‑like representation and eliminating stray, naturalistic details.
Later, as Munch works on Melancholy in 1891, the voice‑over (mixed with the harsh sounds of the artist working) states: “Seeking a way of peeling down to the essence of the inner reality, of stripping away needless detail and perspective, Munch now combines all the forms of media at his disposal, using pencil, pastel, oil and charcoal – not separately, but together. He applies the oil thinly to permit the canvas texture to remain a visible component of the finished work – to emphasise its flat surface. He allows the preliminary drawings in pencil and pastel, including the corrections made in them, to remain in the final work to show its spontaneity.”
Watkins’ treatment of the act of painting here – simultaneously immersed in “live,” close‑up detail and distant in its present‑day, reflective vantage point – is another way to give (as Bazin wished) both spatial and temporal dynamics to the process of art‑making. In October 2020, an intriguingly authentic portrait of the milieu of art – especially of art schools and their emerging artists – appeared in the program of the Viennale film festival. Shot on iPhone X and semi‑improvised, Kurdwin Ayub’s LOLOLOL is a naturalistic, seemingly off‑the‑cuff portrait of two young women who live and breathe this world. Hooking up with a few pals, they cruise through the vast exhibition space of Parallel Vienna, a sprawling group show art fair that occurs in a different, officially unused venue each year.
Moving from room to room – many decked out in “relational art” assemblages – the women roll their eyeballs, make bitchy remarks about the artists (most of whom they probably know), and dive whenever possible for the free food and drink. It is a typical scene from the art world of many countries, communicated with intimate realism. But what strikes me most about LOLOLOL is its prologue. For several minutes, we observe one of these women, Anthea, in her small apartment that doubles as an art studio. We see her meticulously prepare and execute her latest work in progress, which derives from the use of stencils that she herself cuts out and assembles. Naturally, the stencils make us think of graffiti street art, and of the industrial techniques of spray‑painting; these more‑or‑less Pop Art‑inspired references are no doubt somewhere in the artist’s mind.
As the camera picks up details from the unfussy stacks and piles of Anthea’s other works in the same vein, we see that she experiments in many ways with these stencils: not just painting “through” them, but also assembling their pieces as mobile sculptures. Anthea’s stencil “tools” are simultaneously scraps to be discarded and materials in their own right. Most artist biopics tend to be about the unbearable tension or contradiction between art and life, frequently ending in death; LOLOLOL, in its breezier way, explores their everyday fusion.
- ^ Lynne Seear, “Davida Allen: Survey”, Eyeline no. 4, March 1988.
- ^ André Bazin, “Un film Bergsonien: Le Mystère Picasso”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 60, June 1956, pp. 25–28 (translation mine).
- ^ Daniel Rothbart, “Entretien avec Jonas Mekas”, in Dominique Bax & Cyril Béghin (eds), Raúl Ruiz, Bobigny: Le Magic Cinéma, 2003, p. 162 (translation mine).
Adrian Martin is an Australian‑born film and arts critic based in Spain. His most recent book is Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982–2016 (University of Western Australia Publishing, 2020), and a dedicated website containing over 40 years of his writing is at www.filmcritic.com.au.
Cover image: Still from Never Look Away [Werk Ohne Autor], 2019 (Dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)