′At Eternity′s Gate′ and other films about artists | Film | DW | 16.11.2018
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'At Eternity's Gate' and other films about artists

Julian Schnabel's van Gogh biopic "At Eternity's Gate" is not the first to shine a light on the life of an artist. Here are 10 fabulous films about artists and their art.

Is US artist Julian Schnabel perhaps more talented as a film director than as a painter? Does he do a better job sitting in the director's chair than working on canvas?

Of course, categories like "better" and "more talented" aren't criteria that are always taken seriously in the realm of the arts. But while Schnabel's works sell well, the New York-born artist is by no means indisputable: experts regularly question his artistic merits.

Film debut a hit with the critics

Critics do not doubt Julian Schnabel's merits as a filmmaker, however, be it for his debut movie Basquiat (1996), the romantic drama Before Night Falls (2000), the touching biographical drama The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) or his brand new film, the Vincent van Gogh biopic At Eternity's Gate (photo above) that has just been released to American audiences. Julian Schnabel, the film director, has always been showered with enthusiastic reviews.

An artist should be the one to make films about artists because he simply does a better job, Schnabel said just a few weeks ago when he presented Eternity's Gate at the Zurich Film Festival. He called efforts by other filmmakers to portray van Gogh's oeuvre awful. Julian Schnabel certainly never lacked assertiveness.

Julian Schnabel (picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS/A. Gallo)

Julian Schnabel, artist and filmmaker

Willem Dafoe shines

Schnabel's van Gogh film Eternity's‘ Gate focuses on the artist's last years, a magical film about van Gogh's art and mental illness that enthralled critics and audiences alike at its September world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. "It is a film that strives to capture the ecstatic presentness, the immersion in the moment and the blazing, almost athletic certainty with which Van Gogh painted," saidThe Guardian, while the Hollywood Reporter praised"Dafoe's possessed, full-contact performance."

Never before, said Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung, has Vincent van Gogh been portrayed with "such a sequence of moving impressions by another artist," in particular in comparison with older films about van Gogh by Vincent Minnelli or Robert Altman.

Film history 

Undoubtedly, Julian Schnabel and his brilliant leading actor have added a gem to the film genre of films about artists and their work.

There are many feature films about artists, some better than others. A few still appear good today and many others seem to be collecting dust. More recently, documentary filmmakers have added dozens of portraits of artists to the list, and many of these films made it to the big screen.

Vincent and Theo filmstill (picture-alliance/dpa/Everett Collection)

"Vincent and Theo," the 1990 film portrait of the Dutch artist

Back in 1955, Vincente Minnelli filmed what is probably still the best-known van Gogh movie, starring Kirk Douglas in the role of the unhappy Dutch painter. Like so many Hollywood films about an icon of art history, Lust for Life comes across as overly lofty to audiences today. Robert Altman's 1990 Vincent and Theo is more matter-of-fact and probably more realistic.

Clouzot shows Picasso at work 

Henri-Georges Clouzot resorted to a brilliant trick for his 1955 portrait of Pablo Picasso, The Mystery of Picasso: He shows the artist at work, painting. Picasso even painted on glass, with the camera watching the strokes of his paint brush from the other side.

With a feature film, Julian Schnabel has chosen a more traditional approach for his van Gogh portrait. The Dutch painter always said he had a deep relationship with God, Schnabel said in a German TV interview. "He was seeking a way to connect his work and nature with a higher being; it was like a religion, but without the church."

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