Space Gallery is right in the middle of its SCOPE visual arts film series (continuing tonight with the documentary “Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine”), and although the old saying “talking about music is like dancing about architecture” seems to suggest the futility of making a movie about artists, there have been some great films on the subject. And even though writing about movies about art is probably akin to sculpting about dancing about architecture, here are my picks for the best (all can be found at Videoport):

“Basquiat”: Biopics suffer from a certain by-the-numbers quality, but that’s nimbly avoided in this film about abstract expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat through the typically brilliant, elusive lead performance by Geoffrey Wright. Aided by a great supporting cast (including David Bowie as Andy Warhol), and exciting, appropriately expressionistic direction from Basquiat pal (and art bigwig) Julian Schnabel (whose paintings I always found pretentious and phony weird).

“Pollock”: Again, this biopic is carried along by its lead’s powerful, tortured performance. Sure, all art pics must have scenes of the artist madly scribbling/painting/sculpting away, but when Pollock discovers his legendary “drip” technique, director/star Ed Harris makes the process absolutely thrilling.

“The Horse’s Mouth”: Alec Guinness’ Gully Jimson hilariously sketches the soul of a true artist as a conniving, dirty little bum, untrustworthy in everything except his art. Trying to cadge patronage (and a free meal) out of a matron whose only price would be to lie about the quality of her paintings, he can’t, intoning sadly, “You have to know when you succeed, and when you fail and why.”

“Vincent & Theo”: In director Robert Altman’s biopic, Tim Roth’s Van Gogh stubbornly resists pat explanations of the painter’s rumored mental illness, allowing his evocative performance and Altman’s direction to imply what’s underneath. Watch the scene where Altman’s restless camera approximates Van Gogh’s creative process, buzzing and darting through a field of sunflowers.

“Camille Claudel”: First seen scrabbling around a Paris ditch stealing clay, Isabelle Adjani’s performance as the little-remembered sculptor (and student/mistress of Rodin) is a monumental achievement, her shocking blue eyes burning from within from genius and a passion too big to be contained — but not destroyed — by the limitations of her time.

“Crumb”: Bottomlessly fascinating and disturbing documentary about the underground comics artist Robert Crumb, whose dark, fantastic works mirror an equally (if ironically) pessimistic worldview, which the film hints comes from his truly twisted family — of which Crumb, shockingly, is the most normal member. Stunning.

“La Belle Noiseuse”: Some might call this four-hour French film about the relationship of an elderly painter and his young model “as exciting as watching paint dry” (nice one), but I say it’s one of the most insightful cinematic examinations of the creative process ever. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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