Itself an art, the movies have a very long and very patchy history of putting artists on the screen. That’s true with both fictional and documentary films. Two very different examples of the latter open here soon: on June 5 at the Museum of Fine Arts, “Van Gogh and Japan”; and June 7 at the Kendall, “Walking on Water,” about “The Floating Piers,” the 2016 installation by Christo and his late wife, Jeanne-Claude.
The purely fictional features have been the most dubious. Robert Mitchum, for example, plays a painter in “The Locket” (1946). I repeat, Robert Mitchum plays a painter. It’s true that Alec Guinness’s performance as Gulley Jimson, in “The Horse’s Mouth” (1958) is a tour de force — and all the less plausible for being so.
Yet dubiousness does not always apply. Nick Nolte may be a lunkhead version of Mitchum. Yet playing a painter in “Life Lessons,” the Martin Scorsese segment of the 1989 triptych “New York Stories,” Nolte manages to convey a real sense of the tension and frustration and exaltation that can come of standing in front of an easel with brush and paints. That’s no less true (the frustration especially) of Michel Piccoli, in Jacques Rivette’s “La Belle Noiseuse” (1991).
The biopic, Hollywood’s preferred mode of portraying artists, is impurely fictional. The character may have been real; and some of the facts in the screenplay coincide with actuality: name, rank, accession number. But beyond that, it’s usually a good idea to count the silverware — and certainly the palette knives. If you doubt that, just look at Charles Laughton’s mustache in “Rembrandt” (1936) or ask yourself if the names “Michelangelo” and “Charlton Heston” would have shared the same sentence — even once, in all of recorded human history — but for “The Agony and the Ecstasy” (1965). In fairness, Chuck and Mike might have to defer on actor/artist incongruity to Stellan Skarsgård — that most Spanish of Scandinavian actors? — as the title character in “Goya’s Ghosts” (2006).
With many biopic subjects, the obvious question is why? With at least one artist, it’s why not? Andy Warhol has been a secondary character in several movies but never had one all to himself. Crispin Glover, in a bit of inspired casting, plays him in “The Doors” (1990). David Bowie (!) plays him in “Basquiat” (1996), with Jeffrey Wright — in what now seems a very un-Jeffrey Wright role — as the title character. In “Factory Girl” (2006), about Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick, it’s Guy Pearce who does the honors. It’s strange to think there’s been a biopic of the woman who nearly killed Warhol, Valerie Solanas, but not Warhol. In that movie, “I Shot Andy Warhol” (1996), Jared Harris plays Andy.
The artist biopic has had its moments. Derek Jarman’s “Caravaggio” (1986) is a case in point, or the very Bruegelesque Rutger Hauer playing, yes, Pieter Bruegel, in “The Mill and the Cross” (2011). With all due respect to Timothy Spall, as J.M.W. Turner, the artist’s painting (and Dick Pope’s cinematography) are the real star of “Mr. Turner” (2014). In “Maudie” (2016), Sally Hawkins gives an indelible performance as the Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis.
Oscar approves of artist biopics. Despite being a foot too tall for the part, José Ferrer was nominated for playing Toulouse-Lautrec, in “Moulin Rouge” (1952). Its title notwithstanding, “Pollock” (2000) is about two artists not just one: Jackson Pollock, played by Ed Harris, and his wife, Lee Krasner. Marcia Gay Harden, playing Krasner, won a best supporting actress Oscar. Playing Frida Kahlo brought Salma Hayek her one Oscar nomination, for “Frida” (2002).
It’s a little hard not to see “Van Gogh and Japan,” which offers an up-close look at a 2018 traveling exhibition of that name, at least a little bit through the scrim of the artist’s several screen incarnations. He’s been played by Kirk Douglas (“Lust for Life,” 1956), Martin Scorsese (“Dreams,” 1990), Tim Roth (“Vincent & Theo,” 1990), and Willem Dafore (“At Eternity’s Gate,” 2018). Both Douglas and Dafoe earned Oscar nominations for best actor. Playing Paul Gauguin opposite Douglas, Anthony Quinn won one for best supporting actor.
Even with a focus that’s much more thematic and conceptual than personal, the new documentary offers in many ways a richer, if less dramatic, view of the artist. The art, especially when seen in scanning closeups, has an eloquence — even a sense of personality — that even the best performance can’t match.
What may be the most famous artist documentary, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Mystery of Picasso” (1956), vividly brings this home. Watching the man himself paint — let alone in the camera-friendly format Clouzot devised — has an immediacy that makes the performance of even so skilled an actor as Anthony Hopkins, in “Surviving Picasso” (1996), seem tame and tepid by comparison. And tame and tepid may be the last two words associated with Picasso.
Clouzot had the incalculable advantage of the artist’s participation. He also addressed the great problem that art-making poses the motion picture: duration. The film is set up in such a way that we can see Picasso creating in real time, or close to it. Rarely, though, is the making of art instantaneous. This is not acceptable to the impatience of the movie camera, or rather of the moviegoer.
Part of the beauty of “Walking on Water” is that it makes a virtue of duration. Christo and Jeanne-Claude first conceived of “The Floating Piers” in 1970. The installation, involving 70,000 square meters of yellow fabric supported by 226,000 high-density polyethylene cubes, didn’t finally see the light of day for 46 years. That’s serious duration.
Duration goes granular in the documentary, as logistics becomes aesthetics — and vice versa. The idea is to put the walkway on the surface of Lake Iseo, in northern Italy. This involves dealing with government bureaucracy, the unpredictability of weather, and even popularity (far more people turn out to walk on the installation than Christo expected). Watching the artist having to deal with all these problems, the viewer gets to see public art blend with a kind of high-wire performance art. Now that’s a form of art the movies can get behind.