The Review/ Short Read/

Dreams of Light

From Rembrandt to Basquiat, Frida to Mr. Turner, we explore The Agony and the Ecstasy of some of history’s greatest painters

by James Quandt
May 8, 2018

The TIFF Cinematheque series Art Cinema: Painters on Screen begins Thursday, May 10.

“Painters have a different way of looking at things,” Charles Laughton as Rembrandt tells a subject in Alexander Korda’s classic biopic about the Dutch artist. “You must imagine that I'm looking at you in the same way as the water with which you wash yourself or the air you move in, or the light that shines on you.” Invisible the portraitist may wish to be for the purpose of naturalism and verisimilitude, but his or her creative process cannot remain imperceptible, at least in a filmed biography. The very conjuring of that effort has proved vexatious, the cinematic subgenre of “the artist’s life” long littered with works of camp and bombast. There’s a little of each in this brief survey — impossible to avoid if the field is to be fairly represented — but mostly we have chosen films that resist the clichés of the painter biopic. (The juicy Hollywood entries supply many of those, but who can resist The Agony and the Ecstasy in a rare 70mm print?)

Victor Erice and Peter Watkins drastically transform the genre through the incursion of documentary; Derek Jarman via radical anachronism and cultivated camp; Georgy Shengalaya by replication of the muted severity of his subject’s art; Maurice Pialat by means of austere realism and adherence to text. Despite the wide variance of aesthetic approach in this overview, every film can truly be said to capture the “lust for life” (or in some cases, for death) that gives Vincente Minnelli’s enduring bio of Vincent Van Gogh its emblematic title.

Le Mystere Picasso-1

Le Mystère Picasso

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s portrait of Pablo Picasso at work scrutinizes the artist’s process of drawing as he produces a portfolio of 20 works in 75 minutes, capturing his every seismic change of mood in a drama of escalating excitement; through the use of special inks that bleed through the semi-transparent surface, the movie screen is turned into Picasso’s canvas, so that the audience palpably feels his every swoop, scribble, and feint.

Renoir 1


Sumptuously shot by the brilliant cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing (In the Mood for Love, Flowers of Shanghai), this radiant portrait of the Impressionist master takes place at Renoir’s Riviera household in 1915, where the arrival of flame-haired teenager Andrée Heuschling inspires both the aged artist and his son, the future filmmaker Jean.



A critically acclaimed box-office hit and nominated for numerous Academy Awards — including a Best Actress nod for the film’s star, producer, and driving force Salma Hayek — Frida boldly portrays the revolutionary life of painter Frida Kahlo, including the trolley accident that left her in physical torment from the age of 18, her stormy marriage to left-wing muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), her affairs with other women (and an exiled Leon Trotsky), and her struggles to be recognized for her autobiographical art.


Edvard Munch

Peter Watkins’ absorbing portrait of the great Norwegian painter arrives at a new narrative form — part journalistic observation, part fevered reverie — to chronicle the artist’s life and career, focusing not on Munch’s final decades of fame but on the horrors of his childhood and on his development as an artist, transforming his dark memories and subsequent agonies into works of sexual and psychological dissolution which were met with derision and loathing in puritanical Norway.

Montparnasse 19-1

Montparnasse 19

This biography of Amedeo Modigliani chronicles the last days of the alcoholic, tubercular artist (Gérard Philippe) and charts his relationships with three women: a masochistic British journalist (Lilli Palmer), a kindly bistro owner (Lea Padovani), and a beautiful innocent (Anouk Aimée) who models for some of his most famous paintings.



Charles Laughton gives one of his most moving performances as Rembrandt Van Rijn in this lavishly mounted biopic, which opens with the celebrated painter at the height of success and then tracks the tragedies and sorrows that forced him increasingly into isolation, culminating with the unveiling of The Night Watch.

Moulin Rouge-1

Moulin Rouge

Nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (for star Jose Ferrer), John Huston’s biopic may play fast and loose with the facts of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s life, but its lavish recreation of the Parisian demimonde during the belle époque deservedly won the film Oscars for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.

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Van Gogh

Shot in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise where Van Gogh spent his final months, Maurice Pialat’s masterpiece — which was voted one of the best films of the 1990s in TIFF Cinematheque’s international poll of film curators and historians — captures the last days of the painter with immense intensity and emotional restraint.


Utamaro and His Five Women

The most erotic and autobiographical film of the great Kenji Mizoguchi, Utamaro and His Five Women is set in the frenzied world of 17th-century Edo, where the printmaker Utamaro patiently, painstakingly devotes himself to his art; the “five women” of the title are his models, including a courtesan (the always amazing Kinuyo Tanaka) who kills her unfaithful lover.



Directed by superstar neo-expressionist painter Julian Schnabel, Basquiat vividly chronicles New York’s art world in the 1980s, as the eponymous genius (played by Jeffrey Wright) rises from destitution, living in a cardboard box in the park, to the heights of artistic accomplishment and critical acclaim, all the while suffering from pervasive racism and drug addiction.

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Camille Claudel 1915

Paring the life of the celebrated French sculptor Camille Claudel (played in a fearless, unadorned performance by Juliette Binoche) to three days, Bruno Dumont’s immensely concentrated biography takes place entirely within the asylum to which Claudel was committed in 1913, after her supportive father died and her relationship with Auguste Rodin had dissolved, leaving her shattered, paranoid, and reclusive.

Agony and the Ecstasy-1

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Directed on an epic scale by Carol Reed (The Third Man, The Fallen Idol), this lavishly mounted biopic recounts the struggle between Michelangelo (Charlton Heston) and his patron Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) over the frescoing of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as the artist contends with ill health and fatigue, self-doubt about his painting ability, the threat of being replaced by his arch-rival Raphael, the meddling of the Pope, and an impending papal war.

Mr. Turner-1

Mr. Turner

Mike Leigh’s mesmerizing magnum opus explores the last quarter century in the life of the British master of light J. M. W. Turner (Timothy Spall), as the socially inept, self-doubting and obliviously cruel artist finds late-life solace in a romantic attachment to his landlady (Marion Bailey).



Ed Harris raised the money, played the leading role, directed, and did all the onscreen painting for this impressive biopic of the American abstractionist Jackson Pollock, which chronicles the troubled painter’s rise to international fame and his tempestuous relationship with his wife and fellow artist Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance).



Director Derek Jarman’s dream project for over two decades, this highly unconventional biography of the master of chiaroscuro is a visionary work of great visual and narrative daring.

Dream of Light-1

Dream of Light

Voted the greatest film of the 1990s in TIFF Cinematheque’s international poll, Victor Erice’s contemplative masterpiece explores the creative process of celebrated Spanish painter Antonio López García, who spends years on a single work of art — a rendering of the sunlight falling on a quince tree in his backyard — while being constantly interrupted and waylaid by visitors, masons, the Gulf War, and other unforeseen events.

Lust for Life-1

Lust for Life

Vincente Minnelli’s portrait of Vincent Van Gogh contrasts in every way with Maurice Pialat’s rendering of the painter’s life and work, with Kirk Douglas playing the tortured artist with burning intensity while Anthony Quinn impresses as Van Gogh’s friend and rival Paul Gauguin.



One of the most beautiful films ever made about artistic creation, this exquisite work recreates the life of the great Georgian primitive artist Niko Pirosmanishvili — who lived a solitary life out of step with the world, and died of starvation and alcoholism in 1918 — with meticulously composed images that recreate the palette, spare, symmetrical structure, and hushed atmosphere of the artist’s paintings.