Under the sway of the enfant terrible and emptied of drama by their stories’ happy endings (spoiler) in museum collections, biopics too often lose sight of what is individual in their great-artist subjects. What sets apart the genre’s best films from so much over-stylized bluster is their clarity about the fact that art-making is work and that economic conditions produce artists’ myths.

Published in Spike Art Magazine #76 (Summer 2023: An Artist’s Life)

Paris, 1919. Midnight at a Left Bank café. A man in a jester’s costume hands out fliers for the latest Salon des Artistes. Picasso is scribbling something on a napkin. He calls the maître d’ over and hands it to him: “Dinner for everyone is on me.” “But Monsieur Picasso, you haven’t signed it,” his host replies. Picasso glowers over his lit pipe. “I said I’m buying dinner, not the restaurant.” Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, and Starving Artist all laugh. Suddenly, Amedeo Modigliani walks in with a bouquet of flowers; he tosses his hat in the air and starts dancing on tables, throwing roses like javelins at the prettiest women. “The future of art is in a woman’s face!” he exclaims. “Tell me, Pablo, how do you make love to a cube?” Even the cooks laugh at that one. As the crowd chants his name, Modigliani sashays up the stairs toward Picasso. He spins, sits, and starts performing a lap dance on the Cubist’s wide seat, brushing his face with a rose. “Tell me, Pablo,” he says again, “Did you miss me?” As he leans in for a kiss, Picasso grabs him by the throat, throwing him onto the table to throttle him. Max Jacob hurries to inter- vene. Cocteau shouts for help.

Though this could be mistaken for the dream of a con- fused adolescent nodding off during art class, it’s actually the first seven minutes of Modigliani (2004), an American-French-Romanian-Italian-German-British co-production starring Andy Garcia. Twelve million dollars were spent on this eyesore, with the assumption that if audiences did not already know the modernist’s singular style, they would soon be enthralled by the story of its development. Modigliani did not recoup the investment.

All dramatizations of artists’ lives are pure myth. Any indication of where they came from, what they were like, and what forces compelled them toward their signature handling of paint or clay are, at best, art-historical guesswork, buried beneath producers’ notes, directors’ styles, and the personae and methods of the actors portraying them. Usually, these things overwhelm any sense of the artist as an individual, especially one whose life has real stakes. The biopic itself falls into a very specific genre defined by its lack of tragedy; every film about a famous artist, before we even watch it, has had its happy ending spoiled for us in the museum. Absent that suspense, some tumultuous ups and downs are required to keep us in our seats, and it’s remarkable how reliably sensationalized each subject’s life appears: Caravaggio brawled, Picasso philandered, Kahlo cheated on Rivera with Trotsky. This is cinema performing a very base function, showing us things that we already know, and the lack of revelation or reevaluation in the stories of such complex individuals is the main reason why these movies are so frustratingly mediocre.

But there are a handful of excellent films that throw into sharp relief the inflexibility of these myths, and the distorting effect they have on the historical challenges of being a working artist. Viewed in aggregate, these dramatizations also make serious claims about the social, sexual, and eco- nomic conditions from which successful art springs. Taken as an art-historical crash course, they begin to clarify survival strategies across different eras. Premodern artists worked in an aristocratic patronage system, which largely confined them to workshops and in situ commissions. Mod- ern artists lost that security and became increasingly self-aggrandizing, relying on relationships with dealers and social circles to promote their work. Contemporary artists, meanwhile, have abandoned all pretense of indifference to the market’s mythologizing for promotion – as such, they have been able to disown the central insecurities of modernism and embrace more self-selected, identitarian teleologies. As a subgenre, artist biopics accidentally map the evolution of this creative self-consciousness, the gradual accession to capital not only of the use of one’s images, but the image of oneself.

Movies showcasing the lives of premodern artists are generally the most compelling examples of the form. These include Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966), and the short “portraits of painters” films of Sergei Parajanov “Hakob Hovnatanyan” (1967) and “Arabesques on the Pirosmani Theme” (1985). In each of these, the artist is viewed primarily through the lens of their craftsmanship, which enables otherwise rare depictions of actual work, like mixing pigments and priming canvases. The artists in these films are notably unselfconscious; they seem to view themselves primarily in relation to their mandate to create religious iconography and their ability to execute this work. They are all the more interesting to us because they appear on screen as though they aren’t interested in themselves; seeing the world through their eyes gives events around them a religious clarity, wrought with symbolism and bathed in holy light.

Biopics of modernists, by contrast, do a disservice to both artist and viewer. First, because modern artists abandoned religious inspiration to portray “modern life,” the movies about them tend to depict all reality in the unctuous stylings of the artist’s own hand – thus diminishing the transformative powers of that hand’s technique, while simultaneously making the movies look ridiculous, full of pastel drawing rooms and CGI moons. Even worse, absent aristocratic patronage, these films are actually less interested in describing the economic relations that led to the individual’s success – which has the perverse effect of presenting each life through the quasi-omniscient gaze of capital itself.

In Caravaggio, we understand the posterity of the protagonist as resting on the whims of out-of-touch eccentrics like Cardinal Del Monte and Scipione Borghese. Art history, we’re reminded, is not some impersonal force of aesthetic progress, but an aggregation of the self-serving selections of the purchasing class. But by the modern era, the economic process has atomized and the forces behind posterity have become impersonal, dispersing into the whims of an entire market. We may bump into an individual collector here or there in Modigliani; Bonnard, Pierre et Marthe (2023); or Surviving Picasso (1996), but overall, these films take for granted that the artists’ everlasting fame is obvious and beyond reproach. How they actually appealed to the moneyed classes that stood to purchase their works is scarcely shown.

What makes these films so annoying is the way the mod- ernists seem both aware of their celebrity power and not responsible for it. To grab attention in a competitive market, they must perform the role of the enfant terrible. Whether this performance is that of an actor trying to embody the Saturnine artist myth or the artist trying to live up to their own reputation is beside the point: What we’re left with is myth, strong and repugnant. As a result, we have countless movies that show artists behaving like monsters, couched in a protective, reverential attitude usually reserved for the museum. This kind of double consciousness regarding the dead white men of the belle epoque and interwar period des- perately needs to be put to rest. Unfortunately, the  tortured-genius bit is still going strong; Bonnard, Pierre et Marthe (so titled in a vain attempt to extend the narrative to the artist’s unjustly maligned wife) premiered just this past May at Cannes. It gallantly recounts how the homely “painter of happiness” drove his mistress to suicide, then attempts to build an emotional climax around the recovery of a painting Pierre lost when he ran off with her.

Postmodernism, happily, has come along with its own, accelerative solution: biopics that include the direct partic- ipation of their subjects. David Hockney and Jean-Michel Basquiat portray versions of themselves in A Bigger Splash (1973) and Downtown 81 (2000), respectively, and Albert Oehlen had an active hand behind the scenes in the recent festival favorite The Painter (2021). This is a refreshing update on a tired genre because it dispenses with purported objectivity to acknowledge the inevitable self-mythologizing of contemporary art. As such, the films employ canny ambiguities around creation and recreation. A Bigger Splash tells the story behind Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972), with all the principals playing them- selves, including Hockey’s ex-boyfriend, Peter Schlesinger. In Downtown 81, Basquiat plays up his own myth as a hustler, a kind of meta self-promotion inherent even now to most narratives around commercially accessible Blackness. A day-in-the-life biopic, Basquiat begins the film evicted from his apartment, and spends the afternoon trying to sell the one painting he has with him, in order to pay his back- rent. The fantastic prices Basquiat’s paintings fetch today stem not least from the artist’s self-made bravado as a salesman.

If artists today bear any resemblance to medieval artisans, it’s in the securely unselfconscious way in which they collaborate with their aggrandizers, with Hollywood myth-making replacing the role of religious iconography in our visual culture. As artists of all stripes represent today’s secular saints, their contributions to their own images and legacies might be considered the holy relics of our time. Today, in addition to painting, a painter must also take responsibility for conveying the reason they paint.

If nothing else, the imprint of a necessarily confident, diverse generation of artists who self-promote their work may lead to promising developments in the biopic genre, bringing in new formal experiments and breaking old nar- rative patterns. I’d like to see a Rosemarie Trockel biopic, or one about Pope.L. I can’t imagine if they’d make for a tidy script, but it can’t be worse than Modigliani doing the same tired old dance.︎