TIFF: Art Cinema: Painters on Screen - A Look At Five Films On The Programme

This spring, TIFF invites lovers of art and film to witness some of art history's most creative minds as they are examined through the lens of Art Cinema: Painters on Screen, a tribute to painting and the legendary personalities behind the brush. Through 18 thoughtfully selected films, this programme explores the artistic dialogue of each creator as their lives, and the stories of their work, are revealed.

The programme runs May 10 to May 22 and features an exceptional collection of artist biopics, highlighting the most prominent names in art history. Art Cinema: Painters on Screen spotlights masters such as Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Caravaggio, the Japanese woodblock artist Utamaro, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, among others, representing a selection of famed artists whose works are currently housed in some of the world’s finest museums. The mastery displayed in their original works is reflected in the vision of directors like Maurice Pialat (Van Gogh) and Henri-Georges Clouzot (Le Mystère Picasso), and a wealth of inspired casting choices, including David Bowie as Andy Warhol (in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat), Charlton Heston as Michelangelo (in Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy), and Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock (in Pollock). Highlights include:

A special screening of Salma Hayek’s passion project Frida (2002), which, in light of Hayek’s recent, and remarkably brave, New York Times op-ed about her experiences with Frida producer Harvey Weinstein, can now be seen as even more of a triumph for the renowned Mexican actor and producer. This screening will be preceded by an introduction by OCAD professor Dot Tuer, who curated the Art Gallery of Ontario’s recent exhibition Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics, and Painting. An opportunity to see the 4K digital restoration of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Mystère Picasso (1956), taken directly from the original print.

Two screenings of an exceptionally rare 70mm print of Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965).

Audiences can also look forward to special guest appearances by some of the art scene’s most knowledgeable and talented experts, including Cathy Jonasson, executive director of The Koffler Centre of The Arts, and visual artists Curtis Talwst Santiago and Keita Morimoto. 

These are five of the films set to play in the programme

Utamaro and His Five Women AKA Five Women around Utamaro (1946)

This is a Japanese film about the famous ukiyo-e artist Kitagaro Utamaro (1756-1806), known for his woodblock prints and wide range of style that varied from beautiful outdoor scenes all the way to erotica. This style went against the court sanctioned form of painting known as kano.

This fictionalized account partly based on a novel by Kanji Kunieda, details some of the life of Utamaro as he paints local prostitutes, becomes obsessed with a commoner’s daughter and takes her as his model, and is imprisoned by magistrates for some of his prints.

There is also a subplot involving a love triangle between three people that Utamaro associates with. The scenes involving Utamaro painting and his printing workshop are excellent, especially one in which he paints a picture on a woman’s back so that it can be tattooed.

Directed by the somewhat well known Kenji Mizoguchi (47 Ronin), it was one of the few period films that were made during the United States occupation of Japan after World War I.

Mizoguchi was an artist himself and many have regarded this as autobiographical, film critic Freda Freiberg said that his “regular scriptwriter Yoda, who worked with him (more precisely, for him) for 20 years, claimed in his memoirs that in the script for this film he was ‘almost unconsciously’ drawing a portrait of Mizoguchi through Utamaro.

The equation Utamaro=Mizoguchi has been irresistible to most critics as the two artists did have a lot in common. Both of them worked in a popular mass-produced medium operated by businessmen, and chafed under oppressive censorship regimes; both frequented the pleasure quarters and sought the company of geishas; but, most significantly, they both achieved fame for their portraits of women.

In a highly charged scene in this film, Utamaro paints, directly on the back of a beautiful courtesan, a sketch that is later tattooed into her skin. One could say that this creative act (and the passion the artist displays in executing it) literalizes the fact that both artists achieved fame on the backs of women – relying on them to arouse and express themselves, emotionally and aesthetically.

Le Mystere Picasso (1956)

The single most important artist documentary ever made that features Pablo Picasso creating paintings filmed on camera, despite the fact that a similar documentary about Picasso was done by a Belgian crew titled Visit to Picasso in 1949.

The earlier version is a short black and white film that runs between 18 to 21 minutes and isn’t as amazing as this colorful 76 minute film. In this we get to witness one of the last true masters at work and his amazing and somewhat insane process that he goes through in creating his artwork.

The pace that he works at is almost dizzying as a picture takes shape and colors burst onto the screen. Then he’ll completely paint over an area and change what he thought wasn’t working, it’s an incredible sight and is required viewing for any artist or art lover. The documentary was directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, best known for The Wages of Fear and Diabolique.

If you've seen the film before then you simply must watch the new 4K digital restoration, it looks stunning.

Lust for Life (1956)

This is an impressive large scale studio production about the life of Vincent Van Gogh, adapted from a novel by Irving Stone and starring Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh. It is a wonderful movie in every way; massive and impressive set designs, recreation of characters and locations in his paintings, photographs of the actual paintings, and fine performances from Douglas, Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin, and the rest of the cast.

The film shows how Van Gogh was obsessive, tortured, disregarded, misunderstood, socially inadequate, an alcoholic, and mentally unstable. While it displays all of this and the tone is somewhat dark, it still feels light because it was a studio picture and a sign of the era that it came out in.

Had this exact production been released anytime past the 1970’s, it would have pushed the boundaries more and been far darker. It received critical praise and Oscar nominations but was a box office failure and isn’t remembered as well as some of Douglas’s other movies.

Edvard Munch (1974)

This Norwegian and Swedish co-production is a biographical piece about the life of expressionist artist Edvard Munch, probably best known for his series of paintings titled “The Scream.”

It was originally released as a three part television miniseries with a total running time of 210 minutes and then was subsequently released in the United States as a three hour movie. It roughly covers about 30 years of his life and is told in an unusual style, using a narrator at times and also having the actors speak directly into the camera as if they are being interviewed.

The film is jarring, focusing on the pain and death that surrounded and haunted most of Munch’s life. Throughout the picture, there are recurring flashbacks of his dying mother spitting up blood from tuberculosis. It really tries to show the anxiety and constant fear of death that consumed his life and showed up in his work and how it led to his alcoholism, brawling, mental breakdown, and eventual institutionalization.

It shows photos of his actual work throughout the film, including drawings, paintings, and woodcuts. As with many artists who are misunderstood at the time, it recreates moments of hostility by critics who attacked it as being trash and the work of a madman. It can be a difficult picture to watch simply because of the length, with the version I have running the full 210 minutes.

Caravaggio (1986)

Co-written and directed by Derek Jarman, Caravaggio is another film about an artist that also seems to mirror the life of the director. It is easily the most accessible of Jarman's work and one of the most popular films in his filmography, which includes a large number of experimental Super 8 films. Jarman spent seven years trying to get Caravaggio made, up until the British television company Channel 4 got involved in the funding and distribution. 

The picture is a stunning piece of work, bringing to life the art of the Italian painter whose Baroque paintings combine a realistic observation of the human state with a dramatic use of lighting. Jarman brings Caravaggio's art and hell-raising world to life, with exquisite period costumes and production designs, fine camerawork, and superb perfroamnces from the cast. Caravaggio's world is one that is rife in sexuality, criminality and art. The film begins with Caravaggio on his death bed, narrating his life to the audience: from his urchin teen years, to his time as a gay street hustler, and then to painting for the Church while living a violent and turbulent life of gambling, sexuality, criminality, and murder. 

Featuring Sean Been and Tilda Swinton in early roles, Caravaggio blends an authentic 16th Century world with modern Brit sensibilities and lifestyles, employing British accents, Jazz music, typewriters, and motorbikes. The end result is an interesting piece of cinema that is as much about Caravaggio as it is a statement on the life of Jarman as a person and director.