4 Must-see films about the lives of artists

From Frida to The Danish Girl, discover the enthralling films about the lives, loves and work of both fictional and real-life artists

Cinematic portrayals of artists make for captivating viewing—using one art form to illustrate the beauty, struggle and reality of another. As such, there have been many films centred around art; from biopics inspired by famous artists in history, to fictional depictions examining the lives of artists and their relationship with their work, themselves, and those around them.

And these films don’t just promise enthralling visuals. Artists are passionate, they are relentless, they can go deep within themselves and pour what they find onto the page in front of them. Artists have great stories—their own stories—filled with love and tragedy, and films allow us to experience these portrayals and all the emotions that accompany them. Here are some of our favourites.

The Artist’s Wife (2021)

Tom Dolby’s upcoming feature (releasing April 30) examines the lives of Claire (Lena Olin) and Richard Smythson (Bruce Dern)—two creatives whose careers have taken significantly different routes. Richard’s has taken centre stage and prospered, and he is now a celebrated artist, whereas Claire—though once a promising painter herself—lives in the shadow of her husband’s illustrious career.

The Artist’s Wife explores not just the life of a working artist, but also the life of one who has decided to park her own creativity, instead choosing to dedicate her life to supporting her husband. Tom Dolby cites Lee Krasner, Elaine De Kooning, Camille Claudel and Dora Maar as other female artists who have supported their more famous husbands or partners, as whom his film is attributed to.

This unique angle allows us, the viewer, to watch the life of an artist through the eyes of their closest companion, with the added dimension of that person’s own artistic instincts and dreams. As Richard’s battle with dementia causes tension in both his personal and professional life, Claire must decide whether to stand with him, a supporter once more in many ways, or to step into the spotlight of the art world herself.

 

The Danish Girl (2016)

Nominated for four Oscars back in 2016, The Danish Girl is based on a true story and gives us a glimpse into the lives of Gerda (Alicia Vikander), a portrait artist, and Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), a landscape artist. The Danish Girl demonstrates the power of art in a beautiful way, as it becomes the igniting force that takes Einar on a journey of identity and discovery, leading them to undergo one of the world’s first sex change operations back in the 1920s.

This journey has contrasting consequences on the couple’s lives as artists. Einar rejects art upon transitioning to Lili, citing it as part of Einar’s life and thus something that must be left behind. Gerda, however, uses art to help her through the journey, illustrating the encompassing power art has on all aspects of her life.

The process leads Gerda to view and approach her work in a new way, and her paintings featuring Lili start to bring her more success as an artist. The Danish Girl is a story of identity, of love, and of the power of art in two artists’ lives. Art that both inspired Lili, and was inspired by her.

 

Frida (2002)

Starring Salma Hayek in the titular role, biopic Frida explores the professional and personal life of artist Frida Kahlo. The film includes Frida’s origin story as an artist, of how she began to paint during her recovery from a tragic and debilitating accident, and shows a deeply personal, human side of the woman whose name is so iconic.

Director Julie Taymor clearly uses Kahlo’s surrealist painting style as influence throughout the film, creating a visually evocative film that delves into the relationships she strikes up throughout her life—particularly the turbulent one of that with her mentor and husband, fellow artist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina)—as well as the many struggles and illnesses that burden Frida throughout her life.

The film, based on the 1983 book Frida: The Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera, went on to win two Oscars: Best Make-Up and Best Original Score. Frida chooses to focus more so on the wider life of its subject, rather than Kahlo’s process and journey as an artist. However, her art is embedded and intertwined throughout the film, used visually in a way that elevates Taymor’s storytelling. Frida is colourful and exciting, just like the artist it represents.

Read more: 7 Things you didn't know about Frida Kahlo 

 

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (2020)

Similarly to The Artist’s Wife, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is the tale of a fictional artist, who begins an affair with the aristocrat she has been commissioned to paint. Set in coastal Brittany in the 18th century, the film takes its name from a painting and begins with an art student asking their teacher, Marianne, of its significance.

The story behind the painting, a story of love found through art and art found through love, is portrayed with exquisite cinematography and storytelling. The film follows artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) as she arrives to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel).

Héloïse however, is a reluctant bride-to-be—and thus, an even more so reluctant portrait subject—so Marianne must observe her under the guise of companionship and paint the portrait at night. As the pair spend their days together under the stunning backdrop of the French coast, intimacy and romance begin to grow, and the audience plays witness to the impact this has on Marianne and her art.

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is an incredibly unique piece of filmmaking—there’s next to no background score throughout—but this somehow draws you further into the story, and the result is a powerful reminder of the liberating power of art.

While some stories depicting artists span long periods of their careers and lives, others choose to focus on a particular, defining moment. Whichever the timescale, the thing that runs clear through all of these titles, is the deeply personal nature of the stories. Unlike most careers, the blur between professional and personal finds itself unable to exist for artists, as one part of their life becomes infinitely connected with the other.

As Bruce Dern’s Richard states in The Artist’s Wife, “It’s not a painting unless you leave a piece of yourself on the canvas.”

The Artist’s Wife is releasing on digital platforms April 30

 

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