Ah, the tortured artist as portrayed on the silver screen. Think, for example, of Kirk Douglas’ suffering Vincent Van Gogh in “Lust For Life,” or Jose Ferrer as Toulouse Lautrec, drowning himself in absinthe in “Moulin Rouge.” More recently, there was Ed Harris’ Jackson Pollock, half genius and half human trainwreck — and very bad driver.
If you believe these movies, how did these enormous but unbalanced talents ever get any work done? All the self-abuse, bad behavior, and ear-lopping surely must have cut into their creative time? Caroline Harris, curator of education and academic programming at the Princeton University Art Museum, laughs a little when asked these questions, saying that filmmakers have, historically, used plenty of artistic license when focusing on artists and their lives.
“Any film is a fiction and even documentaries are framed by necessities of time,” Harris says. “Also, the director’s editorial choices shape the material, and in these cases, the material is the artists’ lives. But there are also romantic notions of the artist, compelling themes like the artist as a tortured genius who lives outside of society’s norms, and these cultural myths shape the narrative. That shorthand becomes a way to smooth out the complexities of an artist’s life.
“When I watch a film, or talk to people about watching such a film I say to remember that it’s a director’s vision,” she continues. “But having said that, when I watch films like ‘Lust For Life’ or ‘The Agony and the Ecstacy,’ I find them quite watchable, even though they’re over-the-top.”
On Monday, July 13, Harris will give a talk at the Princeton Public Library about how Hollywood portrays the art world and its quirky personalities. In the lecture “Artists on Film: Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso,” Harris will discuss these two historic figures and how they’ve been “painted” in such films as the Merchant / Ivory production, “Surviving Picasso,” and Robert Altman’s “Vincent and Theo.”
Both movies were recently screened as part of the library’s summer roster of movies about art and artists. The series continues on Monday, July 27, with the documentary “Who the Hell Is Jackson Pollock?,” about a 70-ish former truck driver who purchases a painting at a thrift shop and spends the next 15 years haranguing the art world about its authenticity and origins. On Monday, August 10, the sumptuous, Oscar-nominated “Frida” will be screened, with Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo.
“Basquiat,” artist-turned director Julian Schnabel’s documentary about the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, who rose from streetwise graffiti artist and elevated the urban artform, will be screened on Monday, August 24. The series concludes with “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” on Monday, August 31. Directed by Woody Allen and starring Scarlett Johannson and Penelope Cruz, the film tells the story of two young women, both in love with the same artist.
This summer, two notable documentaries about New Jersey-based artists will also be shown: “George Segal: American Still Life” will be screened on Tuesday, August 18, and “Ben Shahn, Passion for Justice” will be shown on Tuesday, August 25.
Harris, who joined the Princeton University Art Museum’s staff a little more than six years ago, says even if you didn’t get a chance to see the first two films in the series, there is plenty of food for thought in her July 13 talk. She specifically chose “Vincent and Theo” and “Surviving Picasso” to discuss because they present such different issues.
“With Van Gogh, what’s so fascinating is how enormous the mythology around him is, it’s pervasive,” Harris says. “He’s the iconic example of the tortured artist — even kids know he cut off his ear. There is this notion of the artist in the 19th century as being in ill health, whether it’s physical or mental, and Van Gogh is the prime example of that too, although (director) Altman doesn’t mine a lot of that mythology.
“And it’s true, Van Gogh was under mental stress — everybody knows he committed suicide,” she continues. “It’s almost as though he’s presented as a madman painting in this kind of delirium. But what gets lost is the fact that he was actually a very intelligent man, someone who spoke many languages, and understood the history of art. If you read his letters, you’ll find that Van Gogh was an articulate and deeply spiritual man. In fact, he wanted to be a priest earlier in his life. Plus, he was a craftsman. You don’t come away with any of this after watching the movie, you lose a lot of that complexity.”
Harris will switch gears a bit to talk about “Surviving Picasso,” a 1990 interpretation of the turbulent love affair between Picasso, played by Anthony Hopkins, and Francoise Gilot (Natascha McElhone). The film is a portrayal of the only one of Picasso’s mistresses who had enough of his abuse, left him, and got on with her own creative life.
“The family tried to stop this film, so I’m interested in that, how Picasso’s heirs have responded,” Harris says. “Part of my problem with ‘Surviving Picasso’ is that it has a very particular view of the man and the heirs objected to it, so (the filmmakers) weren’t allowed to use any actual Picasso (works) in the film. Here he is, one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, and his art isn’t in the film. Instead, you’ll see him at a blank canvas, for example. To me, that’s what’s wrong with the film.
“Picasso certainly wasn’t an angel and he behaved very badly, but so do regular men,” Harris continues. “So why do we care? The thing is, Francoise was an artist in her own right, and they wouldn’t have had a relationship if she hadn’t been a painter. One of the things she learned from Picasso was how to concentrate, and this was a primary bond between them, but that’s not explored in the movie. There’s no art in it, spiritually or literally. It’s more gossipy.”
Harris has been exposed to fine art since her childhood, which was divided among Charleston, SC, San Diego, and outside of Washington, DC. Her father was a military doctor, then an admiral in the Navy, and he was especially fond of art, music, and theater. Her mother has a PhD in medical ethics and was also enthusiastic about the arts. Although they moved around a few times, they were always near a beach, (“that’s the great thing about the Navy,” Harris says) and their cultural life was rich. In 1989, Harris earned a B.A. in art history from the University of Maryland, then got her master’s (1993) and PhD (2004) from the University of Virginia, where she also taught during the mid-1990s. She came north to work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as staff lecturer in charge of Academic Affairs in 1997. Harris also taught at the University of the Arts.
She lives in Princeton with her stepdaughter, Laura, and husband Mark Harris, who also works at the Princeton University Art Museum, as a preparator, handling the art and doing the installations.
Harris studied painting in college but humbly says it didn’t lead to any major breakthroughs. “I was never very talented, but I wanted to understand the process,” she says. “When I did paint, though, I found it very therapeutic.”
Going to the movies to see big-screen tellings of the legends in the art world is also therapeutic, and it can be a good way to be introduced to artists — just take it with a grain of salt, Harris says. In addition, a series like this one is especially rewarding if you see a few films, then compare and contrast them. “That’s the value of mythology —- you might want to learn more, and if a film has that impact, then it’s all good,” Harris says.
Artists on Screen, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Monday, July 13, 7 p.m. Hollywood’s portrayal of Van Gogh and Picasso discussed by Caroline Harris, Princeton University Art Museum curator. Free. 609-924-8822 or www.princetonlibrary.org.