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The Top 5 Artist Biopics

From “Basquiat” to “Frida,” these iconic films will put you on a first-name basis with the greats.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Artwork:  ‘THESE INSTITUTIONS HAS THE MOST POLITICAL INFLUENCE A.TELEVISION B. THE CHURCH C. SAMO D. MC DONALDS’, Jean-Michel Basquiat on the set of Downtown 81. © New York Beat Film LLC. By permission of The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo: Edo Bertoglio.

The lives of artists make for fantastic biopics as their sensitivity, depth, and creative powers craft a perfect storm of emotion, drama, and catharsis that is made for film. Their genius in the studio is often perfectly matched by histories replete with magic, trauma, and romance that swirl together to create a powerful recipe for brilliance. Crave spotlights 5 of the best biographies ever captured on celluloid, along with a selection of new exhibitions and books coming out this Fall.

Also: The 5 Art Shows You Need to See This Fall

Basquiat (1996)

Last month I met Marc H. Miller, who told me that director Julian Schnabel cast Christopher Walken to play him in the film Basquiat. My jaw quietly hit the floor as I gasped, but Miller dispelled any notion that it flattered him. As many know, Schnabel had been in fierce competition with Jean-Michel Basquiat during the artist’s brief but meteoric life.

Nearly a year after Basquiat’s death, Schanbel tried to level the field with a star-studded spectacle that speaks to the director’s desire to rewrite history, with David Bowie as Andy Warhol, Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat, Dennis Hopper as Bruno Bischofberger, Parker Posey as Mary Boone, and Courney Love, Vincent Gallo, Gary Oldman, Willem Dafoe, and Benicio del Toro rounding out the cast.

Basquiat is so bad yet you can’t look away, for the mystery and mystique that Jean-Michel crafted continued to compel to this very day. It was only a few months back that he set the record for the most expensive price paid for a work by an American artist at auction earlier this year, a testament to the power of his art on the thirtieth anniversary of his death.

Now, in an effort to set the record straight, the Barbican, London, presents Basquiat: Boom for Real, the first large-scale exhibition in the UK, now on view through January 28, 2018. Featuring more than 100 works, the show focuses on Basquiat’s relationship to music, writing, performance, film, and television, placing him in the larger context of the times, revealing his place in the downtown New York scene just as Soho and the East Village were transforming the art world. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue from Prestel of the same name, officially releasing October 19, 2017.

Frida (2002)

Salma Hayek brought Frida Kahlo to life in this incredible film, showing the trauma of her life was not limited to just her near-death accident, but her life with husband and artist Diego Rivera. Julie Taymor’s amazing film looks at their volatile relationship and the way it became a catalyst for the creation of art, creating a cinematic masterpiece as breathtaking and gripping as Kahlo’s art.

Featuring Alfred Molina as Rivera, Antonio Banderas as David Alfaro Siqueiros, Ashley Judd as Tina Modotti, Edward Norton as Nelson Rockefeller, and Geoffrey Rush as Leon Trotsky, Frida tells the story of one of the most famous women in art who rallied not just against the tortures of love but the political and social injustices facing Mexico during the first half of the twentieth century.

Prestel has just released Frida: The Story of Her Life, a graphic novel by Vanna Vinci that makes the perfect addition to the visual history of one of the most famous artists in the world. Here Vinci brings to life the beautiful and horrific moments of Kahlo’s life in a series of iconic scenes that integrate her country, her culture, and her passion into a great, tempestuous personality. The result is a portrait of the artist that complements the self-portraits that the world adores, giving us another look at the soul of a woman who continues to inspire and provoke.

Pollock (2000)

Directed, co-produced, and starring Ed Harris, this incredible biopic takes us inside Jackson Pollock, the world of the man who changed everything about modern art – only to die tragically in a car accident at the prime of his life. In 1949, Pollock took the art world be storm with his paintings that changed the way people thought about creating work. No longer was the relationship between the artist and the painting one of representation of the visual world, but rather an extension of the kinesthetic aspects of life, motion, and energy.

Pollock’s work has always challenged viewers with its extraordinarily deceptive complexity, leading the naïve to chirp, “I could do that!” Only they couldn’t — otherwise they would have. For all his originality, Pollock was a tormented soul, and the film shows how he spiraled out of control, dying at the height of his career at age 44. The film features Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krasner, Jennifer Connelly as Ruth Kligman, Val Kilmer as Willem DeKooning, John Heard as Tony Smith, and Jeffrey Tambor as Clement Greenberg, painting the perfect portrait of the era.

On October 24, the Museum of Modern Art will release Jackson Pollock, a new book that showcases 11 of the most important works of his career made vetween the late 1940 and 1950s, when he revolutionized the art world.

Moulin Rouge (1952)

Long before Baz Luhrmann came on the scene, Hollywood legend John Houston directed Moulin Rouge, the story of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, one of the most fascinating figures of the Post-Impressionist period. The fabled French painter, printmaker, draughtsman, caricaturist, and illustrator made his name cavorting with prostitutes and performers, who became the subject of his art.

The madcap artist suffered a host of physical deformities, which deeply sensitized him to the outcasts and others of Parisian society. His love of the Moulin Rouge cabaret introduced the idea of celebrity as something glamorous to the haute bourgeois, who had previously turned up their noses at those who took to the stage. Toulouse-Lautrec died of syphilis at the age of 36, but his story lives on in the work of Houston.

Starring Jose Ferrer as Toulouse-Lautrec and Zsa Zsa Gabor as Jane Avril, the film won Academy Awards for Best Costume Design and Best Production Design, though it lost Best Picture to An American in Paris, a more innocent depiction of life in the City of Lights.

Now, you can see life through the eyes of the artist in The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters from he Museum of Modern Art, currently on view at the Currier Museum of Art, in Manchester, NH, now through January 7, 2018. The exhibition presents some of the artist’s most iconic work that has long been reproduced and shown around the world, with posters popping up everywhere from coffee shops to private homes. Featuring more than 100 posters, prints, and illustrated books, this show takes you back to the last days of the nineteenth century, when modern life was just taking shape.

Georgia O’Keeffe (2009)

Joan Allen stars as Georgia O’Keeffe, the first woman of modern art, who with her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz (Jeremy Irons), transformed the way we see the world. Theirs was one of the great love stories, a May-December romance that lasted until Stieglitz’s death. In some ways, O’Keeffe may have outshone her husband, given the influence her work has had on subsequent generations of artists.

On December 16, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, will be open Georgia O’Keefe: Art, Image, Style, the first exhibition to explore the artist’s iconic public persona. For more than 70 years, O’Keeffe lead a truly independent life, defying all expectations, norms, and stereotypes, showing the ways in which a woman could live and work as an artist, while maintaining both her integrity and her success.

The exhibition features a selection of photographs, paintings, and clothes that examine the relationship between her sense of personal style and her artwork, showing the interplay between color and form that marked her as a true modernist in every sense of the word.


Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.