Séraphine

On Sunday, I had the opportunity to see the film, Séraphine, with some friends as part of the Denver French Film Festival sponsored by Alliance Francaise. We began with a reception of wine and appetizers at the Tivoli’s StarzFilm Center. There I sat, listening to fragments of French conversation, occasionally understanding a random word or phrase. I decided then I need to get serious about learning the language. A short time later, we were seated in the theater as the room darkened and the film began.

Séraphine is the story of Séraphine Louis (a.k.a. Séraphine de Senlis), a self-taught French painter who wasn’t discovered until she was in her late forties by the famous art collector/dealer Wilhelm Uhde. The movie covers the period of her life from when she met Wilhelm in 1912 to shortly after 1932, when she was admitted into a mental institution. Along the way, we gain a better understanding of this complex character's quirky personality influenced by religion, a manic work ethic, a spirit freed through the outdoors and naïve painting punctuated with song.

Whenever I watch films about other artists, I always look for a common thread; something I can relate to in personality traits, motivation or process. In this particular film, there is a scene when, after she is discovered and begins producing work seriously, Séraphine begins sharing her work with those around her. Proud of her effort, she stands as an easel behind various paintings, gauging the reaction of whomever happens to be around at the moment for a series of private presentations. The camera shifts between Séraphine’s eyes beaming in eager anticipation of a favorable reaction to the facial expressions of her captured audience as they receive her work in a range of emotions from happiness to uncertainty, tolerance to astonishment, and indifference to sheer admiration.

I have had similar experiences. One of my favorite things to do is take JQ to the studio after a night on the town for a private showing. There, I select the right music to set the mood and place my work on an easel for her with the best possible lighting. I have also had clients come by to view the final product of a customized commissioned painting. I make them face the other direction or close their eyes until the work is ready to view to get the full effect. A positive reaction always touches me in a very personal way. It makes me realize how powerful art and the connection from one being to another is.

As I watched Séraphine, I was touched by her determination and knowing. She didn’t care what anybody thought of her work, save Wilhelm. She painted because that was what she had been told to do by her guardian angels and she was determined to listen to them. Though her peers considered her crazy for thinking this way, I believe she was very much in touch with what I can only describe as her intention, from a very deep and connected place. Her life was never pretty; often crude and awkward in fact, but her work was unquestionably beautiful and came from a place that had nothing to do with the external factors of her circumstances. I highly recommend this movie and give it five tubes of paint (based on a five tube rating system).

Movie Review: Modigliani

As the starting credits roll for Modigliani, a written explanation cautions the viewer this is a work of fiction, and the film is not necessarily attempting to remain true to hard facts around the artist’s actual life. This is a shame because I later discovered the artist’s life was more compelling than what this work allows. Admittedly knowing little about the artist prior to this, I was still anxious to learn what I could about him.

Andy Garcia stars in the leading role of the film which focuses mainly on the final years of the artist’s life. The story takes place in Italy and is rich with interesting subplots. Modigliani, who is Jewish, falls in love with his catholic girlfriend, Jeanne Hébuterne. Her father’s displeasure toward their union quickly explodes into outrage over the birth of the couple’s first child. The mindlessness of prejudice produces a triangle of conflict between Modigliani, Jeanne, and her parents who use the baby as a pawn to demonstrate their disdain. At the same time, Modigliani himself is battling to survive as an artist. His casual approach to life and practical matters seem to be in rebellion to his circumstances. He is known throughout Italy but struggles to sell his paintings. These challenges, among other factors, feed Modigliani’s penchant for alcohol and drugs; enabling him to seemingly escape the dramas of his life, they eventually contribute to his untimely death at the age of thirty-five.

The most intriguing subplot of the film, however, is the continuous love/hate relationship between Modigliani and Pablo Picasso. Played by Omid Djalili, whose face manages to capture the intensity of the famous artist, the actor provides a well-intended, if exaggerated, portrayal of the artist. Undoubtedly, Picasso’s arrogance was well-known, but the hot-headed nature of his character in this film makes for a bloated caricature appearing to be more of a symbolic statement than a faithful representation. Nevertheless, the contrasting and competing nature of the two artists, as they strive for greatness, makes for a captivating anecdote.

The climax of this matchup unfortunately appears in the film’s weakest sequence. Both artists enter a juried competition, along with several other known artists of the time, including Diego Rivera. A rather absurd scene ensues, depicting each of the artists and their frantic painting process as they toil through feigned rituals to complete work specifically for the upcoming exhibition. The director takes us to the backside of each canvas in development to find its artist wildly waving brushes, attacking the surface like madmen casting spells at their own creation. Adding insult to injury, the background suddenly fills with a blundering score of contemporary beat music that is completely out of place in this movie. The music is not utilized before or after this scene rendering it both awkward and impotent.

In spite of several intriguing story lines with a fascinating cast, the movie never reaches its full potential. Though capably played by Garcia, Modigliani’s character simply lacks depth. There are certainly enough circumstances and implications throughout the film to explore the complexity of the artist’s conflicting angst and charm, but the role is diluted by an overly-ambitious script and countered by other characters, such as little Dedo (Modigliani as a boy, often at the elder’s side serving as a gentle reminder of kindness and purity lost) and the stronger figure of Picasso.

After the film was over, I researched more about the artist. The result was a wealth of information on a complex, tragic figure of contemporary art that left us all too soon. I believe the film may have been better if it had remained true to facts, delving further into character development and making a clear choice on what story to follow; simplifying to be effective. All in all, this is a decent movie that misses the opportunity to live up to its full potential, much like Modigliani himself.

DVD Review: Simon Schama- The Power of Art

Simon Schama's, The Power of Art is a three disc series that explores key artists from the Renaissance through the era of Modern Art. The series is by far the most insightful, well told and well done of any art series I have seen. Simon Schama is an outstanding story-teller, who intrigues us at the beginning of each segment with a particular keystone painting by the artist, and then sets forth from the beginning of the artist's career to weave a complete story of art and creator. There are several other factors that make this series so compelling.

For starters, Schama has chosen a variety of artists: Disc 1 features Carravagio, Bernini and Rembrandt; Disc 2 has David, Turner and Van Gogh; Disc 3 with Picasso and Rothko. Each artist's story begins with a piece you may or may not be familiar with. The narratives are supported by wonderful details of the artwork itself, dramatic story lines, character acting and on-location shots to really help the viewer immerse them self into the artist's world.

An interesting point to mention is though Schama certainly respects all the artists and work shown here, it doesn't necessarily mean he likes all of them. That said, he never lets his own opinions get in the way of revealing each individual's significance in the greater context of art and history. His passion for the arts is contagious.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the series, learning more about artists I wasn't all that familiar with and learning more still about those I thought I knew a great deal of. I appreciate what Simon Schama has done as an historian and story-teller, and truly look forward to seeing more work produced by him and The BBC.

DVD Review: Art City (3 Disc Series)

I rented a three-disc series called Art City. Each DVD explores an inside perspective in the world of art through in-studio interviews with artists and other art players in various parts of the United States.

The first DVD concentrated on the southwest and west coast. The artists in this film, for the most part, seemed to have retreated into the open spaces of New Mexico and other less, urban locations (though one artist had set up her studio in the middle of Los Angeles). I enjoyed the feeling of this disc the most, though at times, the artists themselves tended to delve into esoteric dialogue that some might have difficulty appreciating.

The second DVD was all about Manhattan and 'making it' in New York. The people in this part of the series were more direct in their interviews which made for a nice contrast of insight offered by the artists in the first part of the series.

The final DVD was my favorite- really thoughtful, more in depth discussions. I felt like the producer and director of the film really got more from their efforts with each part of the series, which were filmed at different times (three separate releases).

I believe this is a must see for any aspiring or emerging artist. It has provided me with inspiration, affirmation and a renewed sense of community that tends to dissipate over time, while we work in our studios alone.

From Frida to Camille

JQ and I have plans to go to France in the near future. In preparation for the trip, we've been learning French and implementing it in everyday conversation, whenever possible. I thought it would be a good idea to further our understanding of the language by watching French films. One of the films we recently viewed was called Camille Claudel. The movie is about the French sculptor Camille Claudel with not only her personal story as an artist, but the relationship she had with legendary sculptor Auguste Rodin.

Camille's plight seemed comparable to that of Frida, which I recently blogged about. The movies are similar to me because they both depict strong, talented female artists in their attempts to emerge from the shadows of their male counterparts (Diego to Frida and Rodin to Camille) while overcoming challenges they face by their cultures, their family and their own gender.

Unlike Frida, which I felt focused more on the tumultuous relationship between Diego and Frida, this film reveals more about what made Camille a great sculptor, in addition to her relationship with Rodin and the suspicious circumstances that ultimately led to her demise. I would highly recommend this movie for those of you who are interested either in a great film or learning about a new historical figure.

Thoughts About The Movie- Frida

I borrowed a copy of Frida, from L- one of her favorite movies of all time. I remember seeing it when it was released in theaters, back in 2002, and not being terribly impressed by it, but my girlfriend had never seen the movie before, so we decided to watch it. I thought this time around, I might have a different opinion.

The movie is about Frida Kahlo, an artist from Mexico who has become quite popular since her death in 1954. Though I liked the movie more the second time around, I was still troubled by something that I felt was missing the first time I saw the film. It seems to me, that in typical Hollywood fashion, the movie focuses mainly on Frida and her turbulent relationship with her husband, Diego Rivera. The movie is essentially a love story. Though it certainly addresses all the hardships and challenges Frida so brilliantly overcame in her life, making her the amazing woman she was, I don't believe the movie fully explores what eventually made her such a popular artist.

It is no surprise that Hollywood went for a script that would ultimately make them the most money, but the oversight seems strange to me because the movie is obviously a labor of love for everyone involved in it. The admiration and glorifiation of Frida were very apparent to me, both times I watched the film. The problem, then, is the movie fails to paint a complete picture of a woman who was so unique, passionate and strong, but known to most because she was an artist- so why wasn't there more of an attempt to interpret the phenomenon that has been growing since the 1980's? The answer of course is obvious, but the question is- do you agree? I look forward to reading comments.

-J