Portrait of a passionate, if obsessive, artist

Portrait of a passionate, if obsessive, artist

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Julian Schnabel, in a scene from the documentary. COHEN MEDIA GROUP

A new documentary about the life and work of Jewish American painter Julian Schnabel is an unexpectedly soft and intimate look at an iconoclast.

That isn’t entirely a problem. The access director Pappi Corsicato has to Schnabel’s children and ex-wives, as well as the painter’s home movies, humanize a man who has been oft-debated among cultural critics since he surged onto the New York art scene in the late 1970s.

Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait opens for a weeklong run at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Aug. 11.

Schnabel’s family members, as well as various artistic collaborators, provide some funny asides about the subject’s obsessive drive. In one early scene, daughter Lola explains the strange rules of the Schnabel household. “If I had makeup on, he smudged it off,” she tells Corsicato.

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Another daughter, Stella, recounts that her father spent much of his childhood in Brownsville, a Texas community that borders Mexico. Schnabel was one of the only Jews growing up in that blue-collar town. One can connect his interaction with various ethnicities there as an influence for the neo-expressionist paintings that would make him famous.

Today, more people are likely familiar with Schnabel’s film directing than his artwork. He won a prize at Cannes and received an Oscar nomination for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. That 2007 drama is based on a true story about Jean-Dominique Bauby, who lived with locked-in syndrome after suffering a stroke.

A Private Portrait’s most illuminating glimpses of Schnabel at work show him in the process of making movies. In one moment, behind-the-scenes of the 2000 drama Before Night Falls, we see Schnabel sobbing at the beauty of one of the images the camera has just captured.

He also helmed a film about Jean-Michel Basquiat, a visionary and friend of Schnabel’s who also found success in the New York art world during the 1980s. The character that Gary Oldman portrays in that drama is considered a self-deprecating version of Schnabel.

Corsicato’s film finds some intriguing parallels between the struggling, expressive, sometimes impetuous artists from Schnabel’s films with the man working behind the camera. Curiously, some of the filmmaker’s children had roles in his movies, further ensnaring Schnabel’s life into his work.

One black-and-white still of the artist with his daughter even bears a striking resemblance to actor Mathieu Amalric, who played Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

The doc puts more of an emphasis on Schnabel’s films than his touted and lambasted artwork. There are many views of his “plate paintings,” textured with broken pieces of ceramics, as well as numerous gigantic canvases that towered over art gallery spaces.

Meanwhile, Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait contains an overwhelming number of talking head interviews – perhaps too many.

Several of these high-profile voices (such as actors Al Pacino and Willem Dafoe, musician Bono, and artist Laurie Anderson) provide good material. One friend, filmmaker Hector Babenco, calls the subject “a figure from a Balzac novel.”

But their takes cannot compare to the insights that Schnabel can provide. Unfortunately, his voice is too small a part of this biography. When speaking with Corsicato, the subject often seems distracted, as if he would rather be working on a painting in his studio.

Meanwhile, a few of the curators and art critics who appear in the doc mention Schnabel’s polarizing paintings from his early career. Oddly and unfortunately, the film doesn’t explore these criticisms in much detail.

Even within a laudatory profile, the absence of these thorny responses to his exhibitions take away from the subject’s complexity.

However, the generosity of the interviewed participants as they recount old memories with Schnabel, and give their take on the painter’s boisterous spirit, contradict one’s idea of the artist as tortured genius. Watching Schnabel paint with his hands, compose a self-portrait, or frolic with his kids on the beach, we witness his humanity.

Amidst some unnecessary hagiography, Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait ends up being a satisfying look at a passionate and daring artist.