Caravaggio. Frida Kahlo and Caspar David Friedrich
Three films reviewed.
Art Monthly, July 1988, pp. 26-27.

“Your Honour, if Rembrandt had painted that nose, you could pull that nose.” So said an art critic on trial for libel after alleging that a collection of old masters brought to Melbourne in 1924 was fakes. Most of us have felt something of that seductive tug, or shared with Pygmalion the frustration that verisimilitude remains so far from life. A parallel desire infects the presentation of the lives of artists whenever authors strive to bring Pygmalions back to life.

Popular versions of this impulse can be found in Irving Stone’s novels, Lust for Life and The Agony and the Ecstasy, as well as in the films they inspired.

Three recent feature films offer different ways of re-presenting artists. None attempted to avoid the problem by selecting a theme or subject or period as the organizing principle. Their concern with the artist as central to the production of artworks was announced in their titles which also were the artists’ names: Caravaggio, Caspar David Friedrich and Frida Kahlo.

For differing reasons, the temptation towards a Lust for Life treatment would have been easy to follow for each of these painters. Caravaggio’s violence, Friedrich’s pre-eminence in German Romanticism and Kahlo’s narcissism all lend themselves to the “Heroic Artist” approach. And it cannot be denied that the three films do present their title characters as exceptionally driven creatures, that is, they risk appearing to be Hollywood life and loves of the insane genius.

What makes the three films worthy of further comment is the different ways in which they manage to undercut any initial fascination with the raw personality. There is no attempt to trick the audience into the belief that we are privy to a slice of the real life of the artists.

As was to be expected from his earlier film of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Derek Jarman’s account of Caravaggio is the most brutally disruptive of the unity of time. Some of the devices were no doubt encouraged by the need to stay within the budget of ₤475,000 sterling. Yett as Jarman said in a recent interview” “If I’d had more money, I wouldn’t change is now … I wouldn’t have made it more lavish in any way.” The apparent failure to reproduce the times authentically is crucial to what Jarman wants us to understand about art and cinema as different forms of artifice.

Derek Jarman takes the life of Caravaggio, calls a film after him and makes him its central character, whose art-making and love-making provide the plot. Yet there is no attempt to make the actors talk like Caravaggio. In Jarman’s homoerotic account of Sebastiane, actors spoke a kind of Latin for which there had to be subtitles. In Caravaggio, several of the key figures have working-class English and Scottish accents. Nor did Jarman ask his set designer to copy Caravaggio’s famous canvases. Instead, we get Neo-Expressionist versions of the same subjects. And, in a coup-d’oeil, the critic lies in his bath, a la David’s The Death of Marat, typing his review on a 1920s Remington.

The seventeenth-century painter we see does not behave like a genius. Jarman is simultaneously suggesting that an ex-rentboy-cum-middle-aged punk might be the Caravaggio of our time. No establishment wants to know about either possibility. Still less does it want to have to confront the prospect that Jarman night be today’s Caravaggio. The painter was a naughty boy but all can be forgiven because he is dead. Jarman, on the other hand, still refuses to conform.

Frida Kahlo’s reputation has grown since the 1982-83 retrospective and the stodgy biography by Hayden Herrera who provided the material for a recent documentary film that skirted around her communism and sexuality in order not to offend the US American art marketers.

The full-length feature film is a work of art in its own right and provides - incidentally - a more truthful account of Kahlo’s life than did the Herrera documentary. Sex, politics and art play against each other without any attempt being made to reduce one into an expression, let alone the mere reflection of the other two.

There is very little dialogue or voice over. The story exposes itself through a succession of images that build into scenes that are only occasionally in chronological sequence. One result is that we get to know more about Kahlo in the way that we learn about the people in our own lives, that is, first from one angle than from another, never seeing all sides and features at once.

The Friedrich film looks in almost every way to be the most conventional. It is a dramatised recreation of the artist’s life story, with a few flashbacks and picturesque scenes interspersed through what is an otherwise chronological retelling. State affairs and art politics are included as is the childhood trauma of watching the drowning of a friend who has just rescued him from the same fate. The acting is exemplary, the panoramas sublime and the historical recreations equal to the best that a props department can provide. Nothing about it would disturb even the most devoted seeker after Romantic mysticism, were it not for the fact that the adult Friedrich never appears. Of course, he can’t. He has been dead for 150 years. The trick is that no actor is put in his place. An actor pretends to be his admirer, Carus. Other actors play at being soldiers, and a prince. There is a vacuum at the heart of the story because no one has been dressed up to look like Caspar David Friedrich.

Other actors talk to where he would be. We see his studio and his family. Here is ‘Hamlet’ without the ghost of the prince. Seemingly conventional bio-pic turns out to be the most radical of the trio. Caravaggio cuts its protagonist up between the 17th and 20th centuries, between Rome then and London now. Freda Kahlo serves us slices of the mutilated being who gave the film her name. Nietzsche would be pleased. Here are not lives and times, but a life against its time. In addition, there is no attempt to integrate the personality. Neither Caravaggio nor Frida Kahlo offers a complete person, the rounded character or the essential being. Both films accept the fractured and partial nature of human existence and hence of the biographer’s art.

Yet neither dared to take the final step and announce that it is impossible to depict a dead artist through a costumed actor. Only the Friedrich film went to that extreme.