Painting Lives with Light: the Kahlo and Pollock biopics.
Although the biopic has long been derided as a propagandist and pedagogical genre, conservative if not reactionary in its nostalgic turning to what is gone, falsifying history, and frequently little more than a star vehicle, it remains central to nearly all national cinemas and offers fascinating ways of engaging versions of the past for its meaning and impact on the present and the future. In addition, films on the lives and work of painters, focused as they are on issues of visual representation, are bound to foreground some of the concerns that are common to cinema and painting, and to highlight questions on the social role of art, both as creative process and when appropriated by a community of reception.
This paper compares how these crucial issues are explored in films on the lives of two of the most important painters of the twentieth century: Frida Kahlo, as portrayed in Julie Taymor’s biopic, Frida (2002) and Jackson Pollock in Ed Harris’ Pollock (2000). The paper considers the contextual circumstances in which these painters were working and these films were made, compares the ways the films navigate the conventions of the genre and introduce viewers to the paintings, and compares the views on art that held sway then as well as now. It concludes that although cinema may not be best described as ‘painting history with light’ (adapted from Woodrow Wilson’s original contention that it was writing history with light), the connection between cinema, history and painting is nonetheless a powerful one, and there are various reasons why they are best studied together.