A look at the personal life and public career of New York artist Julian Schnabel.
Neo-expressionist painter and award-winning director Julian Schnabel has, without a doubt, firmly established himself in the contemporary art world. From sculpting gargantuan “plate paintings” to helming intimate-but-epic biographies (five, to be exact: “Basquiat,” “Before Night Falls,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Berlin,” and “Miral”), Schnabel’s work tends to revolve around the theme of testing one’s psychological limits.
It’s evident in Schnabel’s own paintings, composed of curtains, sails, ceramic, wax, velvet, plaster and photographs – cluttered, torn expressions of an unsettled, beautiful mind. It’s evident in the art of the public figures he depicts, be it the struggles of openly gay poet Reinaldo Arenas, or Lou Reed’s tumultuous career, seen through the prism of German’s chief gloomy city, or the heroic acts of a young Palestinian girl.
It’s not, however, evident in Pappi Corsicato’s breezy documentary “Julian Schnabel: An Intimate Portrait.” Featuring contributions from Schnabel admirers Al Pacino, Bono, and Willem Dafoe, this extended made-for-TV biography paints an entertaining portrait of the artist but fails to elicit a visceral emotional response that one would expect from such a controversial subject matter.
The theme of water is prevalent throughout the film, a significant part of his work – “I use water a lot in a subject matter and also as a material.” The film starts with Schnabel diving from a towering cliffside into an azure ocean, akin to the Bell in his film (one of the doc’s sole artistic flourishes). Corsicato then proceeds to cut between Schnabel working in his New York studio in 2014, different edits from a variety of sources, archival material and a variety of interviews with Schnabel’s sister, his sons and daughters, his wives (all of whom speak fondly of him), gallery owner Mary Boone, friends, other artists, film producers, a former assistant and a curator/writer.
“He sees beauty where he looks,” is a reoccurring motif, all of Schnabel’s friends and critics agreeing that his work is of towering importance and beauty, yet rarely discussing what lies behind it. Executive-produced by Schnabel himself, this “Private Portrait” conveniently skips past his latest directorial feature, the critically-slammed “Miral,” making one wonder how “private” (read: biased) this “portrait” really is. Charismatic, torn, full of himself and abrasive, Schnabel is a fascinating figure, but here, despite being featured in almost every shot, he’s held at an arm’s length, like a painting we cannot approach to study closer, but everyone tells us is so beautiful and complex. “He’s playing with conventions in unconventional ways,” says Willem Dafoe reverentially.
Constricted by the claustrophobic, blank “quarters” of his childhood, young Julian found solace in large-scale paintings and exuberant colors. “He was pretty wild, taking acid every day, skipping school and going surfing,” his daughter shares. His early studios were “full of paintings, piled on top of each other,” gargantuan ones, which immediately impressed gallery owners. In the late 1970s, his art exploded, and Schnabel began mingling with the likes of Warhol, traveling the world with his wife – living the life, in other words.
Ironically, for someone who freed himself from familial and societal restrictions by escaping into the vast freedom of the art world, once Schnabel birthed children, he became quite the restrictive parent. Everything had to be a certain way. “I grew to appreciate it,” his despondent son says, “we weren’t going to go on walks in the park or play basketball.” Schnabel himself admits that that period is difficult for him to talk about. And so he doesn’t, the documentary politely moving on.
In its second half, “A Private Portrait” delves into the cinematic part of Schnabel’s career. Heavily influenced by “The Godfather” and “Spartacus”, he always wanted to make films, the lines between painting and directing blurring. “He throws his actors at the camera like he does with paint!” exclaims actress Anne Consigny. Going film-by-film – except, that is, Schnabel’s 2011 misfire, which never happened, according to Corsicato – the film gains momentum but loses poignancy, resembling a behind-the-scenes featurette. It all sort of concludes in the fisherman’s village of Montauk, Julian’s hiding place, where he spends time with his family – and, of course, paints.
Jarring in their wild combination of splattered colors and vivid, three-dimensional structures, Schnabel’s “bigger than life” paintings really do provoke an immediate gut reaction – I just wish the doc had the same impact, or at least slowed down and spoke more about the pieces.“When you get attached to somebody,” Schnabel says, discussing loneliness, “you find your mother in their arms.” This is about insightful as his own commentary gets. There are tidbits here and there about what lies behind his art – say, how he depicted occurrences that stuck with him: a death, a moment of any given day, etc. – but I wish it were explored in more detail.
Corsicato’s film does move along snappily, touching upon themes of “believing in yourself as an artist,” “exploring your limits as an artist” and… “following your dreams… as an artist.” It contains fascinating archival footage of Schnabel throwing cloth against a canvas, then wiping his hands against said cloth, in stark black-and-white. There is an episode involving Schnabel crying on a film set, touched by an image he himself composed – a weird amalgamation of poignancy and a self-congratulatory streak that could be applied to this documentary. Schnabel putting together the “Berlin” set for Lou Reed’s live performance clearly meant a lot to him, and the affection is palpable.
Schnabel infuses all of his cinematic biographies about artists with a dash of his own artistic flourishes, recognizable auteur-ish trademarks, as well as reflecting said artists’ styles. Corsicato fails to achieve the same with his documentary, which similar docs like “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” “Cutie and the Boxer,” or “Gerhard Richter Painting,” did so gracefully. It’s intermittently lyrical and incisive and certainly reverential of its protagonist, but it doesn’t hold a brush to Schnabel’s own cinematic eye. This “private” portrait could have used some privacy invasion.