Whatever you may think of the art itself, there’s no denying the impact of Julian Schnabel’s collection of oversized paintings have had on the art world throughout recent decades. And I think the first person to tell you how significant he has been to the art world is Schnabel himself, who is the focus of a aggrandizing documentary Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait, which serves more as a greatest hits collection of his paintings and films. It’s the type of film you might buy in the gift shop of a gallery featuring Schnabel’s work.
A Private Portrait is certainly a well-made piece, assembled by Italian-born filmmaker Pappi Corsicato (Another Woman’s Face). It goes into Schnabel’s upbringing, his first dalliances into art as a teenager, his family life, early successes, all with testimonials from his children, his first and second wife, and a who’s who of famous artists, gallery owners, actors, musicians, all of whom have been moved by the man and his work. But the film also allows Schnabel to be something of a character, walking through his palatial pink studio/home in the West Village, Villa Chupi in admittedly comfortable-looking pajamas or other flowing garments. I appreciated the Corsicato spends a great deal of time allowing us to watch Schnabel actually paint and create.
Ample archival film and photos show the company that Schnabel kept throughout the decades, and it’s clear that he was not only a contemporary with the likes of Warhol and Basquiat, but he was their friend and sometimes mentor, since he became that rare artist who enjoyed success while he was living.
My entry point into Schnabel’s work was through his films, which included a highly personal debut with Basquiat (in which Gary Oldman played Schnabel, with an impossibly young Jeffrey Wright as the artist and David Bowie as Andy Warhol). Schnabel was a self-taught filmmaker who used actors and sets like the raw materials of painting. He sometimes got messy, throwing them into a moment and watching what happened. His later films, Before Night Falls and the Oscar-nominated The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, as well as a filmed concert for Lou Reed, Berlin, are undeniable works of beauty and sensitivity that a more traditional filmmaker might have been too terrified to attempt. As Schnabel says early on about his art career, it never occurred to him that he wouldn’t be successful.
The star-studded testimonials from the likes of Willem Dafoe, Al Pacino, Laurie Anderson and Bono are certainly enjoyable, but they don’t reveal much about Schnabel the man or the artist. The film skims over some of his shortcomings as a father and husband, and while I wouldn’t say A Private Portrait feels like a whitewash that opts to ignore Schnabel’s flaws (his overly inflated ego is referenced on more than one occasion), it also doesn’t feel like a complete picture, which would have been interesting since, in theory, the darker corners of his life probably inform his art as much as the more positive aspects of his life. Schnabel as a subject moves from fascinating to insufferable with a degree of regularity, which isn’t a reflection of the film, but this idea that the artist is always thinking such deep thoughts or that his bad behavior is forgivable because he’s such a talented artist is a terrible message to put into the world. If you have a curiosity about Schnabel’s work, you’ll probably find this work quite viewable. I was captivated by the behind-the-scenes footage of his movies, and fortunately a great deal of the doc focuses on his movie years. But be prepared for all of the cliches about artists to be confirmed in the worst possible ways at times.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.