17 September, 2010

Julian Schnabel: A Renaissance Man For Our Times

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

Julian Schnabel strides two different worlds like a modern-day colossus. As a painter, sculptor and photographer, he has been in the A list of fine arts culture for more than 30 years. For the past decade, he has added "filmmaker extraordinaire" to his resume, becoming one of the most talked-about and lauded film artists of his generation. Painters making films is not completely new (Leger, Kandinsky, Dali and other early modernists did make film expressions, but they were either short abstract works or limited surrealistic efforts). However, Schnabel is an astute director of actors, a highly visual stylist and a film artist with a unique vision, making him the first (to my knowledge) painter who has been uniquely accepted into the film firmament as well. This makes him a renaissance man of our times.

Toronto is playing host to both sides of this unique visual artist, by hosting the North American premiere of his fifth film MIRAL at the Toronto International Film Festival AND a mini-retrospective of his painting, photography and sculptural work currently in exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). The exhibition (which runs through January 2011) has been timed with the Festival, easily Toronto's most important cultural event, to create a unique cross-cultural celebration of a unique stylist's visual language and influences.

JULIAN SCHNABEL: ART AND FILM brings together his two passions: painting and filmmaking. For an artist who has had exhibitions around the world, this is the first that uniquely examines the interplay between his two loves, and traces how they exist in dialogue with one another. With over 50 works (including polaroids of film stars, monumental painting on canvas and velvet, and an expressionistic sculpture), curator David Moos has created a visual landscape on the fifth floor of the AGO that is as intoxicating as the work itself. To learn more, visit:

Considering that Schnabel only began his film work a decade ago, the influence of cinema has been part of his lexicon from the very beginnings of his fledgling painting career. The first work that garnered him international reputation was a 1978 work titled ACCATONE, after the celebrated film by Italian stylist Pier Paolo Pasolini. His love of international cinema informed many of his subsequent works, including an abstract work on sailcloth devoted to the actress Jane Birkin and Surfing Paintings series that Schnabel dedicated to the legendary Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci. "Movies were my escape", he states in the short documentary produced by the AGO for the exhibition. "I drew my first impressions of what it meant to be an artist from the classics of world cinema and they still remain a major influence in all of my work." Other key cinematic figures who served as subjects or touchstones in the exhibition include Marlon Brando, Albert Finney, Dennis Hopper, Mickey Rourke, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken and Rula Jebreal, with who he wrote the screenplay of his newest film MIRAL.

MIRAL, which had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month, was inspired by the life of Palestine-born, Western-based television journalist Rula Jebreal. The film examines the lives of four Palestinian women of different generations as they search for hope and justice in a country torn apart by conflict. The film offers a showcase to actresses Hiam Abbass and Freida Pinto (of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE fame) in the central roles and reinforces his view that women are the ones who both continue the culture and suffer the most when it is threatened. Aside from the strength of the film's political core, Schnabel invests it with a highly expressionistic visual style that uses all the tones and tools that cinema can offer.....a strong parallel to the use of colors and brushes in his art work. Interestingly, he needed to turn to European resources to fund the film, including Pathe, Canal Plus and Cinecinema, although the film is slated to be released later this year in North America by The Weinstein Company.

Although MIRAL has been received with mixed reviews, the film is rich in compassion for its subjects and its use of striking visual imagery. These are qualities he has exhibited and honed since beginning his film career in 1996 with BASQUIAT, a dramatic portrait of the "doomed" street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and the 1980s New York art scene that Schnabel knew so intimately. Politics, both personal and pragmatic, pervade his second film BEFORE NIGHT FALLS (2001), which was a career catalyst for Spanish actor Javier Bardem, who is now among the biggest movie stars on the planet. In 2007, Schnabel had his most immersive experience in cinema, directing both the expressionistic THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERLY and the music documentary LOU REED: BERLIN. All four of the films will screen throughout the AGO's exhibition run.

Clearly, this is a man of passion, visual gifts and huge talent. To have made such strong impressions in two different arenas is unprecedented. It remains clear that both Schnabel the painter and Schnabel the filmmaker have much more to say, and for those fortunate enough to live or visit Toronto this week, both of his gifts are on ample display.

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