Often figurative and in extravagant dimensions: The feature film “A Private Portrait” is an homage to the painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel that occasionally seems to be afraid of its own result.

Julian Schnabel is one of those artists that all art fans have heard of, even if they can’t pinpoint one of his actual works. Rather, they might know about his famous friends, his famous children, his penchant for pajamas, his extravagant home, his bearded appearance. Perhaps they might even be aware of the oversized “plate paintings”, in which he uses broken crockery as a surface for his painting (American Wikipedia actually states ‘Style: “Plate paintings”’ in his profile).

His paintings, with which he enlivened one renowned exhibition venue after another following his meteoric rise to fame in the early 1980s, were largely ignored by critics and curators for a decade not long afterwards. Schnabel’s corresponding irritation was palpable in interviews when interviewers tried all too hard to funnel him into a corner that didn’t match his self-image, and perhaps that’s partly why filmmaker Pappi Corsicato tries a sympathetic-benevolent approach: In “Julian Schnabel – A Private Portrait” he focuses on the narration that the now 66-year-old artist and his family themselves provide.

Becoming a great artist

The film begins directly with a typical Schnabel quote: “When I was young, I wanted to be a great artist… without knowing what this art was even supposed to look like.” His sister talks about the basic conditions in which they both grew up and how Julian became the charming lord of the manor, whom everyone wanted to please – because, on the other hand, he could be so generous and charismatic. Then we hear from his ex-wives and children, and intermittently also the artist himself, while images and archive footage are shown. The ongoing piano music in the background and the rather erratic sequencing of the scenes make the first half of the film seem like a never-ending introduction.

Julian Schnabel, A Private Portrait, © Pappi Corsicato
Julian Schnabel, A Private Portait, © Pofirio Munoz

Time and again, Schnabel is depicted as a larger-than-life character, who operates on a giant scale: giant canvases, giant paintbrushes, a giant circle of friends, by today’s standards an unusually large family with a swarm of children, and a giant pink, eleven-story house in the middle of Manhattan, the famous “Palazzo Chupi”. The film, however, would occasionally have benefitted from quite the opposite principle. You find yourself breathing a veritable sigh of relief when Corsicato stops the pace for a minute, to at least offer the chance of deeper insight.

A supplication

In light of the countless voices favoring the artist, “A Private Portrait” sometimes seems like a supplication on behalf of its protagonist. Alongside art collectors, Hollywood actors like Al Pacino and Willem Dafoe proclaim their admiration, U2 singer Bono also features with a sentimental comment, and even the artist’s children, particularly his daughters Stella and Lola, appear – like the entire world – to be a little bit infatuated with Julian Schnabel.

Julian Schnabel, A Private Portrait, © Weltkino Filmverleih

At one point the art historian and curator Alison Gingeras declares how undervalued and misunderstood Schnabel’s art must have been in the discourse of the 1990s. How uncool it was to like Schnabel. At the same time, she says, he broke a number of paradigms of painting – and then comes the cut to the next scene, so the viewer never finds out which ones. There would be plenty to discuss, and not just at this point: His astonishingly modest-seeming son Vito, for instance, whom many will know less as an art dealer and more from the gossip magazines, explains that his father is one of the few artists of his caliber who still produces his giant canvases himself.

Unimpressed by the cool of concept art

And he’s right: At the studio of Jeff Koons, who talks about Schnabel’s generosity in recommending his then unknown competitor to others, a number of assistants provide support in the background, doing some of the painting themselves. The New York gallery owner Mary Boone, for her part, talks about how she was actually looking for something very different but was nevertheless captivated by Schnabel’s art and, evidently, by Schnabel himself, whose painting showed him to be entirely unimpressed by the minimalistic cool of the concept art of his time. Often figurative and in famously extravagant dimensions.

Julian Schnabel, A Private Portrait, © Sante D'Orazio
Julian Schnabel, A Private Portrait, © Porfirio Munoz

Relatively generous scope is afforded to scenes in which Schnabel acts as filmmaker: In the mid-1990s he began to film the story of his deceased friend Basquiat – with David Bowie playing the role of Andy Warhol. This was followed by “Before Night Falls”, in which Javier Bardem plays the Cuban writer Reynaldo Arenas with Schnabel’s son Vito playing the writer in his younger years, as well as “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, which won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. The lead actor Mathieu Amalric, whose character in the film is completely paralyzed and can move only his eyes, spoke enthusiastically about the unconventional shoot in which Schnabel had him act with a kind of self-built box around his head.  

Painting that clearly means everything

“A Private Portrait” is sometimes less one of Julian Schnabel, as the name suggests, and rather one about a phenomenon of the same name. It is precisely because the project is well meant that it sometimes results in a paradoxical effect: an homage from which come occasional flashes of fear of its own result, so quickly does it hurry through its actual scenes. A cut here, barely a pause for breath there, in which the viewer might perhaps simply be able to observe for a second longer how Schnabel swings his enormous paintbrush in his studio, launches color-soaked scraps of fabric at the canvas or paints onto it using his entire hand, without constant music, cuts or voiceover commentary. Perhaps, instead of the many snippets, we might have some longer passages showing the development and process of painting, which clearly means everything to Schnabel.

Julian Schnabel, A Private Portrait, © Weltkino Filmverleih

The film ends as it began: Julian Schnabel as a loving father, here with his youngest son, still a baby, although the name of the child and the mother remain – like much in the film – unsaid. The artist’s charisma, which is perhaps what this film is really about, is clear to see. The previous scene shows Schnabel in archive footage before a giant canvas which, as the camera zooms out further and further, makes the similarly mighty-seeming artist appear ever smaller and more humble.

Julian Schnabel, A Private Portrait, © Weltkino Filmverleih