Celluloid Bohemia? Ken Russell's Biopics of Visual ArtistsCelluloid Bohemia? Ken Russell's Biopics of Visual Artists
Faculty of Arts. Linguistics and Literature
Research Centre for Visual Poetics
Journal of British cinema and television
12(2015):4, p. 479-495
University of Antwerp
Few directors are so closely associated with the genre of the artist biopic as Ken Russell who made several films dedicated to composers, dancers and writers. Only three of these, however, have visual artists as their protagonists: Always on Sunday (1965), Dante's Inferno (1967) and Savage Messiah (1972), dealing with Henri Le Douanier Rousseau, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska respectively. There has also been relatively little critical commentary on these films compared with the discussion devoted to Russell's films dealing with the lives of composers. This article attempts to remedy this situation by considering the ways in which Russell tackles some of the thematic and formal challenges inherent to the genre of the artist biopic, such as the representation of the artist's personality, the visualisation of the process of artistic creation, and the relation between the style of the film and that of the artist portrayed. We will argue that, to a large extent, Russell's protagonists in these films conform to the romantic stereotype of the tormented and alienated artist. However, and perhaps contrary to what one would associate with the director, we will demonstrate that Russell's biopics also demystify this cult of artistic genius by focusing on the mundane or laborious activities involved in the process of artistic creation, which is at odds with genre conventions that normally glorify this process.