Greatest Visual Artists Turned Directors

Top: Photo from "Cremaster 3" (2002) by Matthew Barney.
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While there may be thousands of visual artists who utilize film in their practise, perhaps in the form of video installations of short movies, there’s a clear distinction between this and an artist who makes the brave leap from the gallery space to the movie theatre.

Many try and fail, but not all. The rookie mistakes that numerous individuals fall prey to is: making their feature films too abstract, forgetting narrative and character in favour of ecliptic messages wrapped in beautiful photography and pretentious voice-overs. Feature films have to engage the audience for an extended period of time, they have to possess appealing characters and stimulating situations, in addition to skilled cinematography and a thematic structure. It’s a hard transition but these five artists have each mastered the film directing form in their own unique way.

Top: Photo from “Cremaster 3” (2002) by Matthew Barney.
St. Francis in Ecstasy (96' by 84', oil, plates, wood putty/wood 1980), and Portrait of a Girl (  96' x 84,' oil, plates and bondo on wood, 1980). A film still from  "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (2007)
Top, left to Right: Julian Schnabel’s “St. Francis in Ecstasy” (96” by 84,” oil, plates, wood putty/wood, 1980), and “Portrait of a Girl” (96″ x 84,” oil, plates and bondo on wood, 1980). Bottom: A film still from “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007).

Julian Schnabel

American painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel has made a lucrative career alternating between the canvas and the camera. Where many artists simply dip their toe once in the silver screen pool, Schnabel has waded in a number of times beginning with his biopic “Basquiat” (2006), which is about New York artist and Warhol buddy Jean-Michel Basquiat. This was followed by his collaboration with two of the biggest actors in the world: Johnny Depp and Javier Bardem in the controversial flick “Before Night Falls” in 2000. But it wasn’t until his adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s heartbreaking memoir, “The Diving Bell & the Butterfly,” that the film world truly see Schnabel as a filmmaker and not as an artist experimenting with different mediums. In the film, Schnabel manipulated experimental camera techniques in extraordinary ways to truly get inside the head of Bauby, a fashion editor who suffered a devastating stroke and became fully paralyzed.

Jude Law from the Crying Men Photo series by Sam Taylor A film still from 'Nowhere Boys'
Top: A photo of Jude Law from the “Crying Men” series. Bottom: A movie still from “Nowhere Boys” (2006).

Sam Taylor-Wood

A leading visual artist in the UK for years, Sam Taylor Wood’s photography and video work has always attracted positive attention due to its originality and humour. Take for example her photographic series “Crying Men” where she convinced a group of A-list film actors including Daniel Craig, Hayden Christensen and Jude Law to pose for her camera, while having a cry. In 2006, Wood took a left turn and became a player in the film world. And I’m not talking about her marriage to Aaron Johnson. Critics and audiences alike warmly received her debut feature, “Nowhere Boy” (2009), a biopic of the early years of John Lennon’s life. Authentic, witty and told with a strong sense of the visual and narrative, it confirmed that Wood had added yet another string to her already impressive bow. Having recently been chosen as the director of the hotly anticipated “50 shades of Grey” adaptation, it doesn’t look like Wood will be casting aside the director’s microphone anytime soon. And a good thing too.

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Giardini, 2009 2 screen, synchronized High Definition video projection with 5.1 surround sound and lighting control system; 30 mins, 8 secs; 35mm film transferred to HD A film still from "Hunger" (2008).
Top:”Giardini” (2009), a two screen synchronized video projection; 30 mins, 8 secs; 35mm film transferred to HD. Bottom: Michael Fassbender (left) as Bobby Sands in “Hunger” (2008).

Steve McQueen

Heavily influenced by the French New Wave and the experimental films of Andy Warhol, Turner Prize winning artist Steve McQueen has made serious waves in Hollywood and the art world. His early work as a visual artist was characterized by a minimalist aesthetic, black and white films often featuring the artist himself as subject. “Hunger” (2008), McQueen’s debut as a director, was released to a storm of acclaim, awards and controversy for its politically sensitive subject matter: Bobby Sands, Maze prison and the 1981 hunger strike. It kicked off the director-muse relationship between McQueen and the film’s star Michael Fassbender, which is still going strong. It’s brutal and shocking, to put it mildly, and is famous for a scene between Sands and a visiting priest (played by Liam Cunningham) where the camera holds the same position for a 17 minute period. Cinema doesn’t get more visceral then this. His follow up “Shame” (2011) was equally original and unforgiving in its portrayal of sex addiction.

artist_turned_director-10 Bjork and Matthew Barney in "Drawing Restraint 9" (2005).
Top: Photo from “The Cremaster Cycle 3” (2002). Bottom: Bjork and Matthew Barney in “Drawing Restraint 9” (2005).

Matthew Barney

Matthew Barney is an artist and filmmaker who courts controversy with his surreal works. Best known in the art world as the creator of the infamous “The Cremaster Cycle” (the title references the muscles in the testicles which extend due to heat or fear), where Barney plays a host of hyperrealist characters, including satyrs and a ram, in extravagant prosthetics and insane circumstances. The films are outrage visual delights that disgust as much as they entice. Barney is married to Icelandic songstress Bjork. In 2005, together they created the multimedia film “Drawing Restraint 9” (2005), which was accompanied by sculptures, books and soundtracks. The project is an unconventional cinematic work to be sure, but a powerful one none the less in all its surreal brilliance.

Orpheaus Theme by Jean Cocteau "La Belle et la Bete" (1946)
Top: Orpheaus Theme (71 x 47.5 cm, lithograph, 1960) by Jean Cocteau. Bottom: A romantic scene in “La Belle et la Bete” (1946).

Jean Cocteau

Decades before James Franco started snapping up artistic fields like a fat kid at a candy store, Jean Cocteau was the original Renaissance man, excelling in film, poetry, painting, sculpture and theatre, among others. The toast of 20s Paris, Cocteau slowly gravitated from the paintbrush and quill pen to the motion camera in his gorgeously surrealist masterpieces. Dipped head first in dreamy imagery, surrealism and mythology, Cocteau’s feature movies (including “La Belle et la Bete” [1946]) are beautiful relics from a former era in cinema where if you wanted to create anything fantastical, you had to physically make it without the aid of a computer. Let us toast to a true artist!

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Christopher Smail

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Christopher is based in the UK, the former assistant editor of Scene360 magazine. Follow the author @ and view more articles.

September 2, 2013 Art Mixed Media Movies Photography