A sexy, curly and beefy surfer in his youth, Julian Schnabel (born in 1951) quickly became this paunchy and bearded colossus whose quickdraw today makes him look (in better dressed, often elegant silk pajamas with braid) to both at the “Dude” of The Big Lebowski (1998), of the Coen brothers, and to the celestial and Shakespearean tramp of My Own Private Idaho (1991), by Gus Van Sant.
It is at this figure “Larger than life”, as his friend the filmmaker Héctor Babenco (who died shortly after the shooting) said, in the documentary dedicated to him in 2017 by the Italian Pappi Corsicato. Its original title, in Italian, was “the living art of Julian Schnabel”, which became, in the United States and now on the Netflix platform, Julian Schnabel, an intimate portrait. Both make sense.
Because what strikes first is the flagrant freedom and the force of life of these large canvases, often painted on the ground, sometimes in the open air, in the garden of his house in Montauk bought when this coastal resort of The State of New York, today frequented by the “upper”, was still only a fishing village popular with only surfers …
But it is just as much an intimate portrait insofar as it excludes the divergence of critical gazes by remaining within the family framework – many because, over the course of his marriages and relationships, this artist who loves to cook and whose other appetites produced a host of superb children, up to a youngest, still toddler, we see at the beginning and at the end of the film.
Outside this circle only intervene friends – most of whom are rich and famous – all naturally convinced of the schnabelian genius: Al Pacino, Jeff Koons, Bono, Willem Dafoe, Laurie Anderson, etc. His close friend Lou Reed was already no longer in this world when the shooting took place, but we see the musician performing alongside the painter, who had projected a concert of covers of the album. Berlin (1973).
Need to get out of the box
It was the gallery owner Mary Boone who launched Julian Schnabel in 1979 with a first solo exhibition in New York, amazed and intrigued by the aplomb of the young artist whose first successes were displayed at the same time as those of Jean-Michel. Basquiat (1960-1988), to which Schnabel devoted, in 1996, a biopic, imperfect but touching.
For Schnabel literally, metaphorically, but above all viscerally, needed to get out of the box: by going behind the camera and showing a crazy self-confidence in a professional practice which was not his own but in which his inspired inorthodoxy produced lyrical and amazing films. Others will say: to compensate for the decline of a painter’s career out of fashion …
When it was fashionable to shun figuralism, Schnabel brazenly resorted to it; when it was frowned upon to paint on broken plates, the artist braved the taboo for, once the works in question had become the darling of gallery owners and buyers, refusing to produce them and brazenly declining an exhibition with ringing and stumbling promises.
We can get annoyed by this narcissistic mirror held out to the artist, which sometimes recalls the spirit of the film Let’s get lost (1988), by Bruce Weber, devoted to Chet Baker. But it is hard not to be seduced and touched by the extraordinary flow of fresh air and freedom which the charismatic Julian Schnabel is the inspired and inspiring bearer.
Julian Schnabel, A Private Portrait, documentary by Pappi Corsicato (It., 2017, 84 min).