How art becomes film

Directors just can’t seem to resist recreating great paintings in movie form.

Nowadays, what do we even mean by “art film?” One meaning is both literal and durable: a movie made from works of art. Whether as glancing homage or rigorous reconstruction, directors just can’t seem to resist recreating great paintings in movie form. Of course they do it for study purposes, to learn how to frame space and render light and get at the ineffable essence of people (particularly women, at least as the history has it so far). And also solely for pleasure, to relish the “oh wow” moment when familiar striking still images start to move.

It’s not hard to imagine why a certain Botticelli masterwork has captured Terry Gilliam‘s imagination (at least since his Monty Python animation days). Or why Akira Kurosawa might have dreamed of wayfaring through a vivid Van Gogh wilderness. Or why Lech Majewski should try a deep dive into Pieter Bruegel, and Gustav Deutsch should want to probe the deceptively empty spaces painted by Edward Hopper.

And it makes perfect sense that for Derek Jarman, a painter himself prior to becoming a filmmaker, any film portrait of Caravaggio necessarily would require painted portraits by Caravaggio. (We also have Jarman to thank for the blessed evolution of the term “art film” to mean “a movie with Tilda Swinton in it.”)

Less obvious but arguably more fascinating: how a single Rembrandt canvas could inspire not one but two films from Peter Greenaway, who, early on in one of them, declares that “most people are visually illiterate.” Well, go ahead and quiz yourself with this short video, which really only scratches the surface, both art-wise and film-wise.

And ask yourself: Of all the available ways to explore conspiracy theories about the Dutch aristocracy of the seventeenth century, or other theories about how photorealistic paintings were made before there was photography (and whether any given Vermeer is technically doable by a layperson), or even non-theories about just how cool it is to see paintings come to life, is any more thorough, or more thoroughly enjoyable, than cinema?