Travis Fullerton photo ©Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
The VMFA's John Ravenal (left) and artist Julian Schnabel discussing his film work.
I can be a snob in reverse. My knowledge of modern art is spotty, and thus when my partner-in-art, Amie Oliver, urged us to get tickets to hear Julian Schnabel at the VMFA this past Thursday, I didn’t think much of it. What I knew about Schnabel didn’t move me; he was famous in the '80s, yes, but his arrogance annoyed me as he insouciantly lounged through life in pajamas like Hugh Hefner. (I mean, put on a pair of pants, Julian.) He's now also a film director and with some success: notably Basquiat and the Oscar-nominated The Diving Bell and The Butterfly.
I could respect him at least for those two movies, though others might disagree on some of the latter’s details.
And so on our way to the museum, I point-blank asked Amie, “Why should I care about Julian Schnabel?"
She schooled me.
He re-invented painting, is all, at a time when figuration in the art was all but dead, and he’s remained prolific and versatile.
The museum invited him to speak under the umbrella of the Picasso exhibit, the master having been a great influence on the contemporary artist.
The Cheek Auditorium was packed for the hour-ish program moderated by John Ravenal, the VMFA’s curator of modern and contemporary art. And yes, Schnabel wore pajamas, dark blue with white piping and bright-red sneakers. (I suppose for him it was formalwear.) By now his predilection for sleep attire is like Tom Wolfe’s white suit and spats, or, um, certain people'saffection for hats. And Schnabel seemed to enjoy himself.
Ravenal compared and contrasted works by Schnabel with pieces by Picasso. Schnabel knows Picasso’s children and painted a portrait of Claude Picasso — from life. He doesn’t use photographs.
Schnabel observed that art is travel, that it’s actually time travel. When you’re experiencing art, you’re going to the place where the artist was in his or her life, physically and metaphorically.
This is especially the case with the Picasso exhibit, due to the amount of work displayed and theexpanse of his life covered. Walking through the exhibit two weeks ago with Amie, she pointed out (as Schnabel did later) how Picasso would often work until he got eager to move on to the next thing — for example, Death of a Bullfighter. The left side of the painting is detailed, with the folds of the flinging cape, the toréador’s costume, each hair on the bull’s snout. But past the tortured body, Picasso either lost interest or felt he didn’t need to gild the lilly. At any rate, as you stand there, you can experience him making that decision.
Schnabel summed up his filmmaking approach thusly: “We all jump into a deep hole, and if we can get out of it, we go home. Which is also like painting.” Or writing, for that matter — staring at a blank page can be similar to peering into an abyss.
Addressing how he chose to make Diving Bell in French, Schnabel told a story about a producer who didn’t think that a film about a Frenchman from a book originally written in French needed such authenticity. Schnabel asked him, “Don’t you think it’d be somewhat strange for an audience in Paris to watch a movie about a French person with actors speaking in accents and with French subtitles?” The producer didn’t think so. The film somehow got made, anyway.
Schnabel's latest film, Miral, isn’t garnering rave reviews, except, he said, from writers, poets and actors — including Carl Reiner. At his mention of the comedic legend, Schnabel called for his coat and pulled out his cellphone. He played the message an exuberant Reiner left for him: “Everybody in the world must see this film,” Reiner enthused. He left his number and said, “Call me if you want to be lauded.” The film covers perhaps the world’s most difficult subject: the Arab-Israeli conflict of the past half-century, mostly through the eyes of a orphan girl who grows up in a private school then gets radicalized and joins the PLO, only to find out maybe that’s not as good an idea as she first thought. When will it play in Richmond?
An audience member suggested that the film be brought to the museum, considering who directed it, and Schnabel seemed delighted by the prospect.
To hold you until then, Basquiat is showing the day after tomorrow as part of the VMFA’s Friday film series, at 6:30 p.m., for $7. And when you see it, keep in mind that Schnabel painted a copy of the entire Guernica for a scene in the movie.