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Arty films and books to watch out for in 2019

1 January 2019

Keep an eye out for these books and films with an art-historical twist over the next few months.


At Eternity’s Gate, dir. Julian Schnabel
Willem Dafoe is Oscar-tipped for his performance as Van Gogh in this impressionistic biopic from artist-director Julian Schnabel (whose other films include The Diving Bell and the Butterfly [2007] and Basquiat [1996], in which Dafoe appeared as an electrician, and David Bowie memorably played Andy Warhol). Taking its title from a painting made in 1890, some two months before Van Gogh’s death, the film focuses on the artist’s time in Arles, a period of both ‘indescribable anguish’, as he himself wrote, and of prolific work.

The Goldfinch, dir. John Crowley
John Crowley has form directing screen adaptations of much-loved novels, having acquitted himself well with Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn in 2015. Even so, few surely would envy him the challenge of satisfying the legions of fans of The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s Bildungsroman of 2013, which won her a Pulitzer Prize. The story is centred on the 17th-century Dutch painting of the same name by Carel Fabritius (in reality at the Mauritshuis), stolen during an explosion at the Met Museum by the book’s 13-year-old narrator, Theo Decker. His character is played by Ansel Elgort in the film, which also stars Nicole Kidman.

Mapplethorpe, dir. Ondi Timoner
‘Even that which we deem obscene you make look more beautiful than I thought possible,’ a character tells Robert Mapplethorpe in this film about the provocative American photographer’s rise to fame in the 1970s, through to his death in 1989. While Matt Smith’s performance in the lead role has been praised, early reviews have not been kind to the film itself; but it could at least turn viewers on to Just Kids, Patti Smith’s award-winning memoir of her relationship with Mapplethorpe, which came out in a new edition last year.

Museo, dir. Alonso Ruizpalacios
Looted art and museum thefts are never far away from the news, and this comic yet poignant heist film looks back to a notorious theft of antiquities in 1985 at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Gael Garcia Bernal plays one of the two young middle-class no-hopers who manage to steal 140 Mayan and Aztec artefacts – priceless, but, as the naive pair only realise later, unsellable (the film also features Simon Russell Beale as an ancient art dealer). Discernible beneath the film’s plot is the topical question: where do such objects belong anyway?


Tell them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants
Mathias Enard (trans. Charlotte Mandell)
Fitzcarraldo Editions
In 1506, Michelangelo declined an invitation to Constantinople to work for the Ottoman court (as Gentile Bellini had done a few decades before). The artist had been asked to submit a design for a bridge spanning the Golden Horn, after Sultan Bayezid II had rejected one proposed by Leonardo. Originally published in 2010 and newly translated from the French, Enard’s novel imagines what might have been had Michelangelo accepted the commission, conjuring a scenario in which the world of the Renaissance, in the form of one of its giants, meets Islamic culture.

The Age of Light
Whitney Scharer
Pan Macmillan
First-time novelist Scharer was inspired to write this book after seeing the exhibition ‘Man Ray/Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism’ at the Peabody Essex Museum back in 2011. The story follows model-turned-photographer Miller from 1930s Paris to war-torn Europe as she steps out of the shadow of her lover and mentor Man Ray.

Goodbye to Tenth Street
Irving Sandler
Pleasure Boat Studio
American art critic Irving Sandler, who died at the age of 92 last year, had been close to some of the key figures in the Abstract Expressionist movement. He mined his decades of interviews, encounters and observations for this, his first novel, set in the New York art world from the time of Jackson Pollock’s death in 1956 to the emergence of Andy Warhol in 1962, weaving in plenty of art history and theory along the way.

Painter to the King
Amy Sackville
Granta Books
This feted fictional account of Velasquez’s 38 years at the court of Philip IV comes out in paperback in the spring. In Sackville’s Woolf-like prose, the artist is the one constant in a dizzying parade of royal family members, servants, courtiers – and paintings.