Home Magazine The Twin Talents of Julian Schnabel

Julian Schnabel is an American painter and film maker, and has enjoyed considerable success in both of these fields. He represented the U.S.A. at the Venice Biennale in 1980 and 1982, and quickly rose to prominence as a pioneer of the neo-expressionism movement, when his focus on returning to traditions of large scale, painted canvases saw a departure from the Minimal and Conceptual styles of the 60s and 70s.

His experimentation and use of new media, specifically smashed plates in his early work, lends a sculptural element to his work, the structures of his canvases given life outside the two dimensions of the canvas. The variety of materials he incorporates into his work, as well as smashed crockery, includes cloth, antlers, wood and a range of pigments. His plate paintings in particular earned him the most recognition, even if some critics were not amused by this bold technique. Check out Minimal and Conceptual artworks on Kooness!


Julian Schnabel, "Spain" 1986, courtesy Guggenheim Collection Online


As a film maker, his most critically acclaimed film is “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007) which earned him the prize of best director at Cannes film festival and the Golden Globes, and was also nominated for four Oscars. The film follows the life of a man suffering from “locked in syndrome” and therefore paralyzed is unable to move his head, providing Schnabel with an opportunity to explore the character’s unique way of seeing.

This emphasis on the visual, and using film as a natural extension of the artist’s graphic production, helps Schnabel craft his films even when he had no knowledge of the technical side of production. For example, when filming his first film, the biopic Basquiat, he relied solely on his intimate knowledge of and respect for Jean Michel-Basquiat’s work, unfazed dealing with a cast of film veterans including Christopher Walken, David Bowie and Gary Oldman.

Despite his recent success as a film maker and director, he has never lost sight of his artistic direction, once saying,

“I never was a filmmaker, I was always a painter since I was little.”


Understanding that painting is always the top priority for Schnabel makes his style of work easier to follow. Basquiat was his to write and produce because as an artist he felt he had a greater affinity with the titular character than many other directors. This respect as an artist for an artist meant that Schnabel always aimed to find the truth in the story, not wishing to twist Jeffrey Wright’s portrayal of Basquiat into anything that would entertain for entertainment’s sake. The truth of his process and artistic production is what comes across on screen.


Julian Schnabel with Van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1889, courtesy The Boston Globe


The same is true for his latest film, At Eternity’s Gate, in which Willem Dafoe portrays Vincent van Gogh in a much less psychologically troubled iteration of the character than has been written in previous films. Schnabel’s talents as painter meant he was able to teach Dafoe himself how to paint as the famous impressionist. The film for Schnabel was all about the act of painting, about how Van Gogh specifically painted, and he feels that this is a factor of other films about Van Gogh that has been overlooked in previous films. On the film Van Gogh, written and directed by Maurice Pialat, he has this to say...

“The Pialat movie I think is a waste of time. … I think it’s because it’s the anti-biopic and that’s why people like it, because he doesn’t pay any attention to the story of Van Gogh. … It’s definitely not about painting. I don’t think Pialat knew anything about painting.”

His passion and eye for artistic talent is clear, and his own experience as a painter is often replicated in his films. Read more about the film At Eternity's Gate and Julian Schnabel at the Venice Film Festival hereTo coincide with the release of this film, Schnabel has also curated an exhibition at the Musee D’Orsay, “Orsay through the Eyes of Julian Schnabel” in which he has been given free rein to display impressionist works of the like of Cezanne, Monet and Van Gogh combined with some of his own pieces, for each to enter into a visual dialogue with the other.


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