Sun, Mar 16, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Crossing boundaries

The Oscar-winning director of ‘12 Years a Slave’ shows that it’s possible to go stylishly outside the frame of fine art and make your mark on the big screen

By Vanessa Thorpe  /  The Observer

British director Steve McQueen holds his Best Picture Oscar for 12 Years a Slave in the press room during the 86th annual Academy Awards earlier this month. McQueen began his career as a different kind of artist.

Photo: EPA

When the director Steve McQueen was an art student learning basic film-making skills at Goldsmiths College, south London, he joked he was already aiming for the time when his name would eclipse that of his glamorous namesake, star of The Great Escape and Bullitt. “One day,” he told his tutor, Professor Will Brooker, “when people talk about Steve McQueen, I am going to be the first person they think of.”

Now, with an Oscar for his film 12 Years a Slave, the transition from Turner prizewinning artist (presented to a British visual artist under the age of 50) to celebrated director has been made in style. It is a path to cinematography also taken by the British artist Sam Taylor-Wood, nominated for a Turner prize in 1998 and now editing her high-profile film of the erotic bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey.

Next month will see a further reminder of the link between the film industry and the rarefied contemporary art world, a link that has existed since the Lumiere brothers first projected images on to a screen. Julian Schnabel, the American artist and film-maker, is to stage his first art exhibition in Britain for 15 years.

“The connection between visual artists and film might seem obvious, and Schnabel is successful in both, but it is amazing how many good artists there are who have not made good films,” said Tim Marlow, who was appointed head of exhibitions at central London’s Royal Academy of Arts (which promotes the creation, enjoyment and appreciation of the visual arts in the UK) last week.

Back in the 1920s Jean Cocteau, the toast of bohemian Paris, put away his paintbrush and typewriter in favor of the motion camera, creating surrealist classics of the cinema such as La Belle et la Bete, while his compatriot Jean Renoir, son of the painter Auguste-Pierre, made ceramic pots long before he made his film La Grande Illusion in 1937. Since then many influential directors, including the late Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, have started out as painters or sculptors.

But does an artist really have to choose? Is it possible to keep a reputation going in both fields? Schnabel certainly thinks it is. Before his show, at the Dairy Art Centre central London’s Bloomsbury, he says he still regards himself as “primarily an artist,” despite the critical success of his films Basquiat, Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

McQueen could find such a trick hard to pull off. Last month he quietly withdrew his name from consideration for the US$100,000 2014 Hugo Boss prize, administered by New York’s Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, due to the demands of promoting 12 Years a Slave in Los Angeles. He has been unable, it was announced, to fulfil the requirements of making a large contribution to the prize show catalogue.


Now it looks as if McQueen, who lives in Amsterdam, will have little time for fine art. Although he has dropped his planned biopic of the musician Fela Kuti, he is developing major television series for both the BBC and the American network HBO. The HBO show is to tell the story of a young African-American man who enters New York high society, while the BBC has commissioned a new drama about the lives of black Britons.

Each of these TV projects will reach a larger audience than the video installations that first made McQueen’s name. In his 1993 black and white silent film, Bear, two naked men exchange meaningful glances in the gloom, while in Deadpan, a work shown in his winning 1999 Turner prize show, he restaged a Buster Keaton stunt in which the film set facade of houses collapses around an unscathed lone figure.

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