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Jewish Journal

Schnabel dives into another mind with a visual poem

by Tom Freudenheim

November 29, 2007 | 7:00 pm

"Don't give up your day job!" That's what I really wanted to tell Julian Schnabel during our interview at New York's Regency Hotel.

Our era keeps pushing the limits of excessive art hype to promote overpriced underwhelming art, and Schnabel exemplifies this trend as distinctly as any American artist. The range of his paintings -- some of them perhaps best understood as sculptures -- early on defied easy classification in regard to any single style or trend in the art of our time. Indeed, the only evident trend was a sense that Schnabel's art depended as much on being outrageous, and was promoted for its outrageousness, as for any inherent sense of quality. For me, his significance as a painter was primarily in the ability to pick up on ideas that had already been beautifully explored by others -- Bruce Conner, Eva Hesse, Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, etc. -- exploiting someone else's explorations. And then gradually one realizes, contemplating Damian Hirst's so-called pushing at so-called boundaries, that rip-offs (politely called "appropriations") are not only part of the eternal art cycle, but that Schnabel himself becomes an artist to be appropriated. I'm never certain whether this is poetic justice or a continual dumbing-down in contemporary art.

I had to rethink some of that when I saw Julian Schnabel's newest film, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." This poignant and painful visual poem is clearly informed by the painter's sensibility and, I would argue, by the painter's Jewish sensibility. My first impression was to wonder why such a talented filmmaker would bother with the scrappy hype-driven world of galleries and collectors and museums. But who would argue that the film world is any better, especially if one makes a movie that, despite its wonderfully rich human resonances, is unlikely to reach a mass audience? Although this is Schnabel's third film, it is probably his most accomplished, having garnered him the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival. That's no mean feat for a painter whose public persona has often revealed an ego as outsized as some of his paintings.

Schnabel told me to check out W.H. Auden's 1940 poem, "Musee des Beaux Arts," as a clue to his work in this film, and its opening lines reveal something about the unity in the totality of the artist's work, for which I might previously not have had enough respect:

"About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters; how well they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along."

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is an extraordinary memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor-in-chief of French Elle, who was suddenly struck with a rare condition called locked-in syndrome that turned a vibrant young man into a quadriplegic with all his mental capacities intact. The book was "dictated" to Bauby's therapist-companion by eye blinks that identified each letter of the alphabet, and was published two days before Bauby's death in 1997. It's not surprising that one might find in this courageous book the potential for a film. But that Julian Schnabel was able successfully to accomplish the beautiful and sensitive transformation of this book to film is almost as miraculous as Bauby's own triumph over unimaginable adversity. The puzzle of finding oneself inexplicably "locked in" and then dealing with the despair, which moves to somehow handling the cards one has been dealt -- "acceptance" or "overcoming" are not quite the right words -- almost strains credibility. But from the film's very beginning Schnabel tries to get the viewer into Bauby's eyes and body, and eventually even his imagination; how and why this succeeds as a film is almost as inexplicable as is any mysteriously compelling work of art in any medium.

As Schnabel explained it to me, he is simply "a human being using a camera to communicate," and although he has himself never really been sick, Schnabel was challenged by imagining how to get into a whole body.

"Getting inside someone is art. Making you think about what life is -- that's art!" Here's where Auden's finely tuned poem -- a meditation on Pieter Breughel's 1558 painting, "Landscape With the Fall of Icarus," in the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels -- serves as a key to Schnabel's impulse not only to unlock a door that lets him inside another person, but also to uncover the means to take us with him.

But I also sensed something very Jewish here. At the Passover seder we are not simply commemorating our ancestors' Exodus from Egypt. Rather, the haggadah clearly specifies that each of us is responsible for annually understanding that we ourselves experienced that Exodus. Schnabel's film sensitively manages to take the viewer inside a forbidden place -- someone else's body and mind. And unlike what we have become accustomed to in so much of contemporary art -- especially photography since Diane Arbus' work gained prominence -- the viewer of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is never a voyeur. That's an amazing achievement!

I don't recall anyone ever classifying Schnabel as a "Jewish artist" -- even if his mother was a Hadassah president and his father an active member of B'nai B'rith. Unlike the parody of pushy Jewish parents aiming their son at medical school, Schnabel says that his parents encouraged him to do anything he wanted -- which may explain a kind of restlessness as an artist that sometimes feels like a lack of focus, and an oeuvre of uneven quality and interest. But if the result is a work of art as accomplished as Schnabel's latest film, then such antsy-ness is laudable.

And while he continues to paint and exhibit his work all over the world, it's even more exciting to contemplate Schnabel's next film project: He told me he wants to make a film about Palestinian women growing up in Israel.

Tom Freudenheim is a retired museum director who writes about art and cultural issues.

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