“Sex doesn’t dominate my life at all, really. I think painting does” (David Hockney): the emergence of the queer artist biopic

David Bovey


In the classic tradition of artist biography there has grown up a number of myths and tropes that have encouraged a pre-ordained pattern for the portrayal of an artistic life, whether literary or cinematic. Within the sub-genre of the artist biopic must now be added the category of queer artist as already distinct tropes have emerged in this relatively new field.

Where discussion of Michelangelo’s sexuality was deliberately avoided in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), within ten years there was a sexually explicit exploration of the gay lifestyle in 1960’s London in A Bigger Splash (1974). This openness and an aggressive style continued in subsequent British artist biopics though not without provoking censorship challenges and some outspoken critiques in the media. To make the filmic representations acceptable to cinema audiences, and to convey the feel of the artist’s paintings, the directors used very innovative techniques to present their story. The auteurs behind these films, such as Derek Jarman, saw them as distinctly political in intent. Overall the queer artist biopic has shown more interest in exploring the private sex life of the artist than in the creation of his artistic output, but through such controversial content the artist biopic finds its place within the development of both a gay and a queer cinema.

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