An Inspired Artist, Found In An Unlikely Place

Yolande Moreau as Seraphine de Senlis i i

Outsider Art: Seraphine de Senlis (Yolande Moreau), an unrecognized talent, paints one of her vibrant canvases using materials culled from nature. Music Box Films hide caption

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Yolande Moreau as Seraphine de Senlis

Outsider Art: Seraphine de Senlis (Yolande Moreau), an unrecognized talent, paints one of her vibrant canvases using materials culled from nature.

Music Box Films

Seraphine

  • Director: Martin Provost
  • Genre: Foreign
  • Running time: 125 minutes

Unrated

With: Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur, Anne Bennent

(Recommended)

Ulrich Tukur and Yolande Moreau in 'Seraphine' i i

The Painter And Her Protector: Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur, center), among the first to perceive the talents of Pablo Picasso and Henri Rousseau, recognizes Seraphine's gifts — and encourages her to develop them. Music Box Films hide caption

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Ulrich Tukur and Yolande Moreau in 'Seraphine'

The Painter And Her Protector: Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur, center), among the first to perceive the talents of Pablo Picasso and Henri Rousseau, recognizes Seraphine's gifts — and encourages her to develop them.

Music Box Films

The cliche has it that when something on-screen is deadly dull, it's like watching paint dry.

But arguably, there's something even drier, at least in cinematic terms. That would be the appreciation of art — contemplating it, understanding it, finding inspiration in it. Especially when it's unconventional.

So in Seraphine, it's amusing to see what a celebrity the locals make of the art critic and collector Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) when he summers in the French town of Senlis.

His landlady invites all her friends to dine with him, and they bore him to distraction with their chatter about representational art. Until, that is, he spies a small unframed painting of flowers, tucked in a corner behind a piece of furniture.

Bold, almost childishly bright, with a bit of the wildness of a vintage van Gogh — this is the summer of 1912 — it intrigues him. Especially when he's told it was painted by Seraphine, the large, uncommunicative woman who cleans his rooms every day.

Seeking her out, he asks if she has any other work, and he's astonished at the drawings she shows him, painted on old boards and paper, each more vibrant and primitive than the last.

Seraphine of Senlis, Uhde recognizes, is an untutored but inspired naive painter, an artist who has been producing her work unheralded and at considerable personal sacrifice. Unable to afford paints, she gives her canvases vibrant colors and depth by scavenging pigments — oxblood from the kitchen, paraffin from church candles, bright flowers from neighboring fields.

She paints, Seraphine tells Uhde, because her guardian angel tells her to, something she has also told the somewhat skeptical nuns at a convent where she scrubs floors. Uhde becomes another kind of guardian angel for her, placing her work in Paris galleries, encouraging collectors to visit her, and giving her a stipend so she can afford pigments — and coals for the stove.

Writer-director Martin Provost tells much of Seraphine's true-life story without words, lingering here on the process by which she makes paints, there on the obsessive single-mindedness she brings to her art.

And so it comes as a bit of a shock when Yolande Moreau's Seraphine, all doughy and unreadable at first, lets you see how the passion that enriches her work might also upend her life.

She's more fragile than her bulky frame might lead observers to believe, and the voices she hears don't stop just because she's a success. A startling talent, she's also deeply troubled — a simple cleaning woman who is unready when the wildness she feels so ferociously migrates from her canvas to her real world.

In fact history tells us that a mental hospital was in Seraphine's future, though now her canvases grace the walls of institutions of another sort: several of the world's great museums.

A Portrait Of The Collector, Eccentric And Essential

At The Gates i i

Art-World Heroes: Starting in the '60s, quirky collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel amassed a dazzling collection of modern minimalist art. Arthouse Films hide caption

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At The Gates

Art-World Heroes: Starting in the '60s, quirky collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel amassed a dazzling collection of modern minimalist art.

Arthouse Films

Herb and Dorothy

  • Director: Megumi Sasaki
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running time: 87 minutes

Unrated

Herb and Dorothy Vogel i i

Minimalist Taste, Maximal Clutter: The Vogels, who were devoted early patrons of now-famous artists, acquired more than 4,700 works. Arthouse Films hide caption

itoggle caption Arthouse Films
Herb and Dorothy Vogel

Minimalist Taste, Maximal Clutter: The Vogels, who were devoted early patrons of now-famous artists, acquired more than 4,700 works.

Arthouse Films

Herb and Dorothy Vogel are perhaps the world's least likely art collectors, a retired postal worker and a retired librarian with one of the world's great collections of conceptual art —and with a story that proves briskly and engagingly cinematic in Megumi Sasaki's documentary Herb and Dorothy.

The couple began frequenting New York galleries and art studios in the early '60s; they'd pose questions about work they didn't understand, educating themselves and befriending such then-struggling unknowns as Jeff Koons, Sol Lewitt, Robert Mangold and Chuck Close.

And everywhere they went, they bought art. Their budget was strictly limited — they lived on Dorothy's salary, while devoting Herb's to purchasing paintings — but by showing up with cash in hand, and by showing feverish interest in the new and the unconventional, they managed to ingratiate themselves with the minimalist artists of the day.

Minimalism, in fact, was all they could afford. But they went maximal with the minimal, picking up early experimental work for a song; later, they'd buy more mature work at a discount as the artists they'd helped through lean times became more established.

Over time, the Vogels became mascots of the New York art world, amassing in their tiny rent-controlled apartment a collection that traced the entire development of the minimalist movement — and of the artists who created it, many of whom would become enormously famous and influential.

Lining the walls of the apartment they shared with Herb's fish, turtles and cats, and stacked on shelves and under the bed, the artworks accumulated until the Vogel collection was indisputably one of the world's most impressive. So much so that museums began vying to acquire it.

Filmmaker Megumi Sasaki started documenting the Vogels just as they were considering what to do with all the art they'd amassed. Curator Jack Cowart remembers being startled at just how much the couple had stashed away: When he offered to bring their collection to Washington's National Gallery of Art to catalog it, it took five 40-foot tractor-trailers to haul it. (Doing justice to the collection and its scope on film requires sophisticated graphics and a good deal of ingenuity, and happily, director Sasaki possesses both.)

Some 4,700 pieces of art left the apartment, headed for Washington — and then the Vogels started filling the newly emptied space again.

They're still doing so, compulsive in a way that Herb and Dorothy depicts as at once crazy, smart, generous and enormously endearing.

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