Aficionados Americanos: A Study of Painting and Spanish Bullfighting in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat and Dennis Hopper’s Catchfire

Sitting inside a Los Angeles police station, conceptual artist Anne Benton (Jodie Foster) worriedly bites her nails as she relays the details of a mob crime she witnessed the night before. Benton’s anxiety escalates when she notices John Luponi (Dean Stockwell), the lawyer for the notorious mobster Leo Carelli (Joe Pesci), staring at her, unblinking, from outside the glass door. After excusing herself to go to the bathroom, Luponi follows Benton with a steady walking pace as she scurries away from him down the hall, twisting her head side to side while searching for an exit. When Benton finds a small alcove that is bathed in electric red light in front of the women’s bathroom, it is only then that Luponi stops his chase. Having made a brief study of her mannerisms and her temperament, this is only the first part of Luponi’s chase to kill Benton.

What Dennis Hopper’s Catchfire (aka Backtrack, 1989) proposes in this narrative set-up can be likened to the three-act structure of the Spanish Bullfight. What is demonstrated is that, to we viewers, Luponi is a Matador figure, predicting the movements of a bull inside an arena (i.e., Benton inside the police station), using cultural mythology and machismo as momentum for his desire to play out the tragedy of the fight.

A near-identical set up occurs in Julian Schnabel’s biopic Basquiat (1996). The artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) walks into a New York diner, taking a seat in the corner of the room. His eyes fall upon a beautiful brunette waitress, Gina (Claire Forlani), who inspires him to use the back end of a fork to draw her portrait into a pool of maple syrup on the wooden table. Seeing a mess rather than artistic creativity (especially since Jean-Michel is the only non-white person inside the diner), the chef throws him out. Schnabel presents the character of Jean-Michel to his viewers also as a Matador figure, but one who uses art in order to decode and demystify his bull subject.

Both Catchfire and Basquiat utilise artworks (sculpture, music and painting) in their film narratives so that their content, materiality and presence can be used for the progression of the story, and to fuel the tensions between the aesthetics of fiction and the biographical authenticity of these artists. The specific audiovisual and narrative constructions of Catchfire and Basquiat can be interpreted as a mirror of the Spanish Bullfighting narrative.

Each part of this essay is named after the original Spanish term given to the specific bullfighting act, phase or stage: tercio de varas, tercio de banderillas and tercio de muerte. At the beginning of each section, a short summary of the specific bullfighting stage is provided so that the reader may contextualise the theoretical analysis alongside the cultural bullfighting references. These summaries are taken from Ernest Hemingway’s non-fiction novel, Death in the Afternoon (1932). Hemingway’s exploration of the psychology of bullfighting in relation to a wide variety of art media is similar to the type of intermedial discussion I undertake. [1]

The decision to compare Catchfire and Basquiat, and hence Schnabel and Hopper, is for a simple reason. Both artists are deeply obsessed with the history of Spanish and Latin American bullfighting. Furthermore, Catchfire and Basquiat are two very particular texts within each artist’s filmography. Not only are these films the most explicit moving-image explorations, within a narrative context, of intermediality in each artist’s filmography; as well, both films were independently produced projects that focus on the changing nature of the American art business outside the constraints of big-business, Hollywood filmmaking.

Furthermore, Basquiat honours the creative partnership and friendship between Hopper and Schnabel that began in the early 1980s and lasted until Hopper’s death in 2010. Not only has Schnabel dedicated two paintings to Hopper (‘Hopper’ in 1991 and the plate painting ‘Portrait of Dennis Hopper’ in 1999), but his decision to cast Hopper as Bruno Bischofberger in Basquiat is a testament to his dedication to Hopper’s legendary contribution to both the film and art worlds, often uniting the two media together seamlessly in a single project – as Catchfire had achieved before Basquiat.

Hopper and Schnabel’s obsession with bullfighting stems from an intense interest in the spiritual and historical make-up behind the Matador figure, along with an equal interest in transferring the materiality of the fighting arena to the cinema screen. Schnabel has devoted paintings to the subject of materiality in Spanish bullfighting such as ‘Anno Domini’ (1990), while his ‘Portrait of Gary Oldman’ (2005) is a somewhat different nod to the bullfight, where actor Oldman wears a Matador’s the traje de luces (suit of lights), thus playing with the representation of masculinity in Spanish and American culture.

Hopper’s obsession with bullfighting is found mainly in his still photography. Particularly in the collection of photographs taken across the 1960s in Tijuana, Mexico, Hopper captured the dynamism of bullfighting by freezing the action of a Matador’s twirling cape or feet moving the earth ground inside the arena. These two contemporaries respected, admired and transformed the energy, heroism, tragedy and artistic credibility of the Spanish Bullfight into art.

Part 1: Tercio de varas (Stage of Lances)
In the initial act or stage (tercio, literally ‘third’) of the bullfight, the bull is the first to enter the ring; the animal enters alone. After a few moments, the Matador and the picadors enter with the intention of provoking the bull in order to assess the animal’s physical condition. [2] During this time, the Matador may hold a capote, a large cape he uses to create a series of passes to direct the bull’s attention in certain directions. The Matador must pay the closest attention to how the bull reacts to being directed by a human, as this will allow him to predict how the bull will move later in the fight when it becomes further mentally stressed. [3] Once the Matador is satisfied with the bull and has obtained control over it, the two picadors enter the arena. A picador is a man who enters the ring on horseback with the specific role of carrying the lance to pierce the top muscle on the bull’s neck. [4] The two picadors station themselves at either side of the ring and encourage the animal, through their voices, to charge towards them directly, so that they may pierce the top muscle. [5] If, at any moment, the bull demonstrates that it is not ready to fight (be it because of physical impediment or some other reason), it will be swapped for a more competent bull. At the conclusion of the first act, the Matador should have reached an understanding of what Hemingway refers to as the bull’s “quality” and therefore its performance value. [6]

It is important to note that, according to Hemingway’s description of events, the assessment of the bull’s performance value must occur within the enclosed bullfighting arena. The wooden border of the arena can be likened to that of a picture frame: it is a distancing tool used to keep the creative process separate from the viewer. In keeping the creative process separate, this allows the creativity of the performance (inside the frame) to occur freely and without interruption. The imprints on the dirt ground inside the arena by the bull’s hoofs and the underside of the Matador’s shoes are like the marks of paint or pencil upon a canvas.

The interest in separating the audience at the border of the bullfighting arena is a familiar concept in film theory and philosophy. Jacques Derrida’s study of the relationship between artistic creativity on canvas in relation to its border frame in The Truth of Painting asserts that there is a tension between the artwork’s general text and its paregonal frame, noting that the frame “merges into the wall and then gradually into the general text”. [7] For Derrida, the physical frame of a painting is a detached realm separate to the canvas that does not belong to the general text (or what is being represented as the pictorial subject), and is more part of the wall on which the painting sits than the artwork itself.

However, if we carry Derrida’s truths of painting to the art of cinema, can the paregonal frame be represented or replicated on screen? According to Lydia Nead, such a task can be achieved by showing the development of an artist working on an artwork rather than merely the finished artwork itself, for it is watching the development of creativity unfolding that helps to clarify the viewer’s understanding of why the frame is placed upon a text in the first place. [8] Cinema’s moving imagery allows the viewer to witness improvisational play on the artist’s part. That is, cinema can capture an artist anticipating the unpredictability of their own movements before they happen, just as a Matador must anticipate the creativity of the bull.

Outside of cinema and painting, the Western-based art movement often critically heralded and culturally remembered as a uniquely improvisational period of influence is Beat literature of the 1950s and ‘60s. Beat literature is no stranger to the Spanish Bullfight. Out of all the Beat authors, Jack Kerouac is the most pertinent here – for it is his style of prose, subject matter and poetical style that have influenced Hopper and Schnabel’s own interpretation of the tercio de varas in Basquiat and Catchfire.

Similar to Hopper, Kerouac’s relationship with bullfighting also originated in Latin America. In his 1960 novella Lonesome Traveller, Kerouac depicted a bullfighting bloodbath. He uses the rhythm of the bull’s movements to recreate patterns of jazz improvisation in his choice of language and his grammatical structures, in order to translate the momentum of the bullfight to printed paper. Kerouac describes the fight “and Lord, I didn’t want to see his smooth tight belly ranted by no horn — He rippled his cape again at the bull who just stood there thinking ‘Oh why can’t I go home?’”. [9] Kerouac’s words broken down by double hyphens and minimalist punctuation also comment on the distance between artist and the paregonal frame. Kerouac, as a member of the audience, “stands outside the world the artist makes looking in”, making the bullfight an art that speaks to a public audience (rather than producing a work for a public audience). [10] Kerouac’s bullfight symbolises the fact that performance art demands its audience must recognise that improvisation is not necessarily for them but a presentation of creativity to them to dissect and pick apart.

Schnabel begins his visual representation of the tercio de varas sixteen minutes into the film, when Basquiat is seen in dialogue with original Schnabel paintings inside the Mary Boone Gallery. Inside this gallery (the arena), we find Jean-Michel standing underneath a ladder staring fixatedly upon a painting in front of him, while an electrician drills in the wall above him. Basquiat appears to us like a Matador due to the brightness of his yellow T-shirt, a material that glows like the golden embellished traje de luces. In terms of Hemingway’s description of the bull entering the ring alone, we must note that Schnabel’s events occur slightly out of order. Basquiat as Matador is already waiting for the bull inside the arena. Tensions then arise when Boone (Parker Posey) emerges from a corner of the gallery as a blurred movement in the background. Like a Matador seeking to understand the bull in the arena, Basquiat calls out to Mary in order to assess her temperament. Asking, “My name’s Jean-Michel Basquiat, have you heard of me?” to which she replies, “No, should I have?”, Boone physically embodies Derrida’s theory that one reads texts as though “they all must have an edge”. [11] Her instant dismissal of Basquiat reverses the improvisational play between Matador and bull, as the bull is here asking of the Matador a presentation of his quality, so that the bull may deem it worthy of interaction.

This quiet reversal of the tercio de varas becomes more interesting if we consider the presence of the particular painting Basquiat stares at before Boone enters the arena. It is Schnabel’s own painting ‘Resurrection: Albert Finney Meets Malcolm Lowry’ (1984), a work that is part of the velvet paintings series Schnabel worked on between 1980 and 1991. It is well known that Schnabel deliberately likes to experiment with painting on media other than canvas, such as velvet, tarpaulin, found photographs and glass; the physicality of each material allows him to paint outdoors so that the rain, overexposed sun and wind interact with the materials. As a textured material, velvet has a very sensual touch; it can be directed by a human hand, for it is both easily crushable between fingers or just as easily smoothed over. It is not difficult to see that the durability of velvet is not dissimilar to the capote the Matador holds during the tercio de varas. If, at the closing of this first act, the Matador is meant to have an understanding of the performative quality of the bull, Schnabel’s representation of events differs somewhat. If Basquiat stares at the velvet painting before him that he cannot touch, it evokes a Matador who has not yet held a cape in his hands – a moment of flux where, as Matador, Jean-Michel is in training to anticipate a bull’s future movements.

For Hopper, the artist’s tercio de varas is complicated by the inclusion of Conceptualist artworks that favour dematerialised objects in order to emphasise ideas that challenge the agency of art-making by using art as art criticism. [12] If Conceptualist art removes the art-making essence from a work, then Nead’s theory of exposing the creative process of art making in cinema to account for the paregonal frame becomes more difficult to apply.

Hopper’s tercio de varas begins twenty-one minutes into the film, with a cut and cropped reproduction of Sandro Botticelli’s Renaissance painting ‘The Birth of Venus’ (1486) used as a meaningless ceiling decoration for Luponi’s office. On top of Luponi’s desk and directly underneath the Botticelli reproduction sits an artwork that Hopper has employed to be used as an example of Anne Benton’s conceptual art (that the Milo has bought from a Los Angeles gallery in a previous scene). Outside of the film text, the artwork is actually an LED light work made by American Conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, where the glowing text “KILLING IS UNAVOIDABLE BUT IS NOTHING TO BE PROUD OF” is part of her ‘Truism’ series completed between 1978 and 1987. Unlike the classical Botticelli painting above it, the Holzer LED text does not project itself onto a living space (or general text) like the traditionalist painting: instead it waits to be pursued by the viewer.

We can see that Catchfire’s arena is not the border/walls of Luponi’s office, but the metal edges of Holzer’s work. If the reproduction of the Botticelli painting was cut and cropped for purposes of decoration and does not comply with a gaze appropriate for a regular gallery exhibition viewing style, then Catchfire’s arena must exist purely as a Conceptual one.

But what can be made of Holzer’s flashing text? Is it poetry, an advertising slogan or a political statement? If Kerouac’s witness of the Mexican bullfight in Lonesome Traveller is broken up by unconventional grammatical structure, we can see that Holzer’s LED work is strikingly similar. Holzer’s screen flashes the ‘truism’ line but the words are broken up by staccato, digital configurations of colour that mirror Kerouac’s preference to create momentum by ignoring traditional pauses. For example, the first line of Holzer’s text reads “KILLING” in bold red capital letters. Then “is unavoidable…” slides over “KILLING” in fluro green text, but “KILLING” still remains visible underneath the second line.

Perhaps this moment would be the perfect opportunity to label Milo (Hopper) as the Matador in Catchfire’s tercio de varas – yet the positioning of Luponi in this scene cannot be ignored. Luponi sits behind the “KILLING” text and continuously shakes his head at the nonsensical remarks made about Benton by Carelli’s gang in regards to their inability to predict what Benton’s next move will be. Luponi is the only man in the room that attempts to anticipate Benton’s future movements and the rhythm of her game, aligning him to a Hemingway Matador. Knowing Benton is a public figure and featured in the spotlight often, going further underground with strategies to find her gives Luponi the opportunity to test her performance value under stress and outside the law.

Part 2: Tercio de banderillas (Stage of the Banderillas)
According to Hemingway, the second act is the shortest of the bullfight. The banderillero seeks to place the banderillas (70cm wooden sticks with blades attached to one end) into the humped muscle of the bull’s neck to regulate and slow the bull’s attack. [13] Sometimes, it is the Matador who pierces the bull rather than the banderillero; Hemingway believes this is the most picturesque part of the bullfight, because the Matador is often accompanied by music during this process. [14] While the tercio de varas determines the bull’s performance value, the tercio de banderillas determines the Matador’s performance value in relation to the audience. It is specifically in this second stage that the audience watches if the Matador proves himself to have an individual fighting style, or imitates the styles of the historically great bullfighters. In conjunction with this idea, Hemingway raises the problem that there is a great difficulty in authentically capturing the nature of the bullfight through any artistic medium (be it photography or writing), as the bullfight can only truly exist passionately in its one-off performance and through human memory. [15] By calling attention to the ability of the bullfighting aficionado (the audience) to recognise when a Matador is an imitator or a truly individual fighter, Hemingway sets up the second act to be a test between performative authenticity and artificiality.

In Hemingway’s own search to witness a Matador’s influential and authentically individual skill, what is suggested is that skill must be unique and cannot be shared: if two Matadors have the same fighting style, then a commonality must exist somewhere in their personal life which, therefore, does not make their style truly individual. Specifically within American art history, the 1940s Abstract Expressionist movement is often heralded critically and academically as an American painting movement that saw artists attempt the same desire to imprint their unconscious onto a blank canvas, so that its audience may contextualise their individuality in relation to American art history. For the Abstract Expressionist movement, if the unconscious workings of two artists appear the same, then their individuality diminishes – this striving to display uniqueness is the greatest determination of artistic genius.

In The Tradition of the New, Harold Rosenberg comments on the desire for uniqueness in Abstract Expressionist art. He states that Abstract paintings are not “mere images but instead exist as tensions”, where the attempt to imprint the unconscious on canvas sees the artist “being guided by visual and somatic memories of paintings he had seen or made”.[16] But if such Abstract artworks recall the memory of already seen artworks and then regurgitates such memories onto a new canvas, is this not a kind of imitation process? Some essence of the original artwork is being split from the physicality of the original, so that it manifests itself in a thousand places at once. [17] Put differently, maybe an Abstract Expressionist artist uses the memory of other art so that he can do something with the existing work, in the hope that interrupting the general discourse attached to the older image. [18]

What further unites Abstract Expressionism to bullfighting and therefore Catchfire and Basquiat is Hopper and Schnabel’s specific use of post-World War II jazz music in their film soundtracks. Jazz is often regarded as the backbone of Abstract Expressionism; these painters were avid collectors and listeners, often playing records in the background while they painted, so that jazz rhythms would transfer themselves onto the canvas. Abstract Expressionism is associated with the bebop movement in jazz, as it also occurred post-World War II and is a uniquely American sub-movement. The significance of bebop is that it rated the musician’s ability to instantaneously respond to the requirements of specific sub-genres while relying on the well-rehearsed catalogue of scales and formulas that are then embedded into the music bars in a fluid and appealingly seamless, effortless manner. [19] Like the bullfighter and the Abstract Expressionist painter who utilise memories of great artworks and artists before them, bebop musicians also took upon the challenge of reworking and remolding historically great, artistic expressions. The challenge both Basquiat and Catchfire undertake is to use jazz so that Hemingway’s understanding of a picturesque bullfight can be faithfully represented on screen in their own tercio de banderillas.

Schnabel’s picturesque tercio de banderillas begins forty minutes into Basquiat; we find Jean-Michel painting in his new basement studio supplied by his new manager Annina Noisei (Elina Löwensohn). As Jean-Michel begins to paint inside the empty studio, the Miles Davis track ‘Flamenco Sketches’ plays over the top of his movements. Schnabel’s scene does not include any visual evidence of a record player within the room, so the improvisational chord changes of Davis’ jazz style layered over Jean-Michel’s visually evolving canvas immediately makes the scene as a moment of fantasia. The tempo of Davis’ track is meditative – and while its speed does not guide Basquiat’s movements per se, the temperament of the track leads the viewer into a slower, more acute mindset. After a few moments, Schnabel employs a jump cut so that there is both an immediate change of music and setting. Suddenly the walls of the studio are layered with completed paintings while Charlie Parker’s ‘Koko’ (with its booming arrangement and faster tempo) provides an immediate contrast to ‘Flamenco Sketches’. A second jump cut is then employed to change the sound again to the hip-hop track ‘White Lines’ by Melle Mel. While Basquiat is in a dance alone with the execution of his artwork, the visual representation of the Matador taking it upon himself to use the banderillas becomes recognised. We, as spectators become the bull in this scene – as the movements of Basquiat holding wooden paintbrushes in his hand mediate our eye movement across the film frame.

By opening its tercio de varas with picturesque beauty, Basquiat can test Hemingway’s conundrum of inauthentic art more explicitly in the following scene. The scene opens with Warhol (David Bowie) sitting in front of a real-life Andy Warhol silkscreen ‘Portrait of Julian Schnabel’, while Jean-Michel stands in front of him, drawing on one of Warhol’s unfinished canvases, with each move of his hand prompting Warhol to gush: “I feel so breathless!” Schnabel encourages the discourse of authenticity inside this arena, due to the inclusion of the real-life vintage Shafrazi Gallery poster glued to a wall in the studio that displays an advertisement for the 1985 Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat collaborative art show. As Buchhart and Kleine noted, the release of the Shafrazi poster in 1985 was critically interpreted as a reference to racial and cultural hierarchy that saw the overpowering of Warhol over Basquiat. [20] In his published diaries, Andy Warhol acknowledged the circulation of the posters lead to newspaper headlines referring to Basquiat as “Warhol’s mascot.” [21]

Sitting on the seat watching Basquiat paint, Warhol is like a bullfighting aficionado: he is moved by the physical movements of Basquiat that lead to spontaneous scratches of paint and pencil on canvas to create a new artwork. What Schnabel’s tercio de banderillas displays is that, whilst a bullfighting aficionado may be the first to recognise a new style, it is not up to the aficionado spectator to ultimately decide if the new style is proclaimed as innovative or culturally progressive. If Warhol cannot create a path for Basquiat’s groundbreaking style to be critically viewed as separate from his own, then only an audience can appreciate Basquiat’s aesthetic greatness, while his historic status can only be guaranteed by those who literally write art history.

Unlike Schnabel who presents picturesque artistic play before the discussion of inauthentic and imitated art production, Hopper’s Catchfire unfolds in the reverse. Thirty-two minutes into Catchfire, Milo sits on an airplane holding a pocket notebook after his failed attempt at rescuing Anne Benton from a police crackdown at her new workplace. Milo opens his notebook and takes out two sexually suggestive Polaroid photographs of Benton, who poses for the camera in lace black lingerie. In their study of romantic photography Cadava and Cortès-Rocca state that a photograph allows a man to see only “the referent, the desired object, the beloved body…which allows him to erase the weight of the image.” [22] If we recall Hemingway’s assertion that the true tragedy of the bullfight cannot be adequately captured through photography, what Catchfire adopts is an example of Polaroid photography that reveals an attempt on Benton’s behalf to showcase her true self that does not depend on corruption of mass reproduced commerciality. [23] As seen earlier in Catchfire, Anne participates in magazine photo shoots so that a controlled visual of her professional identity may be circulated on a mass scale. If an aficionado spectator waits for the opportunity to see a truly improvisational bullfigther fight with a bull in the arena, then Milo is correct to hold onto Benton’s personal photography. The one-off Polaroid captures a side of Benton that does not imitate the styless style of mass media or the style of others before her, but shows a hidden sense of spontaneous personality.

The effect of Milo’s findings inevitably fuel his quest to fulfill Hopper’s picturesque bullfight. When he returns home from the plane flight, Milo picks up his saxophone and begins to play a mournful blues melody while he stands in front of a reproduction of Hieronymus Bosch’s Renaissance triptych ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’. Like the Botticelli painting that was cropped for the purpose of office decoration, Milo at first stands in front of one panel of the triptych, suggesting that this Renaissance painting has also been customized for the purpose of ornamental decoration. However, when the camera pulls back to reveal the complete three-panel reproduction, a set-up of the Hemingway picturesque, the scene recalls Jacques Lacan’s theory of anamorphosis – a theory that describes the ultimate moment of elation and seduction within cinema, the trompe l’oeil. [24]

According to Lacan, the trompe l’oeil is a moment where the camera stops so that the viewer’s gaze allows an object within the frame to remain still; but when the camera begins to move again our gaze also moves, causing us to suddenly realise that the object is bigger than what it originally seemed to be. [25] Hopper’s picturesque scene dives into full momentum when we realise that the woeful saxophone solo on the soundtrack during the airplane scene has been carried over to Milo’s entrance into his apartment. When Milo picks up his saxophone to play in front of his triptych, the saxophone solo phases out, but resumes when Milo places the mouthpiece in between his lips – suggesting that the sad score belongs to the hit man himself. But then a switch happens: angry with his own unfulfilled lust for Benton, Milo stops playing and attempts to smash the glass of his apartment windows with the body of the instrument. The awful solo suddenly leaps into a more frenzied, feverish sound that reveals the transparency of Milo’s artistic imitation.

Catchfire is not authentically improvisational, as it relies on imported sounds. What Hopper’s second act reveals is Hemingway’s greatest nightmare: the set-up of a picturesque bullfight that is undercut by the realisation that it is not the Matador but the banderillero who imitates greatness in style, and therefore subverts the authenticity of the bullfight, distancing us from engaging with improvisational genius.

Part 3: Tercio de muerte (Stage of Death)
The tercio de muerte is the last act of the bullfight and certainly the most famous. It is especially renowned for the Matador’s work with the muleta: a scarlet cape that is folded over a stick with a sharp point at one end, allowing the Matador to lead the bull to its death. The work of the Matador’s cape is the most documented moment of the bullfight across all artistic media, because it is the heightened moment of truth and aesthetic beauty before the final kill. The muleta is famous as it allows the Matador to display the genius of his expression in terms of his imaginative, artistic, emotional performance with the bull. [26] It is during the final act that a Matador may receive his worst injuries, or possibly death. On some occasions, the bull’s horn will pierce the top of the Matador’s thigh, crack the Matador’s ribs or gore the Matador in his chest so that he can be tossed into the air. [27] According to Hemingway, even graver than the death of the bull is the death of the Matador – but he also asserts that a strong sense of pride, Catholic guilt, and the love of the bullfighter for his bull allow historians to speak highly of all dead bullfighters. [28]

If Hemingway’s description of the tercio de muerte is chiefly concerned with either the death of the bull or Matador, then it crucially involves duende and the representation of death within Spanish culture. The term duende is most commonly associated with Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, who used it to describe the Spanish obsession with “walking at the brink of death”, since it is only when courageously confronting death that one can achieve a true, noble, fighting spirit. [29] Lorca once asserted: “Spain is the only country where death is a natural spectacle”. [30] His emphasis on walking at this brink, and on death as a spectacle, suggest that the dying of a bull is mythological – like a sacrifice made to an ancient god. Within the historical realm of painting, there have been many renditions of duende and the superhuman mythology of the bullfight, from Édouart Manet to Francisco Goya, Vincent Van Gogh, Salvador Dalí and, most centrally, Pablo Picasso.

What is important here is not Picasso’s general legacy, but the aficionado tendencies he displayed for bullfighting. Most particularly, the period when Picasso utilised the narrative and pictorial mythology of the ancient Greek Minotaur myth to symbolise his sense of passionate love for the bullfight, helps us to grasp the link between visual art and filmic representations of the bullfight. Picasso began drawing the Minotaur beast-head onto drawings and etchings of his own body in the early 1930s, meshing human and mythical forms. In doing so, he represented himself as half-man/half-monster, using his self-portrait to recall the tragedy of tercio de muerte, and pursue a narrative where the genius sacrifices his ego in order to submit to the larger, mythological entity. [31] In order to reach the closure of the tercio de muerte in Basquiat and Catchfire, we need to identify the moment where the Matador collides with a mythological representation with himself – if death does not get him first.

In the opening scene of Basquiat, Jean-Michel as a young boy enters an empty room inside an art gallery where Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ sits upon the wall. Historically, the significance of Picasso’s painting lies in his deliberate choice to not recreate the Guernica bombing disaster pictorially (he himself had not witnessed the bombing), but instead “use motifs of personal significance that would demonstrate the intensity of his feelings about it”. [32] ‘Guernica’ draws attention to Picasso’s personal emotion over the Civil War by weaving representations of human frailty with bullfighting characters, such as a bull’s head and a frightened horse. The inclusion of Picasso’s artwork at the beginning of Basquiat introduces overtones of mythology, before the story becomes more complex with the insertion of ego in the form of the characters Albert Milo (Gary Oldman) and the adult Jean-Michel.

Schnabel’s tercio de muerte achieves full momentum, building upon the Picasso influence. During the second-last scene of the film, where Jean-Michel finds himself having lunch at Milo’s house during the height of his fame and drug addiction. The two artists bond while eating spaghetti in a room that features three paintings from Schnabel’s velvet painting series, ‘Los Patos del Buen Retiro’ (the title refers to ducks in a Madrid park). Here, Schnabel once again draws attention to the medium specificity of velvet and its physical likeness to the Matador’s muleta. Using scarlet coloured velvet, Schnabel’s work produces what Rene Ricard notes as a “Picasso-like complex” in his paintings, where “the smallest personal artifact becomes a fetish.” [33] Consequently, Schnabel’s tercio de muerte uses the artists’ own personal artwork to poetically call attention to the death of another.

Upon first entering Milo’s dining room, Jean-Michel walks past Schnabel’s ‘Buen Retiro’ paintings, ‘Untitled’ I, II & III. The third painting, in particular, draws parallels between Minotaur mythology and bullfighting culture. It is the last painting Jean-Michel passes, and he seats himself in front of it while eating. ‘Untitled III’ contrasts with I and II in that the single block of white paint on top of the velvet has not been smeared or smudged into the velvet, appearing like it floats above the material. The white shape resembles the outline of a human body or a cross lying upon a flat surface. Only a single line of text that reads ‘Los Patos del Buen Retiro’ appears on the painting, with three letters ‘N I P’ appearing on the right of the text. We do not know whether this is an acronym or symbol for something specific, but the layering of text with paint works as an intersection of chronologies. If Jean-Michel sits in front of this painting, hunched over and confined in his chair, this last artwork symbolises the disastrous event of the Matador being killed by the bull, rather than vice versa. Hemingway reminded us that a Matador could die if the bull were to pierce him with its horns; by placing the artwork and the human subject in close proximity, the fusion between real space and history can merge with the pictorial space. Like Picasso who demonstrated his emotions in ‘Guernica’ for an event he did not witness, Schnabel uses his personal motifs and juxtapositions of Spanish history to give to his audience the answer to an event we will not witness: Basquiat closes without showing Jean-Michel’s death.

Unlike Basquiat, Catchfire features no explicit intertextual reference to Picasso to establish its tercio de muerte. However, it adopts a specific element of Minotaur mythology, allowing its final act to achieve a necessary hybrid between ancient mythology and the bullfight’s closing act. The particular structure Catchfire adopts is that of the Labyrinth. According to Greek mythology, the Labyrinth’s architectural structure was built by Daedalus in Crete to imprison the Minotaur son conceived by King Minos’ wife Pasiphae, after Pasiphae was forced by Poseidon to fall in love with a bull that Minos would not sacrifice to the sea-god. [34] According to the legend, whilst inside the Labyrinth, Athenian maidens were sent as sacrifices to be devoured by the Minotaur; it was upon Theseus’ initiative to conquer the Labyrinth and kill the Minotaur that peace was restored to Crete. [35] Catchfire blends two narratives, one cultural and the other mythological. In Hopper’s tercio de muerte, Milo becomes Theseus, the hero who saves the Athenian maiden (or Benton) in the labyrinth; while Luponi (as the Matador) continues to orchestrate Benton’s death from the outside.

We can find Hopper’s recreation of the Labyrinth for his tercio de muerte inside the El Cortez film theatre in Taos, New Mexico. In order to escape Milo’s pursuit and find anonymity in the country landscape, Benton finds herself living at the El Cortez, an architectural space bought by an avid art collector to house his collections of light installations, sculptures and paintings. When Anne first enters the space, we can see that the building has not been renovated – there are still rows of seats in front of the main stage. A neon-light installation by Laddie John Dill glows from the empty stage, where the neon pink, blue and yellow tubes of the artwork stand out like three-dimensional drawings, evoking perceptual phenomena. Infatuated by the colour and light, our eyes dart across the stage in an attempt to follow Dill’s work. This phenomenon of letting the eye read colour recalls our fascination with the Matador’s scarlet muleta. In captivating our sense of light and movement within a particular, enclosed space, Hopper evokes a sense that Luponi is orchestrating the tercio de muerte even though he is not physically present.

In a later scene, the transformation of Milo into the mythological Theseus becomes complete when he enters the El Cortez to kidnap Benton during the night. Now we find that the interior is drenched in a scarlet-red light that highlights all its crevices. This red glow prompts us to remember the first meeting of Luponi and Benton at the Los Angeles police station, where the bathroom was also drenched in the same lighting – Luponi’s presence now inhabits the center of the El Cortez Labyrinth, the middle of the maze. As Milo eventually finds his way to Benton’s bedroom and captures her, we see a clash between Greek mythology and Spanish bullfighting. For if it were Luponi appearing in Benton’s bedroom, according to the tercio de muerte, this would be the poetic moment of Benton’s death, and the end of the fight. But Milo capturing Benton for himself and therefore interrupting the Matador-as-hero narrative suspends Hopper’s tercio de muerte on the spot.

Considering that Luponi dies before he can physically capture Benton, Milo has saved Benton (the bull) from death. Infusing Spanish bullfighting with mythological heroism therefore saves Catchfire from having a tragic end like Basquiat. In so doing, Catchfire’s ending is unexpected: a representation of the bullfight without the final kill. While Basquiat uses both art and narrative to depict literal death, Catchfire evokes Federico Garcia Lorca’s sense of duende. It literally walks at the brink of death. It is poetically heroic in that it faces the cultural and narrative concept of death, but saves itself from surrendering to tragedy, by aligning itself with ancient mythology. It thus escapes the endless cycle of death found in the Spanish bullfight.

[1] David Wyatt, “Awkwardness and Appreciation in Death in the Afternoon”, The Hemingway Review, Vol. 33 No. 2 (2014), p. 81.
[2] Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon (London: Vintage Classics, 2000), p. 85.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., p. 300.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., p. 128.
[7] Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987), p. 61.
[8] Lydia Nead, “The Artist’s Studio: The Affair of Art and Film,” in Angela Dalle Vacche (ed.), Film, Art, New Media: Museum Without Walls? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 33.
[9] Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveller (New York: Penguin Classics, 2000), p. 35.
[10] Anna Poletti, “The Art in being Public”, in Max Delany & Eric Shiner (eds), Andy Warhol/ Ai Wei Wei (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2015), p. 148.
[11] John Frow, “Intertextuality and Ontolog”, in Michael Worton and Judith Still (eds), Intertextuality: Theories and Practices (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), p. 49.
[12] Peter Goldie and Elisabeth Schellekens, Philosophy and Conceptual Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. xii.
[13] Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, p. 85.
[14] Ibid., p. 86.
[15] Ibid., p. 88.
[16] Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters”, ARTnews, Vol. 51 No. 8 (1952), p. 42.
[17] Harold Rosenberg, Art & Other Serious Matters (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1985), p. 52.
[18] Ibid., p. 8.
[19] Barry Dean Kernfeld, What to Listen for in Jazz (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 138.
[20] Dieter Buchhart and Susanne Kleine, Ménage À Trois:Warhol, Basquiat, Clemente (Bielefeld: Kerber Art, 2012), p. 135.
[21] Andy Warhol, The Andy Warhol Diaries (New York: Warner Books, 1989), p. 69.
[22] Eduardo Cadava and Paola Cortès-Rocca, “Notes on Love and Photography”, in Geoffrey Batchen (ed.), Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2009), p. 107.
[23] Rob Wallace, “Writing Improvisation into Modernism”, in Ajay Heble & Rebecca Caines (eds), The Improvisation Studies Reader: Spontaneous Acts (London: Routledge, 2015), p. 188.
[24] Lynne Kirby, “Painting and Cinema: The Frames of Discourse”, Camera Obscura, Vol. 6 No. 3 (1988), p. 98.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, p. 182.
[27] Ibid., p. 211.
[28] Ibid., p. 212.
[29] Herschel Browning Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica: History, Transformations, Meanings (Berkeley: University of California, 1988), p. 45.
[30] Martin, Russell. Picasso’s War(Arizona: Hol Art Books, 2003), p. 57.
[31] Anne Baldassari, Picasso: Love and War 1935 – 1945: Life with Dora Maar (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2006), p. 123.
[32] Herschel Browning Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica: History, Transformations, Meanings (Berkeley: University of California, 1988), p. 71.
[33] Rene Ricard, “Not About Julian Schnabel”, Artforum, Vol. 9 No. 10 (1981), p. 77.
[34] Patrick Triboux, “Picasso and the Minotaur”, in Picasso and Greece (Andros: Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation, 2004), p. 53.
[35] Ibid.

About the Author

Joanna Elena Batsakis

About the Author

Joanna Elena Batsakis

Joanna Elena Batsakis graduated from Monash University Arts. Her research analyses the intermedial and intertextual relationships between the fine arts and cinema. Her essays on Dennis Hopper appear in Senses of Cinema.View all posts by Joanna Elena Batsakis →