Art can be a confusing world. Pioneered by revolutionaries and defined by elitists, subjectivity and understanding becomes a distortion of what we are supposed to believe as opposed to how we really feel. That is why films about art can sometimes be more meaningful than art itself, enlightening us with context or illustrating the artists’ motives.
Here we have compiled a list of some significant documentaries that every art lover should see. These films translate to us an alien language often associated with this medium, laying bare human experiences with which we all can ultimately relate to.
This film is a powerful exploration of the life and art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, directed by Tamra Davis. Tamra Davis’ close friendship with the artist gives us an unfiltered biography which features rare footage and interviews with Basquiat’s contemporaries including Julian Schnabel, Larry Gagosian and other giants in their world. Through these conversations we see a revealing aspect of Basquiat, his work and his challenges in success.
This fascinating movie follows the story of Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant from Los Angeles, who sets out in search of some of the world’s best graffiti artists. His journey leads him to a chance encounter with the most obscure and renowned of them all — Banksy. After initially agreeing to be filmed, Banksy convinces Guetta that he should take over as director while Guetta himself should try his hand at street art. In this bizarre role reversal, Guetta is reborn as ‘Mr Brainwash’ one of the world’s most acclaimed street artists and Banksy earns himself an Oscar nomination for an exhilarating and humorous documentary.
On the cover of Alison Klayman’s 2012 documentary, celebrated Chinese artist and activist Ai Wei Wei gives the middle finger to his country. It is an apt summary of the film which follows the artist between the years 2008 to 2011 where Ai’s highly publicised confrontations with the Chinese government include police assault, being detained at an airport and ultimately imprisonment. All these distressing events fail to silence Ai and further fuels the artist’s fight for free speech.
The story of Wolfgang Beltracchi — the man behind the most infamous and largest art forgery scandal in post-war Germany. In this thought-provoking and bewildering documentary, we witness how one man duped the international art world for nearly 40 years by forging and selling paintings of early 20th-century masters, amassing a fortune in the millions. The documentary asks us to question not only art and its world, but the experts who live in it and claim to understand it best.
‘Cutie and the Boxer’ is a touching portrait of the 40-year marriage between two artists, Japanese “boxing” painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko. Anxious to step out from under his shadow and her role as Ushio’s assistant, Noriko finds an identity of her own and ultimately trumps his commercial success. Shining a light on the anger, sacrifice, love and confrontation of this aging relationship, Zachary Heinzerling received a well-deserved Oscar nomination.
An art documentary for non-art lovers, ‘Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?’ is an amusing insight into the American art market. In the case of Harry Moses’ documentary, we are offered an extrapolation of the urban myths where a buyer stumbles upon a priceless masterpiece in a flea market. Teri Horton, a 73 year old long-haul truck driver finds what may or may not be an original Jackson Pollock at a thrift store for USD 5. The filmmaker exposes the controversy of high priced artwork and the way elitists treat non-connoisseurs in their world.
Don Argott’s film investigates the controversy surrounding the art collection of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a multi-millionaire who has collected an astounding selection of significant works during the early 20th century. In hopes of keeping his priceless pieces together as part of his foundation after his death, his wishes are violated by opportunistic individuals when the involvement of numerous parties leads to the scattering of his collection. A moving story on one of the largest daylight robbery scenarios in the history of art.