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11 Eye-Opening Art Documentaries
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11 Eye-Opening Art Documentaries

Picture of Matthew Keyte
Updated: 31 October 2016
For every great documentary there are tens of run-of-the-mill ones. Here’s a list of art documentaries that should provoke thought and open minds. And, of course, there are plenty of excellent ones not included such as Banksy’s The Antics Roadshow, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Robert Hughes’ Caravaggio, and The Rape of Europa. They’re all well worth checking out, too.

The Shock of the New

The Shock of the New, made by the BBC and shown in 1980 is a model for what great art broadcasting should be. Written and presented by Australian critic Robert Hughes, the series manages to be highbrow without seeming pretentious and accessible without Hughes ever dumbing down for a mass audience. In eight one-hour films Hughes takes us through the progress of Modern Art from the 1880s to the time of filming – through Cezanne and the Impressionists, Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns up to the Land Art of the 1970s. And it’s never simply a summation of achievements but a genuine critique of the failings, paradoxes, hopes and decline of Modernism as an artistic force.

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams<a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtPd_1uXXlc”>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtPd_1uXXlc</a><i><a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave_of_Forgotten_Dreams”>The Cave of Forgotten Dreams</a> </i>explores the prehistoric cave-paintings of the <a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chauvet_Cave”>Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Caves </a>in southern France that are the oldest human paintings yet discovered, dating back over 32,000 years. Made by the great, uncompromising director Werner Herzog, the film was awarded Best Documentary by many critics in the USA for 2011. Filming inside the caves required special permission from the French Ministry of Culture and only Herzog with three assistants was able to enter at any one time owing to fears over affecting the atmosphere within and potentially damaging the paintings.Tim’s Vermeer<a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0nH_4XMrzQ”>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0nH_4XMrzQ</a><a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Vermeer”>Vermeer</a>’s output was slight – only 34 works are accepted as being by the Delft master. But his images are instantly recognisable: The Milkmaid, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Music Lesson, The Art of Painting; all are well-known. And one major factor in Vermeer’s greatness is his use of light, attributed by some to his use of a <a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camera_obscura”><i>camera obscura</i></a>, an early form of photographic device. In <a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim%27s_Vermeer”><i>Tim’s Vermeer</i></a>, released in 2014, inventor Tim Jenison sets out to replicate the methods used by Vermeer to achieve his famous lighting effects. He attempts to reproduce <a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Music_Lesson”> The Music Lesson</a> and finds clues that suggest the tricks Vermeer had up his sleeve and that contributed to his genius.Herb and Dorothy<a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eiyLAlWR95M”>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eiyLAlWR95M</a>When we think of the great art collectors we tend to think about the royal families of Europe, the Getty family, the Thyssen steel dynasty and countless other industrialists. <a href=”http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1227929/”><i>Herb and Dorothy</i></a> is the 2008 story of Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, New York civil servants who ended up amassing a collection of over 4.700 works of Minimalist and Conceptual Art, many of them bought straight from artist friends like <a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sol_LeWitt”>Sol LeWitt</a>. The Vogel collection ended up as one of the finest of Modern works, stacked and stored in the Manhattan apartment that Herb and Dorothy rented. In the end they donated it to the National Gallery of Art. Eric Hebborn: Portrait of a Master Forger<a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jKbbajb5pE”>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jKbbajb5pE</a>Forgery and fakery have always been a part of the art market. There have been many great fakers over the years – John Myatt, Tom Keating, and Han van Meegeren. But the most interesting was <a href=”http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-eric-hebborn-1323749.html”>Eric Hebborn</a>, once the star pupil and prize-winner at the Royal Academy Schools. This BBC Omnibus documentary is only forty or so minutes long but features a long interview with Hebborn at his home in Italy in 1991, five years before his unsolved murder. Hebborn was a brilliant faker, using authentic ingredients to make pigments. He sold his thousands of his forgeries of works by Piranesi, Rubens, van Dyck, and Poussin to dealers like <a href=”http://www.colnaghi.co.uk/”>Colnaghi</a> and Sotheby’s from where they ended up in institutions including the British Museum, the National Gallery in Washington and the Royal Collection in Copenhagen.Civilisation <a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6irRrtObMM”>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6irRrtObMM</a><a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenneth_Clark”>Kenneth Clark</a> was one of the most distinguished of Britain’s art historians of the last century. His 1969 BBC series <a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilisation_(TV_series)”><i>Civilisation</i></a> was a seminal moment in arts broadcasting, commissioned by David Attenborough, then the Controller of BBC Two. So successful was the series that Clark was given a peerage. It tells the story of western civilisation through its artistic, architectural and philosophical achievements from the Dark Ages, through the Romanesque and Gothic eras to the Renaissance, onwards to the Enlightenment and the humanitarianism and philanthropy of the 19th century. It’s a very personal vision by Clark, and despite the title is limited to western civilisation only.National Gallery<a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GoE1NA_zi1M”>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GoE1NA_zi1M</a>What we see when we visit a major gallery reveals little of the work that goes on within. <a href=”http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/filmreviews/11334927/National-Gallery-review-a-great-great-film.html”><i>National Gallery</i></a>, released in 2014, is a fly-on-the-wall film made by veteran documentary maker <a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Wiseman”>Frederick Wiseman</a>, whose recent works have followed the Paris Opera Ballet and the goings-on at Berkeley University. The National Gallery in question is in London and the film follows the daily work of the legion of conservationists, directors, and guides who keep it running. There’s no voice-over, no interviews to camera, and in typical Wiseman fashion he lets the sounds and images do the talking. The Mystery of Picasso <a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSoJUMnLc1o”>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSoJUMnLc1o</a>Many of the denizens of the bohemian enclaves of <a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montmartre”>Montmartre</a> and <a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montparnasse”>Montparnasse</a> in the first decades of the 20th century didn’t live much beyond youth and young manhood. <a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pablo_Picasso”>Picasso</a>, though, the greatest of them all lived until 1973, by then acknowledged as the premier creative genius of Modern Art. Documentary makers first filmed Picasso at work in the late 1940s for the Belgian film <a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MngzktMovO4″><i>Visit to Picasso</i></a>. The 1956 French film <a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mystery_of_Picasso”><i>The Mystery of Picasso</i></a> revisited the artist, again filming him working on glass plates and filming from the reverse to follow the brush-strokes. The documentary took plaudits and awards at the Cannes Film Festival that year.Gerhart Richter Painting<a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yF6EluMNR14″>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yF6EluMNR14</a><a href=”https://www.gerhard-richter.com/en/”>Gerhart Richter</a> is amongst the finest of all modern painters, perhaps rivalled only by his fellow countryman <a href=”https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/anselm-kiefer”>Anselm Kiefer</a>. Richter’s works go for tens of millions of dollars, though he remains shy of the media gaze. The 2007 film <i>Gerhart Richter’s Window</i> made by Corinna Belz was his first appearance on film for fifteen years. The 2011<a href=”http://www.gerhardrichterpainting.com/the-film/”><i> Gerhart Richter Painting</i></a> is the follow-up by Belz. It documents Richter’s creative process as he prepares canvases and shows archive footage of the artist and interviews with collaborators and dealers who have represented Richter across the globe.Ways of Seeing<a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pDE4VX_9Kk”>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pDE4VX_9Kk</a><a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ways_of_Seeing”><i>Ways of Seeing</i></a> was made by the BBC in 1972 as the counterpoint to <i>Civilisation</i>. In many ways it’s more thought-provoking and challenging than Clark’s great series. The series, presented and partly written by novelist and art critic <a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Berger”>John Berger</a>, unpacks and demonstrates the various underlying ideologies and presumptions behind Western art. It begins with Berger taking a knife to Botticelli’s <a href=”http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/sandro-botticelli-venus-and-mars”>Venus and Mars</a> and runs through questions like the influence of reproduction on how we consume art and the meaning of great art; the depiction of women and their relation to male fantasies; and social concerns such as class and privilege and their presentation in art.Who the F–k is Jackson Pollock?<a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygufyC4v2XE”>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygufyC4v2XE</a>Finding a lost masterpiece in a junk store seems the stuff of fiction. But this is precisely what happened to the Californian Teri Horton who inadvertently bought a <a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Who_the_*%24%26%25_Is_Jackson_Pollock%3F”>Jackson Pollock</a> in a thrift store, despite not even knowing who Pollock was. This 2006 documentary follows Horton as she takes her $5 dollar Pollock to experts and collectors in an attempt to have it authenticated and to find a buyer. Some of the experts judge it to be a copy; others are uncertain; then a fingerprint is discovered that belongs to the artist himself. </p>

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams explores the prehistoric cave paintings of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Caves in southern France that are the oldest human paintings yet discovered, dating back over 32,000 years. Made by the great, uncompromising director Werner Herzog, the film was awarded Best Documentary by many critics in the USA for 2011. Filming inside the caves required special permission from the French Ministry of Culture and only Herzog with three assistants were able to enter at any one time owing to fears over affecting the atmosphere within and potentially damaging the paintings.

Tim’s Vermeer

Vermeer’s output was slight – only 34 works are accepted as being by the Delft master. But his images are instantly recognizable: The Milkmaid, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Music Lesson, The Art of Painting are all well known worldwide. One major factor in Vermeer’s greatness is his use of light, attributed by some to his use of a camera obscura, an early form of photographic device. In Tim’s Vermeer, released in 2014, inventor Tim Jenison sets out to replicate the methods used by Vermeer to achieve his famous lighting effects. He attempts to reproduce The Music Lesson and finds clues that suggest the tricks Vermeer had up his sleeve and that contributed to his genius.

Eric Hebborn: Portrait of a Master Forger

Forgery and fakery have always been parts of the art market. There have been many great fakers over the years – John Myatt, Tom Keating, and Han van Meegeren. But the most interesting was Eric Hebborn, once the star pupil and prize-winner at the Royal Academy Schools. This BBC Omnibus documentary is only forty or so minutes long but features a long interview with Hebborn at his home in Italy in 1991, five years before his unsolved murder. Hebborn was a brilliant faker, using authentic ingredients to make pigments. He sold his thousands of his forgeries of works by Piranesi, Rubens, van Dyck, and Poussin to dealers like Colnaghi’s and Sotheby’s from where they ended up in institutions including the British Museum, the National Gallery in Washington and the Royal Collection in Copenhagen.

Civilisation

Kenneth Clark was one of the most distinguished of Britain’s art historians of the last century. His 1969 BBC series Civilisation was a seminal moment in arts broadcasting, commissioned by David Attenborough, then the Controller of BBC Two. So successful was the series that Clark was given a peerage. It tells the story of western civilization through its artistic, architectural and philosophical achievements from the Dark Ages, through the Romanesque and Gothic eras to the Renaissance, onwards to the Enlightenment and the humanitarianism and philanthropy of the 19th century. It’s a very personal view by Clark, and despite the title is limited to Western civilization only.

The Mystery of Picasso

Many of the denizens of the bohemian enclaves of Montmartre and Montparnasse in the first decades of the 20th century didn’t live long enough to reach their mature years. Picasso, though, the greatest of them all lived until 1973, and by then was acknowledged as the premier creative genius of Modern Art. Documentary makers first filmed Picasso at work in the late 1940s for the Belgian film Visit to Picasso. The 1956 French film The Mystery of Picasso revisited the artist in his studio on the Mediterranean coast, again documenting him working on glass plates and filming from the reverse to follow the brush-strokes. The documentary took plaudits and awards at the Cannes Film Festival that year.

National Gallery

What we see when we visit a major gallery reveals little of the work that goes on within. National Gallery, released in 2014, is a fly-on-the-wall film made by veteran documentary maker Frederick Wiseman, whose recent works have followed the Paris Opera Ballet and the goings-on at Berkeley University in California. The National Gallery in question is in London and the film follows the daily work of the legion of conservationists, directors, and guides who keep it running. There’s no voice-over, no interviews to camera, and in typical Wiseman fashion he lets the sounds and images do the talking.

Ways of Seeing

Ways of Seeing was made by the BBC in 1972 as the counterpoint to Civilisation. In many ways it’s more thought-provoking and challenging than Clark’s great series. The series, presented and partly written by novelist and art critic John Berger, unpacks and demonstrates the various underlying ideologies and presumptions behind Western art. It begins with Berger taking a knife to Botticelli’s Venus and Mars and runs through questions such as the influence of reproduction on how we consume art and the meaning of great art, the depiction of women and their relation to male fantasies, and social concerns such as class and privilege and their presentation in art.

Gerhard Richter Painting

Gerhard Richter is amongst the finest of all modern painters, perhaps rivaled only by his fellow countryman Anselm Kiefer. Richter’s works go for tens of millions of dollars, though he remains shy of the media gaze. The 2007 film Gerhard Richter’s Window made by Corinna Belz was his first appearance on film for 15 years. The 2011 Gerhard Richter Painting is the follow-up by Belz. It documents Richter’s creative process as he prepares canvases and shows archive footage of the artist and interviews with collaborators and dealers who have represented Richter across the globe.

Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?

Finding a lost masterpiece in a junk store seems the stuff of fiction. But this is precisely what happened to Californian Teri Horton who inadvertently bought a Jackson Pollock in a thrift store, despite not even knowing who Pollock was. This 2006 documentary follows Horton as she takes her $5 dollar Pollock to experts and collectors in an attempt to have it authenticated and to find a buyer. Some of the experts judge it to be a copy; others are uncertain; then a fingerprint is discovered that belongs to the artist himself.

 

 

 

By Matthew Keyte