A Random Selection Of Movies About Art

Photo of Sophia White
18 December 2016

There are so many films about art and artists that choosing which ones to watch is akin to visiting a metropolitan gallery with only 20 minutes to spare. Here we’ve done the curating for you.

Bill Cunningham New York (2011)

This documentary celebrates the life and work of Manhattan’s famous roving fashion photographer. The film showcases Cunningham’s dedication to his work, as evidenced by the long hours he spent trawling the streets of New York on his bike every day, whatever the weather. His eye for style explains why Cunningham was held in such high regard in the fashion world. Even the elusive Anna Wintour said a few positive words on camera about him. The details given about his personal life show that art can be quite isolating, yet Cunningham’s street photography was sufficient to fulfill him.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)

Art and activism go hand-in-hand, and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry shows just how far one artist is willing to go for his beliefs. Weiwei is currently China’s most famous international artist, as well as one of its most outspoken critics — a fact that led to his being detained in 2011, which the film shows. It also covers several of Weiwei’s installations across the world.

American Splendor (2003)

This is the only film on the list that is not pure documentary. Using a mixture of original fiction and autobiographical detail, American Splendor is the story of the acclaimed underground comic book artist Harvey Pekar. The script was written by documentarians and Pekar and his wife, with Pekar and his wife giving reflective interviews on camera. This blurring of fiction and truth blurs the fine line between “documentary” and “fiction” film, truth in art, and how life and art affect each other.

Crumb (1994)

Crumb’s snub by the Academy resulted in a change in the nomination process for documentary features, highlighting the importance of the film in both the art world and the field of documentary. The film follows the life of the acclaimed, controversial cartoonist Robert Crumb, famous for works like Fritz the Cat and his family. The film features interviews with his mother, wife, two brothers, and ex-girlfriends along with displays of his graphic art to provide a look at Crumb’s darkly comic mind. It is an honest and haunting documentary that really gets you into the head of the artist.

Cutie and the Boxer (2013)

A heartbreaking true story about love and art. Oscar-nominated and multi-award winning Cutie and the Boxer focuses on the career and life of boxing painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife of forty years, Noriko. The film uses a mixture of archive and home movies as well as vérité present day footage to give an honest depiction of the lives of the artist and his wife, who is also endeavoring to break into the art world.
The passages on Ushio’s rise to prominence and the development of his new exhibitions will appeal to those with an interest in the business of the art world, while the central biographic story gives a pained glimpse into the true life of an artist.

Eames: The Architect and the Painter (2011)

Another husband-and-wife team on the list, but this time working in greater harmony. Eames: The Architect and the Painter chronicles the life and work of Charles and Ray Eames, the leading industrial designers in 20th century America, with their output moving from chair designs to film, photography and architecture. The film makes great use of archival material and interviews with friends, family and colleagues of the illustrious couple, telling a personal story of a successful business and personal relationship and also cementing their importance within the context of the times which they worked.

Helvetica (2007)

A feature length documentary about typography, design and global visual culture may not initially sound like the most interesting film, but Helvetica is a compelling exploration of the impact of these phenomenon within wider society. Typography is the main focus of the film, particularly the design elements that went into the creation of the Helvetica font. The film also looks more broadly at the art world in the later 20th century, particularly the rift between modernists and postmodernists and their criticisms of various types.

Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010)

A Banksy film, Exit Through the Gift Shop follows Thierry Guetta, or Mr. Brainwash, as he breaks out of obscurity and puts on his first street art show in LA. The film starts with with Guetta filming his cousin Invader and other prominent street artists before going on to try the art form for himself.

There have been questions surrounding the authenticity of the film – Banksy insists it is real – but whether real or not it raises good questions about talent, truth and business in the art world.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010)

This is not the first film to explore Basquiat’s life, but with interviews from those closest to the artist, the artist himself, and the director being a close friend of his, The Radiant Child provides a deep and sensitive look at the artist’s life. From the struggles that Basquiat faced from being a black artist to being a neo-expressionist during a time that minimalism was “in”, the film really gives the audience a great insight into the mind of the artist.

Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight (2008)

A profile of Milton Glaser, an American graphic designer who created some of the most iconic and inspirational work of the 20th century, notably the I [heart] NY logo and founding New York magazine. Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight combines glimpses of Glaser’s everyday life with examples of his extensive output to give both a crash course in design over the past century while showing a real human story of a man who exudes great warmth and intelligence. His personal chronology, achievements and sage advice bring great inspiration to any budding artists.

My Kid Could Paint That (2007)

Often when visiting a modern art gallery, you will hear the cries of parents saying that their “kid paint that” while observing the works of masters. My Kid Could Paint That takes a look at Marla Olmstead, a four year old who may be testament to this declaration, with her paintings being compared to the likes of Picasso and sales of her work earning some $300,000. There is, however, some doubt as to the authenticity of Marla’s work. The film raises important questions about the nature of modern art, particularly abstract impressionism, fame in art, as well as the documentary process itself.

The Mystery of Picasso (1956)

The Mystery of Picasso is both the oldest film on this list and a forefather in the field of art documentary. The film shows Picasso in the act of creating paintings for the camera, allowing the audience to see his creative process. Many of these paintings were then destroyed, remaining in existence only on film. Paintings created range from simple black and white drawings to larger collages and oil paintings. A must for fans of the master and for those who are looking to gain artistic inspiration.

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