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Ten of the best art documentaries to watch right now

With many museums temporarily shuttered, now is a great time to catch up on some of the superb films that have been made about art and artists. Spanning London, Beijing and New York, Picasso, Basquiat and Stella, here are 10 of our favourites

Jacqueline Weld spent the summers of 1978 and 1979 interviewing Peggy Guggenheim, gathering material for her biography of the revolutionary art patron, Peggy: The Wayward Guggenheim. The tapes, however, were lost and never heard by the public.

When the director Lisa Immordino Vreeland set out to make a film about Guggenheim decades later, she never dreamt of discovering them. But during a fortuitous visit to Weld’s apartment, Vreeland found them languishing in a basement, in a box full of books. The recordings became the framework of this compelling documentary. 

At its core, it addresses the issue of how Guggenheim is viewed by historians: she has often been judged as having had her tastes dictated to her by the men she kept company with — Motherwell, Rothko, Pollock — which is something a man in a similar position would never be accused of.

Watch the trailer hereAvailable to rent on Amazon; Dogwoof; Google Play; YouTube

At one point in this film the Serbian performance artist says with a laugh to the camera, ‘I want to be a real form of art before I die.’ From the look in her eyes, however, it’s clear she is being deadly serious.

The cameras follow Abramovi? as she prepares for her career apotheosis: her 2010 solo show The Artist Is Present at New York’s Met Museum. Every day for three months the artist sat on a wooden chair for seven and a half hours, without food or water, while solemnly staring into the eyes of the visitor sitting opposite. Weaving in the story of how Abramovi? went from being labelled insane to lauded as the grandmother of performance art, the film’s director Matthew Akers strives to answer the question of how we define art.

Watch the trailer here. Available to rent on Amazon; Dogwoof; Google Play; YouTube

From humble origins — moulding plywood chairs in the spare room of their Los Angeles apartment — the husband and wife duo Charles and Ray Eames went on to become hugely influential in shaping 20th-century America as architects, industrial designers and filmmakers.


Charles and Ray Eames at home, circa 1970, as seen in the film. © 2011 Eames Office, LLC

Charles and Ray Eames at home, circa 1970, as seen in the film. © 2011 Eames Office, LLC

Eames: The Architect and The Painter, narrated by the Hollywood actor James Franco, tells their story using archival footage and interviews with industry-leading figures. The New York Times described the Peabody Award-winning documentary as ‘full of objects, information, stories and people, organised with hectic elegance’.

Watch the trailer here. Available to rent on Amazon

Having previously made films about Bill Viola, Marc Quinn and Brett Easton Ellis, documentary-maker Gerald Fox turned his attention to legendary photographer Robert Frank.  

The film consists almost entirely of interviews with the artist who had shot to fame with his 1958 book, The Americans, and who was by now a rather grouchy octogenarian. ‘The yuppies, they have a right to live too,’ he says, looking out from his old studio on Bleecker Street in Manhattan, ‘but I don’t want to live next to them!’

Robert Frank, Indianapolis, 1956, an image from The Americans, the 1958 book that made the photographer’s name. © Robert Frank, from The Americans; courtesy Pace MacGill Gallery, New York

Robert Frank, Indianapolis, 1956, an image from The Americans, the 1958 book that made the photographer’s name. © Robert Frank, from The Americans; courtesy Pace MacGill Gallery, New York

Frank only gave Fox his blessing for the film’s theatrical release in 2019, delaying its wider reception by 14 years. Within a few months, however, Frank had passed away — far from the yuppies, in Nova Scotia.

Watch the trailer here. Available to rent on Amazon

In order to capture the creative process of the 20th century’s greatest artist, the filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot had to take a radical approach. He worked with the cinematographer Claude Renoir, grandson of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and the pair used transparent canvases to capture Picasso’s brushstrokes as he applied them.

Pablo Picasso painting on the set of the film Le Mystère de Picasso in 1955. Photo © Jerome Brierre  Bridgeman Images. Artwork © Succession PicassoDACS, London 2020
Pablo Picasso painting on the set of the film Le Mystère de Picasso in 1955. Photo: © Jerome Brierre / Bridgeman Images. Artwork: © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2020

Over the course of the film, shot initially in black and white, Picasso creates 20 artworks, each growing in complexity from the first simple sketches. Then, for the final reel, The Mystery of Picasso  bursts into vibrant colour, revealing the artist’s palette in all its glory.

The film won the Special Jury Prize at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival and was described by the revered New Yorker  critic Pauline Kael as ‘one of the most exciting and joyful films ever made’.

Watch the trailer here. Available to rent on Amazon; Google Play; YouTube

Artists are often accused of making baffling, gnomic statements about their work, yet this 1972 documentary is surprisingly clear-sighted. Perhaps it is because the director, Emile de Antonio, was an art-world insider who knew many of the painters before they were famous. Whatever the reason, he certainly gets the best out of his subjects, an illustrious group of Abstract and Pop artists including Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler and Jasper Johns.

Among the highlights are Frank Stella explaining the influence of Samuel Beckett on his paintings and Robert Rauschenberg on how hard it is to erase a de Kooning drawing (three weeks and 15 different types of eraser).

Watch an extract here. Available to rent on Amazon; iTunes

Director Andrew Neel explores the struggles that his grandmother Alice Neel endured as a female painter, a single mother and an artist who defied convention. Neel was working at a time when Pop art was all the rage, and her expressionist depictions of friends and fellow artists, painted in thick impasto and understated colours, were brushed aside as nostalgic.

‘An artist who defied convention’ Alice Neel in her New York studio, circa 1960. Photo Estate of Alice Neel

‘An artist who defied convention’: Alice Neel in her New York studio, circa 1960. Photo: Estate of Alice Neel

By the 1970s, however, the artist’s reputation had grown: she was adopted by the women’s movement, and major museums including the Whitney in New York had begun to show her work shortly before her death in 1984.

Watch the trailer here. Available to rent on Amazon; Google Play; iTunes; YouTube; Vimeo

There is no narrative in this three-hour documentary about London’s National Gallery, filmed over a 12-month period. Instead, the camera records the minutiae of museum life: guides giving lectures to schoolchildren; cleaners polishing the gallery floors; curators rearranging pictures; and the obligatory private views.

London’s National Gallery, the setting for ‘a sustained meditation on art’ by director Frederick Wiseman. Photo © National Gallery, London

London’s National Gallery, the setting for ‘a sustained meditation on art’ by director Frederick Wiseman. Photo: © National Gallery, London

The trademark style of veteran American filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who began his career in the 1960s with a critical examination of the prison system, is to have no commentary, no interviews, and no identification of those speaking. The result is a sustained meditation on art and those who look at it.

Watch the trailer here. Available to rent on BFI player

Sara Driver was inspired to make a film about the art scene in late-1970s New York after her friend Alexis Adler — an ex-roommate of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s — showed her the contents of a bank vault filled with his drawings and writings.

‘I saw what she had and I was like, this is not only a window into him, but this is a window into New York at that particular moment in time,’ she said in a 2018 interview.

Combining archival footage with new interviews, Driver’s film looks at the crucial few years in which Basquiat was transformed from a young, homeless graffiti artist to an art-world wunderkind. Recognisable faces from the Lower East Side’s punk/hip hop/art scene — the painter Kenny Scharf, the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch — make cameo appearances to share their early memories of the artist.

Watch the trailer here. Available to rent on Amazon; iTunes; Google Play; YouTube

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The Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang is known for his use of gunpowder, igniting it on canvases to create scorched drawings, and using it to devise large pyrotechnic events — most notably at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Born in 1957, Cai was the first Chinese artist to be awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, in 1999. Since then he has become famous for his explosive public installations, which have stunned audiences from Cleveland, Ohio, to Moscow.

Cai Guo-Qiang’s 500-metre-high Sky Ladder, 2015 — a dazzling feat of pyrotechnics. Courtesy of Cal Studio

Cai Guo-Qiang’s 500-metre-high Sky Ladder, 2015 — a dazzling feat of pyrotechnics. Courtesy of Cal Studio

This documentary, made by Touching the Void  and Whitney  director Kevin Macdonald, follows the artist as he creates his most dramatic event to date: a 500-metre ladder floating in the night sky and lit by fireworks. Devised to mark Cai’s grandmother’s 100th birthday, the work reveals a world-renowned artist with a profound sense of home.

Watch the trailer here. Available on Netflix

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