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Winter is upon us, and with that, cold and flu season. Not to mention a potential resurgence of Covid that has us all just a little on edge. Whether you have to quarantine or finally have time to squeeze in a movie night during a break, streaming services offer plenty of compelling art-based films to help you pass the time and learn something new.
Recent documentaries centered around scandals, mysteries, and taking the art world by storm abound amongst older, more playful dramas. From the lesser-known business of art dealers to the phenomenon of artists’ rise in popularity post-mortem to first-hand accounts from artists themselves, there is something for everyone to appreciate! These movies are not just about pretty pictures so much as the people behind them. We get a glimpse into all their complicated, nuanced humanity.
In this compelling documentary, we learn that the soft-spoken, “happy little tree” painter Bob Ross had a love affair with more than landscapes. His son, an accomplished painter in his own right, takes us for a look behind-the-scenes of his life, relationships, and business dealings. The movie is a deep dive past his on-screen persona that will have you rooting for the underdog and wondering what happens next right up to the very last minute.
Vivian Maier, an intensely private, unassuming nanny and photographer, shook the art world when her mysterious photographs surfaced a few short years after her death. A filmmaker looking for historic artifacts purchased a trove of photo and film paraphernalia from a Chicago thrift auction house before seeing them. In doing so, he unwittingly uncovered one of the 20th century’s most prolific street photographers.
Watching Finding Vivian Maier is like following a trail of breadcrumbs. The story takes interesting twists, and the interviews offer a small glimpse into this elusive artist. The questions linger. Did Vivian want her images to be found? Are we entitled to her body of work simply because it was discovered?
This crime documentary is a cautionary tale about the prominent Knoedler Gallery in New York. It details the elaborate con artist scheme that fooled experts, gallerists, and sophisticated art collectors alike. Knoedler went under after it was found they sold nearly a hundred million dollars worth of Abstract Expressionist paintings around the world—that were fakes. The Globe and Mail called it, “A twisting tale of delusions and billionaires egos.”
It’s a fascinating, finger-pointing, psychological look at the conditions that made these ultimate forgeries possible. The movie begs contemplation. What makes art, art? Is art only art based on where it came from? In this case, who is “wrong”?
If you enjoyed this film, try Driven to Abstraction (Prime, 2020), then check out our other content below:
Do you know there was a time in art history when it was provocative for a nude to descend a staircase rather than to depict her “traditionally” reclining? Marcel Duchamp found that out that hard way after he was rejected by elite art circles. This was also despite his work being submitted to a “no jury, no prizes” show. Perhaps a pivotal moment in his career, Duchamp intuitively knew that the art aesthetic of the 1900s was stuck in time. He intended to change this by challenging traditional notions about what defines art.
From making scientific experimentation “art” to boldly scrutinizing the metric system, Duchamp vocalized his individuality of thought while rejecting the idea that there should be a singular definition for art. As a result, he directly changed the way we examine and speak about art today.
My Kid Could Paint That is a true story about the adults surrounding then four-year-old painter, Marla Olmstead. After journalist Elizabeth Cohen penned an article in the local newspaper, Marla catapulted into fame in the early 2000s. She consequently gained international attention. Suspicion of Marla’s innate talent arose after a bombshell 60-minute interview when a child prodigy expert reviewed Marla’s paintings. Did she create of her own volition, as her parents say? Did her aspiring artist father play a role?
This film will have you contemplating the hard questions about childhood fame, adult motivations, how money muddies everything, and the role of the media influencing our perceptions.
Produced by Leonardo and George DiCaprio, this documentary is complex and comes with a trigger warning. The subject is an intense Polish sculptor, Stanislav Szukalski, who has a racist, anti-semitic worldview. As the movie begins, you meet Glenn Bray, an underground comic art collector. During an outing in a Hollywood bookstore, he was struck by a spine stamped in gold with a serpent-like design. This find precipitated a series of events that led to him meeting Stanislav Szukalski, the artist of the works, who serendipitously lived only a few miles away.
Bray formed an artist-to-artist relationship with Szukalski, who was 78 at the time (born in 1893). This relationship unfolds through a series of interviews, complicated analyses of his political views and works of art, and a wild, heartbreaking ride detailing his fascinating life. Austrian painter, Ernest Fuchs, called him, “the Michelangelo of the 20th century and probably, also, of an age to come.” Szukalski was nearly forgotten despite being named the country’s “greatest living artist” by the government in 1930’s Poland.
There is so much in this film to unpack. You will stay for the phenomenal talent, incomprehensible bodies of work, and eccentric nature of a man born in the 19th century. On the other hand, you may want to leave for his highly opinionated, intolerable views. Overall, reviewers agree that the documentary is well-done. According to critic Eric Wayne, Stanislav Szukalski seems to have gotten one thing right, “An insistence on being true to one’s inner voice, doing things one’s own way, and even discovering or inventing one’s own reality.”
Whether you are hunkering down to ride out quarantine or soaking in that newfound free time during a break, you’re sure to find an art documentary to stream in this compilation. Mysteries and scandals dominate the genre, but there are truly options for everyone! Each documentary offers philosophical contemplation and can make engaging conversation starters with both family and students. Do yourself a favor and save them to your queue now, so all that’s left to bring are the blankets and popcorn!
Which type of art-based movie grabs your attention; Mysteries and scandals or behind-the-scenes and first-hand accounts?
What other art documentaries are on your list to watch this winter?
Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.