This past year I tried to watch movies about artists, the collectors who purchase their work, and the art world (gallery dealers, museum curators, restorers, insurers, etc). The following represents a synopsis of my viewing history + pithy observations.
It is very difficult to make a balanced film or documentary about a currently living artist. If the artist (or the artist’s estate) is going to cooperate with the filmmaker, then usually the film dips into hagiography. On the plus side, you get to see the artist’s original work in the film. The downside is the sugar-coated story leaves a lot of unexplained questions because the answers might damage the legacy that is so stridently being preserved. The better artist films are typically those where the artist has been long dead and there is no estate to contend with. Unfortunately, most of these artists had a huge factory of workers and assistants helping them with their work, and you never see these people being mentioned, which I find frustrating. Nevertheless, the artist bio films do provide a good introduction to many artists I had never heard of before.
- Goya’s Ghosts (2006) Drama. Points out Goya’s importance in the transition from the traditional age into modern. Unfortunately, film gets bogged down on the soap-opera-esque side stories.
- Bomb It (2007) Documentary. History of graffiti art (using spray cans) in USA and around the world. Interesting to see how culture affects presentation (ie. NYC vs. Berlin vs. Cape Town vs. Barcelona)
- The Time Being (2012) Drama. Artist does commissioned work to gather source material for dying artist.
- Cutie and the Boxer (2013) Documentary. The complex and competitive world of two artists married to one another.
- My Kid Could Paint That (2007) Documentary. Art fraud or child prodigy? You be the judge.
- Beautiful Losers (2008) Documentary. Street artists and graphic designers of the 1990s, the importance of having a sympathetic gallery for artistic synergy
- The Universe of Keith Haring (2008) Documentary. Mostly hagiography, but lots of his original art. I found it interesting that they wanted him to paint LESS so that his art would increase in value!
- Little Ashes (2008) Drama. The early years of Federico Garcia Lorca, Salvador Dali, and Luis Brunel and their complex relationships- not much art work shown.
- The Mill and the Cross (2011) Drama. Multiple re-enactments of Bruegel’s most famous works- nearly no talking.
- Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998) Drama. The life of Francis Bacon, not flattering, NONE of his original artwork shown, although models and inspirational reflections are in abundance.
- Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World (2014) Documentary. Giger looks very frail throughout, lots of his artwork and domicile shown.
- Big Eyes (2014) Drama. Tim Burton’s tribute to one of his favorite artists, Margaret Keane and her bug eyed waifs.
- Our City Dreams (2008 ) Documentary. Mini bios of five different women artists (Caledonia Curry, Ghadee Amer, Kiki Smith, Marina Abramovic, and Nancy Spero) at very different points in their lives.
- One Bad Cat: The Reverend Albert Wagner Story (2008 ) Documentary. Life of Albert Wagner, but like Giger, he is very frail and old in the movie in contrast to the majority of his controversial working life.
- Turner (2014 ) Drama. Life of the British father of impressionism.
- In the Realms of the Unreal (2004) Documentary. Chicago recluse Henry Darger provides the definition of “outsider art”, but fortunately for him, his landlord had connections to the art world.
- Rivers and Tides (2001) Documentary. A look at the environmentally ephemeral art of Andy Goldsworthy. Absolutely beautiful, with interesting observations on the impact of sheep on the environment.
- Manufactured Landscapes (2006) Documentary. A look at the locales (mostly Asia) and philosophy of photographer Edward Burtynsky.
- Here is Always Somewhere Else (2007) Documentary. The enigmatic life of conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader. Also a good lesson on ‘curating’ someone else’s work.
- Guest of Cindy Sherman (2008) Documentary. Cindy Sherman’s boyfriend comes to grips with the housewife’s reality of being the person in the room no one wants to talk to. Features the celebrated photographer’s many shows.
- Helvetica (2007) Documentary. The birth of a type face in excruciating detail. With critique, also excruciating.
- Ai Weiwei Never Sorry (2012) Documentary. The controversial Chinese artist, his shows, and his run-ins with Chinese political leaders and police chiefs.
- Finding Vivian Maier (2013) Documentary. Chicago recluse photographer Vivian Maier who spent her life snapping photos while earning a living as a nanny. “Discovered” after she died. Had me wondering about the nature of art- she herself never edited her work- she just hoarded it and her ‘discoverer’ was the one who decided what’s what.
Who are the people who purchase (or steal) art? Well, they are an unusual bunch. In watching these movies, I began to seriously question the dogma that viewing art makes you a “better” person.
- The Best Offer (2013) Drama. An art auctioneer has his own way of amassing a collection of female portraiture until he meets his match.
- Herb & Dorothy (2008) Documentary. DIY collecting- he is a postal worker and she is a teacher. One salary is for living expenses, the other salary is for collecting art. Wait until you see how they store their collection.
- Art of the Steal (2009) Documentary. Despite the best laid legal documents of collector Dr. Albert C. Barnes, he could not control the destiny of his post-impressionist and modern art masterpieces after his demise.
- Woman in Gold (2015) Drama. What happens when a country steals your family art collection and markets it as a national treasure/tourist attraction?
- Rape of Europa (2006) Documentary. How the Nazis collected art, particularly Goering.
The movies about the museums are ok, but most movies about the art world generally portray the major players as unsavory, money-grubbing, unscrupulous, immoral manipulators. Sigh.
- Boogie Woogie (2009) Drama. Highly disturbing view of London art scene complete with gallery owners, collectors, and artists.
- Mickey Blue Eyes (1999) Comedy. This is a great comedy which features a mob intrusion into the art auction market. Hilarious- watch for the Chinese restaurant scene!
- Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock (2006) Documentary. A truck driver buys a painting from a thrift store and tries to prove it was painted by Jackson Pollock.
- Russian Ark (2002) Drama. If you have ever wondered what these European palaces turned into art galleries might have looked like in their heyday as actual working spaces, then this is the movie for you. Filmed in the Winter Palace of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersberg.
- National Gallery (2014) Documentary. Behind the scenes look at the National Gallery in London- but it is 3 HOURS LONG!
I got through nearly all of my reading list for 2016 with a few exceptions.
- After being severely underwhelmed by Dave Eggers’ “How We Are Hungry”, I decided not to read his “Hologram for the King”.
- Decided to relax with Louise Penny mysteries instead of John Grisham’s “The Racketter”. May read it this year, once I get through the Three Pines series.
- “Why Does the World Exist?”- Couldn’t motivate myself to power up to the philosophical stratosphere.
- “What is Islam?”- never bothered to buy the book.
- “Telling Lies for Fun & Profit”- read the first few paragraphs and it didn’t grab me.
- “Standing by Words” only read a few of the essays, started to disagree with author.
- “Secret Life of Pronouns”- got too boring and repetitive, wasn’t able to finish
Supplemented to 2016 List and I did finish:
- Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam series “Oryx and Crake”, “The Year of the Flood”, and “MaddAddam”
- “The Blind Assassin” by Margaret Atwood
- “Fates and Furies” by Lauren Groff
- “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” by Mohammad Hanif
- “Cat’s Eye” by Margaret Atwood
- “The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce
- “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline
- “American Qur’an” by Sandow Birk
- “Did You Ever Have a Family” by Bill Clegg
- “My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrente
- “Fight Club” by Chuck Palahnuik
- “Washing the Dust from our Hearts” collected poems of Afghani women
- “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides
- “The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles” by Martin Gayford
- “Drinking: A love story” by Caroline Knapp
- “The Luminaries” by Eleanor Catton
- “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara
- “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” by Daniyal Mueenideen
Plus a few more books, but these are the best ones I would recommend.
Next up: reading list for 2017!