15 Fascinating Art Documentaries to Watch Now

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The Last Angel of History, 1997
The Last Angel of History, 1997(Film still)

A list of informative and inspiring art films for your viewing pleasure

Lockdown restrictions may be lifting incrementally, but June’s temperamental weather forecast means it’s likely we’ll still have many an evening to while away indoors. To make things easier, we’ve compiled a list of excellent art documentaries that inform and inspire in equal measure – from a captivating portrait of Cindy Sherman by her former lover to a hypnotic early investigation into Afrofuturism.

1. The Last Angel of History, 1997

This film is integral viewing for those looking to better understand the roots of Afrofuturism – a term coined by Mark Dery in his 1994 essay Black to the Future to encapsulate the emerging philosophy and cultural aesthetic that “[reimagined] a future filled with arts, science and technology seen through a black lens”, in the words of film critic Jamie Broadnax. Made by the Black Audio Film Collective, an innovative group of black British and diaspora multimedia artists and filmmakers, Last Angel of History deftly integrates reframed archival and documentary footage into a science fiction narrative to consider Afrofuturism “as a metaphor for the displacement of black culture and its historical roots” (Culture&) – with hypnotic results.

2. Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, 2016

In 1989, months after the death of Robert Mapplethorpe, the National Endowment for the Arts put on an exhibition featuring some of the outré American image-maker’s work. Outraged, Senator Jesse Helms took to the floor of the United States Senate to protest the inclusion of “a known homosexual who died of Aids”. He implored his audience to “look at the pictures!” – a phrase that Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato co-opted for their 2016 documentary on the photographer. The film tracks Mapplethorpe’s career chronologically, from his early days as a New York scenester, making arresting portraits of musicians, artists, porn stars and the S&M community, to his later, more refined foray into studio photography. Aptly, the pictures themselves take centre stage, proving just as potent and attention-grabbing some 30 years on.

3. Alice Neel, 2007

This exploration of the late American painter Alice Neel – purveyor of deeply personal, expressionistic portraits of New York personalities, and self-proclaimed collector of souls – was made by the artist’s grandson, Andrew Neel. As such, it is wonderfully intimate, bringing together one-on-one interviews with surviving family members with personal archival video footage to turn the lens on Neel for once, revealing her passionate social conscience, innate understanding of the human psyche and unerring quest for authenticity.

4. Mur Murs, 1981

Murs Murs is a mesmerising ode to the many striking murals that adorn Los Angeles’ public spaces, shot by the inimitable French filmmaker Agnès Varda, who was living in the city at the time. Varda intersperses her own narration with commentary from the murals’ makers and subjects, as well as local residents, shedding light not only on the creation of the artworks, but also on the effects of state violence upon LA’s communities (a theme that makes its way into many of the murals). The resulting film, as Criterion puts it, is “as much an invigorating study of community and diversity as it is an essential catalogue of unusual public art”, and we can’t recommend it highly enough.

5. Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain’s Hidden Art History, 2018

There is “a mass systemic amnesia” in the art establishment, says British artist Sonia Boyce in the stirring BBC4 documentary Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain’s Hidden Art History; in other words, there’s been a shameful whitewashing of British art history. This thought-provoking film, presented by Brenda Emmanus, follows Boyce as she orchestrates a 2018 exhibition of black and Asian modernist art at Manchester Art Gallery. She spends three years scouring public archives for the purpose, unearthing more than 2,000 works by an array of major British artists hitherto rendered invisible by an inherently racist system – from members of the Windrush generation to 1960s countercultural revolutionaries to those involved with the Black Arts Movement of the 1980s.

6. Through a Lens Darkly, 2014

Taking its cues from photo historian Deborah Willis’ important book Reflections in Black, Thomas Allen Harris’ Through A Lens Darkly probes the recesses of American history to “explore the role of photography in shaping the identity, aspirations and social emergence of African Americans from slavery to the present,” to quote Independent Lens. The film confronts the historic and ongoing misrepresentation and stereotyping of African Americans in the American media, while simultaneously celebrating the many, extraordinary black image-makers – Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna SimpsonHank Willis Thomas to Coco Fusco, Gordon Parks, James Van Der Zee, to name but a few – who have collectively transformed their “singular experiences into a communal journey of discovery, and a call to action”.

7. Black is the Color, 2018

Much as Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain’s Hidden Art History looked to right some of the wrongs faced by black artists in Britain, Black is the Color takes an absorbing look at the history of African-American art, spotlighting some of the extraordinary creators of colour whose contributions have too often been overlooked over the years. Examining over 100 years’ worth of art, filmmaker Jacques Goldstein interviews experts and gallerists to contextualise works by black artists – from 19th-century sculptor Edmonia Lewis to contemporary pioneers like Whitfield LovellKerry James Marshall and Ellen Gallagher – “setting them against the larger social contexts of Jim Crow, World War One, the civil rights movement and the racism of the Reagan era,” in the words of Icarus Films, to powerful effect.

8. Guest of Cindy Sherman, 2008

This film is an art documentary like no other, with a very personal story at its heart. It was shot over the course of 15 years by the videographer Paul H-O, who made waves in 90s New York with his commentaries on the contemporary art scene. At this time, he caught the attention of the famously press-shy doyenne of disguise, Cindy Sherman, who invited him to her studio for a series of filmed interviews. This marked the beginning of a romantic relationship between the pair, granting H-O entry into Sherman’s carefully guarded world – and making for extremely compelling viewing. As summarised by Rotten Tomatoes, “the filmmakers’ motivations may be suspect, but this inside look at New York art legend Cindy Sherman – and, by extension, the culture she inhabits – is undeniably satisfying”.

9. Kusama: Infinity, 2018

Yayoi Kusama is a tour de force – in her 91 years, the queen of polka dots has overcome countless challenges to share her radical artistic vision with the world, ultimately securing her place as its top-selling living female artist. This 2018 documentary delves deep into Kusama’s life and work, from her conservative upbringing in Japan to her early success in 1960s New York, in the face of racism and sexism, thereafter tracing her meteoric rise to fame against the backdrop of ongoing mental illness. Kusama is the film’s central storyteller, offering remarkable insight into her journey of turning “trauma into art”, while experts shed light on the various phases of her career and her remarkable, continued achievements.

10. Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, 2016

New York-based, Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang is renowned for his pyrotechnic wizardry, perhaps best demonstrated in his 2015 artwork Sky Ladder (an evergreen Instagram favourite). The breathtaking piece involved the launch of a flaming, 1,650-foot-tall ladder, suspended by a giant balloon, into the sky above the small Chinese fishing village where Cai was born. The piece is one of Cai’s most spectacular and personal, so it’s apt that it forms the title of the brilliant 2016 documentary that reveals the poetic philosophies and ancestral influences that inform his explosive practice, as well as the masterful feats of engineering behind it.

11. Finding Vivian Maier, 2013

The story behind Vivian Maier’s posthumous rise to fame is almost as extraordinary as the reclusive American photographer’s immaculately composed, endlessly captivating street photography itself. A nanny by profession, Maier took over 100,000 photographs over the course of her adult life, squirrelling them away from prying eyes. They were only discovered in 2007, when John Maloof – one of the two directors behind Finding Vivian Meier – bid for them in a blind auction. Astounded by their artistry, he embarked on a mission to unearth the secret life of the mysterious woman who made them, capturing his journey for this truly fascinating film.

12. Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2017

There are lots of great documentaries out there about the visionary Brooklyn-born artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, but Sara Driver’s intimate look at his teenage years is one of the best. Through interviews with Basquiat’s friends and contemporaries in 70s and 80s New York, as well as early examples of his prolific output (in notebooks, on walls, floors and fridges), Boom For Real highlights the insuppressible creativity of the young poet, musician and graffiti virtuoso, as well as the cultural revolution that shaped him. This formative period is vital to understanding the distinct Neo-Expressionist style of painting, drawing and collage that Basquiat thereafter honed, which saw him skyrocket to fame during the early 80s, before his tragic death aged 27.

13. Europe After the Rain, 1978

This 1978 documentary takes a rousing look at the distinctly avant-garde movements of Dada and Surrealism, exploring their roots in the chaos caused by World War One and their pioneers’ revolutionary search for sense in nonsense. Available to watch on YouTube in full, it plunges viewers into the weird and wonderful worlds of André Breton, the so-called ‘Pope of Surrealism’ and the “inspired gang of artists, lunatics and writers” he mobilised – in the words of director Mick Gold. This includes Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst (who feature in amazing BBC interview footage) as well as Salvador Dalí, Yves Tanguy, Antonin Artaud, René Magritte and many more – although, it must be said, the women involved in both movements are woefully overlooked.

14. Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film, 2006

Ric Burns’ four-hour documentary on Andy Warhol is a must-watch for fans of the art world icon; to quote an excellent New York Times review, the film – “narrated by Laurie Anderson in her best medical technician voice” – is an “entirely absorbing, occasionally revelatory portrait of a brilliant talent driven to greatness by an inner chorus of demons and angels”. A plethora of on-camera interviews and rare, archival footage bring Warhol’s universe into sharp focus, while a close inspection of his “bewilderingly vast body of work” highlights his artistic aplomb as a colourist, draughtsman and filmmaker, as well as his central role in breaking down the boundary between commercial and fine art and pioneering assembly line production.

15. The Woodmans, 2010

In 1981, the American photographer Francesca Woodman tragically took her own life at the age of 22. She left behind an extraordinary archive of imagery – much of which centred on nude self-portraiture. Her mother and father, Betty and George Woodman – a ceramicist and painter-cum-photographer, respectively – spent the years after Francesca’s death promoting her work and nurturing her legacy, while pursuing their own careers. This unflinching documentary by Scott Willis serves to tell the searing tale of “a family broken and then healed by their art”, featuring candid interviews with the Woodmans, and a poignant examination of Francesca’s short life through her diary entries and experimental videos, as well as her photographs.