10 Inspiring Art Documentaries

By September 4, 2016Films, Making Art

Ten of our favourite art documentaries from recent times to spark creativity and remind us of the transformative power of art…

1. Beauty Is Embarrassing: The Wayne White Story (2012)

A life affirming story of an artist and creative raconteur who just can’t help but make things. I recently featured Wayne White’s paintings of witty phrases intricately painted over cheesy thrift store landscapes. While these paintings won White the belated respect of the art world his journey there is full of unexpected twists and turns from surreal sets and puppets for Pee-wee’s Playhouse to an inspiring and often hilarious TED talk.

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2. Waste Land 2010

I remember walking out of the cinema with a writer friend after watching Waste Land feeling like we’d both witnessed something special. City of God director Fernando Meirelles has produced a film that makes you believe creativity is one the strongest forces on the planet. Nominated for an Academy Award and winner of the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival Waste Land tells the story of Brooklyn based artist Vik Muniz and his fascinating project arising from the world’s largest garbage dump near Rio de Janeiro. I won’t give away the narrative but the film’s website sums up the result as “stirring evidence of the transformative power of art and the alchemy of the human spirit.”
Stream on Amazon (UK)  |  DVD on Amazon (US)

3. Forest, Field & Sky: Art out of Nature 2016

A departure from the other films featured in that Forest, Field & Sky is a BBC 4 documentary and currently unavailable to buy or stream through online retailers. Thankfully the kind souls at the Art Documentaries channel have uploaded it in high definition to Youtube. This is one of the most inspiring art documentaries I’ve ever seen and it’s refreshing to spend an hour outwith gallery walls with four of the best landscape artists around. Andy Goldsworthy, James Turrell, Julie Brook , David Nash, Richard Long and Charles Jencks all feature in this wandering journey through British landscapes honed and enhanced by human hand. Watching Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy valiantly balancing precarious stones is as breathtaking as it is heartbreaking while the enchanting footage of Nash’s Ash Dome is mesmerising.
Stream on Youtube

4. Everybody Street 2013

Directed by Cheryl Dunn, Everybody Street tells the engaging story of New York street photography through its raw, iconic and oddball history. As much a tribute to the energy and character of New York’s residents Dunn’s camera follows some of the best photographers of the last fifty years for a street-eye view of their style and process. It’s a real treat to see so many iconic photographs from artists like Boogie, Martha Cooper (of Subway Art fame) and Elliott Erwitt. I had to keep pressing pause to check out a photographer I’d never heard of to explore further. If you’re a fan of Humans of New York and feel alive in the buzz of the best city in the world then you’ll love this.
Stream on iTunes (UK)  |  Stream on iTunes (US)

5. Tim’s Vermeer 2013

When my brother told me the premise of Tim’s Vermeer a couple of years ago I couldn’t really get my head around what he was saying… so let me get this right, the magicians Penn & Teller have produced and directed a film about an inventor with no artistic experience who builds a device that allows him to paint a convincing copy of a Vermeer using only tools available in Vermeer’s day? Wait… what? Erm, nope, not possible. It all sounded too gimmicky and I never got round to watching it… until a few weeks ago. Everything my brother said was true. Even Mr Secret Knowledge himself, David Hockney, gives his seal of approval in a wry cameo as cantankerous expert. Prepare to be surprised and more than a little inspired by the relentless curiosity and painstaking commitment of a middle aged husband and father with an idea and a vision.
Stream on Amazon (UK)  |  Stream on Amazon (US)

6. Marina Abramovic – The Artist Is Present 2012

An incredibly fascinating look at the life and work of Yugoslav performance artist Marina Abramovic as she prepares for her landmark solo show at MoMA New York. The show itself featured 50 works spanning four decades, many of which ere collaborations with former lover and co-creator Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen). One of the most moving scenes from the film features Ulay appearing before Marina on the opening night – footage of which has been viewed close to 30 million times. The documentary also serves as a critique on performance art itself and its often misunderstood relationship with society and culture. What comes across more than anything is the relentless commitment and courage of Abramovic to connect with her audience – at whatever personal cost that entails. It’s rarely comfortable but always compelling.
Stream on Amazon (UK)  |  Stream on Amazon (US)

7. Jean Michel Basquiat – The Radiant Child 2010

Not to be confused with Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic Basquait (where Bowie famously cameos Warhol) The Radiant Child is based around a rare interview that director and friend Tamra Davis shot with Basquiat over twenty years ago. I was aware that Basquait squeezed a lot into his brief 28 years but I had no idea just how talented, prolific and incredibly ambitious an artist he was. There’s some great Basquait quotes peppered throughout: “If you wanna talk about influence, man, then you gotta realise that influence is not influence. It’s simply someone’s idea going through my new mind.” Discussing words on canvas Basquait says “I cross out words so you will see them more: the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.” So much of Basquait the myth obscures Basquait the person – The Radiant Child faithfully deconstructs the one to reveal the complex and inspiring humanity of the other.
DVD on Amazon (UK)  |  Stream on Amazon (US)

8. David Hockney – A Bigger Picture 2009

A Bigger Picture films Hockney over three years in his native Yorkshire as he paints Northern landscapes in every weather known to man. Hockney was approaching seventy but is as excited by the changing light and open space as a wide-eyed art student at their first landscape class. This is a documentary about seeing as much as it is about painting. Hockney is deeply curious about the world and will go to any length to attempt to depict it in a way that resonates with our experience of it. Having been lucky enough to attend the resultant Royal Academy show ‘A Bigger Picture’ I can attest it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen and you don’t get much more inspiring than that.
DVD on Amazon (UK)  |  DVD on Amazon (US)

9. Gerhard Richter Painting 2011

Gerhard Richter Painting might not be an obvious contender for a list of inspiring art documentaries. For a start it’s slow paced, has very little dialogue and is largely about the Sisyphean struggle of trying to make good art. But the film came highly recommended by artist and illustrator Lisa Congdon in her Become A Working Artist course. That Richter’s creative self-doubt and uncertainty continued through his sixties and seventies reassured Congdon that her own artistic insecurities were not only shared by great artists like Richter but are part of parcel of the creative process for everyone. Watching Richter drag his large paint filled squeegees across multiple layers of colour fields is a surprisingly thrilling experience. I found myself rooting for paintings at a certain point (just leave it there Gerhard, it’s brilliant!) before he inevitably obscures the bright colours with a dark shade of grey. Once you allow yourself to slow down to its unhurried pace it’s a surprisingly thrilling and inspiring experience that makes you long for your own paint squeezing assistants too.
Stream on iTunes (UK)  |  Stream on Amazon (US)

10. Exit Through The Gift Shop 2010

One of the biggest art documentary success stories in history, raking in more than five million dollars at the box-office. I point that out as Banksy’s Exit Through The Gift Shop is as much about cash money and the over-inflated prices and hype of the the art world as it is about an artist and his craft. If you’ve not already seen it then I’d rather not give too much away so you can enjoy the often hilarious and jaw-dropping, did-that-really-just-happen moments, in all their unforeseen glory. If you’re down with Banksy then treat yourself to a visit to his gift shop, you’ll be surprised where the exit is.
Stream on Amazon (UK)  |  Stream on Amazon (US)

That wraps up our list of inspiring art documentaries, notable mentions go to Hockney (2014), Guest of Cindy Sherman (2008) and Art & Craft (2014).