The old Michelangelo quote is that art comes from tearing a marble block into size. By that metric, a list is the highest form of critical prose. Maybe not. But looking at the somewhat recent history of Western art through the lens of documentary filmmakers presents a small history of changing forms, of styles and tones, squirming inside a medium that resists standing still.
The point of a style is to say what you are not, and this list would be flawed if it did not do that. The annual documentary gaping awe about how much such-and-such sold for at Sotheby’s does not interest me. It may have many fine things to say about the history of financial investment but little about art. Nor does the overly educational tale or the documentary that rediscovers paintings or careers in the attic. I am partial to the shaky hand and the absence of narration.
That said, the first film on this list of the best documentaries about artists is literally John Hurt talking for an hour and a half. Art takes us always in mysterious directions.
1. Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh (1987)
Fans of Vincent van Gogh’s second life as a minimally verbose Tumblr sage will find much to enjoy in Paul Cox’s study of the final years of the painter’s life, which consists entirely of his diary entries as read aloud by John Hurt. Overlaid onto a slow-moving visual collage of Van Gogh’s paintings, footage shot in the largely unchanged Dutch countryside, and subtle re-enactments of some of his grander canvasses, Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh operates by the same logic as the equally absorbing and enigmatic work of Patrick Keiller, which would haunt arthouses in the 1990s.
We like Van Gogh because he needs no introduction — we all saw the posters on someone else’s dorm room — and we return to him constantly because he is always more than we remember. He is never just depressing and never just a failure in the commercial pragmatism of life (he sold one painting!). He is an optimist, he details the minutia of his work with the loving specificity of a craftsman, he believes his idiosyncratic impastos will sell for small fortunes. Life closes in on him nonetheless, the ruthless loop of human tragedy.
Hurt gives these mood swings the air of Shakespearian drama, all Hamlet pacing forever. Of no other artist can it be argued that the drama of their life so holds its own next to the work (and why it is so often revisited; in 2010, Benedict Cumberbatch would try reading the same source material while wearing a ridiculous beard in Andrew Hutton’s Van Gogh: Painted with Words). Cox’s version is superior to all pale imitations, likeminded film dramas and that one episode of Doctor Who. At its release, Roger Ebert called Vincent “the best film about a painter I have ever seen,” and Cumberbatch hasn’t exactly given him a run for his money since.
2. The Mystery of Picasso (1956)
Considered something of a classic of the form, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s document of another of the mononyms of last century’s art world is, nonetheless, the polar opposite of Cox’s film. Picasso doesn’t talk, Picasso paints. An operatic score hums in the background like an atomic bomb.
Dismissed as a “stunt” by the Times and given a revival at Cannes a few years after Clouzot’s death, The Mystery of Picasso is a liminal work, twirling between the boundaries of flat visual art and the moving picture, applying Picasso’s style of resisting clichés to moviemaking and crafting a set of arguments for what the medium, not quite yet the dominant cultural form in West, can accomplish. In a larger, poetic sense, Picasso is passing the baton.
Stylistically, Clouzot also anticipates those annoying Facebook videos, wherein a photogenic meal is prepared in two speedy, time-lapsed, minutes. Most notoriously, the paintings Picasso makes are thrown away after the film’s completion, meaning they only exist in here, in strips of film that double now as hard, fossilized memory (and now digital, in the air).
3.- 4. Christo’s Valley Curtain (1974) and The Gates (2008)
Picasso discarded the canvases he made for Clouzot as a poetic gesture to his filmmaking friend, but the disappearing brushstroke would prove fundamental to the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who arrived as Picasso left. Each of their massive fabric sculptures of color is taken apart after 14 days, a rule (occasionally, it lasts shorter, and rumors persist that Christo allegedly hopes to make a permanent installation yet).
Composing in non-permanent space lends a wider canvas than artists set on posterity: the wrapped-up Reichstag, the floating island of color in the Thames. And yet, they do exist, in the memories of the thousands who trek to these sort of things and, more meaningfully, in the public memory of filmmakers like Albert and David Maysles, who made no fewer than six films out of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work.
Christo’s Valley Curtain was the first and The Gates was the last, most of the latter being shot after David Maysles’ death. For the Maysles brothers, Christo and Jeanne-Claude were the nutty dreamers with which they write their all-American myths, but unlike the subjects of Salesman or Grey Gardens, they resist the implicit patheticness of the American camp tradition. Christo and Jeanne-Claude paint with the imagination and, like Clouzot, the Maysles brothers capture the process: the bureaucratic quagmire, the scoffing.
The social element is vital to the work—the film reveals them to be primarily social objects, a choreographed dance to the logic of awe. Nothing is stronger than the quaint cliché that appears toward the end of Christo’s Valley Curtain, a construction worker looking upward and defending the work adamantly, to nobody in particular.
5. Mur Murs (1982)
When Agnes Varda went to California, she found a sunbaked land of dreams that poured into the concrete landscape naturally. Among the subjects that arrested her attention were its muralists, cryptic and anonymous, drawn to B-movie stars and daytime television heroes. The canniest effect of Mur Murs is when her camera steps back and the murals are revealed to be a kind of arch self-portrait. This is true of all art, that is why these films exist, and Varda’s style is its own kind of portrait, anchored by the roving curiosity of her and the pensive search for answers.
Unlike Banksy’s post-Green Day articulations of nonexistent punk culture, Varda’s street artists are vulnerable and real. There is something delicate in the negotiations she captures between the painters and the property owners, who ask also, sometimes, for their likeness to enter the concrete canvasses they’ve commissioned.
6. The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story (1996)
“It’s very difficult to offend anyone anymore… almost impossible,” the caricaturist Al Hirschfeld expounds, a thick and aging presence in Susan Warms Dryfoos’ document of his life. Caricature is the perfect American art because all American art is a deeply sincere caricature of something from somewhere else. Hirschfeld’s life itself is not incredibly remarkable, observing the times from the Times, but his work is both ruthlessly utilitarian and pedantically rebellious, a colorful document of signifiers. When he gets bored, he begins writing the name of his second wife between the lines.
Fittingly, Dryfoos is, herself, sketching a fitting caricature of Hirschfeld: her ear for melancholy picks up resentment, confusion, old ladies tsking. Outside, the punk century rumbles and the stillness of the caricaturist’s life is just as deafening. Hirschfeld wishes so much to offend somebody, anybody at all, but instead, he is constantly hired and not paid very much. One of Cole Porter’s old tunes from Can-Can wafts into the film: “Never, never be an artist, if you think you can make one cent.”
7. Gerhard Richter Painting (2011)
The same despair persists inside the academy as out. The conversation thereabouts turns, in the early ’80s, toward money, an uninteresting subject. The millions of dollars that the German painter Gerhard Richter’s canvases sell for, as that fact appears in Corinna Belz’s portrait, is ambient noise, chattering that is not abstract enough. Richter is ostensibly abstract as well, his work is like Van Gogh with the lines blurred out of representation. His work proves that the feeling can remain without a subject.
Per the title, Belz wants to catch Richter in the thick of it, but he is more nervous than Picasso, allowing the cameras to enter the studio and then asking that they leave, just for a second. The fantastic numerics of his success only make him nervous. Van Gogh despaired because the world did not buy his perfect paintings, Richter despairs because the world will buy anything. Should he add a little yellow here?
8. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
Early in Werner Herzog’s groundbreaking sojourn to the earliest human paintings that occupy the persevered walls of Chauvet Cave, the villainous guide warns that he will not be permitted to remain in the cave for longer than an hour. This would be relieving news to my ears, as I can’t even do more than an hour at the Met without getting antsy.
The constraints are unnecessary, however: every inch of the cave has also been mapped out and recreated digitally; a few years later, a 38,000 sq. foot replica is built and placed a few miles away. Yet, much like how a million Starry Night mousepads have not decimated the value of the real thing, the devotion to these archaic sketches remains and Herzog never lets us out of the feeling that we are in the presence of something holy.
The most prescient moment in Cave of Forgotten Dreams occurs when we realize, because Herzog tells us, the dry camp of his voice cracking like fire, that none of these cavemen have painted themselves. Our idea of these people, a subject of scientific and armchair anthropological interest, can come only from here and it’s nice to think of art in this way, the only thing that will persist when we’re gone.
Despite the common medium, the cavepeople’s forgotten dreams are less like those of Varda’s Los Angeles muralists and more like the fragments of Picasso and Gerhard Richter. More mysterious, maybe, but Herzog’s assuredness here is a valuable guide. Anyone else would quibble and begin talking about something boring like carbon dating. Instead, Herzog compares these sketches to the great horse paintings of the 19th century.
9. In a Dream (2008)
Local citizens and the zeitgeist-chasing hipsters who have descended onto the Neo-Brooklyn half of Philadelphia will recognize the work of Isaiah Zagar immediately. He is the architect behind the city’s Magic Gardens, a complex of mosaic art that really ties South Street together. It is a fine and colorful work and handsomely speaks for itself—a fawning documentary portrait of its history would be worthless. Instead, Jeremiah Zagar, the younger of the sculptor’s two sons, paints a blistering chiaroscuro of rage and resignation. The dreams are not forgotten, they are alive and bleeding.
The art life has turned the elder Zagar into a brutal hippie, who prostrates himself daily before the massive thing he has created. Midway through the film, he even leaves his wife for his assistant and then leaves her for a stay in rehab. He attempts suicide. It’s vicious stuff, which the younger Zagar films fitfully like one of those shaky-camera, shaky-family docs (he would make his feature debut this year with We the Animals, whose stiff family dynamics briefly lent the film some comps to Moonlight).
Like Van Gogh’s diary, this is both critically illustrative and stands on its own. The logic of Zagar’s style of discursive abstraction — it’s really a multi-layer, 3-D stream of consciousness and really worth the money in the tin if you’re in town, if only to watch the nervous couples attempt to take photos next these jagged contours — is laid bare. It will haunt you, as it should. Art is never about pretty things.
10. National Gallery (2014)
Critics were silly to demarcate between the paintings on display in Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery and the noise around them, as if it were blocking their view. The argument that Wiseman makes in his three-hour portrait of one the world’s largest public depositories of art is that the janitors who sweep the floors, the tour guides who energetically genuflect to gain the attention of bored school children and the board members concerned about the presence of a corporate-sponsored London marathon are just as engaged in the busy work as Picasso was in front of Clouzot. This is a somewhat radical argument, but also a natural one, for both visual and documentary art. The real artist has always been the friends we made along the way, the funny faces, the eyes agape.
The genius of Wiseman is that he likes to watch — everything from sausages getting made to the slow death of smug, Midwestern town — his films are not just about institutions (a lazy judgment), they are about the slow-building synthesis wherein the collective becomes a unitary whole, which can walk, talk, and why not paint a canvas or two. His films are a singular justification for the existence of society, much like art itself, gathered in caves or draped over monuments.