The Best Art Documentaries Released in the Last Five Years
With the holidays fast approaching, many of us are eager to curl up on the couch to watch an engrossing, beautifully shot film. For this article, we have rounded up thirty of our favorite documentaries about art and artists released in the last five years or so. Spanning a diverse range of perspectives, these films provide a panoramic view of the artistic landscape, capturing the zeitgeist of contemporary and historical art movements. From the intimate and personal narratives of renowned painters and sculptors to the sweeping accounts of artistic revolutions, these documentaries invite audiences to journey through the galleries of the past and present. Each film serves as a unique lens, magnifying the nuances of creative processes, the complexities of cultural impact, and the pivotal moments that define the artistry of individuals and communities alike. Read on for more information about each fascinating documentary film on our list.
30 of the Best Art Documentaries Released in the Last Five Years
“The Price of Everything”
First on our list of art documentaries is “The Price of Everything.” This documentary scrutinizes the complex relationship between art and its market value, offering insights into the contemporary art world.
The film juxtaposes the creative process against the backdrop of commerce, featuring interviews with artists like Jeff Koons and George Condo, as well as collectors and auctioneers. It critically examines how the financial worth of art is determined and its implication on the production and consumption of art.
This film provides a comprehensive look at Yayoi Kusama’s journey from her conservative Japanese upbringing to becoming an internationally renowned artist. This intimate portrait chronicles Kusama’s struggles with sexism and racism in the art industry and her battles with mental illness, alongside her rise to fame through a unique body of work that includes sculpture, installations, and painting, all marked by her signature polka dot motif.
“Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski”
Art lovers will be fascinated by this next art documentary. The documentary unveils the life of the virtually unknown Polish sculptor Stanisław Szukalski, whose work spanned the early 20th century. Through a series of rediscovered archival footage and interviews, the film explores Szukalski’s self-taught methods, his volatile personality, and the rediscovery of his work late in his life by underground artists in Los Angeles.
This film delves into the life and career of German artist Joseph Beuys, known for his provocative performance art, sculpture, and graphic art. Utilizing archival footage, the documentary sheds light on his personal life, his philosophy regarding the social and political potential of art, and his influence on the contemporary art scene.
“Frida: Viva la Vida”
The documentary dissects the duality of the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, exploring both her iconic artistic legacy and her personal tribulations. It analyzes her paintings and stunning portraits for their expression of pain and passion and examines the fusion of Mexican culture in her work. The film offers a poignant look at her influence on feminist art and her perpetual imprint on art history.
“The Painter and the Thief”
This documentary captures an unusual relationship between talented painter Barbora Kysilkova and the Norwegian man who stole her paintings. It explores themes of forgiveness and the transformative power of art as it follows the artist’s decision to paint the thief, delving into his life and the circumstances that brought them together.
“Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful”
This documentary investigates the life and work of controversial photographer Helmut Newton, known for his stark, erotically charged black-and-white photos. Through interviews with his former models, celebrities, and critics, the film paints a complex picture of Newton’s artistic legacy and his influence on fashion and street photography.
“Keith Haring: Street Art Boy”
The film documents the life of artist Keith Haring from his early years in Pennsylvania to his rapid rise in the New York art scene. Utilizing archival interviews with Haring and footage of his work, the documentary emphasizes his commitment to social activism through art, dealing with issues like apartheid, AIDS, and drug addiction.
“Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang”
This documentary chronicles the life and art of Cai Guo-Qiang, an internationally acclaimed Chinese artist known for his explosive pyrotechnic installations. It covers his signature piece, the ‘Sky Ladder’, exploring his artistic vision and the cultural influences that inform his work, which often reflects on contemporary social issues.
The film examines the enduring fascination with Rembrandt’s work through the eyes of art collectors, museum curators, and aficionados. It provides insights into the Dutch master’s techniques and the art world’s complex mechanisms of authentication, ownership, and collection of his works.
“Black Art: In the Absence of Light”
Inspired by David Driskell’s influential exhibition, this documentary highlights the vital contributions of Black artists in the narrative of American art. It presents a rich tapestry of contemporary Black artists, examining the ways in which they contend with a lack of representation and how they express cultural identity through their work.
“Revolution of Our Times”
While primarily a political documentary, the film contains substantial content related to protest art, documenting the visual and performative expressions that emerged during the 2019 Hong Kong protests. The artwork documented serves as a chronicle of resistance and a reflection of the protesters’ sentiments.
“The Lost Leonardo”
This documentary follows the mysterious journey of the painting Salvator Mundi, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, and its ascension to the status of the most expensive painting ever sold. It presents a thrilling investigation into the world of art dealers, restorers, and historians as they debate the authenticity and provenance of the painting.
“Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed”
This investigative documentary explores the legacy of painter and television host Bob Ross, known for his calming presence and landscapes. It unveils the business empire that grew around his persona and the ensuing legal and ethical battles over his estate and the rights to his work.
The film offers an in-depth look at the life of Renaissance artist Raphael, on the 500th anniversary of his death. Through ultra-high-definition cinematography, it examines his most celebrated works, shedding light on his artistic processes and his development as a master painter and architect.
“Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly”
The documentary explores the art and activism of Ai Weiwei, focusing on his Alcatraz Island exhibition, which spotlighted political prisoners and refugees. It details his artistic process and his use of art as a means of social critique, connecting with audiences on issues of human rights and freedom of expression. For more about this artist, give “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” a watch too.
“Salvador Dalí: In Search of Immortality”
The art addict who loves surrealism will undoubtedly enjoy “Salvador Dali: In Search of Immortality.” This documentary meticulously traces the life and artistic journey of surrealist icon Salvador Dalí. Through a series of locations significant to his life and career, the film provides a window into his imaginative universe, highlighting his contributions to modern art and his relentless pursuit of immortality through his creations.
“Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back”
Although slightly outside the five-year frame, this documentary is an intriguing portrayal of Maurizio Cattelan, one of the most enigmatic and controversial figures in the contemporary art scene. The film examines his paradoxical career, his audacious work, and his approach to art that combines humor, irreverence, and cynicism.
“Leaning Into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy”
Another that’s a touch older but relevant, this documentary follows artist Andy Goldsworthy, who creates intricate and ephemeral art installations using elements from nature. The film is a meditation on his creative process and his explorations of the layers between the environment, time, and the existence of human touch.
“Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint”
This film brings to light the life and work of Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, whose abstract paintings predated the work of better-known figures like Kandinsky and Mondrian. The documentary discusses her spiritual influences and the reasons why her pioneering art remained unrecognized for years.
“Marcel Duchamp: Art of the Possible”
This documentary unpacks the life and philosophy of Marcel Duchamp, showcasing how he pushed boundaries and challenged the status quo of the art world. It details his influence on how art is conceptualized and explores his major works that sparked the development of numerous modern art movements.
“A Bigger Splash”
A re-release of the classic 1974 documentary, this film has been restored and brought back to audiences to highlight the life and work of British painter David Hockney. Despite being originally made in the 70s, its re-release offers a remastered look into Hockney’s visual artistry and the personal struggles of an artist in the contemporary world.
Directed by Renzo Martens, this documentary examines the legacy and criticisms of Western art institutions and the modern art world through the lens of an experimental art project. The film follows the establishment of a “white cube” gallery space in the middle of a Congolese palm oil plantation, aiming to subvert the typical narratives of art, exploitation, and colonialism.
“Basquiat: Rage to Riches”
This BBC-produced art documentary delves into the life and art of Jean-Michel Basquiat. With exclusive access to his family and friends, it tells the story of Basquiat’s rapid rise from anonymous graffiti artist to one of the most celebrated, controversial, and influential painters of his generation, against the backdrop of the 1980s New York art scene. This film also touches on the artist’s relationship with Andy Warhol and his contributions the cultural revolution that occurred during the 1980s.
“Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art”
This documentary delves into one of the most extensive art frauds in American history, where a prestigious New York gallery sold a trove of forged paintings. The film is a captivating story about the lure of the fine art world, the deception by con artists, and the greed that can blind the wealthy.
“Helene Schjerfbeck: The Love of the Artist”
A Finnish documentary exploring the life and influence of Helene Schjerfbeck, a key figure in modern art whose work spans realism and early expressionism. The film presents her as an artist ahead of her time, focusing on her unique approach to portraiture and the deeply personal nature of her work.
“Banksy Most Wanted”
Directors Aurélia Rouvier and Seamus Haley probe into the mystery of Banksy, attempting to uncover the identity and motivations of the enigmatic street artist. Through interviews and analyses of his most significant pieces, the documentary sheds light on Banksy’s global influence and the political statements his artworks often make.
“Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg”
This film provides an intimate look at the life and expansive career of Takashi Murakami, an artist known for his vibrant aesthetic that blends traditional Japanese painting with contemporary pop culture. It explores his artistic philosophy, the production of his complex artworks, and his influence on both Eastern and Western art forms.
“Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”
Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, this documentary is part music film and part historical record, focusing on the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. While it’s about music, the film touches on broader themes of Black artistry and culture during a pivotal era in American history. This documentary shines a light on performances by legendary Black artists and contextualizes these iconic figures within the political and social movements of the time.
“Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021, where it won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the US Documentary Competition.
“Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace”
While just outside the five-year timeframe, this documentary is highly significant in highlighting contemporary Black artists. It focuses on painter Kehinde Wiley, known for his vibrant, large-scale paintings of Black subjects. The film follows Wiley’s process as he steps out of his comfort zone to paint a series of portraits of Black women, a divergence from his usual focus on men.
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Which Films Have You Watched?
These documentaries collectively construct a mosaic of artistic endeavor, offering insights into the lives of visionaries and the enduring legacies they leave behind. They not only educate and inspire but also provoke critical discourse, fostering a deeper appreciation for the vibrant and ever-evolving world of art.
Which films have you seen? Let us know in the comments below.