Art comes in many forms: photography, portraiture, sculpture, street art, performance pieces, and countless others.
Sometimes, all that meets the eye is all you need to know, and at other times, it’s well worth a deep dive into the process behind making the piece.
We scoured the world for the best art documentaries, and we learned that fakes can be their own kind of precious, fine art can sometimes be funny, and someone sitting still in a chair can be overwhelmingly emotional. Check out the list to find out more.
Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010)
Banksy is notorious in the street art world – and in fact, in the world at large, with his paintings selling for over a million dollars (and then becoming even more expensive after self-shredding). So Banksy directing a film about one of his fans is really nothing out of the ordinary for him, and an excellent piece of cinema to boot. Following the story of street-art enthusiast Thierry Guetta’s rise to prominence, it even features a heavily hidden Banksy.
Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Quiang (2016)
The most notable artworks are the ones that either have immense emotion and meaning behind them, or the ones that provide a public spectacle – Cai Guo-Quiang’s Sky Ladder is a tremendous example of both. The Netflix documentary goes into depth about Cai’s large-scale artmaking process, while retaining a focus on his most ambitious project, a 500-metre ladder made of fireworks to be set off in his hometown, to provide a bridge between the sky and the earth for a single moment.
Bill Cunningham New York (2010)
Although the late Bill Cunningham may not have thought of himself as a capital-A Artist, his street photography work for the New York Times had a massive cultural impact, and possibly gave rise to the whole street photography fervour of today’s Instagram. Bill Cunningham New York is crafted exactly like its subject of interest: unassuming, gentle, and an excellent look at the way fashion operates in both the runway world and the street one.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010)
It’s always enlightening to see footage of famous people before they were notable, and The Radiant Child is no different – featuring interviews from the time before and during which Jean-Michel Basquiat entered the international spotlight, became Andy Warhol’s good friend, and changed the art world for years to come.
Beauty is Embarrassing (2012)
Wayne White is someone who doesn’t take art or himself too seriously, and it shows. In between exploration of his playful and at times outrageous multi-media artworks, Neil Berkeley’s documentary explores the bigger questions in art: why does art need to be beautiful? Is there a way to make fine art funny? How do you make a large-scale George Jones head?
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)
To say Ai Weiwei is divisive is an understatement – he’s a hugely controversial figure in his native China, with art that fights against corruption and censorship. Never Sorry charts the revolutionary quality of his work, his relationships with loved ones and the government, and his love for his cats as he works towards a new museum exhibit.
The Artist is Present (2012)
Marina Abramović is one of the most prominent performance artists alive today, and The Artist is Present is her most well-known piece, so it makes sense to have a documentary made about the meaning behind it. The premise was simple: she would sit motionless at a table, and any visitor would have the chance to sit opposite her and share eye contact. It’s well worth a look at the process behind preparing, emotionally and physically, to sit still in a chair for several hours a day over close to three months, during which some visitors were so moved they would both start to cry.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013)
If you’ve ever watched a Studio Ghibli film – and fallen in love with the soft aesthetic and charming stories – then you’ll want to watch this documentary about the studio itself, with filmmaker Mami Sunada following the creation of two new movies over a year. Although Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement has since proven untrue, the thought of his loss as a creative presence in the studio still brings a bout of emotion when considering the end of an era.
Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery (2014)
It takes guts and a fair load of talent to copy the art styles of great painters and then introduce them as works by said painters, and that’s exactly what Wolfgang Beltracchi did. The documentary goes into depth about the 40-year period in which Beltracchi crafted brilliant forgeries of notable artists, passing his creations off as lost artworks, and fooling art experts and curators worldwide. A fascinating watch for anyone interested in art history or excellent deceptions.
Harry Benson: Shoot First
Although the sudden appearance of pre-presidential Donald Trump in the first few minutes may be off-putting, soldier on – because Benson’s photographic influence stretches beyond anyone’s imagination. As a photojournalist, he was the Beatles’ favourite photographer, but he also took stunning photos of everyone from Michael Jackson to Muhammed Ali, with a fair few notable historic events under his belt, as well. The documentary covers all that and more, in a fascinating expose on Benson’s photographic philosophy and life.