HomeCultureArt & Theatre

5 Art documentaries you need to watch

4 min read

5 Art documentaries you need to watch
With new art documentaries about John Singer Sargent and Vincent Van Gogh on the horizon, here are some of the other documentaries that should be on your watchlist
Currently in production are two documentaries in association with epic art exhibitions for 2024. Tate Britain is presenting Sargent and Fashion (22 Feb–27 July 2024) and, for its Bicentenary, the National Gallery is hosting Van Gogh: Poets and Lovers (14 September 2024–19 January 2025). 
Both associated documentaries, from award winning Seventh Art Productions headed by BAFTA-winning director Phil Grabsky, will be released next year across UK cinemas including Picturehouse Cinemas, Curzon, Everyman, Odeon and online.
In the meantime, to whet the appetite, there is an illustrious collection of other documentaries from the “Exhibitions on Screen” series to be getting on with. Ali Ray has been responsible for directing three gems—Frida Kahlo, Mary Cassatt: Painting the Modern Woman and Klimt & The Kiss

Klimt & The Kiss

Klimt & The Kiss opens with crowds at the Belvedere Museum, Vienna, in front of Gustav Klimt’s most iconic painting, The Kiss (c. 1907–1909). The camera pans the glittering painting depicting a couple embracing. Mesmerising music and close ups accompany voiceovers.
"Murals for the opulent Burgtheatre secured Klimt’s fame and fortune"
Klimt (1862–1918) painted murals for the opulent Burgtheatre ceiling from 1886 to 1888, rather like Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel in 1508 to 1512. This work, which catered to bourgeois taste, secured Klimt’s fame and fortune after which we learn he radically, changed his style and, in 1897, becomes a provocative art nouveau painter. He painted upper class women (Fritza Rieldler, 1906; Johanna Staude, 1917–1918; Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1907) and studies of street women in sensual acts (Two Reclining Women Study for Water Serpents 2, 1905–1906). 

Mary Cassatt: Painting the Modern Woman

Mary Cassatt: Painting the Modern Woman sheds light on the career of an intellectual artist who chose the lives of women and children as her subject (Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878; Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, 1879).
Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Cassat (1844–1926) was an American impressionist, who lived most of her life in Paris with the Impressionists, most notably her great friend Edgar Degas. In this milieu, she discovered freedom and success.
The documentary is made up of interviews with curators and historians of art, together with beautiful shots of the artist’s work, photographs from her life and dramatic reconstructions of the compositions. Towards the end of the documentary, Cassatt’s dedication to women’s suffrage takes centre stage—Woman with a Sunflower, 1905 (the sunflower signifying votes for women). 

Frida Kahlo

Simply titled Frida Kahlo, traces Frida Kahlo’s (1907–1954) experience from childhood to death. Kahlo’s house, the famous Blue House in Coyoacan, Mexico, was where she was born, raised and died.
"Kahlo's art gives graphic depictions of pain, violence and defiance"
There are plenty of stills of Kahlo’s paintings and monochrome photographs of the artist. Worldwide curators explain her art alongside the narrator Anna Chancellor who highlights Kahlo’s personal life. She was courted by the most significant surrealists of the 20th century: namely Picasso, Miro and Kandinsky. Her lovers were male and female and included Leon Trotsky and her husband, the Mexican Master of Art, Diego Rivera. 
Kahlo’s life was affected by miscarriages (Henry Ford Hospital, 1932) and a traumatic accident (The Broken Column, 1944). Her art gives graphic depictions of pain, violence and defiance. She declared with acerbic wit, “There have been two accidents in my life. One was the tram. The other was Diego. Diego was far worse.” 

Vermeer: The Greatest Exhibition

Vermeer: The Greatest Exhibition, released in April 2023 made over $2 million worldwide and is in the top 20 grossing documentaries of all time. The only documentation for Vermeer is his paintings (approximately 45).
Johannes Vermeer, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1664–67. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
From this, director David Bicerstaff, and experts from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam where the largest Vermeer exhibition in history was sited, unveils the life and times of the Dutch Baroque artist, Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675). In View of Houses in Delft also known as The Little Street (c. 1658–59) women undertake chores whilst children play. It’s the everyday 17th century recorded through Vermeer’s art before photography or film. 
Vermeer’s intimate paintings of young women are revered worldwide—Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid (c. 1670–72), The Lacemaker (c. 1666–68), Girl with a Red Hat (c. 1664–67) and, most famously, Girl with a Pearl Earing (c. 1664–67). Through the documentary we learn about the “camera obscurer”, or the dark room, and how images are seen through a lens and how this new science informed the artist’s use of dark and light.

Hopper: An American Love Story

In Hopper: An American Love Story (2022) the documentary opens with Edward Hopper (1882–1967) quoting the German philosopher Goethe (1749–1832): “The beginning and the end of all literary activity is the reproduction of the world that surrounds me, by means of the world that is in me.”
Hopper’s art introduces us to his mid-century American experience and his love of the American vernacular. He felt isolation was part of the human condition and painted dejected, solitary figures (Hotel Room, 1942; Compartment C Car, 1938; Office at Night, 1940; Nighthawks, 1942).
"Hopper’s art introduces us to his mid-century American experience"
In Gloucester, Massachusetts, a large artists colony north of Boston, he met fellow artist and wife, Josephine Nivison (Our Lady of good Voyage, 1923). They spent a lifetime painting side by side, although Nivison became Hopper’s assistant and muse. In her journal she lamented, “What has become of my world? It has evaporated, I just trudge around in Eddy’s.” 
To brush up on your artists, including Degas, Cezanne, Picasso, Lucien Freud, Raphael, Hockney, Canaletto, Michelangelo and many more, visit seventh-art.com
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter