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Art History Movies Everybody Needs to Watch

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April 16, 2016
Anika Dačić graduated in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory from the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade and is currently pursuing MA in Literary and Cultural Studies. Her interests lie in social and cultural aspects of contemporary art production and she especially enjoys writing about street and urban art. Likes to knit, play adventure video games and host quiz nights at a local bar.

When we discover new artworks our spirit of curiosity naturally encourages us to seek the stories behind their creation, whether we want to learn the details of artist’s life or the one of his/her creative process. Great art has always been a source of inspiration for numerous artists, scholars, creatives who have honored their art heroes through their own creative efforts. Now more than ever, cinematography has been engaged in projects of making films about art and artists and it is no wonder, considering how fascinating, dramatic and immersive the art stories can be. Movies that deal with art history are today a genre in its own right and they can range from biographical stories about artists’ lives to exciting art heist thrillers or educational art history documentaries, among many other innovative works. Best of all is that they cover all kinds of artistic phenomena from classic works to movies about street art.

If you are an art lover, and you probably are if you’re on this page, we bring you the selection of some interesting, high ranking art movies you can enjoy and even learn something about the history of art and the current state of the art world in an entertaining way.

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Woman in Gold (2015)

Let’s start the list with a recent achievement directed by Simon Curtis. With Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds in the main roles, the British drama follows the story of a Jewish refugee Maria Altman and her decade-long dispute with the Austrian government over the portrait of her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer, painted by Gustav Klimt and stolen from her family during the Nazi art theft. The engaging story about elderly Maria Altman and her fight for the family legacy is intertwined with the series of flashbacks that bring the story of the Jewish community during a Nazi occupation of Vienna.

Editors’ Tip: Woman in Gold

Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds star in the remarkable true story of one woman’s battle against the establishment to recover her family possessions that had been seized by Nazis during WWII. Maria Altman, played by Mirren, sought to regain a world famous painting of her aunt plundered by the Nazis during World War II. She did so not just to regain what was rightfully hers, but also to obtain some measure of justice for the death, destruction, and massive art theft perpetrated by the Nazis. This story goes beyond the legal disputes and legacy issues, but further delves into the morality of right and wrong.

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Lust for Life (1956)

Now let’s go some sixty years back in time and talk about one of the fundamental achievements in Hollywood art movies. Based on a novel of the same title, the movie is a biography of one of the world’s most beloved painters. With Kirk Douglas playing Vincent Van Gogh, James Donald his brother Theo, and Anthony Quinn in the role of Paul Gauguin, the cast is excellently chosen to bring to screen the dramatic events in the life of the Dutch painter. The movie is anything one could expect from a classic Hollywood biographical film and it is no wonder it’s still praised as one of the best movies about Van Gogh.

  Editors’ Tip: Lust for Life

Artist, Man of God, Madman, Genius… Vincent Van Gogh. Kirk Douglas stars with Academy Award winner Anthony Quinn in this biography based on the best-selling novel by Irving Stone, which was taken from letters between Vincent and his brother Theo and reveals a Lust for Life. Where does genius end and madness begin? Find out in this magnificent journey through one of the most intriguing minds in the world of art.

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Edvard Munch (1974)

This is one of the art movies that is definitely worth mentioning, not only because of the story it tells but also because of its cinematic qualities. Written and directed by Peter Watkins, the film was initially made as three-part miniseries and it follows the life story of Edvard Munch in an unusual and unconventional way. The film features cinéma vérité style interviews, along with narrated excerpts from Munch’s diary and scenes from the painter’s life reenacted by Norwegian non-professional actors. Ingmar Bergman called the film “the work of a genius” and if that’s not a good recommendation that what is?

Editors’ Tip: Edvard Munch-Special Edition 2-DVD Set

Famously described by Ingmar Bergman as a “work of genius”, Peter Watkins’ multi-faceted masterpiece is more than just a bio-pic of the iconic Norwegian Expressionist painter. Focusing initially on Munch’s formative years in late 19th Century Kristiania (now Oslo), Watkins uses his trademark style to create a vivid picture of the emotional, political and social upheavals that would have such an effect on his art.

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Andrei Rublev (1966)

If you try to google a list of best art history movies, there is a great chance that Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev from 1966 will be at the very top of it. And it is barely a surprise, considering it’s regarded one of the most important cinematic achievements of all times. The film is loosely based on the life of Russian 15th-century religious painter Andrei Rublev and it seeks to explore the relationship between the artist and his time. However, the best quality of the film is the particular atmosphere that dominates the work of Tarkovsky, and director’s own unique vision and signature system of visual symbols.

Editors’ Tip: Andrei Rublev (The Andrei Passion) (1966)

The film is loosely based on the life of Andrei Rublev, the great 15th-century Russian icon painter. The film features Anatoly Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolai Sergeyev, Nikolai Burlyayev and Tarkovsky’s wife Irma Raush. Savva Yamshchikov, a famous Russian restorer and art historian, was a scientific consultant of the film. By opinion poll of the members of the European Academy of Film and Television (1995), this motion picture was recognized one of the world’s ten best films (8th place).

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Frida (2002)

After some independent cinematography, let’s go back to the Hollywood production which has in recent times given us a great number of biographical movies. Directed by Julie Taymor, with Selma Hayek in the main role, the movie Frida focuses on the public and private life of the magnificent Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. And as far as Hollywood biopics go, this one received a quite positive score on many of the movie charts. The interesting visual language was a great cinematic solution and it nicely brings together the private life story of one of the most intriguing female painters in modern art history while also underlining a particular historic context and focus on characteristics of her art.

Editors’ Tip: Frida

Nominated for six 2002 Academy Awards(R), including Salma Hayek for Best Actress, FRIDA is the triumphant motion picture about an exceptional woman who lived an unforgettable life. This enthralling biopic drama film depicts the professional and private life of the surrealist Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Salma Hayek’s portrayal of the artist truly remains as one of the most memorable performances ever.

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Pollock (2000)

And while we’re on the subject of Hollywood biopics, let’s mention another prominent work on one of America’s most favorite artists – Jackson Pollock. The film was a brainchild of Ed Harris who did not only direct the movie but also starred as the main protagonist and even did all the painting in the film. An interesting thing about the film, and what separates it from other similar achievements, is that even though it is based on a biography it moves its focus from the artist’s persona to the specifics of his creative process. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it was positively received by art enthusiasts.

Editors’ Tip: Pollock (Special Edition)

Ed Harris received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal of Pollock in this 2000 biopic which he also directed. The film was a long-term personal project for Harris based on his previous reading of Pollock’s biography. Harris’s fascination with Pollock matched his physical similarity, and his devotion assured a work of singular integrity, honoring the artist’s achievement in abstract expressionism while acknowledging that Pollock was a tormented, manic-depressive alcoholic whose death at 44 (in a possibly suicidal car crash) also claimed the life of an innocent woman.

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Downtown 81 (1981)

Although several biographic movies about Basquiat were released after the artist’s untimely death, it appeared that the person who can portray Jean-Michel Basquiat the best is the artist himself. Originally titled New York Beat Movie and shot at the beginning of the 1980’s, Downtown 81 was finally released in 2000. The plot follows a day in a life of a young artist and it’s nicely interwoven with the cultural context of a post-punk era in the New York city. Even though the dialogue audio has been lost, much of the original soundtrack was preserved and we get to see Basquiat as he charmingly wanders downtown New York during one of the most exciting periods of American subculture.

Editors’ Tip: Downtown 81

This film, directed by Edo Bertoglio, written and produced by Glenn O’Brien with post-production in 1999-2000 by Maripol, is a rare real-life snapshot of ultra-hip subculture of post-punk era Manhattan. Starring renowned artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and featuring such Village artists as James Chance, Amos Poe, Walter Steding, and Tav Falco, the film is a bizarre elliptical urban fairytale. The film chronicles a day in the life of a 19-year-old starving artist (Basquiat) who must raise money to reclaim the apartment from which he has been evicted. Hoping to sell a painting to earn the rent, he wanders the downtown streets, painting in hand, encountering painters, models, junkies, graffiti artists, rappers and rockers whose lives and performances provide a slice of life from one of the most exciting periods in American culture.

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Andy Warhol (A Documentary Film), 2006

After Basquiat, it comes only naturally to feature a film about Andy Warhol. As one of the greatest creative talents of the 20th century and a man who has changed the way we think about art and artists generally, there is no wonder why so many films about Warhol were made. Since you’ve probably watched many of them let’s feature a relatively recent documentary which follows the Warhol’s rise in New York’s commercial art world. Although it doesn’t lack the flattery aspect and uses the word genius to describe the artist many times, the film still provides a nice insight into the artist’s path to glory through a number of interviews and sequences narrated by Laurie Anderson.

Be sure to check out an interesting selection of works by Andy Warhol!

Editors’ Tip: Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film

Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film is a four-hour 2006 documentary by Ric Burns about pop artist Andy Warhol. The film is Burns’ cinematic argument that Warhol was the greatest artist of the second half of the 20th Century. (Picasso is credited with having that honor in the first half of the 20th Century.) A riveting and often deeply moving film portrait of the most famous and famously controversial artist of the second half of the twentieth century is the first to explore the complete spectrum of Warhol’s astonishing artistic output, stretching across five decades from the late 1940’s to his untimely death in 1987.

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Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (2015)

Another truly entertaining documentary you just have to watch if you’re into modern and contemporary art is Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict. Directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, the film dives into the life of a socialite, art patron, and collector Peggy Guggenheim, the woman who knew everyone who was someone in 20th-century art. The documentary does justice to the rich and eventful life of Peggy Guggenheim, a colorful character and a woman that has been there to witness and help define the world of modern art. The film features numerous interviews with artists such as Marina Abramovic for instance, as well as art critics, historians and audio interviews with Peggy herself.

Editors’ Tip: Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

Lisa Immordino Vreeland follows up her acclaimed debut “Diana Vreeland: The Eye has to Travel” with PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT. A colorful character who was not only ahead of her time but helped to define it, Peggy Guggenheim was an heiress to her family fortune who became a central figure in the modern art movement. The socialite collector’s eventful life – star-studded by the greatest artists of the 20th century – is told by art critics, historians and Guggenheim herself.

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Untitled (2009)

It might not be the most educational art movie, or the best rated, but it’s really entertaining and fun if you share the same sense of humor. Starring Adam Goldberg and Marley Shelton in the main roles the film Untitled is a satirical take on today’s contemporary art world and the art market. One of the fundamental questions it poses is what defines contemporary art and how its value is determined while presenting us with a range of vivid protagonists and their odd relationships.

Editors’ Tip: (Untitled)

The uncomfortable merger of art and commerce leads to an unstable romantic triangle in this satiric comedy from director Jonathan Parker. Adrian (Adam Goldberg) is an avant-garde music composer whose poorly attended concerts contrast wildly with his brother Josh’s (Eion Bailey) great success as a commercial artist. Adrian’s luck appears to change when Josh introduces him to Madeleine (Marley Shelton), an art dealer who sells Josh’s work.

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Factory Girl (2006)

Directed by George Hickenlooper, Factory Girl gives a cinematic insight into the famous Factory, Andy Warhol’s celebrated studio, as seen through the life and work of Edie Sedgwick. An American actress and fashion model, she was also known as one of Pop artist’s “superstars”, referring to a group of New York City personalities who were his “entourage” and muses. Although the movie received largely negative critics, Sienna Miller’s portrayal of Sedgwick was praised. The release of Factory Girl in 2006 was also marked by Lou Reed of The Velvet Underground publicly “hating” the movie and Bob Dylan threatening to sue the produces due to an untrue portrayal of him.

  Editors’ Tip: Factory Girl

In 1965, Edie Sedgwick, the beautiful and wealthy young party girl drops out of Harvard and heads to New York to become Holly Golightly. When she meets a hungry young artist named Andy Warhol, he promises to make her the star she always wanted to be. And, like a supernova, she explodes on the New York scene only to find herself slowly losing grip on reality.

All images used for illustrative purposes.