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.
Learn something about the history of art and the current state of the art world in an entertaining way. We hope you are staying healthy!
Let’s start the list with an achievement directed by Simon Curtis.
With Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds in the main roles, the British drama Woman in Gold 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.
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 Lust for Life 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 film 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.
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 Edvard Munch 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 - what is?
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. 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.
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.
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 Pollock from 2000 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.
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.
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.
All images used for illustrative purposes.
Another, more recent feature film dedicated to Van Gogh is At Eternity's Gate from 2018, featuring a brilliant performance by Willem Dafoe.
The movie focuses on the final, turbulent years of the famous Dutch painter, dramatizing the controversial theory put forward by Van Gogh biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, in which they speculate that Van Gogh's death was caused by mischief rather than it being a suicide.
The terrific cast and the fact that Julian Schnabel co-produced the movie make it a definite must-watch.