10 Riveting Movies about Artists
Legendary artists are often seen as larger-than-life, mythical beings. Exploring their art and biographies is always a trusted source of inspiration. This is especially true when the exploration is conducted by acclaimed directors and actors, merging the two artforms of cinema and fine art.
The following 10 movies about artists include fictionalized accounts of real stories, as well as some of the best art documentaries. Whether you dabble in website design or are a freelance artist, these films are bound to resonate with your creative soul:
10 riveting movies about artists
At Eternity's Gate (2018)
Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present (2012)
Mr. Turner (2014)
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)
Finding Vivian Maier (2013)
Shirley: Visions of Reality (2013)
Kusama: Infinity (2018)
National Gallery (2014)
01. Frida (2002), Julie Taymor
Winner of two Academy Awards, the biopic of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo recounts her life story, while simultaneously conjuring her uniquely vivid view of the world.
Directed by the creator of The Lion King on Broadway and starring Salma Hayek as Frida and Alfred Molina as painter Diego Rivera, the film is visually alluring. It teems with indigenous Mexian outfits, picturesque interiors, folk art, and animated sequences. The result is an expressive, at times surrealist portrayal of this iconic artist.
Frida Kahlo’s artwork and many self-portraits are seamlessly incorporated into the film, showing both life and art in concurrence.
02. At Eternity's Gate (2018), Julian Schnabel
Vincent van Gogh is the embodiment of the Western archetype of the mad genius or tormented artist. Yet this film, directed by Julian Schnabel - a painter himself - revolves around van Gogh’s art and the paramount role it played in his life, rather than his mental illness and poverty.
As van Gogh himself (played by Willem Dafoe) puts it in the film, “I am my paintings.” His desire to accurately express his vision and feelings through painting is seen as the driving force behind the movie and the character.
The film beautifully lingers over the scenery of the south of France, familiar from van Gogh’s masterpieces - including wilted sunflowers, sunlit olive groves, and the shoes off of the artist’s feet.
03. Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present (2012), Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre
One of the best art documentaries, this film follows Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović as she prepares for her retrospective show at The MoMA. As the exhibition takes shape, a mix of interviews and archival footage look back at Marina’s pioneering role in the field of performance art. It also examines her relationship of many years with Ulay, which was both artistic and romantic.
Alongside recreations and video documentations of Marina’s earlier work, the movie shows in detail her newest piece presented at the MoMA retrospective, the film’s namesake.
In this piece, Marina sat still in the museum as she faced museumgoers one at a time, gazing into their eyes. By showing the meaningful, emotional reactions of her audience, this film makes a strong argument in favor of performance art.
04. Mr. Turner (2014), Mike Leigh
Celebrating the work of Romantic British painter William Turner, the film is based on the last 25 years of his life, when he was already an established artist. Turner is depicted here as an ordinary, albeit genius man, who interweaves the sublime with the mundane. The film also discusses his unique perception of light and vision.
With Timothy Spall’s award-winning performance, Mr. Turner narrates the painter’s loss of his father, his complex love life, and his social circles of fellow artists.
05. Maudie (2016), Aisling Walsh
Maudie presents the story of Canadian outsider folk artist, Maud Lewis. The artist, struggling with arthritis and betrayed by her family, moves in with a fish peddler as a housekeeper. The two very different individuals are both poverty-stricken social outcasts, each in their own ways. The film offers a gentle recounting of the unlikely love story that developed between them.
Maud’s naive artwork, with its sunny and saturated color palettes, first emerged on the walls and windows of the couple’s tiny house. Over time, it went on to cover the entire one-bedroom interior, leaving no surface untouched. The house is currently in display as a landmark in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
06. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012), Alison Klayman
This critically acclaimed art documentary follows contemporary Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. The artist’s criticism of the Chinese government, especially in the fields of human rights and social justice, has repeatedly put him at personal risk, eventually leading to his arrest and detention by the authorities.
The film interviews those closest to Ai, from family members to art gallery managers. It shows his encounters with Chinese law enforcement, and presents him installing art exhibitions, including the famous “Sunflower Seeds” show at the Tate.
07. Finding Vivian Maier (2013), John Maloof and Charlie Siskel
In her lifetime, Vivian Maier was known to those around her as a single woman working as a nanny and housekeeper in Chicago. Only in the years after her passing was her prolific body of street photography finally unearthed.
This film uncovers the story of the previously anonymous female photographer, whose works were first purchased by one of the movie’s directors in an auction.
From there, Vivian’s work quickly gained traction on social media. Her oeuvre went on to receive critical acclaim and was celebrated in exhibitions, and a crowdfunding campaign was set up to make this photography documentary possible.
08. Shirley: Visions of Reality (2013), Gustav Deutsch
Taking a different approach to most movies about artists, this film is based on 13 of Edward Hopper’s paintings, but strays away from the artist’s biography and personality.
American realist Edward Hopper’s famous paintings are reproduced on film while paying meticulous attention to design and lighting, achieving an uncanny resemblance to the originals.
Just like some of the best graphic design movies, the emphasis here is not in the plotline - in this case, a fictional story of a New York actress. Instead, the viewing experience is experimental and closer to video art, a convergence of cinema and painting.
09. Kusama: Infinity (2018), Heather Lenz
Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese painter, sculpture and performance artist who creates abstract pop art. Best known for her use of the polka dots motif and her infinity room installations, she’s also created an illustrated version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, one of the best art books to buy as a gift.
Introducing her story, this art documentary traces Kusama’s conservative upbringing, her correspondence with fellow artist Georgia O’Keeffe, and her struggles with mental illness. The film also depicts her effort to gain recognition in the sexist and xenophobic New York art scene of the 1950s and 60s.
10. National Gallery (2014), Frederick Wiseman
When visiting art and design museums, we often contemplate the art pieces, the masters behind them, and perhaps the time period in which they were created. More rarely do we consider the museum itself and its behind-the-scenes work, including preservation, education, and even its budget or public relations meetings.
This art documentary addresses these questions, and offers a fascinating peek inside this well known Londonian landmark.
Text Eden Spivak