The Proposal (Jill Magid, 2019)
Since 1994, the Luís Barragán archives have been locked in a bunker in Switzerland. Since 2013, conceptual artist Jill Magid has been trying to put them back in the public’s hands. To this end, she’s tried a number of tactics: online activism, suing the archives’ owner, lobbying the Swiss government, and—the obvious next step—using a state-of-the-art pressure oven to convert Barragán’s ashes into a diamond ring that she could offer in exchange for the archives. The Proposal, Magid’s documentary about the last of these, is the rare work that can’t not be fascinating—the story is so gripping that even Ed Wood could have made a great movie out of it. On top of its intrinsic entertainment, Magid’s film is full of wit and graceful invention—as Barragán’s artistry recedes from the film, her own very different artistry quickly replaces it.
Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)
Look hard enough and you can find almost any definition of art in Tarkovsky’s rich, elusive film: art is gestural and conceptual, tactile and spiritual, selfless and selfish. The Middle Ages were supposed to be a time of collective art—cathedrals, for instance. How appropriate, then, that Andrei Rublev, the greatest Russian icon painter of the Middle Ages, is never shown painting an icon in the film that bears his name. For much of the running time, he’s renounced art altogether. But the montage of paintings that brings the film to a close—a burst of color after three hours of black-and-white—leaves no doubt that Rublev returns to art, translating his harrowing life into a monument to God’s glory. Not for nothing was the film initially called The Passion According to Andrei.
The Mystery of Picasso (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1956)
It’s a rare artist documentary that makes the act of painting look riveting, and, very tellingly, Clouzot had to cheat to succeed in The Mystery of Picasso. Over the course of the shoot, Picasso completed a series of paintings on glass. After each brushstroke, no matter how long it took, Clouzot photographed the artist’s progress; later, he edited the photographs into a kind of stop-motion animation, so that each frame brings us a little closer to a finished work. The effect is to make Picasso’s artistry seem brisk, steady, intuitive, attainable—which, to put it gently, it wasn’t. (I’m reminded of how Hunter S. Thompson retyped The Great Gatsby just to feel what it felt like to write a great book.) At the film’s heart is a frustrating, and fascinating, paradox: by offering such a literal definition of a Picasso painting, it makes Picasso even more mysterious.
The film is not available on major streaming services, but is hosted on the website of the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles.
F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1973)
In which Welles takes Picasso’s line about how artists lie to tell the truth to its giddiest conclusions. His initial subject, the art forger Elmyr de Hory, becomes a symbol for everything: the joy of creation, the masks we all wear, creativity as libido, etc. (though Welles, playing the narrator, insists this isn’t the kind of movie with lots of symbols). F for Fake has been called the first essay-film. It’s also the sharpest critique of the art world I’m aware of, directed by a brilliant artist-provocateur who, like Jeff Koons or Richard Prince, raised interesting questions about originality and institutional hypocrisy and who, unlike Koons or Prince, actually had the bravery and the talent to thrive outside of his industry’s major institutions.
Lust for Life (Vincente Minnelli, 1956)
Minnelli’s Van Gogh biopic, based on Irving Stone’s Book of the Month Club staple, is remembered as the definitive middlebrow artist film, laden with clichés about hot-blooded bohemians and tormented geniuses. A closer look reveals an expressionistic, sometimes avant-garde experiment disguised as Oscar bait. The true protagonist, with all due respect to the late Kirk Douglas, is Technicolor, the adventures and misadventures of which are the true plot. We begin in the womblike, reddish-brown interiors of the church and end with hot, self-annihilating yellows of the French countryside. Death, per Norman Corwin’s screenplay, “happens in a bright daylight, the sun flooding everything and in a light of pure gold.”
Van Gogh (Maurice Pialat, 1991)
It starts with a joke: the paintbrush whooshes across the canvas like a fist in a kung fu movie. Van Gogh, we are led to believe, will depict the act of painting in its full, heart-pounding vitality. Over the next two and a half hours, Pialat does nothing of the kind, showing only a handful of paintings, most of them strewn unceremoniously in a corner of the frame. This is Lust for Life’s opposite: Van Gogh, volatile and brilliant but mundane, made of the same stuff as everyone around him. When he dies, the film refuses to end: the villagers of Auvers-sur-Oise go on pumping water and feeding their hens.