Made You Look (2020) may seem like satire, but it isn’t, it’s a documentary. The facts reveal a huge, $87 million art con that brought down one of the titans of the international art scene, the Knoedler Gallery. Founded in 1846, the gallery was forced to close in 2011, embroiled in a scam selling fake masterpieces supposedly by artists like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock but actually painted by some guy in a garage in Queens, NY. Absurd as it sounds, you can’t make this stuff up.
Museums may have closed their doors and long-planned exhibitions have been postponed, but in spite of these pandemic induced hardships artists are still creating and filmmakers continue to find inspiration in the art world. To escape the weirdness of today’s cultural moment you’ll find these seven films offer something to suit every taste. So settle into your comfy place and get your culture-fix while watching safely from your living room couch.
The Last Vermeer (2020) is based on a novel about the true story of Han van Meegeren, a hedonistic Dutch artist and dealer who partied his way through World War II and was later prosecuted for having sold a Vermeer masterpiece to the Nazi party. He was able to prove his innocence by showing that the painting in question was not a Vermeer but was his own forgery. Van Meegeren was considered one of the most successful art forgers of all time.
Do we really need another Frida Kahlo film to tell us everything we already know about this beloved Mexican icon? Well, maybe. The Denver Art Museum’s exhibition Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism has been operating under COVID Level Red restrictions, making access to an in-person encounter with her work difficult. Instead, try Frida Kahlo (2020), the feature-length documentary on the artist’s work. Being produced by Exhibitions on Screen guarantees that the film's emphasis is on the artworks themselves. The paintings are beautifully photographed and accompanied by detailed analysis, which is about as good as it gets if you can’t make it to the exhibition.
Billed as an artworld thriller, Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) is a satirical send-up of pompous critics and amoral art dealers packed with more blood and horror than a Stephen King novel. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the central role of art critic Morf Vandewalt with a barely contained, opinionated smirk. Rene Russo as an ethically compromised gallery owner who is undone by the tattoo on her back. She, along with John Malkovich as an artist past his prime, look like they are having great fun while trampling on art’s sacred cows.
The Sunlit Night (2019), the film adaptation of a Rebecca Dinerstein novel, features the charming Jenny Slate as a young American painter who travels to Norway to jumpstart her art career. It’s an unlikely love story with gentle, comedic overtones, set in a majestic isolated landscape. The color yellow is prominent.
“Cinema is called the industry of desire,” said French director Céline Sciamma in discussing Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), her romantic feature film set in the eighteenth century. This love story revolving around an artist and her subject examines the myth of the muse. The female gaze is at the center of this extraordinary relationship between two women. The director found an artist, Hélène Delmaire, on Instagram, and commissioned her to create twelve different paintings that are used in the film to forward the plot.
The documentary Philip Guston: A Life Lived (1980) began filming in 1971 at Guston’s Woodstock, NY studio and continued through his last retrospective in 1980 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The artist died that same year. In 2020 a handful of museums including the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Fine Art, Boston came under fire for postponing a long-planned Guston exhibition due to the controversial nature of his Ku Klux Klan imagery. This film triumphs over censorship and offers the chance to catch up on a recent scandal.