22 illuminating and timeless documentaries about artists and their work

If you’ve managed to make your way through your entire Netflix watch list and you’re running out of new releases to tune into, fret not. Everyone needs a switch-up in their viewing routine once in a while, so here we’ve compiled a list of 22 illuminating and timeless documentaries set to inspire creatives of all skillsets. All focused on the art world in some way, shape or form, they capture different artists’ processes, life stories and output. With so many to choose from, there’s bound to be something to spark some new inspiration in here!

Kusama: Infinity (2018)

As an artist whose vision has consistently been far ahead of its time, this documentary gives brilliant insight into Yayoi Kusama’s personal life and creative process. Directed by Heather Lenz, it charts Kusama’s journey from a conservative Japanese upbringing to becoming an acclaimed artist in America during the 1960s.

Watch on:
Hulu
Amazon Prime

Imagine… (2003–present)

Not just confined to a single documentary, our first recommendation is an entire series, with over ten titles available on iPlayer right now. Presented by the BBC’s former creative director Alan Yentob, each episode looks at some of the figures and concepts that have made waves in modern arts and culture. Episodes currently on iPlayer include profiles on David Hockney, Chris Ofili, Anish Kapoor and Barbara Hepworth, as well as a study on how the arts world fared in the pandemic.

Watch on:
BBC iPlayer

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)

In 2011, during the last few weeks of his exhibition at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, Ai Weiwei became one of the art world’s biggest household names, as he was detained for his anti-CCP (Chinese Communist Party) artworks. This Sundance Jury Prize-winner chronicles the two years leading up to the event, and the cult following he has amassed in China.

Watch on:
YouTube
Amazon Prime

The Mystery of Picasso (1956)

Filmed during his cubist era, director Henri-Georges Clouzot delves into Pablo Picasso’s studio and documents his creative process via stop-motion and time-lapse. While most of the works made in this film have since been lost to both history and destruction, three of them were exhibited in the Royal Academy last year.

Watch on:
YouTube

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2011)

In 1986, Tamra Davis, who would later make a name herself directing movies like Crossroads and Billy Madison, interviewed her friend Jean-Michel Basquiat: the Warhol-championed artist who, after his fatal heroin overdose two years later, has cultivated a lasting legacy. Soundtracked by Mike D and Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys.

Watch on:
YouTube
Amazon Prime (US)

Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time (2001)

Andy Goldsworthy makes art with natural and perishable materials, such as mud, ice and leaves. This documentary chronicles how he manages to make sculptures, all around the world, before the ice melts, the mud drips down and the structures collapse.

Watch on:
Apple TV

The Art of the Steal (2009)

The Art of the Steal revolves around the controversial decision to break Dr Albert C. Barnes’ will, and move his prestigious post-Impressionist art collection – including works by Picasso, Renoir and Matisse – from Pennsylvania to Philadelphia. This film depicts the move as a sinister plot, conducted by his enemies while he was still alive.

Watch on:
Amazon Prime

Gerhard Richter: Painting (2011)

For director Corinna Belz, being granted access to the infamously secretive painter Gerhard Richter’s studio was a rare feat. It features both his perspective and the perspectives of the art world and the media at large – as well as an oddly-satisfying, squeegee-packed look into his creative process.

Watch on:
Apple TV

Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present (2012)

Grandmother of performance art Marina Abramović spent most of 2010 in an unbroken, silent gaze with exhibition-goers at her retrospective, The Artist is Present, including emotional interactions with Björk and even her estranged ex-husband, Ulay. Despite her influence reaching back to the 1970s, after the film’s release, the film saw Marina break into the mainstream and briefly became a latter day it-girl, collaborating with both Lady Gaga and Jay-Z in 2013 alone.

Watch on:
Mubi
Amazon Prime

Black Art: In the Absence of Light (2021)

The most contemporary title on our list, Black Art: In the Absence of Light explores and celebrates some of the biggest Black visual artists working today. Drawing inspiration from the landmark 1976 exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art, director Sam Pollard has expertly curated interviews with scholars, historians, curators and artists, including the likes of Theaster Gates, Kerry James Marshall, Faith Ringgold, Amy Sherald and Carrie Mae Weems.

Watch on:
Hulu
Now TV
Amazon Prime

Tim’s Vermeer (2013)

Magician duo Penn and Teller go into the mind of Tim Jenison, a digitally inclined graphic designer who often feels compelled to paint a Vermeer. So he did – inventing a mirror-based device to achieve the photorealism that Vermeer was most famous for. Over the next five years, he recreates Vermeer’s studio in its entirety.

Watch on:
Amazon Prime

National Gallery (2014)

As the name suggests, this movie is about London’s flagship art gallery, the National Gallery, and how it’s become as much a visitor attraction as a protective preserver of Turners, Rembrandts and Caravaggios – despite its staunch refusal to be used as a billboard for Sport Relief.

Watch on:
Mubi
Amazon Prime

From Nothing, Something (2012)

From science to comedy, this documentary shines a spotlight on the creative mind and its process. Quick-paced and full of humour, it explores the habits and neuroses that “lead to breakthrough ideas” – across both artistic and non-artistic disciplines.

Watch on:
Amazon Prime (US)

The Legend of Leigh Bowery (2002)

Eight years after his untimely passing on New Year's Eve 1994, this documentary, directed by iconic video artist Charles Atlas, focuses on the life and legacy of Australian-born performance art pioneer (and sometimes Lucien Freud model) Leigh Bowery. The documentary also features interviews with his assistant-turned-wife, Nicola, and Boy George, who was creating a musical of his life, Taboo, at the time.

Watch on:
YouTube

Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace (2014)

Kehinde Wiley was famously chosen to paint an official portrait of Barack Obama in 2018, but this film was released a few years earlier, and highlights the artist’s exuberant works that often portray Black subjects in the style of classical portraiture.

Wach on:
Amazon Prime (US)

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

You can’t downplay Banksy’s presence, achievements and, of course, mystery. After a street-art fanatic named Thierry Guetta tried to make a movie about him, he, in true Banksy fashion, turned the tables and made a movie about Thierry instead. Narrated by Rhys Ifans, Banksy puts his personal touch on documenting Thierry’s eventual personal rise into street-art celebrity.

Watch on:
Amazon Prime

The Antics Roadshow (2011)

A year later, Banksy returned to direct an hour-long documentary for Channel 4, about pranksters like him. This time narrated by Kathy Burke, the film profiles people such as Michael Fagan, who broke into the Queen’s bedroom, and YouTube flashmob pioneers Rémi Gaillard and Charlie Todd, the latter of which started the annual No Pants Subway Rides event that went viral in the late 2000s.

Watch on:
Amazon Prime (US)

The Cool School (2008)

Jeff Bridges narrates this documentary about how the Ferus Gallery, which operated for nine years in the 50s and 60s, made post-war LA fall in love with art. Such names profiled in the movie include the gallery’s founder Walter Hopps, Irving Blum, who directed the gallery for most of its lifetime, and artists like Ed Ruscha and Wallace Berman.

Watch on:
YouTube
Amazon Prime (US)

Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang (2016)

Having risen to fame after his pyrotechnic display at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang and his artwork Sky Ladder are the subject for this documentary by Kevin Macdonald. Not only exploring his journey and artworks, it also takes a look at his complicated relationship with the Chinese state.

Watch on:
Netflix

Women Art Revolution (2010)

Tracking the feminist art movement and its impact since the 1960s, this documentary takes shape around archive footage and interviews with everyone from Judy Chicago and Yoko Ono to the Guerrilla Girls, alongside curators, critics and historians. Spanning 40 years of art, it’s a great visual history of feminist art, including its hidden history.

Watch on:
Kino Now

Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film (2006)

Among the many films and documentaries that have been made about Warhol, this is one of the more recent titles. Featuring narration from artist and musician Laurie Anderson alongside interview footage, it gives great insight into the artist’s meteoric rise to stardom.

Watch on:
Mubi

Waste Land (2010)

From the same director as City of God, Fernando Meirelles has created a film that shines a spotlight on Brooklyn-based artist Vik Muniz. More specifically, it documents his intriguing project that has come from one of the world’s biggest rubbish tips, near Rio de Janeiro. It’s also a film very much about the transformative power of creativity, earning itself as Academy Award nomination and a win at the Sundance Film Festival.

Watch on:
Amazon Prime (US)

Written by Creative Lives in Progress