Netflix has become the go-to-source for all things entertainment related — regardless if you’re a viewer who prefers Michael Bay-style spectacles — or more low-key affairs which explore the human condition. If you happen to fall into the latter category, the art documentaries on Netflix are an excellent escape. Not only do they tune out the events of the work day, but they can also aid in one’s own attempt to get in touch with their creativity.
Like art itself, the art documentaries on Netflix are quite diverse; ranging from stories about decades of commitment to discipline without any success, recognition only after death, and the inevitable infiltration of forgery into a lucrative marketplace.
We’ve sifted through Netflix’s library and pulled out 10 art documentaries that are must-see-TV right now.
Cutie and the Boxer
What the critics say: “The story of an extraordinary marriage between two people bound together by their artistic impulse.” – Rene Rodriguez/Miami Herald
What we say: It’s hard to summarize what Cutie and the Boxer is about. Sure, it’s about art, but there’s so much more to it. At its core, it’s really about the relationship between Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko, as they reconcile with what the medium has given them, and what it has taken away. And after 40 years of marriage, the film reveals that there’s always time for compromise.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
What the critics say: “A fascinating portrait of a modern artist and activist trying to make a difference within China’s repressive political system.” – Tom Long/Detroit News
What we say: Ai Weiwei’s name is one you’ve heard even if you don’t consider yourself a fan of the arts and the film is similarly an excellent entry point into art documentaries for those not already immersed in the genre. Despite his fame, many are still unclear what has made him such a worldwide icon. Alison Klayman’s film benefits from rolling just as the artist begins criticizing the Chinese government, and is present when he was forced to endure a brutal assault in Sichuan, 81 days of detention, and subsequent year’s-long house arrest.
Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery
What the critics say: “What sets Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery apart is how breezily compassionate it is toward a master deceiver and how damning its tone is toward a greedy art world that allowed him to flourish.” – Robert Abele/The Los Angeles Times
What we say: Forgery is one of those crimes that are often labeled as “sexy” because it seems like something a villain would do out of a James Bond film. But what is forgery like in a real-world context?
Wolfgang Beltracchi claimed he could copy any of the great masters from history. For some, this may have been a good party trick. But he turned it into action — resulting in a six-year prison sentence — for creating new masterworks rather than forgeries of existing works.
Abstract: The Art of Design
What the critics say: “It is fascinating to see this sort of focus applied to the creation of what we might otherwise take for granted, and appreciate not just the art, but the artist behind this work.” – Liz Shannon Miller/IndieWire
What we say: Netflix has devoted an entire original series to the various facets of creation which all fall underneath the “design” umbrella. Featuring illustrator Christoph Niemann, sneaker designer Tinker Hatfield, stage designer Es Devlin, architect Bjarke Ingels, automotive designer Ralph Gilles, graphic designer Paula Scher, photographer Platon, and interior designer Isle Crawford, viewers will notice shared theories, as well as dramatically different approaches based on the individual medium.
The 100 Years Show
What the critics say: “Herrera was no Grandma Moses, who put brush to canvas for the first time at 78 and thus ironically enough a more likely candidate—certainly more likely than Herrera—to at least arouse curiosity and thereby justify the limelight as a newcomer.” – Simi Horwitz/Film Journal International
What we say:The Observer called Carmen Herrera the “discovery of the decade” after major institutions finally started noticing her modernist abstractions after seven decades of absolute obscurity. It’s not only a testament to Herrera’s steadfastness, but also a reminder that the art world moves at its own pace.
Floyd Norman: An Animated Life
What the critics say: “Floyd Norman doesn’t think he’s special. Many others know differently, and for those who need more proof, Floyd Norman: An Animated Life is delighted to supply it.” – Ken Jaworowski/The New York Times
What we say: Floyd Norman holds the distinction of becoming the first African-American animator at Disney after he was hired in 1956. Throughout his illustrious career — which was cut short when he was forced to retire at 65 — Norman had his hand in classics like Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone, Toy Story 2, and Scooby Doo.
Finding Vivian Maier
What the critics say: “A film that leaves a large part of its subject’s mystery gratifyingly intact.” – Ann Hornaday/Washington Post
What we say: Street photography has found a legitimacy in the art world and allowed anyone with a camera to explore the human condition. But where and when did this idea of shooting regular people, doing regular things, start?
Enter, Vivian Maier, whose body of work of over 100,000 street photographs — shot on a twin-lens Rolleiflex camera — were discovered in 2007 which showcased people in New York, Chicago, France, South America, and Asia during the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.
The film is a worthy watch for fans of art documentaries based on the mysterious story alone, but truly excels in trying to understand what made Maier tick, and why photography capturing the “mundane” fascinated her.
What the critics say: “The film offers fascinating insight into what yarn can do in the talented hands of those determined to elevate mere craft to high art.” – Amy Brady/Village Voice
What we say: Admittedly, yarn isn’t a huge hook for a feature-length film. However, the material proves to be more than meets the eye when in the hands of global artists like Olek, Tinna Thorudottir Thorvaldar, Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam, and Tilde Björfors who showcase a knack for creativity that is equal parts whimsical as it is thought-provoking.
Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-qiang
What the critics say: “In 80 minutes, Sky Ladder teaches you through sight, sound and dialogue about a new artistic language, while making you an expert on one of its masters.” – Nick Allen/RogerEbert.com
What we say: Unlike Yarn, Chinese artist Cai Guo-qiang works in a highly-flammable medium — preferring gunpowder and controlled explosions as his method of self-expression.
Sky Ladder references an ambitious, 1,650 foot ladder held afloat by a balloon that Guo-qiang rigged with explosives. Twice rebuked in Shanghai and Los Angeles for security concerns, Guo-qiang was finally able to achieve a goal which aesthetically gives the impression of a chaotic — yet beautiful — portal to Heaven.
What the critics say: “Characters ranging from the benighted to the unsavory to the perfectly slimy populate the film, alongside the only figures who really have anything of substance to say: the artists themselves.” – Charles Desmarais/The San Francisco Chronicle
What we say: Unlike another documentary which focuses on the exploits of the famed Bristol-born artist, Exit through the Gift Shop, Saving Banksy instead chooses to focus on one’s man attempt to save a public piece in San Francisco from being sold off at auction.
For more documentaries be sure to check out our selection of the best documentaries on YouTube.