Thanks to the British street artist, Banksy, last year’s Exit Through the Gift Shop was the first documentary film about art in years to garner Oscar buzz. But who says Oscar knows everything? Over the last few years, good films about the visual arts have come and gone with little fanfare. You probably haven’t seen them—but really should.
While Robert Mapplethorpe achieved fame (indeed, infamy) before and after his death in 1989, the life of Sam Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe’s companion of 25 years, remains mostly a footnote. But Wagstaff, this 2007 film makes clear, deserves much more. A sometime museum curator, Wagstaff was wealthy and aristocratic, with a keen eye for cutting edge modern art. He was also passionate about photography, and by the time of his death in 1987, had amassed a personal collection staggering in its size, breadth and sophistication. His photographic contribution, we learn, was far more noteworthy than Mapplethorpe’s: to help bring photography—a medium once given short shrift by major art institutions—out of dark museum basements and into the light of their main galleries.
The Mississippi-born architect, Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee, who died of leukemia in 2001, could have practiced architecture anywhere, but chose to work in one of the poorest regions in America: Hale County, Alabama. This 2010 film focuses on the Rural Studio, the architectural program Mockbee founded at Auburn University. Considered radical for both its student output (buildings are designed and built, not theorized about) and the philosophy that guides it (that architecture and social responsibility must be inextricably entwined), Rural Studio churns out thoughtfully designed and imaginatively realized buildings for Hale County’s most marginalized citizens: the poor. Radical stuff.
The title of this documentary, paraphrased from the Bible, matches its haunting visual poetry. The German artist, Anself Kiefer, lives in Paris now, but for many years lived in the southern French city Barjac. There, he created a sprawling complex of abandoned buildings and underground labyrinths to house his large-scale installations. This film, by the British director Sophie Fiennes, is a journey into the jaw-dropping physical world that Kiefer has created—and, ultimately, the highly intellectual creative process that informs it. For sheer cinematic splendor, this is a documentary like no other.