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Tag: documentary

Films about Art IV: Peggy Guggenheim Art Addict

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Marcel Duchamp was her art adviser, Max Ernst was one of her husbands, she once got drunk with James Joyce, she lived in Paris in the 20’s during the golden age along with the Fitzgeralds and the Josephine Bakers, Man Ray took her picture, Samuel Beckett was one her many lovers, her father went down on the Titanic, she was the first to show: Hoffman, Rothko and Pollock at her New York gallery Art of the Century, she referred to one of the great architectural triumphs of the 20th century as her ‘uncle’s garage’; Peggy Guggenheim’s life reads like a who’s who of artistic spoils and the new documentary Peggy Guggenheim Art Addict   by Lisa Immordino Vreeland gives us a small glimpse into this extraordinary woman’s life.

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If you’ve ever been to Venice then chances are you may have visited her wonderful museum there. The walls within house one of the finest collections of Modern Art to be found in any place. She collected Magrittes, Miros, Picassos, Ernsts, and so on and so on. The majority of her collecting took place in an eight year window during and shortly after WWII. She stayed in Paris to last possible minute before the Nazis arrived to ensure her artwork made it out safely along with procuring some last minute deals in the process.

Vreeland’s documentary does a wonderful job showcasing her collection and painting the backdrop of her life but in the end I felt no closer to really understanding the woman. A few talking heads like Marina Abramovic and even Robert DeNiro (she collected his parent’s paintings) weigh in on her, but everything veers towards her reputation rather than her true self. Even an audio interview with Peggy that runs throughout the film doesn’t really give you any insight into her motivations and place in history especially pertaining to some very rich topics.

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Peggy Guggenheim was in the right place at the right time and clever enough to know it. She had very forward attitudes towards art and sex, which I believe can be very threatening to some.  Many tried to marginalize her but she persevered through it all. The film gives us a brief glimpse into what it was like to have been there at the time surrounded by some of the biggest names in history through the eyes of someone who lived it, and that is worth the price of admission.

3.5/5

 

 

Amy : Movie Review

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Asif Kapadia’s moving documentary Amyabout the short tragic life and career of Amy Winehouse will surely break your heart. On the eve of the 4th anniversary of her death (July 23rd 2011) we can only stop and think what could have been, how could have it all gone differently? Amy does a great job of introducing us to the person behind the persona. She felt like someone you grew up with, “a sweet girl who could tell a blue joke.” The film shows that she was driven on a path to succeed and self-destruct. In the end, she was the architect of her own life and death.

amy-winehouse-documentary-trailer-1By using archival footage, personal correspondence and interviews with the people that were closest to her; Kapadia’s film shows a portrait of an artist that comes from humble beginnings and then is devoured by the gears of fame. The sense you get is Amy never sought stardom, she only wanted to make music. She would have been happier singing to a few hundred people in a smokey jazz bar than headlining the Glastonbury Festival. Her gift for lyrics and her charisma, along with her voice (oh that voice) made her remaining relatively obscure an impossibility. Her fate was sealed the minute she stepped up to the mike and the world heard her sing. The incomparable Tony Bennett (who makes an appearance in the film) compares her voice to that of Ella or Billie. Amy Winehouse was just getting started when the booze, drugs and a toxic marriage steered her off course. The success of Rehab skyrocketed her to the unbelievable scrutiny of the press. Everywhere she went she was greeted with a blitzkrieg of flashbulbs and every miss-step became tabloid fodder. The film puts you into claustrophobic situations where the press feel so oppressive and alienating. Unfortunately this resulted in Amy retreating into more and more substances which ultimately took her life.

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But before our hearts are broken, they are filled with some pretty sweet music. Many songs get their proper due along with their lyrics. Back in 2007, I had the privilege to see Amy Winehouse live. She performed in a small club with The Dap Kings. She was at that moment in a good place and delivered on the promise of being the next Ella or Billie.

We can still ask,What could have been?” Amy was always going to be Amy, and the world both benefited by this and was devastated by it.

4/5

Films about Art III: Art and Craft

artandcraft_4_custom-a90eff7d7e3e8d07f22e9b14309964bdff637f5a-s800-c85With a little bit of coffee, some pre-cut boards from Lowe’s (‘The Home Depot closed, but Lowe’s is just as good I guess.’) some coloured pencils, paint, photocopies and a priest’s outfit, you too could possibly have your artwork accepted into the collections of some the most prestigious art institutes in North America. It’s been working for Mark Landis for the past 25 years (the priest thing is new- last couple of years). He’s passed off his copies of Picassos, Watteaus, Signacs and even Charles Shultzs into the hands of curators from Illinois to California. In a lot of cases, they’re passed right back, but every once in a while they find their way in. I guess it would be hard to say ‘no’ when someone offers you something worth potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars for nothing. See that’s the catch, Mark Landis never asks for a penny; all his transactions are donations. He concocts some elaborate back story about a late sister (never existed) and exclaims that she wanted it to go to the public….. yadda yadda yadda. He has aged the pieces (that’s where the coffee comes in) and faked the providence (auction records, purchase history) and off he goes.

9306764519_6b2c1cebac_mMark has been copying things since he was a kid, and he’s pretty good at it. He also has a few other things going for him that enable him to be successful in his con. For starters, he is the most unassuming person you could ever encounter; no one would suspect this meek soft spoken older gentleman (sometimes priest) was up to something. The other huge factor is that when it comes to forgeries; human nature wants us to believe it’s the real thing. You would think the opposite would be true; that if something is too good to be true than it probably isn’t, but all you need are a few details that seem legit and the seeds of plausibility can grow. No one wants to pass on what could be like winning the lottery. The forger’s greatest asset is our willingness to believe. One last thing that gives Mark Landis an edge for pulling this off is his pension for mischief.

Mark Landis

The film Art and Craft  does a nice job of introducing the viewer to Mr. Landis. He lives in a small cluttered apartment that belonged to his late mother, he has dealt with mental illness his whole life and he really doesn’t reveal what his motivations are. He would rather talk about the influence old television shows and movies have had on his world view than art or trying to fool people. The forgeries are just something he likes to do while watching television and the whole act just gets him out of the house once in a while. Where the documentary falters is in the depiction of the cat and mouse game of how he was discovered and a third act where they mount an exhibit of his work. It doesn’t seem like it would have been too difficult to expose the work as fake. Mark Landis isn’t a master forger by any stretch, he painted over top of photocopies in some cases, uses distressed Walmart frames in others and if you leaned in, you could literally smell the coffee. The fascinating thing about that is: Mark Landis would be the first person to admit it. He does just enough to make it look believable a first glance but the minute you scratch the surface it falls apart.

tumblr_nc3x0mMKlB1tix2hoo1_500In the end, the film’s not great but I liked spending time with Mr. Landis and I hope he never ends up in jail for his actions (because he doesn’t accept money, technically he hasn’t committed any crime) and hey, we all need hobbies.

3.5/5

Moving Pictures of Still Photography

Matt Weber 9-11 2001

Matt Weber 9-11 2001

 “In the last hour, in the world, probably more digital images have been made than in the entire history of analog photography.” Ralph Gibson: More Than The Rainbow

On average, 60 million photos are uploaded to Instagram on a daily basis. With the proliferation of phone culture,the number of people who actually have a camera on them most minutes of the day now numbers in the billions. Photography is the most popular it has ever been since its inception. People are taking an astounding number of images, but are any of them any good? Assuming that the monkeys on typewriters theory holds water, shouldn’t we have the complete works of an Ansel Adams portfolio by now? Where’s all the visionaries, where’s the art, and why are there so many damn pictures of what people had for brunch?

Vivian Maier untitled Chicago 1961

Vivian Maier untitled Chicago 1961

Sifting through the endless sea of forgettable snapshots, it is truly refreshing and inspiring to encounter the work of the Matt Weber‘s and Vivian Maier‘s of the world. Both photographers create arresting images that stop you in your tracks. In fact,the two share a lot in common: both were self taught, both use film, both practice the highest form of street photography, New York  features in both their work and they are both the subjects of their own documentaries that recently have come out on DVD. Matt Weber’s work along with a few of his contempories is explored in More Than The Rainbow and the mystery of the reclusive Vivian Maier is brought to light in Finding Vivian Maier.  Both films are wonderful introductions to these artists whose work is slowly being recognized by the insular art world.

Matt Weber In your Face 2003

Matt Weber In your Face 2003

More Than a Rainbow really excels at exploring the art and craft of photography. The candid discussions and interviews with the photographers featured reveals the insight and process that goes into capturing a successful image. There’s great observations about the differences between black and white vs colour compositions and what goes into Street photography? Street photographers  especially have to walk a fine line between being a documentarian and being aware of their subjects’ boundaries and thresholds. Over the past 25 years, Matt Weber has gotten very savvy at walking that line. Matt started out as a cab driver, this opprotunity gave him an expansive unfiltered view of New York City where he lived. The unbelievable events he would witness on a daily basis driving the streets inspired him to pick up a camera to capture what he had seen. Soon the pictures took over and his driving days were behind him. More Than a Rainbow does a great job of showcasing Matt’s work, but if I had one criticism of the film: it stumbles a little trying to put it into the context of his life.

Vivian Maier Self-portrait

Vivian Maier Self-portrait

The life of Vivian Maier (1926-2009) was nothing short of a mystery. She took an estimated 100 000 pictures in her lifetime; none of which ever saw the light of day; until a box of her negatives was purchased at an estate sale for $400 dollars in 2007. What was found in that box led to a storage unit which in turn turned into an astounding discovery of an artistic treasure trove. No one in her life had any clue that this plain french nanny was anything but. Finding Vivian Maier unravels delightfully as we learn more and more about the photographer from the people who used to employ her, along with the grown children she used to mind. Her motives were cloudy and her history even cloudier. Her future is also uncertain: a previously unknown heir has just come forward  and is contesting the rights to her artistic legacy.

The films: Finding Vivian Maier and More Than a Rainbow are excellent introductions to the world of street photography and the photographers that document them. With so many pictures being taken these days, we need visual pioneers to show us the right way to hold a camera and provide a welcome photographic blueprint in the new age of instant image makers.

Outsider Art: Worlds Apart

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Henry Darger

It’s late, the subway’s stopped running and I would love to be in my warm bed. On the way home; my cab driver tells me that he used to design hospitals and airports in his home country of Jordan. Over the years, I’ve also been driven around by an aerospace engineer and the odd medical practitioner. I’m not saying all cab drivers are exiled professionals at the mercy of  archaic  immigration laws, but perhaps the person that’s saving you a very long walk may be a whole lot more than you initially gave them credit for. There might be a lot more to the person we find ourselves sharing a cab with, taking the bus or passing in the hall. Our preconceived notions of worth and merit wrapped up in casual interactions can act as horse-blinders. They only allow us to view what we want to acknowledge and may prevent us from seeing a whole other world right under our noses.l_53df92a1f15a03a654914b9ae3e76f1c

This theme is perfectly illustrated in Jessica Yu’s documentary: In the Realms of the Unreal the Mystery of Henry Darger.  In 1973,  in a one bedroom apartment on Chicago’s north side an entire alternative universe was discovered. No one in the apartment complex had the slightest notion that they had been living so close to an artistic genius. The artist himself I’m sure was also unaware of this fact. For Henry Darger, this was just how he spent his time; he lived in an alternative reality.

darger69He constructed his world from newspaper clippings, children’s books, catalogues and any other visual resource he could acquire  He was a self-taught artist who copied, transferred, painted and collaged  massive compositions (some were over 10 feet wide) together. The watercolour paintings were mostly illustrations for an epic tale he was writing that was close to 19 000 pages. Henry Darger was telling the story of the Vivian Girls, but Henry was telling it to no one but himself.  His life’s work was only discovered after his death when his landlord had to clean up his apartment. In the Realms of the Unreal tells the story of this discovery and does its best at shedding light on a solitary man who lived like a hermit (only two photographs of Henry exist). The documentary also brings the story of the Vivian Girls to life with a series of readings from the book set to animations of his paintings. The tale of the Vivian Girls revolves around a group of young sisters who are forced into slavery by a tyrannical group of adults all dressed like civil war soldiers.The world he has left us is utterly beautiful, naive and fascinating without a shred of irony.

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Mark Hogancamp

Mark Hogancamp: the subject of Jeff Malmberg’s documentary Marwencol also approaches his art with an unfiltered eye. Like Darger, Hogancamp has created his very own world that acts as both an escape and creative outlet. Marwencol is the name of the town that is the setting for a story populated by World War II soldiers, Nazis and Barbies.

theBeginning14_webMark Hogancamp was the victim of a vicious beating at the hands of 5 men. He sustained severe brain damage in the attack and had to relearn even the simplest of tasks from reading, writing to walking. He slowly recovered but was still haunted by the events of that night. Marwencol is his way of coping. It addresses the horror and the beauty of his experience and his fantasy.

mwc_024_contest_webThe first thing that captures your attention about this film are  his photographs. They are extraordinary at how naturalistic the gestures of his subjects are . Mark is a self-taught photographer who plays with dramatic lighting, depth of field and surprising compositions, all the while telling a dramatic narrative. He painstakingly sets the stage with mail order replicas that represent real people in his life. The documentary provides a touching biography of a man who’s world was taken away from him so he had to create his own alternative. He is now in danger of that happening again when the art world learns of his talent and comes calling to steal it all away.

thanksgiving_1Both documentaries do a wonderful job of pulling the curtain back on complete and unique worlds created by a couple of self-taught outsiders. Their art was made for no one but themselves, without the self conscious hang-ups of a consumer society. Their societies exist outside the confides of the everyday and luckily for us someone took the time to remove their horse-blinders and take a look.

The Realms of the Unreal 4/5

Marwencol 3.5/5

Films about Art II: Sister Wendy’s Complete Collection

Seventh-century icon of Santa Maria Nova, Rome

Seventh-century icon of Santa Maria Nova, Rome

Certain things beg repeating. Take a quick glance at your itunes library and you might be surprised at the number of times a particular song found its way into your earbuds. Books are read and then reread again until the evidence of your affections can be seen on their tired covers. Today on the occasion of my 100th blog post I decided to spend some time with an old friend. I’ve never met this person but feel as though we’ve grown close over the years. I visit with her at least once a year, sometimes only for a brief moment and on other occasions I can spend the entire day spellbound and enraptured by her stories; I’m referring to Sister Wendy Beckett.

p0166003Tapped by the BBC in 1991 to give a personalized tour of London’s National Gallery; Sister Wendy became one of the most unlikely television stars to find their way into our living rooms. When the original show was pitched by an enthusiastic admirer of her writing; the idea fell on deaf ears. At first, at least on paper, it was a hard sell. The BBC executives figured no one wanted to tune in to listen to a nun talk about art.  A screen test was reluctantly agreed upon and when the lights were finally switched on; everyone was in awe. The camera loved her and she took to it like a fish to water.

Paul Klee Fish Magic 1925

Paul Klee    Fish Magic    1925

Sister Wendy (who turned 83 this year) has lived a solitary life of meditation and prayer. Before the BBC came calling, she lived in a one room caravan (she has since upgraded to a two room trailer) surrounded by very few possessions with the exception of a collection of art books.  She spent countless hours becoming acquainted with the artists and works within the pages of her volumes. It wasn’t until she was in front of the camera that she got the opportunity to finally see these works she was so intimate with in the flesh.

Peter Paul Rubens Venus Frigida 1614

Peter Paul Rubens     Venus Frigida      1614

One of the most disarming things that came to light was Sister Wendy’s fearless approach to the subject of sex. Art history is awash with tales of carnal knowledge and artists have been representing the nude and the naked since the  first days of the garden. Sister Wendy never breaks a blush. What she does better than anyone is to shed light on the stories and myths that act as the artistic inspiration for countless museum pieces.

El Greco an allegory with a boy lighting a candle in the company of an ape and a fool 1589

El Greco An Allegory with a boy lighting a candle in the company of an ape and a fool     1589

Sister Wendy has a wonderful way of telling a story. Her observations and insights are always spot on as well as her choice of works she chooses to talk about. The artworks range from the very familiar to hidden gems. Her Story of Painting traces the evolution of painting from the caves of Lascaux to Warhol’s Marilyns. She next travels to the major art capitols of Europe  in her Grand Tour. These two programs along with a few others can be found on Sister Wendy’s Complete Collection. She is the ultimate tour guide and well worth a look. I couldn’t think of another person I’d rather spend my 100th post with.

Films About Art Part I:Gerhard Richter Painting

Haggadah 2006

Haggadah 2006

Filmed over the span of 10 months in the year 2009 Gerhard Richter Painting is a rare glimpse into the studio and life of one of the world’s most renown painters. The film shows the artist while he works on a series of abstracts documenting in part his creative process. No film can truly capture the essence of an artist at work, but filmmaker Corinna Belz does a fair job. The problem of trying to document the process of art creation is that the minute the camera is set up the painting becomes more of a performance and the art may suffer because of it. Picasso famously destroyed all the work created for the 1956 film  The Mystery of Picasso. He realized the camera’s presence was a distraction and felt that it compromised the work. Richter also acknowledges the camera’s affect in so much that ‘it changes the way he walks’.

Lesende Reader 1994

Lesende Reader 1994

Richter in fact is no stranger to change. Since establishing his name in the late 60’s, he is one of the few artists who can easily travel between the worlds of photo-realism and pure abstraction. The documentary touches upon his career through a series of retrospectives held throughout the world highlighting the range of his distinct styles. This aspect of the film dwells too heavily on the mock-ups of the gallery layouts and miniature reproductions of the work. It provides a glimpse into his immense catalogue but leaves the viewer wanting to see the actual paintings.

Abstract Painting 1988

Abstraktes Bild 1988

The film does however do a wonderful job of revealing the charm of its subject. The 81 year old artist is both humble and open while being very self aware of his trajectory. A telling scene comes when he is casually strolling through a gallery full of Picasso’s and is more interested in the florescent lighting above him than the masterpieces in front of him. In October a painting by Richter sold for a record 34.2 million (update he just recently beat his own record -37 million). This is the highest price ever paid at auction for a living artist.  He enjoys the attention of all the exhibitions and the adoring public but all these obligations for him take time away from his true love painting.

Abstraktes Bild 2009

Abstraktes Bild 2009

Witnessing the decisions Richter makes as he executes the work is the true joy of this film. His insight into what’s worth keeping and what’s worth discarding is always surprising and always on the money. Favour is a fickle mistress that changes from day to day. A painting has to pass the test of time to be able to leave the studio. Knowing when something’s finished may be the hardest part of being an artist. It is a shame that this documentary only runs an hour an half because I could have watched him paint all day.

4/5

Review: The Queen of Versailles

Imagine being able to stand on your back porch and watch the fireworks from Disney World every day of the week.  The happiest place on earth is within sight of your backyard.  Add to this dream; a porch that is attached to a 90,000-square-foot home with ten kitchens (including one specifically for sushi) and over thirty bathrooms. The design for this house is modeled after the palace at Versailles.

It was supposed to be the largest home in America. It had the quiet subtlety of Las Vegas on steroids. It was to be the dream home of David and Jackie Siegel; a powerful timeshare mogul and his beauty queen wife. Unfortunately the 2008 financial crisis halted their plans and left them with a half-finished $100 million dollar reminder of better days. This is the backdrop of Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Queen of Versailles.

At the beginning of the film we are introduced to the Siegels, their seven kids, nannies, pets and lavish lifestyle.  Life was good, private jet good. It is intriguing to watch David and Jackie who both come from humble origins dream big and spend even bigger. Jackie was the former Mrs. Florida who never lost her pageant smile and David was the man who according to himself was responsible for getting a president elected.  Thirty years separate the two but they feel made for one another.

When the crash happens the film takes a pivotal turn. An extreme event that creates a dynamic narrative shift that would be in all essence a documentary film maker’s wet dream. It provides the essential act II that gives this story gravitas. Up until this point, it feels like you are watching some sort of weird version of real estate-porn. (If you’ve ever watched Selling New York you know what I’m talking about.)  The crash becomes a scenario that will both test and further define our characters.  David begins to retreat into himself trying to find a way to fix his empire while Jackie shops.

The relationship the two shares is at the heart of this film and is what carries it forward even as the financial stress starts to show. Lauren Greenfield does a wonderful job of balancing subjectivity and narrative as you watch a family start to unravel. The Queen of Versailles never feels exploitive or like it is thumbing its nose at the ruin of one of the 1%. Over the course of the film we have grown to like these people and can see in them a reflection of the battered economy that we all share. Financial crisis has broken  stronger families than the one pictured here but hopefully Jackie’s never wavering smile can lead them back to the happiest place on earth, just over the hedge.

4/5 stars