Must-see documentaries about great artists

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Claude Monet, "Luncheon on the Grass, Central Panel," 1865–1866
Oil on canvas
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Getting news about the upcoming exhibition of Claude Monet paintings at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco made me wish I could drop everything, jump in my car and drive north. Opening this weekend, Monet: The Early Years will be the first major US exhibition devoted to the initial phase of Monet's career. With approximately 60 works borrowed from museums and private collections worldwide, "this exhibition is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience Monet's mastery before Impressionism."

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(L) Monet painting in his studio
Photo courtesy of Everett Collection/CP
(R) Claude Monet, "Impression, Sunrise," 1872
Oil on Canvas
Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

Here's a small consolation for those of us who are not able to go to San Francisco to see the exhibition. There is a new art-history documentary, I, Claude Monet, which will be screened in Los Angeles this coming Monday, February 27 at 7pm and Tuesday, February 28 at 1pm at various Laemmle Theaters. Based on hundreds of his surviving letters, this documentary tells the story of an artist who, "behind his sun-dazzled canvases, suffered from feelings of depression, loneliness, even [thoughts of] suicide. However, as his art developed and his love of gardening led to the glories of his Giverny garden, his humor, insight, and love of life are revealed."

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(L) "Eva Hesse" (2016)
Directed by Marcie Begleiter
(R) Eva Hesse, c. 1966
Photo by Gretchen Lambert

In the last couple of years, there have been a number of particularly eloquent art documentaries. One of them, Eva Hesse, proved to be a remarkably inspiring story about the life and art of a uniquely original person. In her short life, Eva Hesse (1936-1970), accomplished more than most artists could hope for thanks to her furious productivity. "The documentary is frank about Hesse's personal life without being prurient, and it conveys a vivid sense of the sexual politics of the New York art world in the 1960s."

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Chris Burden, "Shoot," 1971

Another excellent documentary, this one about major American artist Chris Burden (1946-2015), is scheduled to be released this May, but I had the chance to see it last night. Titled BURDEN, the film starts with his early 1971 performance that –– literally and figuratively –– shot him to widespread recognition. With a few witnesses in the room, Burden arranged for a friend to shoot him in the arm. The bullet was supposed to just graze the skin but instead pierced his flesh, and the artist ended up in the hospital. The early years of Burden's career were full of similar mind-boggling performances. Once, he squeezed himself into a tiny, two-foot high locker and stayed there for several days. In 1974, he crucified himself half-naked to a Volkswagen Beetle, with two nails pierced through the palms of his hands. And once again, he survived.

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(T) "Urban Light," sculpture by Chris Burden
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Photo by Jimmy Baikovicius
(B) "Burden" (2016)
Directed by Richard Dewey &Timothy Marrinan

Burden was an Angeleno not only by the fact that he lived and worked in our City of Angels, but also in the way his art epitomized the very essence and spirit of this great city. When his seminal sculptural installation, "Urban Light," was installed in 2008 in front of LACMA, it became an overnight sensation –– both with critics and with the public. For years, the artist collected Los Angeles's antique streetlamps. As a result, 202 of them comprise his "Urban Light," which now serves as an unofficial emblem of our city. It seems people just cannot get enough of it. Day and night, dozens of people weave through the columns of this contemporary temple and do what happy people do these days –– obsessively shoot photos.

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Chris Burden, "Beam Drop," 2009
Middleheim Museum, Antwerp, Belgium
Photo by Edward Goldman

The documentary shows how Burden, in the later part of his career, became increasingly private and somewhat reclusive. He stopped using his body as a raw material. However, his international fame and recognition didn't stop him from continuing to push boundaries. In his sculptural installation "Beam Drop" (2009), several dozen steel I-beams were dropped from a helicopter, stuck in the ground like a wild, menacing bouquet of rusty branches. What a great artist he was: always challenging, never trying to ingratiate himself to the public.



Benjamin Gottlieb