Throughout April, we have the chance to brush up on our art history knowledge with several documentaries coming our way at the Speed Cinema. From Vermeer to Paul Cezanne, from architect Louis Kahn and George Anthony Morton, these documentaries examine the lives and times of artists. Through the vehicle of the documentary format, seeing a film at the museum can deepen our understanding of the context of the work we see on the walls and in the halls, as well as teach us the questions to ask of the art we are lucky to encounter. Here’s a look at two films that bring us close to two great visual artists whose unrelenting visions helped push us into the future.
Mary Cassatt: Painting in the Modern World
Saturday, April 1 & Sunday, April 2 (Times vary)
Mary Cassatt hailed from Pittsburgh, but traveled to Paris in 1866 to continue the study of fine painting, where she was exposed to bohemian and feminist ideas, cafe culture, and, later, the work of the Impressionists. She developed a deep friendship with Edgar Degas, who championed her work and introduced her to many new techniques that she used to create a unique body of work, and a wildly successful career that continues to influence the art world today.
“Mary Cassatt: Painting in the Modern World” traces the path Cassatt takes to Paris and her long career there against the expectations foisted on her as a young woman of a well-to-do family whose talent is undeniable, if inconvenient for the conventions of the time. Director Ali Ray has gathered many Cassatt scholars to spell out the importance of her artistic output for social change, how her images centered women as curious and engaging subjects with inner lives, and not mere objects to be gazed upon. She was able to do this in subtle ways, such as perfecting the ‘mirror technique,’ introduced by the Impressionists, which she uses to complicate the narrative of the sisters, mothers, and children of her paintings.
This film was released on International Women’s Day, and it is a lovely celebration of women making and appreciating art. It is a telling of a certain class of women’s history during a certain time — the mid-19th through the early 20th century, that spells out the shift in women’s narratives. This shift is also apparent in the way that Cassatt choose to live her life — unmarried and childless — and happy. The only drawback is that there is a monotony of voices here, and little, if any, reflection of the reality for those not of Cassatt’s social standing. The filmmaker has also made the choice to re-enact some paintings into live action scenes, which does lend some dynamism to the whole endeavor, but I would have rather spent that time with the art itself, because the work of Mary Cassatt, the great American artist, is rich with meaning and insight as it stands.
Nam June Paik: Moon in the Oldest TV
Friday, March 31, Saturday, April 1 & Sunday, April 2 (Times vary)
$12 / $8 for Speed members
On the other hand is the delightful and dynamic “Nam June Paik: Moon in the Oldest TV,” a film that benefits greatly from the huge body of archival and video work from and about the father of video art.
Nam June Paik was born in Japan-occupied Korea, where he started his studies as a classical musician before moving to Germany. But it was his encounter with the musician John Cage that opened a stream of creativity that he would ride for the rest of his life, becoming one of the 20th century’s most influential artists. He was a key member of the international Fluxus movement, and a fixture in the New York art scene from the 1960s up until his final laser installation at the Guggenheim right before his death in 2006. Paik was enamored with video and the power of television, teaching himself electronics and finagling broadcast systems to take over the airwaves in order to showcase new art media to the world. He saw the internet coming and coined the term “electronic superhighway,” imagining a global future that others could not see.
Documentarian Amanda Kim has gathered Paik’s friends and colleagues to tell the story of this subversive genius, and peppers the film with Paik’s own writings, narrated by actor Steven Yeun. With a grand feast of archival footage, we get to visit Germany and New York during many creative heydays, and along the way, meet many vibrant artists of the era. My favorite is Paik’s longtime collaborator Charlotte Moorman, a classical cellist from Little Rock, Arkansas, who is ready to meet Paik wherever he is, to play whatever they have deemed instruments.
Personally, I have seen Paik’s art firsthand in many museums across the country, but I won’t pretend to have understood the ideas behind them. Instead, I was aways impressed with the sheer scale of the endeavors. After watching this doc though, Paik has joined a special echelon of artists in my heart who I call my uncles. Uncle John (Waters), Uncle David (Lynch), Uncle Nam — tricksters all. I am glad to know the thinking that brought these pieces to life, and the man who faced harsh realities with wonder and relentless energy.
See info about all upcoming art documentaries at the Speed Cinema – www.speedmuseum.org/cinema
I Am Everything
Tuesday, April 11, 6 p.m.
$12 | $8 Speed members
This advance screening of Lisa Cortés’ doc “Little Richard: I Am Everything” comes after a successful showing at Sundance 2023. “Little” Richard Penniman, the brilliant musician and icon is on full display through a wealth of archival footage from throughout his long, colorful life. Interviews with family, musicians, and Black and queer scholars shed light on the contradictions and struggles of this man who feared no one but God, and his complicated inner world. Recommended for 16+. •