Art on the big screen: The art and lives of prominent 20th century artists

Documentaries on Julio González and Kazimir Malevich are particularly striking, while the Claes Oldenburg and Jasper Johns films are less so


Recent DVD releases include a set of four classic artist documentaries on the Arthaus label, distributed by Naxos USA. The two most watchable are on the sculptor Julio González and on the painter Kazimir Malevich, both films being co-operative productions by a number of European television networks. Barrie Gavin’s 1985 film on González is a small masterpiece on “arguably the most important unknown sculptor of this [20th] century”. Beautifully understated, it tells the story of a “quiet man with a welding torch”, a friend and contemporary of Picasso, with no gimmicks and some strikingly direct camerawork. Barrie is co-director with Reiner Moritz of the 1989 Malevich film, which again gains most from its simple structure, with many works held slowly in view and a commentary drawn largely from Malevich’s own diaries.

Gerald Fox’s 1996 film on Claes Oldenburg for UK ITV’s series “The South Bank Show”, comes in two distinct parts. The first, looking at Oldenburg’s early work and influences, shows the artist demonstrating how he plans his ideas via his extraordinary draughtsmanship. The second section focuses on his sometimes controversial later collaborations with his wife Coosje van Bruggen. Least successful of the quartet is Rick Tejada-Flores’s 1989 film on Jasper Johns for US television. It’s probably not the film-maker’s fault that the artist comes over as both snooty and gnomic, however voiceover comments such as those describing his work as “accessible, but full of nuance and mystery” do little to illuminate.

The British Film Institute (BFI) has rereleased on Blu-ray Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s surrealist film L’Age d’Or, 1930, although unfortunately not with their earlier collaboration Un Chien Andalou, 1929 (unlike the previous package). As before, however, the disc also includes José Luis López-Linares and Javier Rioyo’s documentary, “A Propósito de Buñuel”.

Details of Arthaus DVD releases can be found in the Naxos USA catalogue, online at

For BFI DVD releases, go to

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'No nonsense films on four 20th-century greats'