Films About Women Artists You Might Have Missed

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The French Institute Alliance Française honors pioneering filmmaker Agnès Varda in their CinéSalon series that kicked off earlier this month, featuring three rarely screened films (next showing on March 14 and 21). Varda, whose work often blurs the lines of autobiography and documentary, has been the subject of films, too — including her own 2008 movie, The Beaches of Agnès. In the spirit of Varda’s great work and fascinating life and career, we wanted to feature films about women artists you might have missed — from documentaries, to rarely talked about award-winning feature films.

Finding Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier was a Chicago nanny who took more than 150,000 photographs during her lifetime, but her work remained unseen for decades, hidden in boxes. From the New York Times:

The documentary nods in the direction of some rich issues, including who gets to sanctify work as art, and why. It’s a thread that has additional resonance, given that everyone’s a critic on the Internet, which is where Maier’s work was not just first publicly seen but also anointed. There’s another undercurrent here about her status as an artist (partly because she didn’t formally study art) and even questions about photography’s status as an art (a hoary theme that emerges because she didn’t print all of her own work). Time and professional pronouncements will decide if she was an outsider artist or just an unorthodox one who, as a single 20th-century woman, found freedom, her voice and her own private bohemia while under cover of other people’s bourgeois domesticity.

Séraphine

French painter Séraphine Louis, who was inspired by her religious faith, gets the biopic treatment in this seven-time César Awards winner. From RogerEbert.com:

Seraphine de Senlis, who died in a French mental institution in 1942, today has her paintings in many museums. She did not paint for money or fame, although she grew heady when they began to come her way. She painted because she was instructed to by her guardian angel. Sometimes while painting, she would loudly sing in praise of the Holy Virgin. In this miraculous film we learn nothing of her low birth or early life; we only see her daily toil and nightly ecstasy.

Camille Claudel 1915

The film explores a devastating period in sculptor Camille Claudel’s life. She was confined to an asylum by her family for 30 years and is sadly better known for her relationship with Auguste Rodin than her own work (most of which she destroyed). From The Guardian:

Bruno Dumont’s film is in many ways his most daunting yet, a film endowed with that distinctive sort of post-Bressonian severity, a spiritual quality that appears to call upon the mysterious certainties of Christianity without endorsing them. It is a deeply sombre, deeply affecting film, based on real events, about the ordeal of Camille Claudel. She is played with passion by Juliette Binoche, who shows that in a role really worthy of her, she is still a compelling star. Claudel was a sculptor and lover of Auguste Rodin; after a brilliant and scandalous career she suffered a breakdown, and in 1913 was incarcerated in an asylum for the remaining 30 years of her life – deprived of all artistic materials – at the evident insistence and instigation of her devoutly Catholic brother, Paul.

Artemisia

Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi was one of the only women accepted into the academies during her lifetime, amid claims that she did not create her own work. From the New York Times:

As portrayed by Valentina Cervi, Artemisia is two distinctly different entities. One is a gorgeous early-17th-century Lolita. The other is a fearlessly ambitious teen-age prodigy who is so sure of her talent that she breaks the rules of female decorum and dares go where no ”nice” woman of her time and station has gone before. These two Artemisias don’t really fit together, but they make for a ripely sensuous portrait of the artist as a saucy but virtuous siren.

Maudie

Sally Hawkins stars as Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis. From Variety:

Though such characters offer obvious appeal to actors, “Maudie” isn’t nearly as preoccupied with its subject’s physical impairment as, say, a movie like “My Left Foot” or “Frida.” If anything, director Aisling Walsh downplays Lewis’ arthritis to such a degree that she seems almost able-bodied at times. What interests Walsh and screenwriter Sherry White isn’t Lewis’ disability, but the other obstacles that stood between her and the unlikely success she found as a painter. As played by Sally Hawkins, who taps into the same kind of upbeat energy she brought to her career-launching turn as Poppy in Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Maud impresses not so much for her perseverance — the opening scene demonstrates the enormous effort she must summon to lift brush to canvas — but for her indefatigable optimism.

Aloïse

Isabelle Huppert stars as Swiss outsider artist Aloïse Corbaz. From MRQE:

The painful life of a mentally unstable but highly gifted woman is unveiled in this film, based on episodes from the life of an actual person. Aloise (Delphine Seyrig) creates a series of haunting drawings while she is incarcerated in an institution for the insane in turn-of-the-century Switzerland. She endures torments as a musically gifted girl and later as a young woman; her developing madness and the barbaric treatments of the time are shown.

Frida Kahlo’s Corset

The film was directed by artist and activist Liz Crow, who once wore a Nazi uniform and sat in a wheelchair in Trafalgar Square to draw attention to discrimination against the disabled. From Roaring Girl Productions:

Frida Kahlo’s Corset is a short experimental drama that follows a journey of transformation by the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) who wore a series of orthopaedic corsets because of impairment. The film draws on Kahlo’s own words and characteristically bold painting style. It refutes the picture of Kahlo’s life as one of tragedy and suffering.

The Desert Is No Lady

From Women Who Make Movies:

With provocative imagery and spirited juxtapositions, THE DESERT IS NO LADY looks at the Southwest through the eyes of its leading contemporary women artists and writers, including author Sandra Cisneros. The nine women profiled are Pat Mora (poet), Sandra Cisneros (writer), Lucy Tapahonso (poet), Emmi Whitehorse (painter), Harmony Hammond (painter), Meridel Rubinstein (photographer), Nora Naranjo Morse (sculptor), Pola Lopez de Jaramillo (painter) and Ramona Sakiestewa (tapestry artist). The Southwest is a border territory – where cultures meet and mix – and the work of these nine women from Pueblo, Navajo, Mexican-American and Anglo backgrounds reflects its special characteristics. THE DESERT IS NO LADY is a vibrant celebration of the diversity of women’s creativity and changing multicultural America.

Georgia O’Keeffe

Jeremy Irons as Alfred Stieglitz and Joan Allen (who is also one of the producers) as Georgia O’Keeffe in a Lifetime portrait of the artist. From the LA Times :

It’s a simplistic message, boiled down like that, and though “Georgia O’Keeffe” is a quiet film it is not a simplistic one. It’s easy to understand Allen’s decision to executive produce “Georgia O’Keeffe;” the years she has spent playing quietly roiling women allow her to evoke the enigmatic and iconic artist without seeming to lift a finger or an eyebrow. As Allen plays her, O’Keeffe’s brilliance is of the no-frills variety, as is her belief in women’s equality. While many among the New York art community preached revolution, O’Keeffe simply lived it. Even taking into account her often co-dependent relationship with Stieglitz, she constructed a life that up until then had been reserved for the male artist. She learns to drive so she can make her way into the desert to paint; she paints because that is her way of communicating with the world. Neither O’Keeffe nor Allen seems drawn to the temptations of artistic scenery chewing.