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Arty films and books to look out for in 2020

30 December 2019

Keep an eye out for these books and films with an art-historical twist over the next few months.


Portrait of a Lady on Fire, dir. Céline Sciamma
As deceptively quiet as a Hammershøi painting, this beautiful film blazes with an intensity to match its title. A young painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), is summoned to a remote, windswept island off the coast of Brittany in the late 18th century to make a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) for her prospective husband. Superb performances by the two leads electrify this exploration of female love, companionship and creativity, and the relationship between artist and sitter – substituting the traditional male gaze for a female one that is returned on equal terms: ‘When you look at me,’ Héloïse points out, ‘who do I look at?’ For my money, this will be one of the stand-out films of 2020.

Red Notice, dir. Rawson Marshall Thurber
Those who require a little more action in their art-themed flicks will find it in this heist movie, in which Dwayne Johnson plays an Interpol agent who must catch the world’s most wanted art thief (Ryan Reynolds). With the glut of museum thefts we’ve seen recently, let’s hope the idea of being hunted down by The Rock might put a few thugs off the idea…

The Lighthouse, dir. Robert Eggers
This psychological horror has more than a hint of Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), and that film’s debt to German Expressionism. Eggers co-wrote the screenplay – which sees two lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) lose their sanity after being stranded by a storm – with his brother Max, who had initially based it on an unfinished story of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe. The film was shot on black-and-white 35mm film and reproduces the look of early orthochromatic photography.

The Times of Bill Cunningham, dir. Mark Bozek
‘I never said I was a photographer, I think of myself as a fashion historian… and the camera is another instrument to record it.’ Interview footage from 1994 is mixed with Cunningham’s street-style photographs and narration by Sarah Jessica Parker for an affectionate portrait of this much-loved late fashion photographer, who started out as a milliner and once designed a fringed beach hat so vast its wearer could change into a swimsuit behind it.


Blake Gopnik
Allen Lane
Art critic Blake Gopnik’s door-stopper of a biography promises to be a definitive account of the bewigged king of kitsch and prince of Pop in all his complexity. Among its 960 pages are such gems as: ‘He had become his own Duchampian urinal, worth looking at only because the artist in him had said he was.’

Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency
Olivia Laing
Pan Macmillan
No stranger to writing about Warhol herself, specifically in The Lonely City, in this collection of essays Laing brings together that book’s theme of loneliness with the political global unease that saturated her first novel, Crudo. Focusing on figures such as Basquiat, O’Keeffe, Hilary Mantel, Ali Smith, David Bowie, and Freddie Mercury, and themes including technology, alcohol, women, sex and the body, Laing makes a typically fearless case for why art matters in troubled times.

The Lives of Lucian Freud Vol. II
William Feaver
Feaver won plaudits aplenty for the first volume of this intimate biography of his long-time friend, which covers the years 1922–68 and has delighted readers with its ‘high-grade gossip’. The second volume picks up from where he left off, and runs to the painter’s death in 2011.

Sara Baume
Tramp Press
‘I always wanted to be an art monster,’ the Irish writer told the Guardian in 2017, having just won the Geoffrey Faber memorial prize for her first novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither. Baume was an artist before she was a writer, and this new work of non-fiction is an insight into the daily habit of art – or, in her own words, ‘simply the account of a year spent making hundreds of small, painted objects in an isolated house’.

Plus, still on my reading pile from 2019: In A Month in Siena, Hisham Matar attempts to come to terms with the death of his father through an extended meditation on the works of Duccio, Simone Martini and other Sienese painters; and Julian Barnes’s The Man in the Red Coat, a portrait of belle époque Paris that takes its cue from John Singer Sargent’s full-length painting Dr Pozzi at Home – depicting L’amour médicin, or ‘Dr Love’, as the society surgeon was known.