One of my happiest if most-unexpected discoveries while sheltering at home this spring has been this: You can learn a lot about visual art — for free — if you’re a member of Amazon Prime. The streaming service has scores of offerings if you search “art history.” Most cost nothing; a few might make you cough up $3.99 to watch. I stumbled across this by accident two months ago, and my late nights have been lost to the real world ever since. Here’s my list of favorites so far:
Artbound. Just now getting into this one. It’s a series of one-hour shows produced by KCET, the public TV station in Los Angeles, looking at the Southern California arts world. I’ve recently enjoyed a deep dive into the amazing — and slightly creepy — houses designed a century ago in and around L.A. by architect Frank Lloyd Wright; a look at Desert X, a linked group of contemporary art installations in the desert east of L.A.; and Hopscotch, a 2015 opera performed, as befits L.A., in 24 cars driving around town. Prime gives you free access to seasons 8-10.
Renaissance Unchained. British art critic Waldemar Januszczak may be a little too intentionally wacky at times in this brief series re-examining a key period in art history, but he argues forcefully, and with interesting examples, that the Renaissance happened all over Europe, and so we shouldn’t focus so much on the Italian Renaissance. And if you don’t know anything at all about Renaissance art? This is as entertaining a place as any to start learning. Four 60-minute episodes; free.
Art and Craft. One of the most successful art forgers ever caught in the United States duped dozens of museums by donating fake masterpieces to their collections — but because he never took money for his forgeries, he’s never been prosecuted. In the end, forger Mark Landis was guest of honor at a museum exhibition of his own work, titled (wink, wink) Faux Real. A fascinating profile of obsession, not only by the artist but by the museum staffer who exposed Landis’ hoax and, in the process, ruined his own career. 90 minutes, free.
Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace. Wiley, a Nigerian American painter working in New York, was commissioned in 2017 to paint an official portrait of Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. This movie was made before that, in 2014 and, in documenting Wiley’s unusual artistic process, captures the intellectual energy and charm that have made him such an intriguing and sometimes controversial painter. 53 minutes, free.
American Masters: Wyeth. I’ve been a fan of Andrew Wyeth and his dark elegance since seeing an exhibit of his Helga paintings at the Portland Art Museum years ago. This hour-long documentary from PBS does a nice job of showing why Wyeth, sometimes dismissed as a mere illustrator, deserves more careful attention from art lovers. 87 minutes, free.
Speaking of Art: John Szarkowski on Ansel Adams. Szarkowski, director of photography for three decades at the Museum of Modern Art, helped define photography as an art form worthy of museum attention. Here he directs his sharp eye at Adams, the patron saint of Sierra Club calendars and black and white mountain landscapes. Even if you’re tired of Adams — and, honestly, who isn’t? — this recorded lecture will help you figure out what was right and what was wrong about Adams’ highly influential work. 39 minutes, free.
Prime offers much more on visual art. Check out documentaries on Paul Gauguin, Mary Cassatt, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Frida Kahlo, JMW Turner, John Constable and the Hudson River School, among others.
Once you’ve stuffed yourself full of art history, you can also learn to paint. Prime has dozens of instructional videos for the would-be Picasso, with quality ranging from the occasionally helpful to the howlingly awful. I’ll leave that to you to sort out. For the height of camp, though, you can’t go wrong with the many seasons of the late Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting. Free.