Art docs: prodigies and outsiders

There’s something extremely fascinating about those rare individuals who function on a higher plane, however dysfunctional or detached from the rest of society. The art world, as any other, knows its prodigies and outsiders alike. Here a few good documentaries that cover a wide range of such people.

The Prodigies


My Kid Could Paint That (October 5, 2007)

Release Date: October 5, 2007
Starring: Laura Olmstead, Mark Olmstead, Marla Olmstead, Elizabeth Cohen
Genres: Documentary
Runtime: 82 min
Original Title: My Kid Could Paint That
Original Film Language: English
A look at the work and surprising success of a four-year-old girl whose paintings have been compared to the likes of Picasso and has raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Cast My Kid Could Paint That

  • Laura Olmstead
  • Role: Herself
  • Mark Olmstead
  • Role: Himself
  • Marla Olmstead
  • Role: Herself
  • Elizabeth Cohen
  • Role: Herself
  • Anthony Brunelli
  • Role: Himself
  • Amir Bar-Lev
  • Role: Himself
  • Zane Olmstead
  • Role: Himself
  • Michael Kimmelman
  • Role: Himself

Trailer My Kid Could Paint That

My Kid Could Paint That is a curious story about a 4 year old wunderkind, a girl who could paint like Pollock — or so it was claimed. What starts as an earnest exposé of this young girl’s talent becomes an exploration of the nature of truth. It’s never quite clear if the girl really was the author of the amazing artwork, or her father, or both.

Regardless, the extra-feature DVD extended interview with New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman is well worth the price of admission, so to speak. His very clear dissection of what art actually is — in particular modern art — is akin to sitting in on a college lecture on the topic.


Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock? (November 9, 2006)

Release Date: November 9, 2006
Genres: Documentary
Runtime: 74 min
Original Title: Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?
Original Film Language: English
After semi-truck driver Teri Horton bought a large splatter painting for her friend for $5, she was forced to sell it in her own garage sale when her friend said she had no place for it. Eventually someone commented on the painting stating it might be an original Jackson Pollock. This documentary follows Teri, her son, and a forensics specialist as they attempt to prove to the world, or more specifically the art community, her painting is a true Jackson Pollock

Trailer Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?

Teri Horton, an outsider to the art world if there ever was one, stumbles upon what she comes to believe is a long lost Jackson Pollock painting in Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?. Pollock being one of the geniuses of the modern art world, was completely unknown to Teri, a straight-talking truck driver.

What she finds is that the art world is quite insular. She goes so far as to hire a forensic scientist to help prove that her painting is authentic, comparing embedded fingerprints and DNA against other known Pollock paintings. All the while, the art intelligentsia won’t have any of it. To them, science means little; what matters most is the esotericism of the community itself and its internal ability to establish authorship — a term called “provenance” 1

The Outsiders

While most everyone clamors to witness the self-evident genius of an art prodigy, not everyone can appreciate the genius of another kind: that of the outsider. “Outsider” has become a generic term for:

…art created by people outside the “art world” mainstream, regardless of their circumstances or the content of their work. 2

Although originally, outsider art was specifically generated by the mentally insane and criminal.


Crumb (September 10, 1994)

Release Date: September 10, 1994
Starring: Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky, Charles Crumb, Maxon Crumb
Genres: Documentary
Runtime: 119 min
Original Title: Crumb
Original Film Language: English
Production Companies: Superior Pictures
This movie chronicles the life and times of R. Crumb. Robert Crumb is the cartoonist/artist who drew Keep On Truckin', Fritz the Cat, and played a major pioneering role in the genesis of underground comix. Through interviews with his mother, two brothers, wife, and ex-girlfriends, as well as selections from his vast quantity of graphic art, we are treated to a darkly comic ride through one man's subconscious mind.

Cast Crumb

  • Robert Crumb
  • Role: Himself
  • Aline Kominsky
  • Role: Herself
  • Charles Crumb
  • Role: Himself
  • Maxon Crumb
  • Role: Himself
  • Martin Muller
  • Role: Himself
  • Robert Hughes
  • Role: Himself

While not criminal, Robert Crumb may have been a touch insane, if not certainly disturbed. The famous yet reclusive underground comic artist had various demons and fetishes throughout his life. Crumb, Terry Zwigoff’s breakthrough documentary of R. Crumb’s life, is nothing short of amazing, testament to Zwigoff’s own genius. Crumb’s pathology (having come from a terribly traumatizing family) is so thoroughly painted for us on screen, that it’s impossible to look away. Crumb — and Zwigoff by extension — seem to be proving the old adage that genius and insanity are separated by the thinnest of lines.


In the Realms of the Unreal (January 1, 2004)

Release Date: January 1, 2004
Starring: Henry Darger, Larry Pine, Dakota Fanning, Frier McCollister
Genres: Documentary
Runtime: 81 min
Original Title: In the Realms of the Unreal
Original Film Language: English
Production Companies: Diorama Films, Independent Television Service
In the Realms of the Unreal is a documentary about the reclusive Chicago-based artist Henry Darger. Henry Darger was so reclusive that when he died his neighbors were surprised to find a 15,145-page manuscript along with hundreds of paintings depicting The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glodeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Cased by the Child Slave Rebellion.

Cast In the Realms of the Unreal

  • Henry Darger
  • Role: Himself
  • Larry Pine
  • Role: Henry Darger (Voice)
  • Dakota Fanning
  • Role: Narrator/Vivian Girls (Voice)
  • Frier McCollister
  • Role: Voice
  • Wally Wingert
  • Role: Voice
  • Mary O'Donnell
  • Role: Herself (Neighbor)
  • Kiyoko Lerner
  • Role: Herself (Landlady)

Trailer In the Realms of the Unreal

In the Realms of the Unreal similarly chronicles the secluded life of Henry Darger, a man who wrote a 15,000 page erratic novel of epic proportions. The documentary is nearly as scattered as Darger, but nonetheless fascinating. That’s partly because of the subject matter. This is one of Jessica Yu’s earlier documentaries, who later made the wonderful doc Protagonist. Her motif of animated reenactment is similar here, using paintings from Darger’s life work to bring passages from the novel to life. But in that aesthetic choice, the film begins to bog down by Darger’s own unfocused rambling. Characters from his story come and go, change voice and blur gender, die and are reborn. The experience of watching can be tiring.

Update, February 2016

Artsy 3 contacted me about their online Darger exhibit.  See it here.


The Devil and Daniel Johnston (January 23, 2005)

Release Date: January 23, 2005
Starring: Daniel Johnston, Matt Groening, Louis Black, Gibby Haynes
Genres: Music, Documentary
Runtime: 110 min
Original Title: The Devil and Daniel Johnston
Original Film Language: English
This 2005 documentary film chronicles the life of Daniel Johnston, a manic-depressive genius singer/songwriter/artist, from childhood up to the present, with an emphasis on his mental illness and how it manifested itself in demonic self-obsession.

Cast The Devil and Daniel Johnston

  • Daniel Johnston
  • Role: Himself
  • Matt Groening
  • Role: Himself
  • Louis Black
  • Role: Himself
  • Gibby Haynes
  • Role: Himself
  • Thurston Moore
  • Role: Himself

Trailer The Devil and Daniel Johnston

The Devil and Daniel Johnston follows an indie singer/songwriter from the 80s named Daniel Johnston. Raised in a strict Church of Christ family, the boy was gifted by not relished by his parents. They frankly didn’t understand his artistic outbursts. Daniel didn’t make it easy on them for sure.

Daniel is the musician’s musician. Few people outside the music world have heard of him. Yet briefly, he had a stint on MTV and Kirk Cobain even boasted him secretly via his nationally televised t-shirts.

Daniel’s singular obsession, and arguably his artistic muse, is a teenage love interest. The majority of his songs were directly inspired by Laurie Allen. If you’re looking for a happy ending to a rather sad and unfortunate life, do yourself a favor and watch the DVD extras for the reunion between Daniel and Laurie some 26 years later. It’s tear-jerking.


  1. The provenance of a painting is a document detailing past ownership and condition of a print as well as where it has been displayed. Source: that eminent non-esoteric source of art to the masses, eBay.
  2. Source: Wikipedia
  3. From Artsy: We strive to make all of the world’s art accessible to anyone online. Our Henry Darger page, for example, provides visitors with Darger’s bio, over 15 of his works, exclusive articles, as well as up-to-date Darger exhibition listings.

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