Great Artists in their own words: Out of the Darkness 1939-1966

BBC documentary using archive footage

It’s not straightforward getting access to these programmes in France and I’m really hoping I can get hold of the other programmes in the series. Running chronologically it’s fascinating to see the range of artwork produced in a little over two decades  – from the responses of Francis Bacon and Henry Moore to the horror of war through to the fascination of artists with popular culture.

These are notes I took while watching, I was particularly interested in what the artists themselves had to say. As pointed out in the very beginning of the programme the introduction of TV meant we could hear and see artists talking and working for the first time. I’ve found from other archive footage that artists are often generous in sharing their thoughts and speak plainly.

The common process of all these artists in how they talk about their own art is response – they describe their work as their response to whatever is going on around them. It’s not about trying to capture the essence or likeness of something. It is about their own emotional response.

Henry Moore

Shelter Scene: Bunks and Sleepers 1941 by Henry Moore OM, CH 1898-1986

Shelter Scene: Bunks and Sleepers, 1941, Henry Moore

Moore volunteered to be a war artist, what he saw had lasting impact on his work. Shelter drawings were a turning point. “What I was trying to show, was my reaction to this dramatic suspense – a tension between people – an impending disaster, a drama in silence”

Francis Bacon


Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944, Francis Bacon

Bacon volunteered in the home war effort and saw victims of bombing first hand. His 1944 work ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ was the result. Jenny Saville: “How can you get high, civilised society and this incredible brutality of exterminating people in a gas chamber? How do those two things co-exist? What is our human potential?…Bacon looked harshly at what it is we are as human beings”

Bacon: “A man of today who has seen all that thing of  the past, cannot go back, so he has to go through – back to – an immediacy of art in a totally different way. He has to work on himself to go back and to be able to make those images of immediacy”. He explains that he ‘drifts between’ the terms immediacy and violence, but prefers immediacy because violence has all sorts of implications. “Immediacy is just about the immediate object there before you”

Jackson Pollock: “On the floor I’m more at ease, I feel nearer, more part of the painting…I can literally be in the painting”

“It seems to be that new needs need new techniques. And the modern artists have found new ways and new means of making their statements….Each age finds its own technique’

When asked how the layman should look at a Pollock or any modern painting, Pollock responds: “I think they should not look for, but look passively and try to receive what the painting has to offer and not bring a subject matter or preconceived idea of what they are to be looking for”

Richard Hamilton


Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, 1956, Richard Hamilton

‘Father of English pop art’ “Suddenly it seemed to be important to be concerned with the mass media, intellectually but then to wipe it away from one’s interest in a studio seemed very odd…”

Will Self on English pop art describes it as satirical while acknowledging that we loved the new consumerism…“Look at us! Our willingness to abandon our own indigenous cultural forms in such a shameless and craven way”

Peter Blake – check film Pop Goes the Easel  ‘definitive film about pop art. Check ‘On the Balcony’ (Manet)

Robert Rauschenberg 


Collection, 1954, Robert Rauschenberg

“I wouldn’t be interested in any preconception…Im not interested in doing what I know I can do or what I think I can do. I want to be both spectator and painter”. He describes his method as working in the gap ‘between art and life’

In an interview with art critic Robert Hughes: “Were you really stressing the idea of a work of art being a puzzle with a solution that the viewer has to work towards? So do you establish these kinds of…?” 

RR: “YOU do. Those are YOUR experiences”

RH: “No, no you’re drawing the pictures doctor”

RR: “Yes but you’re the one who has all the references because of your experience”

(For American artists, US pop culture was the enemy, but in Britain pop art was a light-hearted celebration).

Roy Lichtenstein: “It’s dealing with the images that have come about in the commercial world and it’s using that – impressive, bold – it’s that quality I’m interested in.” Lichtenstein explains that all the qualities of cartoons  symbolised what we were getting in to – the ready made and plastic era.

Art Historian James Fox:  the nature of consumerist culture and mass media is  that things are reproduced ad infinitum…it becomes a hall of mirrors…. and in doing so some kind of authenticity is lost. In blowing up the images and taking them out of context we can see how artificial and abstract it is – we had been taking these things for real…

Warhol – by mass reproducing an image again and again you almost drain it of meaning. Susan Sonntag “He recreates the cultural world around him”

Will Self on Warhol: “Do you really want to sit in front of a Warhol silk screen for a couple of hours? Is there enough there to aesthetically interest you for a long period of time?”

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