For centuries, artists have reflected the issues of the eras they lived in, shaping the way we look back at those times and the people in them.
In its six-episode series, The Genius of British Art, Channel 4 examines the history of British art in close relation to its socio-historical context – which makes it all the more poignant and interesting, and, most importantly, also makes the art featured in it more accessible.
The episode I’m reviewing here is series 1, episode 5, which covers British modern art and is presented by none other than the mildly irritating Janet Street Porter..!
Irritation aside though, JSP is certainly compelling in that, having immersed herself in London’s happening art scene after escaping the dullness of her parents’ stiflingly suburban homestead, she is able to speak to the viewer with first-hand accounts of the explosion of British modern art and its impact on society.
As JSP herself defines it, “Art that said ‘bollocks’ to British complacency.”
This episode begins in the post-WWII 1950s, with Janet revisiting her teenage years. First stop, Patrick Heron, who opened her eyes to the genius of British modern art.
You can see more of Heron’s stunning work at the BBC’s Your Paintings site, which aims to showcase the entirety of the UK’s national collection of oil paintings from the thousands of museums and other public institutions that own and/or display them, the stories behind them and their artists, and where you can find them for real.
Next up, we have Francis Bacon, who shocked and appalled the British art world when he sprung onto the scene in 1944 with Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion:
Bacon’s outlook was characteristically dark and was reflected in the brutal imagery he employed in his paintings. The human body became meat, while gritted teeth and screaming mouths convey the inhumanity Bacon believed the world was so rife with.
Bacon’s (some say masochistic) homosexuality was another theme that ran unapologetically throughout his work. which shocked and appalled society at the time, which wasn’t to see the Wolfenden Report’s proposed decriminalisation of homosexuality for another decade.
JSP next visits the swinging 60s. Britain, she reports, was actually becoming a vibrant and fun place to be – a marked difference to the dreary decades that had just passed. A burgeoning and colourful pop culture was reflected in the artwork of the likes of Peter Blake, David Hockney and Joe Tilson:
This new art in the 1960s was a reflection of the optimism held dear by America – it eluded to dreams, aspirations and ambition… It told people they were going to enjoy a nice shiny new car, a big, beautiful house with all the mod cons, and a great sex life.
Richard Hamilton’s work, Just What is it that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, is hailed as the polemic of the decade. Comprised of images from American magazines, it’s a celebration of all those shiny new mod cons that would liberate all levels of society – the vacuum cleaner, convenience food, television, and the dawn of a progressive, classless Britain:
JSP speaks with Gilbert and George, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry about how art has, over time, seeped into the very heart of British culture.
This documentary is well worth a watch – the historical contextualisation of art (or any cultural happening) is absolutely what helps us to understand what’s in front of them and what message or narrative it’s conveying.
Also, where for some, the art produced by the likes of Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst can be a bit hard to swallow, such contextualisation can help them be more sympathetic towards the work because they can better understand where the work came from and what the artist is trying to communicate to the viewer.
This documentary is great at showing us how British artists have railed against society’s norms and reacted to social and political turmoil to produce art that consistently pushes the boundaries of what the establishment perceives as ‘real’ art.
Leave a comment and let me know what you think of the documentary itself or any of the work associated with it – and if you know of any other great must-see art docs, please let me know!!