So for those of you who have even just a passing interest in films about the arts, this is GREAT. The online service BFIPlayer today launches The Arts on Film, a collection of more than a hundred feature films and documentaries about painting and sculpture (mostly) but also photography, poetry and performance. Included are movies like Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio, 1986, and Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, 2014, but many of the offerings are comparatively obscure archival treasures. Some were co-funded by the Arts Council of Great Britain while others come from regional collections as well as the BFI’s own National Archive.
My only disappointment is that a fair few of them are only extracts from longer films that are not on offer. Even so, I’ve spent my whole professional life watching and writing about arts films and there is a good number here that I’ve never seen – and a few I have never even heard of. And while many are available on a pay-per-view basis, or via a monthly subscription of £4.99, a generous selection is absolutely free to view.
I could spend the next several months writing about films that are newly available here, and on the blog I will return to this again and again, but for today here are recommendations for five key films from World War Two and the immediate post-war years. Each one can be viewed currently on BFIPlayer for free.
Listen to Britain, 1942
Directed by Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister, this is a poem in sounds and images of the Home Front (and one of the ten films that I’d take to a desert island). Here’s an extract that every time I watch I find extraordinarily moving:
I wrote about the film for the DVD and Blu-ray release as part of the BFI’s The Complete Humphrey Jennings, Volume 2:
Lindsay Anderson described the film as ‘perhaps Jennings’s most completely successful work’. Yet for a documentary that has been so extensively discussed – as propaganda and as poetry, as a communal portrait of the home front, as an evocation of wartime collectivity and as an affirmation of a classless future – it remains a film that can surprise.
That Listen to Britain is structured as a day-in-the-life of the land is easy to forget, in part because the twenty-four hour cycle begins, unconventionally, in the afternoon. As a consequence, much of the early part of the film takes place at night (with dawn halfway through), and the lights and the music reinforce the sense of a people stoic and, in the most everyday way, steadfast. Given the title, it is also surprising that in Listen to Britain there is almost no speech, but rather only, as Leonard Brockington says in the superfluous introduction, ‘the evening hymn of the lark, the roar of the Spitfires’.
Then there are the surprises of individual shots, like the glorious, fluid swirl of the dancers in Blackpool, held initially on screen for ten seconds and then, after the briefest of breaks, returned to for a compelling, celebratory half-minute. These are the faces and the bodies of those who are fighting and for whom the war is being fought – not for an abstract ideal but for the possibility and the promise of these individual encounters and of this mass moving almost as one.
Out of Chaos, 1944
Given that this has long been unavailable in any form, Out of Chaos is perhaps the most welcome film in the collection. At least for those interested in the development of the arts documentary. For this Jill Craigie-directed wartime essay is the earliest substantial British film about living artists. There are substantial sections with Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer as well as the art of wartime firemen but the centrepiece is an extraordinary 5-minute sequence with Henry Moore creating one of his tube shelter drawings.
Moore’s work on this series was complete by the time Craigie came to film with him, and so the scenes in the tunnel and his studio are staged, but nonetheless their power is considerable. The overall subject of the film, as introduced by an uneasy-looking Kenneth Clark early, is the work of the War Artists Advisory Committee, but the documentary is also looking forward to a post-war world in which the arts will have a central place.
Artists Must Live, 1953
Commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain, and co-produced with BBC Television, this is a fascinating but little-known report on the problems faced by visual artists in modern Britain. As such it makes a perfect companion-piece for Out of Chaos. The market is modest, serious collectors and patrons are few and far between, and public commissions are rare. But director John Read, who would be the first great filmmaker of the British arts documentary, crafts from this material a rich and far from depressing film. Included are shots of, among others, Keith Vaughan, Reg Butler, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Jacob Epstein and Ivon Hitchens.
Figures in a Landscape, 1953
This extract illustrates the strikingly visual sense of this early colour film made by the pioneer arts documentary director Dudley Shaw Ashton. He visits the sculptor in St Ives where she had gone to live and work during the war, and together with the script by Jacquetta Hawkes he conjures up something mysterious, magical and just a little bit oddball.
Alongside the major Barbara Hepworth show at Tate Britain last year, where the film was exhibited in the main galleries, Georgia Korossi wrote for the BFI website an excellent introduction, Documenting form on film: Barbara Hepworth reimagined, from which this is an extract:
An imaginative Technicolor documentary about Hepworth’s work, Figures in a Landscape was one of the first films backed by the BFI Experimental Film Fund, granting filmmaker Ashton incredible access to Hepworth’s Trewyn Studio (now the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Garden) in Cornwall and the Cornish settings that inspired her work. Its innovative use of camera movement around Hepworth’s still sculptures in the Cornish landscape, alongside composer Priaulx Rainier’s radical score and poet Cecil Day-Lewis’s narration of writer Jacquetta Hawkes’ words, make it a collaborative artwork in its own right. It spearheaded an alternative British art cinema that ultimately became the focus of the Experimental Film Fund (1952-99) during its nearly 50-year operation. Apart from shedding a new light on Hepworth’s work, Ashton’s film has, in Dutch documentarist Henri Storck’s words, a “unique and mysterious quality”. In his review of the film, Storck explains:
“There is no doubt that Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures are in themselves works of great beauty; but Dudley Shaw Ashton’s purpose is more exacting, he is not content merely to let us share his admiration for them, he attempts to draw us into the heart and truth of her work. As his film reveals itself he behaves as though this beauty did not exist; he makes no attempt to impose it on us, instead, he waits tranquilly for the beauty itself to bear witness to its truth: he treats it as a jeweller treats a diamond when he sets it in a piece of jewellery and waits for the result of his work to dazzle us.”
After he had completed his contract as the first Chair of the Independent Television Authority, Kenneth Clark wrote and presented numerous television programmes for ATV between 1957 and the mid-1960s. It was in the production of these that he refined the style and persona that was to be so crucial when he came to make for the BBC the landmark series Civilisation, 1969. The early studio programmes often have an uneasy form and an uncertain tone, but by the time of this live broadcast Clark was more comfortable as a lecturer for the small screen.