The three-part BBC4 series ‘Great Artists in Their Own Words’ – which ended last night, but be grateful for catch-up TV – is essentially a look at all the most significant artist of the 20th century (a few kept going into the 21st) who happened to speak in front of a microphone and film camera. In other words, nearly all the great artists of that first full century of recorded sound technology.
The artist-on-film theme is more than just a peg on which to hang yet another primetime documentary portrait of the Famous Painter. The grainy snippets of interviews for long-lost arts programmes such as the BBC’s Monitor make for fascinating viewing, supplemented by ‘talking heads’ including art experts, artists and Tracey Emin.
I’d imagined any utterances from the likes of Man Ray, Francis Bacon and Roy Lichtenstein had already found their way into the accepted accounts of their lives and works, as picked over and interpreted by critics (and TV programmes) down the years, leaving little for the old interviews to add. I was wrong. Watching the way these men and women respond to questioning, and tapping into the nuances in their words, throw fresh light on their art. Painting is arguably the most personal of art forms, so what’s not to be gained from getting up close to Picasso from the comfort of your living room?