Watch Portrait of an Artist: Jackson Pollock, the 1987 Documentary Narrated by Melvyn Bragg

Jack­son Pol­lock paint­ed with the kind of vis­cer­al imme­di­a­cy that frees you from hav­ing to know much about his ideas, his meth­ods, or his life. But spend enough time gaz­ing at his can­vas­es and you’ll sure­ly start to get curi­ous. If you’ve seen Melvyn Bragg talk to Fran­cis Bacon in stu­dio, gallery, café, and bar on the South Bank Show’s pro­file of the painter, you know how expert­ly he can open up an artist’s world. Two years after that Inter­na­tion­al Emmy-win­ning pro­gram, the broad­cast­er, writer, and House of Lords Mem­ber applied his tal­ents to a per­haps even less under­stood painter in Por­trait of an Artist: Jack­son Pol­lock. Where Bragg appeared as a par­tic­i­pa­to­ry pres­ence in The South Bank Show — to the extent, at one drink-sod­den point, of get­ting tip­sy him­self — here he sticks to nar­ra­tion. His rel­e­ga­tion to the sound­track per­haps reflects a cer­tain cul­tur­al dis­tance: to an Amer­i­can, Bragg seems about as Eng­lish a host as they come, and to the rest of the world, Pol­lock seems about as Amer­i­can a painter as they come — in his work as well as his life.

The Library Media Project describes Pol­lock as a “ ‘cow­boy’ from Wyoming” instru­men­tal in forg­ing the Amer­i­can art move­ment, Abstract Expres­sion­ism. They describe his life in the small­est nut­shell: “His famous ‘drip’ paint­ings earned him both noto­ri­ety and abuse and the pres­sures of new-found celebri­ty com­pound­ed his life­long strug­gle with alco­holism, a fight he lost when he died in a car crash at the age of 44,” In its 50 Bragg-nar­rat­ed min­utes, Por­trait of an Artist: Jack­son Pol­lock goes into far greater detail, using exist­ing radio con­ver­sa­tions with Pol­lock, pho­tog­ra­ph­er Hans Namuth’s film of Pol­lock at work, and inter­views with crit­ics, cura­tors, Pol­lock­’s col­leagues, his friends, his wid­ow, and his mis­tress. Where a biopic like Ed Har­ris’ Pol­lock plunges straight into the artist’s brash con­duct and volatile mix­ture of work and life, this doc­u­men­tary steps slight­ly back, exam­in­ing Pol­lock­’s paint­ings and the Hem­ing­wayesque exis­tence that gave rise to them in a cool­er — not to say more Eng­lish — light. Make them a dou­ble fea­ture, if you can.

Por­trait of an Artist: Jack­son Pol­lock will be added to the Doc­u­men­tary sec­tion of our col­lec­tion of 500 Free Movies Online.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Jack­son Pol­lock: Lights, Cam­era, Paint! (1951)

MoMA Puts Pol­lock, Rothko & de Koon­ing on Your iPad

Fran­cis Bacon on the South Bank Show: A Sin­gu­lar Pro­file of the Sin­gu­lar Painter

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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