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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