When Julius Caesar introduced his calendar in 45 BC, he made January 1st the start of the year. Though the Julian calendar was not perfect, the idea of measuring time became worthy of serious contemplation. Naturally by this time of the year, people rethink life and readjust their plans for the following year, hoping that it will be different and bring something new. I use films as a tool in order to rethink life. I had the privilege of watching again Pollock (Ed Harris, 2001) earlier this month and that experience led me to an astonishing discovery: we want change but we are almost never ready for it.
In 1942, Paul Jackson Pollock was an unknown painter. He lived in a small flat in New York with his future wife, the also painter, Lee Krasner, who was determinated to introduce Pollock to a wealthy curator. Pollock worked tirelessly. His paintings had the same flavour of Cubism and Surrealism, but Pollock was instinctively after something completely new. He wanted to make a breakthrough.
One day the couple received the visit of Howard Putzel, who was Peggy Guggeinheim‘s assistant. Peggy had opened her art gallery in Manhattan in October that year. Married to the Surrealist Max Ernst, she held temporary exhibitions of leading European artists, such as Georges Braque, Salvador Dalí, Piet Mondrian and Francis Picabia, and of several then unknown young Americans, such as Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, Mark Rothko, David Hare and Robert de Niro Sr, father of the actor Robert de Niro. During a collective exhibition, Jackson Pollock became the darling of the gallery. As a consequence, Peggy commissioned Pollock to create a mural for the gates of her new townhouse.
Pollock and Krasner were thrilled with this opportunity but Pollock knew he had to create something powerful under pressure. Six months after the commission, Pollock had an epiphany. Accidently, by dropping paint on the floor, Pollock liberated himself from the vertical constraints of the canvas. He started painting in a completely abstract manner. He created a “drip style”, marked by the use of sticks, trowels, or knives to drip and splatter paint, as well as pouring paint directly from the can. His mural revolutionised art history.
Like art, like cinema
But how did Pollock make people rethink art? In Ed Harris’s biopic movie (he both directed the movie and starred as the protagonist), Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden) tries to draw Howard Putzel’s attention in very peculiar ways. She struggles to define her lover’s work in words. She describes it as a hybrid of two or three other painters who belonged to the School of French Painting, but indeed no artist influenced Pollock’s work. It is very clear that Putzel is in front of something totally new but at the same time he is trying to stick a category label on the work. He cannot figure out something he doesn’t know. This is what film critics do. This is what we all do when we rethink 2016 and plan 2017. Despite wanting something new, we relish familiar elements. We want changes but we resist adaptation. We want to refresh ourselves but we don’t like to suffer the unbalance.
An Italian magazine defined Pollock as a “povero (poor) Picasso”, which infuriated Pollock. There was nothing poor in his art. It was the pure expression of a tormented soul. Pollock was a compulsive drinker, and Harris’s performance magnifies his unbalanced personality. In an interview to Life Magazine, Pollock said that he admired Kandinsky but he didn’t copy the Russian painter. He invoked him instead. It was the spiritual element in art that both Kandinsky and Pollock were after. The accident. The fracture. In other words, Abstract Expressionism.
Oh, no, sorry readers. I am trying to welcome the new but I fell into the same trap again. I have just categorised Pollock.
Pollock in London
After the screening of Pollock earlier this month at the Curzon Soho in London, Ed Harris came to stage and commented: “Oh, you are all here. Thanks for staying until the end”. Harris knows he had pushed his limits while filming and enacting Jackson Pollock. The feature is intense and watching it demands energy. He directed another film later – the not-so-popular Appaloosa, 2008 -, and then he came back to acting. Indeed there was no need for Harris to direct a second movie. He had already achieved perfection in Pollock. Harris captured the spiritual element in Pollock’s character in such a way that I felt Harris was painting exactly like Pollock, as if painter’s spirit had possessed his body. In fact Ed Harris’s love for the painter grew for ten years, from the moment his father gave him the biography ‘To a Violent Grave’. His father bought the book because he thought that the painter resembled his son physically.
Pollock broke the conventions. His wife once said “I have never been able to understand the artist whose image never changes”. And that is exactly what Pollock did. He expressed his feelings rather than illustrated something. Feelings change. People change. If you happen to see Pollock’s paintings twice within a gap of 20 years, you won’t see the same thing. You won’t see a house, a tree or a woman; you’ll see yourself and the artist.
So here is the lesson Pollock taught me. Don’t be anxious, don’t run for it, what’s new will come. Maybe by chance, maybe by accident, just like Pollock’s unintentional paint spill on Peggy’s mural. Or just like when Ed Harris’s father gave his son Pollock’s biography. Happy New Year!
In time: you can order Pollock via Amazon. You can also enjoy Pollock’s paintings at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The Abstract Expressionism exhibition finishes on January 2nd. More info here.