Over a century has gone by and we still do not know who is the first artist to be filmed. Thousands of hours of footage of artists exist, from Monet, Lovis Corinth, and Kandinsky to Degas and Rodin yet the study of this material remains outside the mainstream of art history.

George Grosz at Work. Filmed in Berlin in the Twenties by Hans Curlis from the series Schaffende Hände
George Grosz at Work. Filmed in Berlin in the Twenties by Hans Curlis from the series Schaffende Hände

The first series ever initiated by art historians and devoted to the study and screening of such footage took place at the Courtauld this Spring. It was sponsored by the Friends of the Courtauld for the Institute’s Research Forum. The event was curated by the Artists on Film Trust. The series, entitled Vasari with a Movie Camera, was not only the first of its kind, it brought pre-eminent documentary film-makers to the Courtauld.

John Wyver, Anthony Wall, Peter Adam and Roly Keating have between them consistently produced fine award-winning films about living artists. To witness film-makers addressing art historians about their work was extremely rewarding. My own experience as both film-maker and art historian had led me to conclude that traffic between the two professions has until now been one way. In what sense? Documentary film-makers have always read art history and absorbed it into their work, but art historians have not been able to "read" documentary film and have not incorporated the evidence it contains into their studies.

In this, the age of film, such a situation cannot be sustained.
The quality of the footage shown revealed how rich the material is and emphasised how under-exploited by art historians it remains. This is largely due to the fact that the films are unavailable for study. If historians cannot have access to them, they cannot be expected to study them, let alone incorporate them into their work. One of the aims of the series was to loosen this log-jam. It was therefore encouraging to hear the Controller of BBC 2, Roly Keating, talking about the wealth of the BBC’s archive and of the importance of studying it. He illustrated this with the seminal 1957 documentary about Lowry, and contrasted it with one made today about John Virtue, whose work is now on display in the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery.

George Grosz at Work. Filmed in Berlin in the Twenties by Hans Curlis from the series Schaffende Hände
George Grosz at Work. Filmed in Berlin in the Twenties by Hans Curlis from the series Schaffende Hände

A separate screening was led by Anthony Wall, Editor of BBC’s ARENA, and Gerald Scarfe. Together they reconstructed their collaboration in the production of the artist’s self portrait 'Scarfe on Scarfe’. The screening of this BAFTA winner was followed by a general discussion with the audience which considered the film as an extension in cinematic form of the tradition of European self portraiture. Other programmes in the series screened footage of Man Ray, Howard Hodgkin, Kandinsky, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Max Pechstein, Arno Breker and Kathe Kollwitz.

The Artists on Film Trust was established precisely to foster this kind of dialogue and it was rewarding for both Hannah Rothschild and myself, its founders, to see our work taking root at Somerset House, where this stimulating interdisciplinary initiative will, we trust, continue to explore the relationship between documentary film and art history.

The Trust is now located at Chelsea College of Art, where we will gradually establish a study collection of film of artists at work and in conversation — so that, one day, research may finally confirm who is the first artist on film. My money is on one of the three Ms — Monet, Melies or Thomas Moran.

Robert McNab
Artist on Film Trust