Pollock vs Pollock

The Oxford Dictionary defines the term ‘’biography’’ as ‘an account of someone’s life written by someone else’[1]. Since Giorgio Vasari (an Italian painter, writer, historian, 1511-1574) introduced a collection of the biographical stories about artists of the Italian Renaissance, the artist biographies have become an important concern in the field of Art History. This paper examines the role of the artist’s biography in different kinds of representations and the concept of subjectivity and its influence on the Pollock’s representation, as well as argues that the movie has emphasized the author’s most striking moments to make an audience engaged at the expense of the account of a psychoanalysis that would help the audience to ‘dig deeper’. The paper begins with illustration of the contrasts between a biographical movie ‘’Pollock’’ (Sony Pictures Classics, dir. by Ed Harris, 2002) and the catalogue ‘Jackson Pollock: Drawing into Painting’[2] published by Museum of Modern Art, Oxford accompanying the exhibition of Jackson Pollock (an American abstract artist, 1912-1956) from 1st April – 13th May 1979.

The movie ‘’Pollock’’ was based on the full biography Jackson Pollock: An American Saga[3] by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. What disturbs the mediation between artist and the society here, is the story of Jackson Pollock presented chronologically only from 1941 to 1956; the director creates the main narrative of Pollock’s life by reducing his life account to the most productive years. Sheila Curran Bernard states that ‘a story is a narrative […] of […] series of events, crafted in a way to interest the audience members […]’[4]. Building on this idea, the shortened biography and the structure of the movie narrative are constructed to raise the interest, curiosity, emphasis and the tension of audiences. Moreover, the intimate details of Pollock’s experience create a bond between the viewers and the artist and immerse the viewers into the plot on a psychological level, as well as an intellectual. The narrative represents the artist in a closer way to the viewer, applying his mental issues, alcoholism, love and success and focusing on the events that influenced and shaped his methods of painting and his ways of seeing. The artist’s personality strongly engages with the audience; hence, the viewer connects the artist’s reality and life events. The biographic narrative starts at the beginning of his career and ends with the Pollock’s death. In other words, the movie script indicates that the exclusive focus on the fifteen-year period is the crucial image of his artistic ability that the audiences should receive, omitting the significance of previous accounts. For this purpose, the shortened biography introduces only ‘the ‘‘expression’’ of the creative personality of the artist’[5], ‘showing the development of the work, the creative process’[6]. The story of the movie settles an inevitable narrative explosion at the end and becomes a tool for establishing a new concept of Pollock’s life excluding the previous twenty years.

In contrary, the catalogue representation of Jackson Pollock’s biography is very brief, filling half of the first page. Four paragraphs describe the city of origin, education and possible artist influences and a cause of death. Further examination of the catalogue shows that the next essay ‘Myths’[7] by David Elliot outlines the emotional problems and introduces the Jungian psychological treatment that Pollock underwent at his young age. The essay constitutes the idea that the mental illness, as a consequence of family issues, was the actual origin of Pollock’s creativity. The next essay in the catalogue scrutinizingly depicts the period from 1943 to 1953 reviewing and analysing the artworks created during this period focusing on the techniques and methods as well as the main theme and subject. As a matter of fact, the artist’s personality is presented as hidden and interpreted through his art only. The ‘interpretative criticism’[8] of the catalogue shapes the artist into an ‘unreachable’ object that can be examined only through experiencing and interpreting his artworks. For this reason, the relationship between the artist as a creator and art as the creation becomes the medium of aesthetics and an art historian becomes a mediator between art and public[9].

The biography book Jackson Pollock: An American Saga inspired Ed Harris, the director of Pollock, to such an extent that the filmmaker decided to employ the narrative of the book into the movie and play the role of Jackson Pollock. As a consequence, the narrative of the movie is highly influenced by the director’s subjectivity and involvement and his decisions about his own representation of the artist’s personality. Thus, the analysis of the subject is artistic as well as psychological. The action painting in Hans Namuth’s (a German photographer, 1915-1990) short movie performed by Jackson Pollock in 1951 (Fig.1) was re-created by Ed Harris in Pollock (Fig.2). The director uses his subjective representation and imitates the artistic technique of the artist. Although the original and the re-created footage create a complying dialogue, the Harris’ subjective experimental approach is apparent.

As already discussed, the catalogue does not interpret a personal biography of the artist, but an artistic biography. The representation of the artist in the catalogue is primarily shaped by ‘a narration based on the signifiers of the artist’s artistness’[10], focusing exclusively on the interpretation of art as a ‘prominent aspect of the biography of the artist’[11]creating his personality. That is to say, no level of author’s subjectivity is developed in the theory of Jackson Pollock’s art through the documentary examples and interpretive material used in the catalogue.

At this point, this is to say; however, conversely that questioning Art History by using different kinds of representations serves as an instrument for understanding and developing aesthetics and taste. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York financially sponsored both of the discussed representations. Such a sponsorship indicates the importance and emphasises of the necessity of representations for the audiences and further researches.

To conclude, this essay has demonstrated the essence of an audience plays an important role in any representation of an artist. On the one hand, the audiences construct the artist’s personality through his artworks and artistic skills; on the other hand, the art is constructed through the personality of the subject. To repeat, the artist’s image is affected by the involvement of the biographer. The interpretative feature of the discussed catalogue plays an important role in creating the artist’s identity, while the movie representation uses the artist’s personality in creating the attributes of the artworks. Any type of artist representation works as a mediator between society and the artist. However, the artist’s image is constructed from various standpoints; a perceiving observer or a presenting art historian shapes the artistic subject differently. The topic of representing an artist in two examined kinds of media raises questions about the sufficiency, authenticity and value of the material in representing Art History.

Fig. 1 Still from Jackson Pollock ’51, Jackson Pollock, 1951, Hans Namuth Production, 00:59/10:13


Fig. 2 Still from Pollock, Ed Harris, 2002, Sony Pictures Classics 01:26:36/02:03:16




1 Stevenson, Angus. Oxford Dictionary of English. 3rd Ed. / Edited by Angus Stevenson. ed. Oxford [England] ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[2] Museum of Modern Art. International Council. Jackson Pollock : Drawing into Painting. Oxford: Museum of Modern Art, 1979.

[3] Naifeh, Steven, and Gregory White Smith. Jackson Pollock: an American saga. 1989. New York, N.Y.: C.N. Potter.

[4] Bernard, Sheila Curran. Documentary Storytelling: Making Stronger and More Dramatic Nonfiction Films, Taylor & Francis Group, 2010. p. 15

[5] Pollock, G. “Artists, Mythologies and Media — Genius, Madness and Art History.” Screen 21, no. 3 (1980): 57-96. p.58-59

[6] Dalle Vacche, Angela. Film, Art, New Media: Museum Without Walls? Museum Without Walls?: ‘The Artist’s Studio: The Affair of Art and Film’, 2012. London: Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137026132

[7] Museum of Modern Art.; Jackson Pollock : Drawing into Painting. p.7

[8] Pollock, G. “Artists, Mythologies and Media’’, p.65

[9] [9] Pollock, G. “Artists, Mythologies and Media’’, p.65

[10] [10] Pollock, G. “Artists, Mythologies and Media’’, p.63

[11] Soussloff, Catherine M.. Absolute Artist : The Historiography of a Concept, University of Minnesota Press, 1997. p. 33


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