By Tanya Barson
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Changing Dialogue

This article is over 18 years, 1 months old
Tanya Barson looks at the rich history of art and documentary in Britain from 1929 to now.
Issue 303

The 1930s and 1940s can be viewed as the era in which documentary was first defined and given recognition as an independent area of production. Central to this was the film movement of the 1930s, led by the producer and film-maker John Grierson, who had coined the term ‘documentary’.

Grierson defined documentary as ‘the creative use of actuality’. He was influenced by modernist film practice, yet attempted to reintroduce social commentary into avant garde film.

At the same time the artist William Coldstream, troubled by the inaccessibility of avant garde painting to a general audience, turned briefly to film-making in 1934, working at the General Post Office Film Unit. When he returned to painting, it was with a new commitment to observational realism inspired by Grierson’s ideals. Coldstream also participated in Mass Observation. Mass Observation sought to record working class lives and experiences, but it was not a straightforward exercise; complex and sometimes contradictory in its motives and methods, it attracted artists on both sides of the realist versus surrealist debate.

The documentary movement of the 1930s arose in the context of the broadly left politics of the popular front. With the Wall Street crash in 1929 and the depression, artists, writers, photographers and film-makers became increasingly politicised and focused attention on working class subjects and themes of social inequality. Coldstream explained, ‘The 1930s slump affected us all very considerably… it caused immense change in our general outlook… Everyone began to be interested in economics and then in politics.’

With the outbreak of the Second World War, many of the artists and practitioners who had been involved in documentary projects during the 1930s were co-opted into official bodies for the creation of propaganda. Bill Brandt, Henry Moore and Humphrey Jennings created works in diverse media that attempted to define the home front.

The legacy of the documentary movement endured in the post-war era, as did the concern with social realism in art. Notably the group of directors associated with the Free Cinema movement aimed to represent ‘the whole of Britain’ by bringing regional and working class lives to the screen.

In painting, the lines were redrawn between two opposing concepts of realism, modernist realism and kitchen sink realism. Modernist realism did not involve a single identifiable style but was characterised by a concern with the human condition and the nature of existence, while kitchen sink realism concentrated on unheroic depictions of the everyday in still life, landscape and industrial scenes.

In the 1960s, the advent of television docudramas, documentaries and regional soap operas effected a dissemination of documentary realism through popular culture. Ken Loach’s 1966 television drama Cathy Come Home mixed fiction with documentary research and stylistic devices (such as action-led camera) to address homelessness; it contributed decisively to the debate about the power of television in raising public awareness and the ambiguities surrounding such hybrid forms.

During the 1970s and 1980s, feminists, black artists and film-makers used, and often subverted, documentary modes in order to address the role of women in society and the construction of a multicultural image of Britain. Questions about the nature, extent and definition of documentary continue to have relevance today and underpin the work of many contemporary artists.

The proliferation of works – including those that restage history, reconstruct the past or feature (false) archives – reflects the increasing distrust of fixed concepts of ‘fact’ and ‘history’. For instance, Jeremy Deller confronts our relationship to history, signalling that the way in which events are framed depends on those in power. His 2001 re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave – a clash between police and miners during the 1984-5 Miners Strike – transforms the way the event had previously been treated and understood.

Documentary continues to be an area where new forms or structures are created. There has been a sustained, though complex and changing, dialogue between art and documentary in Britain – a dialogue that continues today.

Tanya Barson is the curator of the exhibition Making History at the Tate Liverpool. Go to for more information.

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