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THE REBEL REVISITED
The Rebel starring Tony Hancock first appeared on the big screen in 1961 at the beginning of a decade which was to witness enormous social and cultural change. The creators of the film the writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson along with Hancock, who contributed to the screenplay, saw the opportunity to plug in to the cultural phenomenon that was “modern art”. They were aware of the comedy potential it could deliver since it was a treasure trove of source material. Keeping in mind that Hancock was a popular entertainer with successful radio and television programmes under his belt, The Rebel was obviously intended to speak to a popular audience. And what of this consuming audience? It would be true to say that a fairly high percentage of the British public would have known little about modern art, possibly with the exception of what might have been reported in the tabloids or perhaps television. As a Scottish person, I was interested to note that the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art only opened in 1960, this suggests that modern art was not widely known to the general public in Britain at that time. That is, as already mentioned, except for emerging news from the continent or the USA about strange goings on with artists such as Jackson Pollock throwing cans of paint at the floor. Or, in the case of Pablo Picasso (probably the most famous living artist at the time) painting women with two eyes on the same side of their face. Then there was Salvador Dali whose well-publicised antics would have likely convinced the person on the street that the eccentricity of the modern artist was out of the ordinary and quite often a source of amusement. So, here was a ready-made comedy vehicle to be tapped into. Having been sensationalised in the tabloid press it would have been a talking point in the home, at work and in the pub for those who were unacquainted for the most part with the modern art scene. The writers were aware that by referencing artists like Picasso, Pollock and Dali in the film the public would latch on immediately. They were sharing a joke with a receptive audience; this was comedy gold.
This is perhaps the reason why The Rebel (especially at the time it was released) has suffered the accusation that the film itself was philistine material aimed at a philistine audience. The American film critic Bosley Crowther wrote a scathing review in The New York Times insinuating that Hancock was the new Norman Wisdom. This seems incredulous today as not many people would speak of the two in the same breath. It is my proposition, however, that, far from being a low-brow type of entertainment, I would suggest that The Rebel is a worthwhile cultural record of artistic practise in the mid-twentieth-century which, far from poking fun at modern art for the sake of it, actually predicts the direction contemporary art would follow in the future. In fact, The Rebel does not portray a modern artist, it portrays a post-modern artist. Anthony Hancock is a post-modern artist. In order to articulate this proposition, it is necessary to change the narrative of the film. That is, rather than following the idea that Hancock’s work is rubbish and Paul’s is exceptional, it is possible to imagine a different outcome. In another, parallel universe we see Paul’s (it has to be said mediocre paintings) being completely overlooked by the influential critic and Hancock’s flair as a charismatic creative guru taking centre stage. In this case scenario it would have been a figure such as American artist Andy Warhol that would have emerged. Hancock would have influenced the avant-garde crowd who hung on his every word and Paul would have become a “follower”. Some might say that this is an unlikely flight of fancy, however, I do not see why the viewer is compelled to take as gospel the idea that artistic competence is so all important. Obviously, it is a factor and it is undeniable that Hancock’s lack of technical ability as an artist is a crucial part of the film’s running joke. However, putting this aside and looking at it from a theoretical point of view, a question needs to be addressed. That is, “who is telling us that Hancock’s art is rubbish”?
He is said to be of the “infantile” school and, yes – that’s funny. However, Picasso is quoted as saying that “every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up”. Coming from such an authoritative voice as Picasso’s it would seem that Hancock’s paintings were not the rubbish they are declared to be. Also, if the paintings of women (and sculpture) by the artist William de Kooning are considered, again, Hancock is not as awful as the narrative in the film insists he is. Looking at de Kooning’s series Woman III from the 1950’s it is clear that Aphrodite at the Waterhole had been here before. Even earlier artists such as LS Lowry, an artist deemed traditional and praised for his naïve, childlike portrayals of “match-stick men” can be thrown into the mix of “bad art”, if you would care to call it that. So, what we are dealing with here is an art establishment dictating what people should be perceiving as “bad art” – only if they tell them it is! For example, the art critic John A Walker states in an article, written in 2009, on the subject of The Rebel that a few decades later there would be a vogue for bad paintings by artists such as Georg Baselitz and Bruce McLean. He claims that these artists would be “exhibiting sculptures of equivalent awfulness (I take this to mean as awful as Hancock’s) in major galleries”. This is a statement worth scrutiny; did he forget about De Kooning? And, was he suggesting that Baselitz and McLean were not worthy of being exhibited in major galleries? Of course, this is only a matter of opinion and this misconception is where it becomes difficult to accept the premise that Hancock is a bad artist. Interestingly, the same artist (Alistair Grant) was commissioned to paint both Paul Ashby’s good paintings and Anthony Hancock’s bad paintings. This suggests that the artist’s hand is capable of both, thereby taking away the notion that good and bad art can only be achieved by a good or bad artist.
The Rebel Revisited: Arts Articles
The situation with Hancock and Paul is central to this misconception, that is, Paul who invites Hancock to share his studio in Paris is promoted as a talented artist whereas Hancock’s paintings are declared, by implication, to be rubbish. To return to John A Walker’s critique, many people would be unhappy about his assessment of Georg Baselitz’s work, however, he may endorse another artist that these same observers would find uninspiring. In the case of Paul, looking at the paintings he has produced it is clear that he is a mediocre artist. Yet, the reaction from the critic makes it seem like Sir Charles Brewer has discovered another Picasso or the like. Although Paul is a nice person, he is not charismatic. Hancock, on the other hand, is funny, he makes people smile, he contributes something to their creative impulse. Although this is parodied to hilarious effect in the scene with the poet in Paris, it is relevant. I come back to Andy Warhol. Warhol emerged as a tour de force of the New York avant-garde art scene only a year after The Rebel was released. Like Hancock, he was regarded at first as a “bad” artist, critics were said at the time to have perceived his art as “artless, style-less and anonymous”. It is said that he appalled the art establishment because he represented a complete transvaluation of the aesthetic principles that had dominated the art world for several generations. I am not saying that Hancock is an artist like Warhol in technical terms, what I am saying is that the established view towards his work is similar to the view of Warhol’s at the time. Warhol was an accomplished commercial artist (drawing shoes for magazines primarily). However, art critics and the general public for that matter did not get what he began to produce such as repeated images of Campbell’s soup cans and oversized Brillo box sculptures. Crucially, art was his living, his means of making money so he was, from the start, concerned with his work ethic. Even his place of production was later to be known as the “Factory” rather than the artier label of the “studio”. Warhol is said to have declared that “making money is art and good business is the best art”. There is an interesting scene in The Rebel where Hancock and Paul discuss their different approaches to making art. Hancock is cavalier declaring that he has had “a canvas twelve by eight filled in, framed and flogged before the first dab of paint is dry. Paul on the other hand is more serious, “it’s not like that for me” he says, “every brushstroke is torn out of my body”. Pauls reaction would have seemed strange to Warhol who maintained (to the irritation of critics) a detached, almost machine like relationship to his work. He would have been more in tune with Hancock. Other quotes credited to Warhol back this up, such as when he claims “art is what you can get away with” and “it’s not what you are that counts, it’s what they think you are”.
Looking at The Rebel with hindsight from the perspective of the late-twentieth/early twenty-first-century view of art history, it is not an exaggeration to say that it broke down some barriers between high and popular culture. I would describe The Rebel as a Pop-Art film which used various tools to express a contemporary view of art to the public, albeit dressed up in a comedic guise. The actual look of the film is a testament to this with the use of vibrant, eye-catching Technicolour, the way it incorporated the visual environment of the time with shots of commercial advertisements on billboards. It even nodded towards the idea of foreign holidays (Paris as a tourist destination), travel posters clearly visible in the coffee bar, cruise ships and glamour. This would have been a magnet for the viewing public and all the more so bearing in mind that Hancock was a connection to this world through the medium of television, he came into their living rooms regularly, he was known to them. Also, it is no accident that Frank Cordell of The Independent Group was commissioned to compose the music for the film. The Independent Group was founded in 1952 (Cordell and his artist wife Magda were both members), it is regarded as the precursor to the Pop Art movement in Britain. The makers of The Rebel were aware of the future world to come just as The Independent Group were when they staged the first Pop Art style exhibition in Britain in 1956, entitled This is Tomorrow. Far from being a low-brow exercise in philistinism, (an idea that was bandied about by some of its negators and which has, unfortunately, stuck to some extent) The Rebel was a box-office success, Hancock was even nominated to receive a BAFTA for his performance. The creators of the film were men of their time, existing in a world of popular culture, of entertainment, of new cultural possibilities. The Rebel was their homage to the cultural identity of the future.
Images (from top to bottom)
Hancock and Mrs Cravatte his landlady
Andy Warhol with Campbell's soup cans
Woman III - Willem de Kooning (1951-53)
Painting by LS Lowry (1963)
George Baselitz sculpture
Andy Warhol's Factory crowd
The Rebel Revisited: Arts Articles
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