Hidden Histories: Blessed and Cursed

This month I’ve watched two beautiful documentary films about artists – ‘Tish’, about the late Tish Murtha, documentary photographer, and ‘Amselm’, Wim Wenders film on Anselm Kiefer (who needs no introduction!).

Both films were wildly different and about wildly different people, but interestingly one thread wove it’s way through them both: which was the artists insistence on telling stories that were hidden or not talked about.

Tish Murtha was a working class woman (one of 10 children) born into poverty in the North East of England. By chance she found a camera in an empty house and her life changed from that moment on. Via a photography college course and later one of the only documentary photography courses in Britain at the time, in Aberystwyth, she ploughed a furrow on her own through Thatcherite Britain. She turned her camera most strikingly on her own community in the North East, showing the generation lost to poverty, unemployment and crime (some of the most moving interviews in the film are with her brothers and sisters, who, having obviously struggled through life, still look back in bewilderment at how their generation was so utterly abandoned).

Though, to paraphrase Hilary Mantel, ‘to be a woman and make it in the arts is one thing, but to be working class is quite another’. Despite some early ‘success’- gallery shows, commissions etc- Tish just couldn’t make a living from her art.

Partly due to her prickly nature (Tish often turned down opportunities if she felt that the people would just be looking at poverty as an aesthetic consideration- she was staunchly left wing), and partly due to the lack of model and aspiration for a working class artist, Tish spent much of her later life in poverty and all but stopped her photography. She died suddenly and early from a brain haemorrhage. Her daughter Ella has since published several books of her photographs, produced this film and continues to champion her mother and her art.

Though her early death was a tragedy, what seems just as tragic is the cessation of her photography. This is a film about working class heroes, that never quite made it, that fade away. For one brief and wonderful moment, Tish shone a blindingly bright light on another world, a world within our world, a world that, though it’s right in front of us, we choose not to see. Because she wasn’t able to sustain that light, doesn’t invalidate or discredit these tremendous photographs.

‘Anselm’, of course, is another creature altogether- a behemoth one might say. Big art, big ego, big warehouses of art, big ideas. Everything is big, it seems, in Anselm Kiefer’s world. And yet, Wim Wenders films him mainly when quiet or in contemplation, often cycling around his vast warehouse of art, as if it all got a bit out of control and now the art does it’s own thing.

Using footage from other documentaries about Kiefer from his early years onwards, Wenders shows us his early promise, his early and constant urge to be outside the big cities and ‘the art world’, and his wanting to turn towards the elephant in the room in post-war Germany- the legacy of the Second World War.

His photographs of himself doing a Nazi salute in various different locations around Europe was his way of opening the conversation- he explains the almost total blanket silence and shame around Nazism during his formative years in the 50s and 60s.

Again and again, he turns towards these uncomfortable truths. Even his landscapes are an attempt to look at what happens to a land once it has been through total war and the devastation of the war, both physically and psychologically.

His images and installations are beautiful in their darkness. Everything is so grand in scale that it can be hard to remember that, as the artist himself says, he’s just trying to look at and talk about things that can’t be talked about. And that, after all, is the purpose and delight of art.

Both these artists, so different in nature, insist, stubbornly, that we must look at that which we, and society, are choosing not to. Because if we don’t we’re not seeing the whole truth and we will repeat ourselves.

One of these artists was born into a liberal middle class family at the end of the Second World War (1945) and the other into a working class family on the cusp of a catastrophe for the working classes of Northern England. Both have used what they’ve been blessed and cursed with to make great, change-making art.