Tony Hancock’s 1960 film is not only one of the best films that have been made about the life of an artist it’s also pretty funny too.. You can read a full summary of the plot here but it’s basically a parody of the Somerset Maugham story The Moon and Sixpence, (itself based in part on the life of Gauguin) where the English comedian Tony Hancock gives up a life of dull bowler hatted conformity to live the life of an artist in the Paris of the 1950’s.
The character Tony Hancock plays in the film is a hilariously bad painter (and an early influence on Iggy Pop’s graphic work I’m sure) who falls in with another artist called Paul. While Hancock is lionised by the Parisian art establishment with his “infantile” school of art, Paul who is ironically a genuinely good but unrecognised painter is so thrown into emotional turmoil that he decides to give up art in order to move back to London to live with Hancock’s landlady and get a proper job with the bowler hats. At this point a dealer played by the fantastic George Sanders pays a visit to their old studio. He mistakes the paintings that Paul has left behind for Hancock’s paintings and offers Tony a contract which at this point being totally peniless he is forced to accept. From this point he has to pretend that Paul’s work is his. One very funny scene shows him at a private viewing of “his” pictures with a beret and cape smoking from a cigarette holder. When he thinks noone is looking he quickly turns round one of the Paul pictures to show one of his infantilist masterpieces before being promptly told by his dealer to turn it around the other way again.
Both the good and bad paintings were produced by the artist and teacher Alisdair Grant who at the time had recently graduated from the Royal College of Art. He fed the writers of the film examples of what was going on in the art scene at the time. Tony Hancock riding over a painting with a bicycle is a great spoof of Abstract Expressionism and his comments about “Infantillism” are brilliantly close to some of the things that Picasso had been quoted as saying about Cubism.
The great success of the film is the way in which it questions standards of what is good and bad in art as well as making us laugh at the same time. Finally Paul returns to France and produces some paintings which are indistinguishable from the naive stuff that Hancock was producing at the beginning of the film but which George Sanders now believes are amazing. The message seems to be that if you are a true artist whatever you do will somehow be art. Baffled by this Hancock returns to London and at the end of his film we see he has returned to live with his landlady Mrs Cravatte in his old flat and produces a new version of the sculpture “Aphroditie at the Waterhole” which we see at the beginning of the film in the above clip. I hope you enjoy it.