Film Star – John Latham

Film Star 1960 John Latham 1921- 2006 Purchased 1966 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00854
John Latham, Film Star (1960) Books, metal and plaster on canvas

Educated at Winchester College, John Latham (1921-2006) commanded a motor torpedo boat in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War. After the war he studied art at the Regent Street Polytechnic and later at the Chelsea College of Art and Design. He was married to fellow artist and collaborator Barbara Steveni.


According to the Tate Britain display caption: This work was titled Film Star because it appeared in Latham’s film Unedited Material from the Star. It incorporates books whose pages have been painted in twelve colours. Because the books can be opened at different pages, the work can exist in different states. The film consists of static shots of opened books. During production, Latham would stop filming at various points, turn the pages of the books, and start filming again. When the film is shown, the books appear suddenly to open, close and change colour.

Latham photo
John Latham

There is something erotic about the red version of the books, as though the books are about to swallow, to devour the observer, the reader of the painting/sculpture. This sensation would be heightened when watching the animated film. The human presence on the canvas appears to be signalled by what could be a spinal cord and eyes so that we are in fact looking at a portrait. But perhaps that’s just my interpretation. Why not pop down to Tate Britain in Pimlico and see for yourself!

There are so many things to like about this piece, but what struck me, having observed it in situ in the gallery, was the speed with which most visitors glanced at it and moved on. Art appreciation deserves more than a knee-jerk reaction! Latham is inviting us to share some time with his work because its content and its energies cannot be appreciated in haste. He knows that our time is precious, all time is precious. We could all be doing other things rather than traipsing round an art gallery, we could be living and loving in other ways, travelling in other directions. But then, why visit a gallery if we are not going to take the art seriously, if we are just going to shoot through the rooms clocking one exhibit after another as fast as we can?

Art bundles time and energy. As consumers of art our task is to unbundle it, using all our powers of perception and the generosity of our hearts and minds. Furthermore, the creation and appreciation of art should be central to the education of young people and not be relegated to the status of an optional, peripheral activity on the curriculum.

Why does Latham include so many books in his composition? Books are artefacts, physical objects and they can encompass all manner of printed material, hagiographies of film stars, biographies, histories, literatures etc. The book is a fundamental building block of culture, a cornerstone, and over the course of time, the dominant books will reflect the dominant ideology. Books can be instructive, destructive, they can be articles of rebellion and they can be persecuted, they can shape and they can deform opinions, they can be lauded and loathed, they can be best-sellers, stars in their own right and they can go in and out of fashion. Plastic arts can be encapsulated within the pages of books and in Latham’s sculptures books can be incorporated into his compositions as found objects, underlying the phoniness of rigid divisions between the arts. At the heart of it all is the word and the image. Art subverts received ideas and conservative thinking. Art is a weapon of liberation insofar as it operates on the consciousness and can set it free. Plastic, conceptual and literary art all share this power. Hence the reverence that artists tend to have for writers and vice versa. We’re all in this together, all for one and one for all.


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