Tuesday, 5 July 2011

'Your Paintings': Celebrities vs Art Historians

Stanley Spencer, The Scarecrow (1934)
Yesterday I made the mistake of visiting the BBC website devoted to the 'Your Paintings' project. An hour later I was still there, touring the online galleries with Rory Bremner. Or was it Mary Beard? It doesn't matter. In the end I had to watch all of them, to find out who did the job better, the celebrities or the art historians.

First up was James Fox, the debonair art historian who is fast becoming the BBC's go to man. He gave us a brief preview of the upcoming series 'British Masters', which sounds like a golf tournament but is in fact a wholesale reappraisal of 20th century British art. Stanley Spencer's 'Scarecrow' (1934) is a treat, although surely it is less a prediction of coming turmoil, as Fox suggests, than it is a reference back to the abiding influence of the Great War.

A good start for the experts, but here comes Frank Skinner, veteran comedian and footie fan. He is not, he tells us, an art historian, but he does like to visit galleries and that - he thinks - is enough. Is it? He takes for the theme of his tour a specific subject, The Annunciation, as depicted by sundry artists. Botticelli's version is stunning, and Skinner's commentary - 'Mary looks like she's opened the front door to put the milk out' - entertaining. He gets in a bit of a pickle later on with a discussion of Paul Delvaux but ends on a high note with an actual pickle, or gherkin, in Carlo Crivelli's painting of the subject.
Botticelli's Annunciation - Mary 'putting the milk out'

In all, a bright, entertaining survey from Skinner, so let's try another celebrity, Monty Don. It's clear from the outset that the gardener's gardener Knows What He Likes in a painting. He likes Cezanne so much that he spent a year in France experiencing the landscape, and he likes Ivon Hitchens and he likes Stanley Spencer. The latter's 'Wisteria at Englefield' (1954), Don tells us, was painted from a child's viewpoint, adding 'Spencer was a very small man, famously'.

Time for another art historian: Gus Casely-Hayford. Here's someone who knows what he's talking about, although his tour of artists on the edge plots a rather odd route from Richard Dadd and Blake to a discussion of slavery. Solid from the experts, though. I think they're winning.

For the celebrities, here's Rory Bremner, with a selection of paintings accompanied by impressions of the Royal Family and others. And some interesting info too, sneaked in among the laughs. Peter Blake made of the printer's mis-registration a new technique in 'The Beatles 1962' (1963-8).

Elizabeth Magill, Close to (Swansea), 2002
A delicate touch from Bremner, then, followed by solid performances by Matt Baker (a TV presenter with a fairly conservative taste in landscape painting) and historian Dan Snow. Yinka Shonibare presents a wonderfully eclectic selection including Elizabeth Magill's gorgeous 'Close to (Swansea)' (2002), then The Reduced Shakespeare Company ups the tempo with a whistlestop tour of bard-related painting. The art experts need something good here. Can critic Alastair Sooke deliver?

He has a good subject: money. A tour of the nation's free-to-view masterpieces gives us Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Titian and some big fat numbers to go with them. The National Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland came up with £50 million to buy Titian's 'Diana and Actaeon' from the Duke of Sutherland. But it could be worth far more.
Titian's 'Diana and Actaeon' - a cool £50 million
It looks like the experts have it, but wait! Here's sex and relationship expert Tracey Cox - sorry, boys, she's definitely not an art historian - with a fascinating, sensitive tour of paintings depicting love in the widest sense. 'During orgasm, men's brains completely fire during the moment of pleasure, and the female brain, actually shuts down and lets go.' Could this be the clincher?

Only one to go, and it's Mary Beard, a Professor of Classics, but not an art historian. Is she a celebrity or an expert? Or a centaur-like combination of the two? Who cares. She's bold, erudite and straightforward and her tour is by turns illuminating - Classical artists showed Perseus nude and Andromeda clothed, whereas Renaissance artists did the opposite - and shocking. It ends with a picture of a young woman suckling her starving father - a popular Roman theme, we are told, although the painting shown of Cimon and Pero is by Abraham Bloemaert not Carlo Cignani.

When in Rome... Abraham Bloemaert, Cimon and Pero (early C17)
So who wins? I'm not sure, but old-fashioned art history (focusing on technique, influences and so on) seems to be the loser. And who should the BBC hire to front an hour-long version, if such a programme were to be made? It would have to be Professor Beard. How about a BBC4 special on Classical themes in painting?

3 comments:

  1. It was fun doing it too! Mary

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  2. I haven't seen them all but Monty did a great job, I loved his choices and informed comment. His enthusiasm is always infectious.

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  3. Anonymous11 July, 2011

    Great piece. I've just listened to them all and Fox's one was my favourite. What an amazing painting that Stanley Spencer is! Looking forward to Fox's series tonight.

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