Tuesday, 12 July 2011

British Masters: Pure Genius

Walter Sickert, Mornington Crescent Nude, 1907
Does the decade 1910-1919 represent the best period of British art EVER? Was David Bomberg the greatest painter on the PLANET? Is James Fox trying to bring our artistic heritage to life with an audacity and verve that BEGGARS BELIEF?

David Bomberg, The Mud Bath, 1914
If we discount the misery of golfers who tuned in by mistake, last night's 'British Masters' on BBC4 was an hour of almost unalloyed joy. Raised to believe in the superiority of French, German, Italian, American, Spanish and Russian 20th century artists to our own, it was pleasure indeed to see the youthful professor fix the camera with a steely eye as he described Paul Nash's 'We Are Making a New World' as the greatest war painting EVER.
A complete disregard for the broader streams of art history, such as the experiments of Picasso and Braque, allowed us to revel in the inventiveness of Bomberg and the dastardly Wyndham Lewis. With Dr Fox as a sort of art historical Dr Who we explored a parallel universe in which British artists invented modern art. Walter Sickert was the first artist EVER to portray poverty and crime in paint. Mark Gertler predicted the entire history of the 20th century in a painting of a merry-go-round.

If art history students were left slightly bemused by this interpretation, it was great TV, by turns dramatic, funny and moving. I thoroughly enjoyed being lured into Sickert's painting of a murdered prostitute, and then blamed for the killing. Nevinson's story was nicely told, as was Nash's. My favourite moment, though, was when the blinds were raised to reveal the painted interior of the Sandham Memorial Chapel. Looking at Stanley Spencer's extraordinary visions of friendship, hope and redemption, I was on the presenter's side - the chapel's interior is a work of art to rival any.

Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection of the Soldiers, Sandham Memorial Chapel, 1920s

By coincidence, I was watching 'Ways of Seeing' on Youtube last week and couldn't help but notice the contrast between James Fox's approach and John Berger's. You could probably watch them side by side in different windows if your computer's fast enough. In the first episode of his fabulous series - which was made in response to Kenneth Clark's equally great but rather less confrontational series 'Civilisation' - Berger sought to expose the ways paintings are exploited by all and sundry for their own ends. The essential qualities of a painting, he told us, are stillness and silence. Anything added, such as music, or the movement of a camera to pick out details, is added, whether by advertiser or art historian, for a reason.

Dr Fox spent an hour last night using every trick in the TV presenter's book to catch our attention, to make us look and to share his passion for British art. Good for him.


  1. Superb review of a superb programme. So entertainting, so provocative, so filled with enthusiasm. If the next two are as anywhere near as good as this one I'm buying the boxset!

  2. Great doc. Really, really absorbing. It whipped along like a thriller!

  3. Anonymous12 July, 2011

    Love it!

  4. Anonymous12 July, 2011

    I really enjoyed the first episode but found myself getting slightly irritated by James Fox. He was trying just a bit too hard to be the entertaining presenter. Yes, he is decorative but there was a bit too much of him and at times he just seemed rather too pleased with himself. I realise this was an 'authored piece' and I was interested to get his take on things but I thought he was a bit harsh sometimes - poor Nevinson, for example, came out of it rather badly. I'd hope that in the next two programmes Fox might have been reigned in a bit and the presentation is not as tricksy as in the first film. TV producers - when tackling 'difficult' subjects like art - think they need to resort to these gimmicks (presenters with big personality) whereas in fact the art should speak for themselves ...

  5. Anonymous13 July, 2011

    It was wonderful wasn't it? I love BBC 4 for this sort of thing. I was surprised by how exciting I found all those paintings - I haven't really looked at Stanley Spencer's wonderful memorial since I studied it for A Level! It was the star of the show for me, alongside Nash's extraordinary painting of the sunrise over the battle-scarred landscape - an astonishing and harrowing vision, but beautiful too.
    I hope you don't mind, but I've linked to your review of Mary Fedden.

  6. thanks for your interesting comments - I think you have to admire Dr Fox for his enthusiasm, while noting that some of his claims are a little outrageous. the main thing is, it's great to have people talking about art, British or otherwise!

  7. James Fox13 July, 2011

    Thank you everyone -- especially James -- for your kind words on this blog. I agree with 'anonymous' that there is definitely too much of me, but I'm really pleased that my passion for the subject came through. You'll no doubt be pleased to hear that I do calm down a little in the second episode!

  8. Thanks for bringing that to my attention James, I am really looking forward to watching this.