Tuesday, 26 July 2011

James Fox & 'British Masters': the Finale?

Lucian Freud, Girl with a Kitten, 1947
Whatever the excesses of the previous episodes in this BBC survey of 20th century British art, the final part was - generally speaking - sober, thoughtful and lacking in those awkward Alfred Munnings moments. It wasn't a desperately jolly programme, but then neither Francis Bacon nor Lucian Freud, two of the evening's stars, were known for their levity. Nor was Graham Sutherland, for that matter. Dr Fox was spot-on when he described the impact of the Holocaust and the Bomb on post-war artists; it was a time to reflect seriously on the human condition, and these painters duly obliged.

Graham Sutherland, Thorn Trees, 1945
Fox and team must have had an anxious time re-editing the programme to take account of Lucian Freud's death last week. I wonder whether, if he hadn't died, they would have come back to him as they did or left us with that tantalising five minutes at the beginning of the show. On hearing the news they must have rushed off to find an easily accessible Freud, and recorded the refreshingly underwritten material on the glorification of cellulite.

Francis Bacon's studio
 Some odd moments aside - did Dr Fox have to gaze for quite so long at a sunlit twig? - this was the pick of the three shows, giving us cool appraisals of several indisputably great artists and plenty of marvellous archive footage. I'm not sure what I enjoyed more, watching Francis Bacon showing off his French (and his studio, surely the finest, messiest, most authentic studio EVER), or listening to Graham Sutherland's marvellous voice. Of course we also had to have Dr F in a Soho street and Dr F on the set of Corrie, but we're used to that by now.

Keith Vaughan, Eldorado Banal, 1976

Chris Ofili, No Woman No Cry, 1998
Contrary to the concerns of some, there was nothing flippant in his treatment of Keith Vaughan's life and death, although Fox might have noted that it wasn't so much conceptual art that people preferred to Vaughan's figures as abstract painting. But then abstraction didn't get much of a look-in during the three hours of 'British Masters'. Nor did women (except, for the most part, in the role of 'friend' or 'student'), which made Fox's targeting of Tracey Emin as a peddler of inferior conceptual art slightly awkward.

The programme concluded, not surprisingly, that a great period of British painting ended with the death of Lucian Freud. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen, but one or two living artists might disagree...

Elizabeth Magill, Close to Swansea, 2002


  1. Absolutely! The least bad of the three instalments, but still a bit problematic. The worries about Keith Vaughan came from this comment by Fox in the BBC pre-series publicity at http://www.bbc.co.uk/ariel/14027900: 'He was an obsessive masturbator for 40 years and when he wasn't doing that he was writing a diary.' At least we were spared that! My review of Part 3 at http://richardawarren.wordpress.com.

  2. The least offensive of the three programmes, but...
    The reedbeds of the Var valley are not in the ‘wild landscape of Wales’.
    How easy and understandable it would have been to show the derivation of Sutherland and Bacon’s Crucifixions from Matthaus Grünewald, but God forbid we should have any form of context that would ‘confuse’ the viewers.
    Bacon turned to the subject of the Crucifixion before Sutherland, not after him, and the whole point of Adolf Eichmann in his ‘box’ is that Bacon prefigured this event, not that he used it for inspiration.
    Hockney was “Born in Bradford in 1937” and won a scholarship “in 1959 at the age of 20”. Cambridge mathematician needed?
    Fox got Vaughan completely wrong. He used quotes from 1964 to illustrate Vaughan’s outlook in 1977, and plagiarised the life class scene from John Bulmer’s 1984 film. Vaughan did not have a tragic life, his painting was highly successful and he didn’t commit suicide because of lack of artistic success. As far back as 1961 Vaughan discussed his very positive views on euthanasia –Vaughan had terminal cancer, not “failing health”, and acted according to his beliefs.
    As Evelyn Waugh might have said: “To see Dr. Fox fumbling with our rich and delicate art is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sèvres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee”.

  3. I thought it was a fine conclusion to an excellent series. I've come to learn that you can never expect academic accuracy from television; all you can hope for is to be entertained, enthused and moved. British Masters did all of those things with verve and brilliance.

  4. Daniel, why must accuracy be condemned as "academic"?

  5. I can appreciate why those from a similar academic background to James Fox would feel moved to pick apart his script and his theses, but as someone from a non-academic background with no axe to grind, I am grateful to have art history presented in an accessible and personality-led way, which is an important role for TV.

    My own experience of art history (a very small part of a non-academic art degree) was full of holes, and haphazard, but it inspired me to read further and to visit galleries, an urge that is reinvigorated by good, populist art shows like British Masters on the BBC.

    This is not to say that Dr Fox is beyond criticism - clearly, many of you know more, or as much, about his subject - but if this sort of show piques non-academic interest, that's fundamentally a Good Thing.

    Actually, reading blogs and accompanying comments like this one, and Richard Warren's, adds to the dialogue, and to the inspiration, so keep it up.