wed 30/07/2014

British Masters, BBC Four/ The World's Most Expensive Paintings, BBC One | TV reviews, news & interviews

British Masters, BBC Four/ The World's Most Expensive Paintings, BBC One

From the ludicrous to the rivetingly vulgar

James Fox: Ludicrous assertions about British Art
James Fox: Ludicrous assertions about British Art

Does James Fox fancy himself as the Niall Ferguson of art history? I ask because clearly this latest addition to the growing pantheon of television art historians wants to do for British art what Ferguson sought to do for the British Empire. He wants us to stop apologising, and to admit that we’re simply the best, better than all the rest. And though I grant you he is similarly photogenic (with a touch of that swarthy, swaggering arrogance, too) the ratio of plausible statement to incredulity (my own, whilst spluttering and tweeting my incredulity) was considerably weighted towards the latter.

In fact, I’ll go further. So eager was Fox to make his revisionist case for modern British art that almost every statement boggled the mind. Did Wyndham Lewis really possess “one of the most poisonous minds of the 20th century”? (Fox said this whilst holding the artist’s pickled brain.) Was Walter Sickert’s painting of a nude “not a painting at all but a crime scene”? (Fox supplied the “evidence” – the woman was nude, in bed, with her eyes shut, and there was a gentleman’s coat nearby, which did, of course, belong to the murderer.) Was David Bomberg’s 1914 painting The Mud Bath really “the most radical painting ever created”? (Obviously, Cubism just doesn’t cut the mustard; nor does the world’s first ever abstract painting, credited to Kandinsky some years earlier.) And, to top the lot, was British avant-garde figurative art really the “most important art movement in the world”? Like ever? (I replayed this bit several times and, yes, aside from the hyperbole Fox appeared to call 20th-century British figurative art "a movement" – maybe there was a scene missing in the preview edit.)

 

And these ludicrous assertions went on and on. Indeed, British art - so long thought to languish in a parochial backwater - seemed to exist in its own radical vacuum, untouched by the rest of the European avant-garde. Cubism and its pivotal influence didn’t even get a look-in. Picasso who?

Perhaps we should forgive Fox for simply getting carried away with his new-found television fame (even if this was only BBC Four). But, luckily, by the time he got round to Paul Nash and dear old Stanley Spencer, he’d calmed down a little. I could stop spluttering then and just enjoy the paintings.

AlistairNow, I’ve had my beef with Alistair Sooke (pictured right) and his daft, dumbed-down presenting style (let’s gain an insight into Warhol by dressing up in Warhol wigs and specs and posing a lot, whilst saying very obvious things like, “This is a painting”), but viewed back-to-back with Foxy (sorry, Dr Fox), Sooke’s gauche-bland combo was suddenly appealing. And though I thought I’d hate the subject – obviously, The World’s Most Expensive Paintings wasn’t about art, but about rich people buying art (so they could stash it away unseen for decades in their vulgar, Disneyland castles) – I found it rather compelling.

Sooke was giving us a countdown of the world’s Top 10 most expensive paintings. This involved him holding up a number of photocopied reproductions, since many of these stupidly priced works of art are not on public loan and are likely to remain cloistered and unseen for many decades to come.

Provenance is everything in the art market (if it was owned by a Rockefeller, then you know that it’s going to sell for Rockefeller-plus prices), and since a painting has very little intrinsic value, then its worth can only ever be about the worth of the two people bidding against each other. And, from what I could gather, art collectors are, by and large, an awful bunch. Vulgar, meretricious, mean. I’m talking specifically about the private hoarders with their serious wedge.

The most villainous of the lot, by a country mile, was the Japanese paper magnate Ryoei Saito. In 1990 Saito bought a version of Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet for a mega-record $82 million. The following day he also bought Renoir’s Au Moulin de Galette for $78 million. When, shortly after, he faced financial ruin, he threatened to have both paintings cremated with him when he died in order to avoid inheritance tax. He pegged it six years later, and the two paintings’ whereabouts remain unknown.

Meanwhile, the clumsiest collector is easily Las Vegas casino billionaire Steve Wynn. In 2006 (the day before he was due to sell it), Wynn accidentally punctured Picasso’s Le Rêve with his elbow whilst showing it off to friends. Now Marie-Thérèse Walter's right hand sports a surgical stitch, and the painting, still in Wynn's possession, has had a few million knocked off its estimated value.

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Of course Vaughan Williams and Elgar are first-rate composers; but Schoenberg produced much beautiful harmony (and I'm not just talking about stuff like Verklaerte Nacht - there is genuine harmonic beauty throughout the atonal work - O Alte Duft, from Pierrot, for example); Schoenberg also said there was much good music still to be written in Cmajor, and RVW doubtless wrote some of it. But would anyone seriously argue that RVW (or even more ludicrously, EE) were in the vanguard of any movement that was making new discoveries and pushing at the boundaries of the art? (And don't forget this isn't an "x is better than y" assessment - you can't tell from anything I've said whether I prefer Finzi or Webern, only that I'm familiar with their work) The orthodoxy that British Music in the C20th was well, more orthodox - at least until PMD and Harrison B got going - grew up for a very good reason: it was true...
Compared with the mindless tedium of Andrew Graham-Dixon parading his most recently learned enthusiasm in the history of art (usually at the expense of someone else's scholarship and always execrably written), and Waldemar Januszczak's oik-like bonhomie being paraded before pictures on which we may not dwell too long for fear that we might realize he talks arrant tosh a good part of the time, and Alastair Sooke's attempts to show he knows anything at all about the history of art but really wants to display his love for 'cultcher', here after some years of sterility is a young art history scholar from Cambridge University who knows what he is talking about, proposing a thesis about the vitality of British painting in the 20th century of which we should not be ashamed as a nation, and challenging us to think about the provocative nature of his statements and what they mean for Britain and British art. Scholars who make television programmes, indeed, like Niall Ferguson, and here James Fox, are perforce scholarly, but still must endeavour not to be seduced by the medium's tendency to turn gold into dross (a sort of Midas-touch in reverse, as Malcolm Muggeridge once said), and that's a difficult thing to do in our soundbite age. Maybe Dr Fox's inexperience with the medium has led him astray a little, as the reviewer notes; but he clearly wishes to proselytise for the significance of British 20th century art, and this academic at least has a point of view and wants us to think about his ideas. On the whole, then, he's to be congratulated and encouraged, as we should not encourage any more programmes on art from the likes of Graham-Dixon, Januszczak or Sooke on our screens.
Fox's opinions are paper thin. He is far too pleased with himself - was the towel scene really necessary ? Does he expect us to take him seriously? How vain and pathetic

I would say "he is enchanted

I would say "he is enchanted of having met himself". I find some CULTURE shows boring but rather have those than "FUNNY"(phoney?)culture SHOWS. Popular CULTURE is not CELEBRITY´s CULT...re
Having just seen the second part of James Fox's series I wondered if this was being broadcast to Scotland, Wales and NI? The problem with revisionist histories is too often that it blurs Britishness with Englishness. All through the episode he sought to show how artists were looking to find an image of an England that was worth fighting for with no sense of an island that went very far beyond the home counties. Indeed, trips to Bolton and Coventry were seen as forays into a dark continent. Beautiful to look at but too much Fox and not enough paint!
Breathless and enthusiastic perhaps, but making only the kind of claims for British art that the French have been making for theirs for generations. I thoroughly enjoyed the programme and couldn't believe my luck that finally someone was making the case for the rehabilitation of some of my favourite artists. As an artist myself I've struggled for years to make people understand that the tradition of English painting in which I work is worthwhile. Thank you Dr Fox.
Good stuff all round. I liked both programmes. And I thought the review was very funny too.
And the truth, Lucy, does that not matter? It's not fiction, it's responsible and non selfserving opinion we're after. A bit of charisma doesn't go amiss, but it helps if it's of the kind that puts the subject first.
Everyone needs to calm down . I agree with most of the comments here: British Masters was GREAT TELEVISION. Even the critic accepts this. The thing everyone here has to remember is IT'S JUST TELEVISION! Stop being up-tight intellectuals and just enjoy the damn thing!
Very refreshing to have so many passionate comments. However, in answer to some of these, I say this: I haven’t argued that modern British art is second-rate. I argued that modern British art did not exist in a vacuum. This first episode not only suggested it, but explicitly argued it. Sickert, a truly great painter, was a disciple of Degas’ (Degas’ 1868 Interior [The Rape] was a painting Sickert knew well); he’d lived in France for six years before painting the work that was shown. HIs role was crucial in spreading the influence of Impressionism in London. As for Vorticism, it simply wouldn’t have existed without the European avant-garde: Wyndham Lewis was the first UK-based artist to encounter Cubism at first hand whilst living in Paris. He sought to synthesise Cubism and Italian Futurism in his work. (As for Lewis being in possession of "one of the most poisonous minds of the 20th century” – this is worthy of no further comment other than to say that it's a statement that's illustrative of much of what was said in this programme). So, I am not arguing that modern British artists are inferior – I am passionate about 20th-century British art – but rather that many of their ideas were far from home-grown. To have neglected to say this even in passing, and to claim that British art somehow gave birth to itself – and to present this as art history – was wrong. And, Jon, I love the work of the very underrated David Bomberg. I believe The Mud Bath is an audacious, radical work. Just that. Not the most, not the best, etc. Absolutely nothing I said can be seriously interpreted as an attack on the work, but an attack on Fox’s risible thesis. Having said that, I concede the programme was very entertaining. It was also dumb.
Bravo to all the "Foxites" here! Splendid film. Good to have a bit of a debate too! Like many of the people below, I'm also surprised at the how incredulous this critic is that anything British can possibly be amongst the best. I'm more music than art but as David N says, this snooty continential snobbery still undermines the reputations of our composers like it does our artists. This is NOT to say that British music/art is BETTER than European music/art. It is simply to say that they can be treated as equals. Fisun Guner: please tell me why Bomberg cannot possibly be as good as Cubism or Kandinsky? Because he painted a few years later? Because he happened to live in the wrong country? Because he didn't go completely abstract? If those are your reasons (and I think they are), then you're peddling a stale modernist orthodoxy. The same goes for music. Just because Vaughan Williams and Elgar were producing beautiful harmonies while Schoenberg et al were ripping tonality to death doesn't mean the former are second rate. Singing the praises of the Brits is not jingoism. It is righting an art-historical wrong. Good on Fox for attempting to do something so unfashionable.
Great art is indeed international, as Martin eloquently pleads way back down the comments. I haven't seen this, and I love many of the artists cited, even if generally I find most of the TV art/history men obnoxious; but what I would say is that we so-called 'publicists for music' have been trying for decades to prove that, if you only listened properly, Elgar and at least the symphonic Vaughan Williams are truly world-class, or at the very least individual chips off the European block.
Excellent start to the series. Sympathetic and enthusiastic commentary. Wonderful paintings. This critic is no doubt a fan of the ridiculous Tracy Emin who is unable to separate art from her own self centred ineptitude. Unlike her these Brits really did mirror the age they lived in with style and genuine ability. Well done Dr Fox.
I stand behind Fox, not only because his program was terrific, but because its opinions were much more credible than this inexplicably vicious critic makes out. She is altogether wrong, for instance, about Sickert. Sickert deliberately encouraged interpretations of the sort Fox gave. In fact his (admittedly melodramatic)reading of the nude is both exciting and appropriate. It's not about being 'right'. Anyone who knows anything about Sickert knows that. Surely. Guner is correct to question the use of the word 'movement'. This was an unfortunate choice of words from Fox. But all the artists in Fox's film knew each other, and most of them studied together at the Slade. There is grounds to treat them as more than just isolated individuals. I am an historian of British art and what this review makes clear is the level of prejudice that people like me (and Fox) are working against. Any claim for modern British is immediately rebutted as petty jingoism by anyone from outside of Britain. No wonder he has to shout that little bit louder. He has to drown out the noisy ignorance of the opposition!
British Masters really excellent. Sooke's expensive paintings watchable nonsense.
British Masters was pretty much tosh. If Levinson had been to Cape Town for a holiday, the bloke and a film crew would have followed... Sad, but the only way populist art crits can function I guess.
Very snarky review all round, I thought. I watched the program with my family yesterday and every single one of us loved it. Of course it was overly dramatic, but it's television for christ's sake, not academic art history! I think sometimes reviewers lose sight of audience here. My 16 year old son would not be entertained by watching an academic discussion of Cubism's influence on Bomberg's geometric figures. Why can't people just be happy that someone's out there talking about art he obviously loves in an entertaining and informative way?
Hypobole this inflated needed the pin-prick that was Ms Guner’s amusing review.
All the artists mentioned by Fox, Sickert, Nevinson, Lewis, Bomberg, Nash, Spencer had something else in common. Rejected by the RA they formed 'The London Group' - a radical art cooperative which still exists today 100 years later and has an open submission exhibition each year to support other 'rejected' artists.
Just seen British Masters. Loved it. Although I would have liked to have seen more of the paintings. But really -- what a shoddy review this is. Reviewer: if you replayed the doc's introduction 'several times', how could you STILL get the quote wrong? Fox does tend to oversell British art, but he never says 'most important art movement in the world'. If this reviewer is going to be so finickity about accuracy, maybe she should develop some herself! Sooke's programme not so good. Really not helped by lack of access. Although Archer telling him off is excellent. I'd like to see him do that to Robert Hughes!
I did my my student thesis on David Bomberg some years ago and I have to say I'm with Dr Fox on this one! First off, he didn't say it was 'the most radical painting ever created' (you should really cite people accurately); he said it was as radical as anything made in 1914. And I'm sorry Miss Guner, but he's abolutely right. The Mud Bath is a huge abstraction exhibited out on the street in a truly audacious fashion. Nothing like it had existed before in British art. Few European paintings of the time matched its ambition. And had it been made in Paris people like you wouldn't be laughing your heads off when big claims are made for it. Thank god someone is fighting for this work. I can't speak for the other examples you cite I'm afraid!
Excellent - isn't that what art history/criticism is about - the opportunity to interpret and to search for clues in the work and the period to justify opinion. I've done some art history,and had never heard of a couple of the artists mentioned, but riveting stuff
British Masters was EXCELLENT. Sooke's effort however was, as always, drained of conviction and devoid of opinion. He could learn a few things from Fox.
Fox was excellent, I thought. And not a bit like Niall Ferguson. At least I didn't detect any grotesquely transparent money-grabbing here. The series was beautifully shot, lovely soundtrack, some great art, really nicely wrought script, and Fox was engaging. Fisun Guner no doubt had some rather sadistic fun writing this review, but I think no one can deny that Fox and his team produced an hour of bloody fantastic television.
Only from Simon Schama, perhaps. But who wants Niall Ferguson's opinion any more - especially as he seems to be in some kind of academic pickle verging on the Figesesque. Haven't seen this guy but have a feeling it will be irritant, as are nine out of ten personality-led docs. Good grief, I even used to like Andrew Graham Dixon, but they all end up being parodies of themselves.
Great review – I for one don’t cry out for presenters to have 'an opinion' as Dave Bale calls it, especially when said 'opinion' is nothing but chauvinistic, imperious drivel. Great art movements have always been internationalist in outlook; and attaching the label 'British' might be ok for produce or industry, but is nonsensical when it comes to looking at art. All great artists are cosmpolitan; only second rate painters like Wyndham will require exposition and support by the establishment – in this case 'Foxy'.
I'm with James Russell on this. We cry out for presenters to actually have an opinion on things, and when they make a brave stance we shoot them down. I thought the episode 1 was clever and passionate and funny.
I completely disagree with this review. I think the programme was entertaining, opinionated and really so very memorable. I don't know anything about the period's art but Fox made me want to learn more. It was a brilliant show. If only more art programmes had so much chutzpah!
Yes, Dr Fox's view of art history is remarkably skewed, but it was great fun nevertheless...

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