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
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.
Now, 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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