I've got Sky Arts on trail and I'm tempted to keep it because of all the great art programmes. One of these was broadcast last night: Peter Greenaway's docu-essay, Rembrandt: J'accuse made in 2008.
For starters, RJA is stylistically varied. In terms of presentation, Greenaway is simply dazzling. The documentary includes a whole bag of pyrotechnics: montage, dramatization, numerical countdown, words scrolling across the screen, Greenaway as the main structural unit, digitally inserted into the narrative, taking the part of cinematic expert, art historian, prosecuting council, and judge.
It's interesting to re-construct Rembrandt's Nightwatch as a crime scene or a site of accusation where some heinous crime has supposedly been committed by Frans Banning Cocq and his cronies. I won't comment on Greenaway's whodunit theories- I'll leave that to the Rembrandt experts to accept or reject- but I found the idea of an arraignment a good metaphor for thinking about the state of art history on TV. Compared to the art fare served up on BBC 4 this Christmas, Greenaway's visual essay was stunningly innovative, and unwittingly or not, damning of traditional art presentation strategies Choosing to present himself within the scene while announcing a countdown- or more accurately count up- of 31 mysteries secreted in the painting, Greenaway turned the Nightwatch into one of his movies, like The Draughtsman's Contract.
It's pity that there wasn't the same level of invention in art history programmes on BBC 4 this Christmas. Their Private LIfe of a Christmas Masterpiece was predictably close shots of paintings, then cut to talking heads stating the bloody obvious. It reminded me of one art historian who told me that the BBC was always calling her to appear on art history programmes, but she always said no. I used to put that down to snobbery, but on reflection I can see she was right: art history TV doesn't need art historians who inevitably seem more redundant as the camera lets the paintings "speak" for themselves.
Another moan of mine is the use of music in art history TV. In Christmas Masterpiece, all the visuals were drowned in the predictable audio wash of Allegri or some other religious composer. Again, Greenaway was more inventive. His minimalist soundtrack was used as a punctum: it announced the mysteries like audio bullet points. It's like we're ticking off clues or observations on a CSI crime report.
It's a great pity that BBC4 can't hire more filmmakers to create art history films, especially as there is an unwritten history of cinema and painting that only directors like Greenaway are qualified to unravel. His comment that cinema was born with Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Rubens and Velasquez would launch such an enquiry. But in 2010 I guess we'll just have to resign ourselves to more unimaginative BBC art history shows presented in the usual banal way. Thank god for Sky Arts.