I've got to take time out from writing lecture notes or I'll go insane. Instead, I thought I'd ramble on about last weekend's diet of T.V. art history before the next helping comes upon us tomorrow.
Last Saturday on BBC 2, we enjoyed the continuing adventures of Matthew Collings in old master land. Colling's Renaissance Revolutions saw our hero standing in a gallery while everything whirled round him as he calmly contemplated the art on the wall. You probably know I'm fascinated by Matt's turnaround from Brit art pundit to renaissance aesthete, which I've commented on here. The old master under the microscope here was quite young: Raphael, whose Madonna of the Meadow must have been produced when he was just out of his teens. Matt promised to show us how the young artist had used colour to create the beauty of the work; he made good on his promise by adapting digital colouring technology to demonstrate Raphael's technique. First he drained the painting completely of colour, and then re-introduced the blue of the Madonna's gown, followed by the red, and finally the browns and greens of the landscape and other features. He talked about the hidden geometry within the picture and how the modern eye misses it because it's not trained to see it. The digital painting functioned well within the framework of Matt's discourse, namely demystification of the artistic process and disavowal of the genius concept. Not that Renaissance Revolutions was totally given over to modern T.V. gadgetry; there were Lord Clark Civilization like moments such as Matt striding through a large room bedecked by tapestries at Urbino. Could Matt be the new Lord Clark? These glimpses of an outmoded T.V. arts style made me nostalgic for a paternal BBC unsavaged by the dogs of deregulation. Matt was Clark-like too as he waited for the curatorial staff at the Kunsthistorisches Museum to display the painting without its frame. Matthew waited patiently, completely undaunted by the institutional presence of art history- he never lets other art historians violate the special relationship he forges between himself and his viewer.
By contrast, Howard Jacobson lets the odd expert stray in front of the cameras where they tend to imitate the proverbial rabbit caught in the headlights. His contribution to the highly subjective The Genius of British Art series, aired on Channel 4 last Sunday, focused on Victorian nude painting, with the likes of William Etty, Alma-Tadema, Lord Leighton and other unedifying Victorians on display. I don't know if this was intentional but the act of retrieving a nude painting from storage had the air of a porn merchant bringing his wares from the back of the shop. In a bid to rescue the Victorian nude from its fate of languishing in obscurity, Howard took us down memory lane (or should that be memory lain) to Manchester Art Gallery. Subjects such as Hylas and the Nymphs evoked incidents in Howard's lovelife- a tryst on a boat in some park in some northern city. Halfway through the programme I was treading water. Claims about moral complexity and moral ambiguity in Victorian erotic art aside, most of this art is simply unimaginative and third rate academic tripe. Only a handful of curators would champion this kind of art. I mean, even the Keeper of the Royal Collection seemed non-plussed when asked to comment on some picture in the Queen's collection. More telling was the treatment of the Etty paintings at York where, apparently, they're not on display. I visited the Gallery recently and was denied that pleasure, which I attributed to refurbishment. Determined to help his artist-hero, Jacobson enlisted the help of a young curator who is campaigning to get Etty's works on display in a climate of complete indifference to this painter. It seems to be having some effect since York is planning a large exhibition of Etty's works between June 2011 and Jan 2012, "the first comprehensive reassessment of his art for more than 50 years." Doubtless Booker-prize winner and champion of this provincial Titian will be cheering them on!