Friday, December 11, 2009

The Art of Russia, BBC Four


Andrew Graham-Dixon at the Hermitage in front of David and Jonathan by Rembrandt

Andrew Graham-Dixon at the Hermitage in front of David and Jonathan by Rembrandt
BBC/David Williams

If Andrew Graham-Dixon's arts career ever goes belly-up, there is surely a microphone with his name on it at Radio 4, so warm and confident and trustworthy is his voice. Judging, however, by his new three-part programme on BBC Four, The Art of Russia, there is no chance of this happening soon.

The first episode is entitled "Out of the Forest", describing how the Russian people under Ivan the Terrible emerged from their wooded subjugation by the Mongols, but the story Graham-Dixon starts with - how they got there in the first place and how they survived - is at least as interesting.

It was - as so often seems the case in Russia - the idea of one man. In the late 10th century AD, Vladimir of Kiev decided that there had to be a way of unifying the tribes scattered across thousands of miles. As is also so often the case in Russia, Vladimir imported his solution: Byzantine Christianity.

Russian Orthodoxy brought the flourishing of two great art forms, one it made its own (icons) and one it borrowed (books). Graham-Dixon makes a thoroughly compelling case for the transcendent passion embodied in and evoked by icons (paintings on wood) and the iconostasis (a wall of icons) by observing a service in progress in the Holy Trinity Monastery, where whole walls of the master Andrei Rublev's icons loom, golden, beatific presences. I have tended (through my own ignorance and atheism) to devalue icons, but Graham-Dixon so spiritually conveys what they mean to contemporary and modern Christians that you are moved.

The books are another import: Byzantine scholars developed a written language for the unlettered peoples based on Greek characters, with mystical crosses and circles added. Russian illuminated manuscripts do not match up to the splendours of their Renaissance counterparts, but the letters themselves, Graham-Dixon says, are an art form.

After the Mongols pillaged and burned, the Christians hid out in forests and built churches with onion domes, and only emerged when Ivan let his own brand of violence do its work. At this point, the programme becomes rather too much like a lecture on the history of Russia: art did not develop under Ivan, and although the folk tradition of luboks (popular satirical or fairy-tale prints) continued, Graham-Dixon cannot avoid this change of tone. Thus, it is rather contrived when he says that an old lady (who survived the era of Stalin) with whom he's spent the afternoon has turned her house into a work of art, given that it is no more or less decorated than yours or mine. The idea that portraits of Lenin and Stalin were icons themselves is interesting, but it does not warrant this tenuous connection.

Finally, when Peter the Great came to the throne, his European travels led him to found that most European of cities, St Petersburg, with its hideously over-gilded Baroque Cathedral of St Peter and Paul. Peter also brought with him a fine Rembrandt, sparking a new era in Russian painting, for realistic space, psychology and colours had never before played a part.

What is most interesting is the role of Europe in Russia and the insecurity-disguised-as-pugnacity this engenders in some Russians. Graham-Dixon interviews a rich collector of icons and inadvertently gets involved in an argument when he suggests that one piece of painting is rather Persian. The collector loses his temper and starts yelling about how "we have everything our own" in Russia - he denies any foreign influence at all.

This is fascinating because it both reflects a resurgent Russian nationalism (stoked by previous humiliations and current power) and a complete ignorance of the truth: as Graham-Dixon astutely shows - but does not make too much of - Europe has been everywhere in Russia. From the religion to the script to Rembrandt to (ironically) the arch-nationalist Ivan's adoption of the title "Tsar" (derived from "Caesar"), you cannot tell the story of the art of Russia without the influence of Europe. No doubt the next two programmes will bear this out too.

The Art of Russia continues on BBC Four on Wednesdays at 9pm. Watch it on BBC iPlayer.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Why Beauty Matters/Ugly Beauty, BBC Two

From an interesting thread of comments on the linked article is worth following.

Waldemar Januszczak at the Anish Kapoor retrospective at the Royal Academy

Waldemar Januszczak at the Anish Kapoor retrospective at the Royal Academy

The battleground: beauty. What’s at stake: our souls. At least on these two things philosophy don Roger Scruton (presenter of Why Beauty Matters) and art critic Waldemar Januszczak (presenter of Ugly Beauty) were agreed in the Modern Beauty season. For despite very different ideas of beauty, they both reached the same conclusion: it is there to nourish the soul.

Which is why it may seem odd that their programmes consider the same examples and yet reach very different conclusions. Jeff Koons to one is shallow and materialistic, to the other a source of self-knowledge. Scruton finds Damien Hirst a soulless, abominable trickster, Januszczak a poet of death in the tradition of the Baroque.

Scruton’s is a philosophical essay set to pictures and music. He starts with the importance of beauty in art up until the 20th century, and says its purpose was to transfigure the real in the light of the ideal: that is, to make us consider reality and how it relates to our higher ideals. The problem of the 20th century is that we have no ideals any more except for utility, and what is useful is invariably ugly and eventually useless. (Take Reading town centre, he says.) What beauty does is connect us directly to the spiritual, in the manner of religion, and thus nourishes the soul: this is Plato’s idea, and Scruton is a fan.

(Scruton argues that creativity is important in beauty, differentiating Michelangelo’s David from cemetery copies of the statue. This does make it slightly unfortunate that one of his jumping-off points is Oscar Wilde’s quotation, “All art is quite useless,” which is a paraphrase of John Ruskin’s “The most beautiful things in the world are useless.”)

Januszczak’s is a much more irreverent tour around Venice’s Biennale, with over-dramatic narration and on-screen antics, slopping dead fish everywhere and gesticulating like a bull at Pamplona. He – like Matthew Collings in the same season – outlines his vision of aspects of beauty, which include death, motherhood, texture, emptiness and kitsch. (This last is where Koons comes in.) Except, unlike Collings, he interviews many artists to provide us with the knowledge to understand their works and find them more beautiful. His roll-call is starry – Koons, Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Yoko Ono, Carl Andre (who refuses to appear on screen) – and the explanations provided may convert even the sceptical to viewing their work as beautiful.

The problem with Scruton’s argument is that it is old-fashioned, not just in the authorities it cites (Plato, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, Victorian poets), but when he says that beauty is meant to console the afflicted and reinforce the joyous, as if beauty is visual Prozac. This negates the message of the 20th century, which is that sometimes there is no consolation, no joy.

If two world wars and existentialism and the double helix showed us anything, it is that the world does not exist for a higher, affirmative purpose, and thus beauty should not try to make us feel good. The world is bad, so beauty can show us the bad.

This "bad" beauty nourishes our souls – or at least stimulates them to thought or emotion – in the same way as "good" beauty. Scruton does not realise, or refuses to accept, that the notion of beauty has been extended to reflect the world as we know it, not as we would like it.

That said, the underlying message of his principle is not wrong, nor is it rejected by Januszczak, who quite clearly believes that modern beauty is there to touch the soul: he just does not believe it must be a comforting touch.