Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

“British Masters”, presented by James Fox, BBC 4, Monday 25 July, episode 3

It could have been worse. The final instalment of “British Masters”, to be fair, was perhaps the least absurd of the three, though that’s not saying much. Sauntering and chuntering his way towards the expiry of his nebulous thesis, the anxiously photogenic Dr Fox seemed to have calmed down slightly  – unless I’m getting used to him?

For Fox, every painting is a symbolist painting. And worse, a symbolist painting that only admits of a single one-dimensional interpretation. So Sutherland’s thorns represent weapons, inhumanity, post-war angst etc. But jagged natural forms appear in Sutherland’s paintings from the mid / late ‘thirties. He himself wrote that thorns “established a limit of aerial space … pricking out points in space.” In other words, his fascination with these shapes was at least as much formal as symbolic. As evidenced by his own words on archive film included in the programme, and by the optimistic colourings of some of the thorn paintings shown. But Fox only recognises symbolic and narrative content (which is why he rather obviously avoids the abstract), and seems oblivious to form, colour, texture, tonality – all the actual elements of painting.

So Bacon’s Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) are “badly painted”, according to Fox. But what does “badly” mean in this context? He wasn’t saying. Ah, if only Alfred Munnings had done this instead – how much better it could have been!

Hockney’s California paintings were reckoned to be images of utter paradise. But the vast flatnesses, the bleak architecture, the sterile colouring, the absolute  absence of humanity in Bigger Splash – aren’t these indicators of at least a degree of two-mindedness on Hockney’s part? There’s paradise and then there’s paradise …

A figure composition by the wonderful Keith Vaughan was “explained” as some sort of Seven Ages of Man. Seated figure: clearly foetal. Figure with small limp willy: clearly rampant adult sexuality. Figure in a shade of grey: clearly dead, etc etc.

And so it went on. At least we were spared the talk (threatened in a trailer for the series) of Vaughan as “an obsessive masturbator”, which was an unexpected piece of good judgement. Meanwhile the doctor was still much in evidence, peering quizzically at a small piece of thorn bush, slumming it down a Bradford back alley, camping it up with a waxwork of David Hockney, fondling a Chevrolet etc. In a narcissism contest, Keith Vaughan would not have stood a chance here.

Most misleading was the poor attempt to make Vaughan’s sad suicide a signifier for the supposed death of British painting. Vaughan took the tablets in 1977, since when, according to Fox, it’s been sharks and beds all the way. Yet Vaughan recognised, in comments read by Fox in the programme, that his own eclipse was symptomatic of the triumph of Pop Art, which Fox had just hailed as a reinvigoration of the “tradition”. And what about the ‘eighties revival of painting and all that flowed from that? What about (to name three off the cuff) the popular, albeit over-rated, Paula Rego? The mysterious landscapes of Peter Doig? Or Jock McFadyen, whose gutsy characters are rooted in the ‘fifties paintings of Colquhoun and MacBryde, which were overlooked by Fox? (Too Scottish, maybe? Despite the series title, Fox clearly doesn’t do provinces, feeling most secure in the home counties.) But one could add dozens of more recent significant names, without even touching the ghastly Stuckists.

The last word on TV Art presenters can go to Keith Vaughan (Journals, 24 November 1973, reacting to John Berger on the box):

“Well – he’s too smooth. Too much the professional orator for me to believe in. Effective? Yes. He knows how to hang on the ball …Takes himself too seriously. A pundit. He overbids his hand.”

That’s about right. Cheers, Keith.

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2 responses to ““British Masters”, presented by James Fox, BBC 4, Monday 25 July, episode 3

  1. Vanessa Frost July 27, 2011 at 11:46 am

    I watched the programme last night and was dismayed at the way he dismissed Bacon’s ‘Three Figures at the base of a Crucifixion’ as not having the ability to move people. He just doesn’t really ‘get’ art does he?! He said ‘it’s easy for an artist to scare us’ – this is catagorically untrue! It’s not easy to scare people in the modern world as they’ve seen it all before; this is why Bacon’s work is such genius as he still manages to horrify us. I really think James Fox just prefers to look at pretty pictures – as evidenced by his gushing all over the Hockneys – where exactly is the depth and ‘power to move’ in these paintings? He was still standing in front of the paintings as well. Doesn’t he get that it’s the painting we’re interested in?? Either that or the camera was zooming in so close it was impossible to form a coherent view of the painting as they’d failed to show the whole thing to start with.

    I am grateful for this series as it brought to my attention a period of art that I knew next to nothing about but please, for the love of God, sort out the filming of the paintings and let the narrative be voiceover as opposed to taking over!

  2. Vanessa Frost July 27, 2011 at 11:59 am

    Another thing I noticed was that he referenced Lucian Freud having died. Lucian only died on 20th July 2011 and the first episode of this series went out on 11th July so I’m presuming James Fox re-filmed part of the last episode to include the fact that Lucian Freud had died or he’d made an error and assumed he was already dead?

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