Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Category Archives: James Fox

From the Fox’s mouth: a presenter apologises

The July transmissions of James Fox’s British Masters series on BBC 4 came in for much lambasting in this blog (posts of July 12, 19 and 26) and elsewhere. In the 2011 issue of The Journal of Wyndham Lewis Studies (just out), Dr Fox makes an extended seven page apologia/apology (“Response to Paul Edwards”) to “the Wyndham Lewis community”. In the defence of his programmes he manages, perhaps a little disingenuously, to leave himself a fair amount of wriggle room, though in the process he sheds a good deal of interesting light on the depressing business of how TV arts programmes are put together these days, and on the pressures and interests involved.

But his apology for the dismally distasteful treatment of Wyndham Lewis (particularly the notorious brain-brandishing episode) is rounded and generous.

Here (and this is in no way intended as triumphalist) is a little of the flavour:

“In part it was motivated by the desire to hook and provoke an audience whose attention had to be hard-earned and could easily be lost.

… countless inclusions, elisions and omissions were made for televisual rather than art-historical reasons.

Throughout the series … biography was preferred to context, narrative was preferred to analysis, and when discussing artworks, meaning was prioritized over form.

Edwards criticizes the programme’s misinterpretation of Lewis’s overall ambitions and individual works. He is completely right.

… my inability to substantiate those provocative assertions [that Lewis was misogynist, fascist, anti-Semite], or more importantly to qualify them, was such a dramatic simplification of Lewis’s views that it effectively became an inaccuracy.

I do not recall how the decision to film Lewis’s brain was made … This was a major error of judgement … it was also deeply distasteful, and I shall regret my involvement in that sequence for a long time.”

Still more to tell: Andrew Graham-Dixon on Edward Burra, BBC 4, Monday 24 October

Two and a bit cheers for “I Never tell Anybody Anything”, Andrew Graham-Dixon’s responsible presentation on Edward Burra last night on BBC 4. After the well plumbed depths of James Fox’s recent series on 20thc British painters, it was a considerable relief to sit through something that was engaging and informative, which didn’t appear to peddle wilful inaccuracies, and – best of all – that showed us stacks of paintings, without too much poncing about for the camera. Doctor Fox – watch and learn.

Jane Stevenson’s 2007 biography, Twentieth-Century Eye, must have given Graham-Dixon his story pretty much on a plate, and Stevenson was decently acknowledged and pulled in as a talking head. Though her book doesn’t illustrate a single piece of Burra’s work; is it a bit too easy to go for Burra as just one more glittering life-full of bohemian shenanigans? Boho-bio’s can be a frothy genre.

Edward Burra, 'Dandies', 1930

No, the work’s the thing, and Graham-Dixon gave us plenty of that, including the bonus of late landscapes and ballet designs. But even so, his commentary, cued maybe by Stevenson, was tempted into the too-frequent weakness of this sort of programme – art primarily as a window into biography, one-off interpretations that neatly tie the imagery, in purely symbolic terms, to traumatic personal life moments, etc. Agreed, some of the earlier work risked saying little and sliding into shallow social observation, but what about the later? Is horrors-of-the-war all we can make of it? The religious elements in the later work were acknowledged, but were mostly slid over. And the lone-furrow narrative swept past any consideration of the broader art context.

Burra exhibited in the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition in London. His involvement was cautious, but the debt to surrealism is clear in his work. And there are many other echoes in the paintings: Dix and Grosz in the early satirical stuff (he may have adored Paris, but he drew like a German, and owed little to cubism beyond a fondness for lino and woodgrain); Chas Laborde in the street observations; Douanier Rousseau in the flat naiveties; a bit of William Roberts in the stiff everyday figures and a bit of Wyndham Lewis in the abstracted allegorical figures; El Greco, Michael Ayrton – and even a hint of Dali – in the dramatically draped figures of the later work, and so on. This network of connections raises the Big Question of just what Burra’s art might have been about, beyond his own life story.

But Graham-Dixon wasn’t telling us. Not much, anyway. Perhaps because Burra himself famously and doggedly refused to comment. “What has meaning?” a frustrated interviewer asked Burra shortly before his death. “Nothing”, came the pat reply. Well, that’s all of us off the hook, then. But as John Rothenstein noted, Burra’s “constant theme” became “tragedy upon a more exalted level”, “the prevailing sense of the imminence of vast issues, and of vast catastrophes”. Christopher Neve quoted Burra as saying “I am always expecting something calamitous to happen”. Nigel Gosling saw in Burra a permanent state of “restrained terror”.  And even the low-life and cabaret pictures were less ‘thirties pop art than essentially anxious visions of the moral climate of Europe between the wars, whatever the particular moral angle.

What Burra painted was no less than the human condition. There is a good deal more to tell here, but the telling would require some hard analysis.

Burra at Pallant House, Chichester (includes the film interview)

“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.

“British Masters”, presented by James Fox, BBC 4, Monday 18 July, episode 2: Fields of Corn

Dear Dr Fox

Having watched episode 2 of “British Masters” last night, I thought I would send you a write-up of my notes from the programme, in case you might like to pass them on to anyone who missed it. The bits in brackets are my own comments. Here they are, then:

A mysterious lone figure crosses a cornfield. It is John Nash, “searching for inspiration”.

More mysterious lone figures criss-cross the cornfields. They are the British Masters, “in search of England”. [Er – British or English? The Scots, Irish and Welsh wish to know …]

Cookham’s importance for Stanley Spencer is only in its particularity. [His version of Christianity appears to be shared by the BNP.] Dr Fox declares SS’s painting of the resurrection to be “uplifting”. But Spencer’s fragile English identity takes a bit of a knock when Patricia Preece won’t have sex with him.

Alfred Munnings painted British horses and got very drunk. His “gloriously sentimental” paintings are very good, “simply because of what he painted”. [The equally gloriously sentimental paintings of Alma-Tadema are very bad, because they show classical chicks taking their kit off, and not British horses.]

The “British People” send a message to Bill Coldstream. They demand Reality!

No one except Paul Nash had the idea of being both British and Modern at the same time. [Not even Henry Moore. Not even Ben Nicholson. Not even etc etc.]

Dr Fox points to a small tree stump. “I think Paul Nash had a revelation here.”

Judging by the archive film clips, the very same bus in which Paul Nash was taken poorly was immediately afterwards strafed by Jerry fighter planes.

There is absolutely NO connection between Piper’s abstract paintings of the ‘thirties [series of coloured rectangles] and his towers and ruins of the ‘forties [series of coloured rectangles]. The former are Modernist. The latter are “traditional British painting”.

We won the War. Hurray! Cue Churchill: “… shall fight ‘em on the beaches …” Cue Elgar. Cue Dr Fox, striding into the sunset across fields of corn.

Huge fields of corn.

Hope this helps.

Best etc,
Richard Warren

“British Masters”, presented by James Fox, BBC 4, Monday 11 July, episode 1

Dear Dr Fox

After watching the first instalment of “British Masters” I felt I really must thank you for guiding me through the nightmare tangle of early modernism. Let me see if I’ve got it right:

Gertler = good chap; Sickert = bit trad but good chap; Lewis = incredibly evil; Bomberg = good chap + working class hero; Marinetti = great big charlatan; Nevinson = teeny tiny charlatan; Nash = bit wet at first but also good chap; Spencer = another good chap.

I think that’s about it. It all makes so much more sense put like that. Audaciously truncated biog’s, easy-to-grasp ad hominem judgements, and no fuzzy theory or context to make things unnecessarily complicated – I really admired how you saw off Marinetti without once using the word “Futurist”, which left plenty of time for your own mildly spirited rendition of “Zang Tumb Tumb”. (You need to work on that a bit, but full marks for being brave and having a go!) In the end, some cloudy background notions of general-modernity or loss-of-empire are all we really need, aren’t they? I shall be recommending this approach to my A Level History of Art students; it will save them much time and trouble.

My students will also find particularly helpful your ground-breaking “light bulb moment” theory of artistic development – Gertler staring at roundabout; Lewis staring at tall building; Bomberg staring at swimming pool; Nash staring at holes in the ground; Sickert staring at body of (allegedly) murdered prostitute etc etc.

Admittedly, no single statement of yours about Lewis (fascist, misogynist, jew-hater, biographer of Hitler, machine age dystopian) was actually quite on target. But why let facts spoil a great soundbite? And what a televisual clincher to thrust his pickled brain at the camera as evidence – and “scientific” evidence, at that – of his dreadful “poisonous mind”!

Whoever commissioned this is to be commended for their judicious use of license payers’ money.  Will there be a book on the back of the series? Or maybe even a board game? I can’t wait.

Yours etc
Richard Warren

Dear Richard,

I’m very sad to hear you didn’t enjoy the programme last night. It was intended to appeal to all kinds of viewers, from those who had no interest in art to those, like you, who clearly do. I obviously failed to convince you! I can make excuses (an allocation of c. 10 minutes for a whole artist does not allow for much detail — how I would have loved to do a whole series on each of them!), but  I will not try to change your mind on that front. I do, however, hope that you will accept that what I was doing was not art history in the scholarly sense. Nor was an academic methodology being proposed. This was a television programme, and my goal was simply to celebrate the lives and work of a group of artists I love in as entertaining and memorable way as possible.


Dear James

Thanks for your measured reply – appreciated, given that I put the boot in. I don’t wish to drag this out into a prolonged exchange, you’ll be pleased to know. But quickly –

You say “not art history in the scholarly sense”. But that’s just it. Too much of it wasn’t art history in any sense. Is it not possible to be entertaining and memorable for a non-specialist audience without snipping and distorting the facts of the matter into shapes well beyond caricature – i.e. into actual untruths? And how does doing that honour or respect the artists you say you “love”?

I’ll leave it at that.