THE CRITICS TELEVISION: Watch the Historians Paint Themselves into a Corner
Ellmann, Lucy, The Independent (London, England)
Those who can, paint. Those who can't paint, look at paintings. Those who can neither paint nor look at paintings, become art historians. I don't believe dry scholarship and the accumulation of facts can tell us anything we really want to know about art. What's worth knowing about a painting is in the painting. But people cling to the notion that history, biography, philosophy, combined with the occasional sweeping generalisation, will somehow illuminate an artist's work. They treat art as a cipher in need of translation.
In the South Bank Show's Vermeer - Light, Love and Silence (ITV), Arthur Wheelock Jr of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, declared, "We can see a woman pouring milk, a woman reading a letter, we can see a little street, and yet it's surprising how little we do know of Vermeer. He didn't explain what he meant in his paintings, what his themes were, what his ideas were, what his underlying philosophical concepts were . . ." But he did! He did all of this, in the paintings, and they're completely open to scrutiny.
As for his influences, his constraints, his technical know-how, his Catholicism, his wife and children, his friend who discovered spermatozoa through a microscope - why should any of this concern us? These are side-issues, padding. Irrelevant distractions. Even worse, Melvyn Bragg sometimes felt it necessary to offer inanities like: "The Dutch remain immensely curious about their neighbours" (shot of a Dutchwoman looking out of a window), and: "The Dutch have been pioneering seamen and tough adversaries in war." This is like saying, in a programme about Francis Bacon, that the English are a tea-drinking nation!
In an age of heavy sym-bolism in painting, the non-judgmental nature of Vermeer's work was its triumph, but Bragg tried to turn it all back into moralistic diktats about unladylike behaviour - this a symbol of sampled pleasures, that a sign that monogamy is best. None of this remotely explains the lasting power of these little paintings. Even a gentle objective description of the play of light on the face of Girl With a Pearl Earring was ruined by the jarring flash of a glamour photo of Marlene Dietrich - totally valueless as a comparison to this terribly subtle painting.
At the same time, the pundits refuse to acknowledge that the artist actually knew what he was doing. It was absurd of Jonathan Miller to doubt that Vermeer was aware of the abstract qualities of paint, when these are exactly what he used to bind his pictures together. Miller was better when he stuck to his own understanding of the work - Vermeer's representations of "the quiet flow of undirected thought".
The crowning discourtesy came in the form of AA Gill, demonstrating Durer's perspective window device. An opportunity to show a real naked woman here, with Gill drawing her. Oh, for Vermeer to have appeared at this moment - like Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall - to say, "AA Gill's drawing of a naked lady has absolutely nothing to do with my work." But it was not to be.
Omnibus's Degas: the Old Man Mad About Art (BBC1) was a vast improvement on the genre. Richard Kendall, who set up the current exhibition at the National Gallery, concentrated less on random factual titbits and more on what Degas means to other artists, himself included. Perhaps there were a few too many re-enactments of painful poses a la Degas, and some unnecessary wandering through a replica of his studio, but the programme did manage to show a lot of pictures, with music filling the void left by the art historians' absence.
There was an element of Natural History instead, with Degas's women frequently being compared to animals. There's an animal quality to the artist's view of them too - from behind, as if he wanted to mount them. On Late Review (BBC2) …
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Publication information: Article title: THE CRITICS TELEVISION: Watch the Historians Paint Themselves into a Corner. Contributors: Ellmann, Lucy - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: May 26, 1996. Page number: 13. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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