A Masterpiece in Your Front Room: How Should an Artwork Be Analysed? What Is More Important-Historical Background or Brush Strokes? Jeremy Bugler on a Television Series That Reveals All

Article excerpt

Let us scrutinise an evocation of a Sunday spent on the banks of the Seine in 1884. We see a top-hatted gentleman looking out at the river. A lady with a parasol holds on to his arm, and has a monkey on a lead. Other people lounge on the grass. Three dogs romp. A child plays. A young woman fishes by the water's edge. The vision is Georges Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.


What is arresting is the very different way in which the picture is seen now, compared to how it must have struck its first viewers. Today the painting comes across as a beautifully arranged, if rather static, portrayal of the Parisian bourgeoisie in the local park. On a different river, they might have been in Battersea. Viewers in the mid-1880s, however, probably found the painting as daring in its subject matter as in its style of painting (pointillism). For the picture has strong hints of the demi-monde, of decadence among the pretty parasols. The monkey indicates that the lady holding his lead was a mistress at least--singesse (female monkey) then being a slang word for prostitute. John House, a professor at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, is certain that people who saw it would have picked up the allusion. Indeed, the young lady fishing may have been after a different kind of catch. It's another pun: the French pecher, to fish, being very close to pecher, to sin. And after all, Guy de Maupassant once complained of the islands of the Seine that there were so many people making love on the banks that it was impossible to find a place to do it himself.

One privilege of editing the television series Private Life of a Masterpiece, which returned to BBC2 this month, is to be exposed to the intriguing ways in which the meaning of art changes. This has been part of the discourse of modernism in art for the past hundred years. Marcel Duchamp said: "It is the spectator who creates the museum," meaning that the way we look at a painting or sculpture is a central part of its meaning. Mick Gold's film on Degas's The Little Dancer Aged 14, part of last year's Private Life series, set out the same insight. When Degas exhibited the sculpture in 1881, critics were outraged. One wrote: "With animal effrontery she thrusts her little muzzle into the world." He was offended because, at that time, ballet dancers were not the daughters of the middle class, but working-class girls who often resorted to prostitution. The model for the sculpture, Marie van Goethem, was probably prostituted by her mother and ended up on the streets when her tutu days were over. Yet this is the sculpture admired by many of today's gallery-goers as a pretty and touching evocation of a young girl a ballet step.

Another pleasure of making the series is that it may help to rescue iconic artworks from the awful condescension of fame. With 50 minutes in which to examine one artwork, a programme can reveal anew just how complex and clever and rich it is. Even the most cliched paintings emerge fresh. How many who see Van Gogh's Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London know the religious richness of his work? He portrayed 12 sunflowers to symbolise Christ's disciples and added two or three more to balance the painting.

Yet what seems to appeal most of all is the detailed exploration of just what the artist was doing with paint, wax or stone. In the second programme of the current series (9 April), there was a moment of genuine revelation when Jorgen Wadum of the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague demonstrated that Vermeer got his proportions and perspective right in The Art of Painting not so much with a camera obscura but by deploying a pin, a piece of string and some chalk. The pinhole is visible to this day. There may have been another such moment in the programme on The Battle of San Romano (16 April), when Martin Kemp explained that Uccello used a "ghost pavement", a grid of lines, to make his revolutionary advances in perspective. …