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Art and revolution

Art and revolution
23 December 2009 posted by John Wyver

If you have another three hours to spare over the holidays (assuming the first three such will be devoted to Hamlet) you could do far worse than download The Art of Russia. Available on iPlayer until 30 December, this is Andrew Graham-Dixon's new trilogy of films devoted to Russian visual art from the eleventh century to today. Beautifully shot (by Mike Garner), intelligent and often surprising, these are immaculate presenter-led documentaries of real distinction. The journey is from Prince Vladimir's cathedral to a kitsch bronze of Putin with much of what you would hope for in between: icons and Ivan the Terrible, Rembrandt (truly) and Ilya Repin, Kandinsky and a Kama Sutra Sex Apple by Zurab Tsereteli.

Absent here is the jauntiness of AGD's outing to Spain a couple of years back. No red mini, no largely irrelevant wine tasting sessions. This is focussed art history, and all the better for it. Film one, Out of the Forest, pauses briefly in Russia's pre-history before visiting Kiev, looking seriously at icons and wooden churches, going to Trinity Lavra of St Sergius (a location that defeated us during the making of Art of Faith), dropping in on collector Victor Bodarenko and ending up with Peter the Great's vision of a Europeanised Russia, partly conceived during an extended bender in Deptford.

St Petersburg is the beginning for Natasha's Dance, Orlando Figes' immensely readable cultural history of Russia (which includes literature and music as well as the fine arts). But Graham-Dixon devotes almost the whole of the first programme to the story before this. The film makes an interesting comparison with the third film, Orthodoxy - From Empire to Empire, in the recent A History of Christianity with Diarmaid MacCulloch, which also visited a number of the same locations.

I have very much enjoyed A History of Christianity this autumn, and I recognise of course that it's trying to tell a far broader history than simply that of the arts in Russia. While he doesn't quite have the practised assurance of Graham-Dixon, MacCulloch has also proved a genial and immensely authoritative guide. But the filmmaking in The Art of Russia is simply more confident and achieved. There are no fragments of semi-recon here (like the dark horsemen in the woods accompanying MacCulloch) and no wobbly camera and fuzzy shots when a catastrophe engulfs the world being described.

I particularly like the focus on the faces of the Russian peoples which is a motif right through the three films (the first and last of which were produced and directed by Karen McGann, the middle one by John Mullen). And I really respect the care and attention devoted to individual artworks, which are invariably filmed in situ and explicated by AGD with real insight.

Film two, Roads to Revolution, moves from the baroque splendours (and breath-taking images) of Catherine Palace and Peterhof in St Petersburg to 'year zero' of the 1917 Revolution, and Malevich's The Black Square, 1915 (above). Much of the film is devoted to the work of Peredvizhniki or The Wanderers, a group of artists formed in 1870 in protest against the academic constraints of official painting. AGD introduces Ilya Repin (who is glimpsed in a moment of archive film) and Isaac Levitan, major figures both but probably never discussed before on British television.

There are plenty of surprises too in the third film, Smashing the Mould, including sequences filmed in a warehouse with the disassembled chunks of the great statue of a worker and a woman made for the 1937 World's Fair in Paris. There's a delightful sequence in the Rodchenko archive, where AGD enthuses over each new poster and print pulled from drawers by an obliging curator. We are also treated to a tour of Socialist Realist artworks in the Moscow Metro. But best of all is a ride up the Shukhov radio tower, an amazing construction built by the engineer Vladimir Shukhov between 1919 and 1922. If it's not quite as ignored as AGD suggests (its restoration is after all the focus of a major UNESCO campaign) it is still an astonishing construction that is wonderfully well filmed here.

In one sense, all arts documentaries should be this good, but I am going to insert a caveat at the end here. Presenter-led projects like this are only one way to approach the arts on screen, but they seem to be so dominant at present that there is next to no space for other forms of filmmaking. I'd like more like this, please, but I also dearly wish that the BBC would consider alternative forms and formats.

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