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A straight man in Germany

A straight man in Germany
14 December 2010 posted by John Wyver

So just what is it with the BBC and the definite article? Call me old-fashioned, but I feel it's right and proper that a television programme should have a name. Just one. And that name should be consistent across, say, the on-screen title and the BBC's web site. Yet just as the recent film about modernism and St Ives couldn't decide whether it was called Art of Cornwall or The Art of Cornwall, so Andrew Graham-Dixon's new series has the same problem. On screen it's plain and simple Art of Germany -- and on the web there's a very definite definite article. That said, I'm not sure I've really got any other criticism to offer about (The) Art of Germany. I'm a fan.

Of the BBC's three main go-to guys for art history -- Matthew Collings and Waldemar Januszczak being the others -- Andrew Graham-Dixon is most definitely the straight man. (I should stress, m'learned friends, that my use of the phrase is not intended to offer any comment on the subject's sexual preferences.) Having cast off what he perhaps feels were his foolish flirtations with po-mo irony, Matt is now the intense intellectual, sometimes a bit left-field and often brilliant -- but with a trace of bonkers thrown in. And Waldemar is, well, very Waldemar, full-on, fearless and too often a bit too try-hard.

Andrew, by contrast, is solid, serious, calm and considered -- and all the better for it. The three films in the series (all of which are available on BBC iPlayer until 20 December) trace the history of German art from the building of Cologne's Gothic cathedral to just beyond the fall of the Wall. Each programme is intelligently scripted and features some wonderful things that are filmed well. There's not too much music, there's little stylistically that could be described as flashy. This is classical television -- and, much like Andrew, all the better for it.

After Spain and then Russia, Germany is perhaps a rather tougher tradition to tackle. It's all very sturm and gloom, drang and disaster -- and there's not really a happy ending. Although Graham-Dixon concludes with a touching sequence featuring Joseph Beuys' great 7,000 Oaks project in Kassel. Here at least there's a sense of society going some way to healing itself with a little help from its art.

Gone now are the quirky touches from the Spanish series like the red Mini and the flamboyant wine tasting. There are a lot of trains here, and a few boats, plus a fair amount of driving the length and breadth of the country. But it's all about the art, and the traces of softer travelogue have, thankfully, been banished. There are occasional encounters too (although not in programme one), with curators and historians, including with Chris Dercon, currently director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich but about to be the new director of Tate Modern.

Programme one, produced and directed (like the second film) by Karen McGann, opens with a prologue in the forest, a scene that will be a continuing motif. It then gets down to business in Cologne Cathedral before considering paintings by artists on the border between High Gothic and the Renaissance. Grunewald's great Isenheim Altarpiece is the first of the major artworks to which Graham-Dixon devotes focussed attention. Albrecht Durer's Self-Portrait, 1500, is another, and one encountered also in Laura Cumming's recent film Ego - The Strange and Wonderful World of Self-Portraits.

The limewood sculptures of Tilman Riemenschneider are probably the highlight of this first film, but we are also introduced to Albrecht Altdorfer's The Battle of Alexander, to the eighteenth-century glories of Dresden and to the extraordinary 'character heads' (also scrutinised by Laura Cumming) of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. These, Graham-Dixon suggests, I can't help thinking a little fancifully, might be seen as a collective 'portrait of an as-yet unformed German nation'.

The second film runs from the early nineteenth century and the passions of Romanticism through to the early twentieth and the horrors of war. The roll-call includes Philip Otto Runge, Caspar David Friedrich, Adolf Menzel, Kathe Kollwitz, Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Dix and the painter Graham-Dixon describes as 'the last of the great German Romantics', Franz Marc. Plus we get to travel on a train through Berlin and to enter the extraordinary throne room at the fantasy castle of Neuschwanstein.

The final film (produced and directed by Roger Parsons) engages with Dix again and with George Grosz, with the Bauhaus briefly and with the photographs of August Sander at rather greater length. Then we plunge into the nightmare of Nazism and into an unsensational but still shocking account (with some great colour archive) of Hitler's dalliances with art and architecture. Post-war, we see the paintings of Georg Baselitz and the conceptual photographs of the late Bernd and the still very much alive Hilda Becher, as well as the profoundly influential art of Jospeh Beuys. Anselm Kiefer is a perhaps surprising omission, but otherwise this is an immaculate exploration of a fascinating story.

I found all of this engrossing and engaging, and I learned a lot. I was shown some things about which I knew a little and many of which I knew nothing. I liked the way in which the films respect the materiality of the artworks they present, going to the galleries to see the actual objects, observing the handling of prints and drawings, treating sculptures and architecture with visual thoughtfulness. As I've said before, I don't want all arts programmes to look like this, but I'm pleased that some of them do.

I started with a quibble, and I'll end with one too. Why is there nothing substantial in the way of online back-up? There's a charming BBC blog by Andrew Graham-Dixon setting out his sense of the series. But why no list of the major featured artworks? Why no basic details of each of the museums and a link to the website of each? Such simple information would be immensely useful to the students and others who will doubtless be watching these films for years to come.

Related posts: Talkin' about a revolution (on Matthew Collings) 3 November 2010 / Art and revolution (on The Art of Russia) 23 December / Totally Baroque (on Waldemar Januszczak) 13 March 2009.

Related Illuminations' films: State of the Art (with Jospeh Beuys)



15 December 2010 10:14

I'm in two minds about the series as a whole. Firstly, I really like how the art is the star and the travel and extra filler bits (a horrible device to engage people more into the stories) are secondary, but I wish the programme was a little more creative. I am learning alot and it's wonderfully shot, I just wish they structured the series differently, and put some imagination into it.

Waldemar Januszczak

11 September 2011 12:25

John, I honestly believe I could be Andrew Graham-Dixon. Not look like him, of course - I could never be that English and suave. But I could make programmes EXACTLY like him. I too could park myself in front of a big art subject and pronounce on it in a grave and seemingly profound manner that feels terribly public service. However, I don't think Andrew could EVER make programmes like me. I don't think he would ever try to re-think the genre. I don't he could dare be tangibly different. Above all, I don't think he would ever be as prepared as I am to stick his head above the parapet - and say something genuinely inspirational or insightful. Something that really changes the way you understand things. I'm not interested in managerial arts tv. Or homework tv. I know it's your preferred style, but surely you have enough self-knowledge to see that this is a reflection of your own personality. Which is also quiet, thoughtful, managerial. Come on John. You MUST see that. Waldemar

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