Wednesday, 6 May 2015



We often complain about the intrusion on their subjects of TeeVee arts presenters and  it can be argued that any presence is an intrusion and although some, being truly kowledgeable - Mathew Collings, Waldemar Jabberwocky and Michael Wood spring to mind - are at least tolerable, others, such as Dr Tubby Ramirez, Queen David Starkey and Simon Russell Beale, 

Andrew Graham Dixon,
for fucks sake, 
are a noisy pollution, vandalising any subject upon which they chance.  
Neil Oliver, an able historian, presents not just history or archaeology but himself,  

as  hybrid rockstar-archaeologist;  

Dan Cruikshank appears as a conspiratorially eccentric uncle, 
while Dan Snow 

of the ghastly Snow Dynasty, 

has a muscle-bound, platitudinous  oafishness,  voiced from a face upon which you foot'd break  before you tired of kicking it.  

Dr Lucy Lisp, Keeper of the Royal Knocking Shops and media tart, is happiest 

posing for the nation  in  a  bath or laced-up in a Georgian corset, pouting and lisping her crass arty histories at us,  a pseudo-scholarly telly trollop, ghastly little stoat. 

Hi, big boy,
I'm Doctor Lucy,
buy me.
The arts show is now merely a branding exercise for its presenters.
No business like showbusiness.

The convention seems to be that simply showing us pictures or playing us music is insufficient, there must be a media star between us and the art; it is a device patronising, impertinent and ultimately philistine in its presumption. Last night, however, on PBC4 there came one of those events which justifies the license tax;  Frederick Wiseman's, the National Gallery,  had neither presenter nor voiceover, yet, for three-hours, was eye-wateringly entertaining, informative, educational and inspiring .

Cameras roamed through the Gallery among patrons, paintings and staff. In a boardroom meeting, Gallery Director, Nicholas Penny, 

faced-down a Siobahn Sharpe-type PR bint, who was urging him to get with the charity programme and allow the building to be used as a hoarding for something related to the London Marathon, it's4, like,  you know, charidee.  This, you stupid cunt, he seemed to respond, bless him, is the National Fucking Gallery.  Later, he appeared giving an impromptu lecture on Poussin to Gallery visitors and why he was the Director of the National Gallery became very clear.

Although the film revisited the boardroom to witness a discussion about the budget,  the bureaaucracy of the Gallery ended there and the film appeared to just wander around , stopping  at an interesting conversation or at a curious juxtaposition of paintings.  They don't just hang 'em, dissertations are written about  where, how and with what else pictures should be hung, and although these scholarly discussions were held on camera they weren't to camera, were as naturalistic and spontaneous as they could possibly be, given that a camera in the room changes and distorts everything.

Much of the film, as did the recent FilmFour Mr Turner, concentrated on light and lighting;  one scene involved a lighting technician, high-up on a self-propelling ladder, being directed by a curator on the floor, seeking optimum illumination of a triptych, suggesting this angle, that intensity, in the  end being forced - like all artists - to accept  compromise and abandonment, having to live with a level of shadow; another scene was a lengthy exposition of picture illumimation - then, in Old Master times, and now. Pictures were sometimes created or sketched-out, in situ - where they would be hung - and according to then-prevailing natural light; composition was servant to that light, as were varnishes, some concocted to illuminate and to enhance and enrich pigments deployed, the varnish was both part of the palette and a form of self-contained illumination, albeit that with time the varnish obscured what it once revealed. Old Masters, when painted,  were basically viewed in the relative darkness of candlelight, bathed a little in the reflected shine of wooden floorings and way above the natural eye-line, hung - as many were - over grandly high fireplaces.  

 Sections of the film were as much about seeing the painting - were we physically seeing what the artist intended - as about understanding or appreciating it.  Were we superimposing the Now on the Then? Rembrandt never painted for the electric light; any place, therefore, where  a modern curator hung a Rembrandt was, in purist's terms,  the wrong place.

This conflict, between technologically anachronistic hindsight  and the original work of art,  followed, even more critically, the conservator and his or her painstaking work

and again the question asked itself, What the fuck are we doing here, meddling with Time's ruinous handiwork, attempting  to restore something to a state which we can never know? All concerned were flagellating themselves like Mediavalists, for sins which they may not have committed, for their inability to time-travel, ask Velazquez, How, exactly, should this fucking thing look?

has someone already fucked it up, a hundred years ago?

 This To-Restore/Not-Restore conundrum had niggled so much that the Gallery's dictum  now states that any retouching done by this generation must be easily removed by the next,  the future must be able to readily see the past unmediated by the more recent past, even if that recent past had already been mediated by earlier restorers. It is the sort of dilemma from whose horns there is no escape.

And so it went on, questioning, well, I suppose the survivability of works of art, asking, Can we actually do this, Are we - as quantum physicists alter the observed  merely by observing it - in seeking to conserve art  actually destroying it? And the answer, of course, is yes. 

 I am the world's worst - or best - restorer;  the furniture fetishist loves patina, patina is dirt;  I love to clean the dirt off.

This chair was jet black when we met, with two centuries of soot and I wanted to see the crazy elm figuring and see the sunshine from half a millenium ago. So I cleaned it. I don't try to remove scuffs or scratches or natural imperfections, just dirt. A collector would rather have had it in the soot-blackened, greasy state.  My decision, though,  gives more pleasure to more people, is more egalitarian and promotes, I know, a much greater interest in wood, trees, tools, furniture making, social history and Creation. It's the way I tell 'em.  Cleaning up dirty old pictures, even if it's wrong, it's right.

Several scenes revolved around a conservator, Larry, explaining to a small Gallery audience the well-intentioned damage done by generations of his fellow, Road To Hell  craftspersons. His predecessors, of course, had no access to x-rays and blotches,  revealed once the old varnish had been removed from a Rembrandt,  had been tinkered with, touched-up,  by earlier generations. 

Larry's x-ray of the painting showed that the portrait, of a burgher on horseback,  had been painted over another, similar subject; Rembrandt had merely recycled the canvas and what  History's  experts had judged careless execution  by Rembrandt was actually the earlier painting leeching through;  hard to know, therefore, with any certainty, which bits are Rembrandt and which Rembrandt Improved.

 Yet for all his professional hauteur and expertise, Larry, like so many in the National Gallery is an amateur, doing what he  does from love and en-theus-iasm, filled with God

 I came across this, decades ago, in McLuhan's Understanding Media, typed it up

and it's always been around, somewhere, on a shelf, a mantelpiece.
Nothing that I do is Art but some of the things which I have done I have done as well as I can. And I think that for all their agonising, the Gallery
the guides,
the attendants,
the craftspersons and the experts do that, too.

Even though there were, predictably,  too many gobby, arty men in carefully knotted scarves and expensive spectacles they were  a minor irritation, outnumbered by ordinary people, from everywhere, just gazing at  the pictures, one of the greatest collections in the world. 

There were three hours of conversation, discussion, explanation, notably about Leonardo, Velasquez, Titian, 

Rembrandt and our own Mr Turner. 

Collings was filmed shooting his own excellent show,
Turner's Thames. Not as excellent as this one, though.

And there was music, too, and finally, dance.  A pianist played to a small Gallery audience,  the Scherzo from Beethovens Sonata opus 31, while, echoing the stacatto of the music, the camera whizzed  and rattled through unidentified paintings and fragments of paintings. At various points in the film there were brief discussions about an upcoming dance  to be performed before a pair of Titians, what was the floor made of, what would the light be like, until eventually it dawned on the performers' representative that it was the pictures that mattered,  the pictures, the dancers would just have to cope with it being the National Gallery and not Sadlers Wells.  Despite everything else revealed by and hinted-at in this extraordinary blessing of a film, it was all really just about the pictures, looking at the pictures.  I suppose the difference between this and all the other TeeVee arts shows is that this, like Mr Turner, was a film and  not a programme, was truly Art, for Art's Sake.

When at the end, came the dancers, they were incongruous; so much lively  athleticism among centuries-frozen, two-dimensional mythology but my head and my heart were soon stolen away.  I came but lately to early music and Byrd just does that thing to me, the thing to which mr bungalow bill testifies, guilt and fretful isolation; his icy descant blended so perfectly with the gilded, ancient oils and the muscular arabesques that I thought my heart must break.


Mike said...

It's an interesting conumdrum - to restore, or not? Even with modern technology, the argument is finely balanced.

There was a marvelous documentary on TeeVee down here a few months back on this very subject, centred on some painting in the Louvre - it may even have been the Mona Lisa. The insight into the available techniques, and the attendant ethical dilemmas, was a revelation.

I've tried for several hours to find a link, without success. But if it pops up on your screen then I suggest its well worth an hour of your time.

call me ishmael said...

There is a cartoon in the current Eye, mr mike, two effete arts ponces hailing the news that forty thousand year old Aboriginal art is coming to the market; Civilisation! they shriek, there's money to be made.

I think it is more than just a creatives' conundrum, all this, perhaps also, a form of political hostage-taking which I am trying to understand, elsewhere.

Never been to the Louvre, just to Amsterdam and Vienna, where I saw a copyist, alongside a Breughel, producing a replica, just like that. That was twenty years ago and it still makes me wonder, about attribution and verification.

I will keep an eye open for that show popping-up in the zeitgeist. It is amazing, as we saw in Mr Turner, how much science there is in art, then and now.

Doug Shoulders said...

I’m a great fan of history. Norman invasion and shit is what I’m having a look at just now. Never used to be at school.
Watched walking through history for the first and last time the other week. Presented by Baldrick from Blackadder. Shite..Another one who can, like my old teachers, make history dull.
Wouldn’t watch anything that the Snows presented. I’ve seen the erections in their chinos any time they talk about the “Might of the British Empire” They’d like to see those days again when GB could rape and pillage without permission from parliament to do so.

Something on the other night just about justified the licence fee on its own. Short program showing a glass jug being made by hand. No commentary, no music…Priceless.

I’d restore…bring it back.if the skill and material is available

call me ishmael said...

Shit, I had meant to watch that but forgot about it, the trailer looked magucal, the blower just dropping the molten handle over a steel rod, letting gravity form a perfect shape, as it hit the side of the jug. I'll look it up.

blackholesunset said...

Thanks a lot for the recommendations, Mr Ishmael and Mr Doug Shoulders, the handmade jug and knife were excellent and the National Gallery film is on iPlayer until Sunday so I'll watch that when I have a clear few hours of concentration.

call me ishmael said...

Takes a bit of acclimatisation, the NG show, mr bhs, getting used to the absence of monologue but given the current national insanity that's no bad thing. There is much more to it than my poor summary, focusing on the Restoration Conundrum There is little in the public discourse which questions the very idea of nationally curated collections of works of art but this, without ever saying so, raises such ideas. And the pictures are fabulous.

SG said...

Damn! I didn't spot this one, so missed it, Mr I. However, your excellent review is much appreciated. Welcome relief from the risible election media-fest too. I'm no art head but what better than to lose oneself in a painting? For me its the Venetian School - Gaurdi et al - like passing through a portal into history...

Bungalow Bill said...

Yes, beautiful thank you and, as Mr SG says, especially now. God knows, we need these moments of reprieve. I only manage to time my telly watching correctly when it turns out to be garbage, so I have high hopes of catching up on this one like Mr bhs.

call me ishmael said...

It is truly fucking awful, this time around, I can simply find nothing to say about it and trying-to only makes me feel more worser.

We have now seen the best of times and they will not return, not this side of a revolution, any road up.

mr mongoose often used to complain that he had lived too long, I never quite shared that feeling but I do know what he means. There is no conceivable outcome to this farce which would bring me a shred of comfort or a glimmer of optimism; how anyone sells this process to their children is beyond me.

If I was piloting this show, I'd shut-out the captain and fly into a mountain.

SG said...

Nonesense,  Mr I, pull up on the joystick, as it were, and rise above the mountain, 'tis not even a molehill. Stride out upon your land and gain strength from it. All this shit is mere superstructure... 

Bob Doney said...

Thanks! I recorded this on the Magic Virgin time machine, but deleted it before watching, suspecting that it would likely be yet another opportunity for someone to pose about. I'll rescue it from Deleted Items, and may conceivably find a few otherwise barren hours tonight to watch it.


call me ishmael said...

No, mr bob doney, there are no poseurs present in this film and even the gilded young men and women who assembled and curated the Leonardo exhibition, for instance, spoke modestly and respectfully of the works in their care, of their love for their labour. Even amidst the suppressed, whispery tumult of thousands of visitors, the gallery and its people seemed far from the madding crowd's eternal strife.

Shit, if I had to do it all over again, I'd happily sweep the floors in the National Gallery, have my teabreaks with Turner.

call me ishmael said...

Compared with the tulips and awakening trees, it is, mr sg, superfucial, but that so many are babbling falsehood and stupidity is a most depressing and ruinous pollution.

mongoose said...

Yes, I must have seen some of that, Mr Ihmael, although not all of it by any means. It is interesting always to see a bit deeper because of someone else's hard- or easy-won expertise. I could usefully have taken my executioner's axe to some of those committee members though.

Nice chair! (Don't ask about the bloody Shaker bastard but I am currently summoning the resolve to pin the joints. With toothpicks. Metal being verbotten.) And nice floor too. I remember we laid the oak floor here and that evening, with all of the furniture under a tarp on the lawn, the whole ground floor was a sheet of white oak, unfinished loveliness. But so-called rustic oak with knots and such - not pristine Islington metro-machined flatness. The better to fit the crumbling pyramid in which it has to be. I'd have left it like that if we didn't have to live here. And cricket boots ought to be banned.

call me ishmael said...

Yes, I think the Director could've axed the board, too; I really thought I had wandered into W1A.

The floor is new pine, no point having one room of oak, even if I could afford it, which I can't, I have stripped the other floors and stained and varnished them but I didn't have the strength for this one, so just screwed a new floor on top of the old. It's OK, the last thing I did before I got ill, this time. I was quite inventive with the skirting boards, I will show you, another time.

I would never attempt any of that Shaker stuff, I just keep the book close because I like Moser's mind and his writing. Good for you, for having a go.

I last bought some oak, French, it was, from Good Brothers, in Hereford, back in the 'nineties, and every couple of years I see, in my old friend's widow's house, the pair of blanket boxes which I made from it; they haven't budged a nano-metre in any direction; faded, but that can be fixed. Never mind computer studies, we should set the idle youth to work, planting oak forests, restoring the dry stone walls, defending the coastline, proper national service.

mongoose said...

I just saw the spare boards down a bit, tongue off and down the middle for upstairs, ease one corner and call it skirting. Plain, rectilinear, like an engineer made it. Spacer under each end and screw it on. We have to live simply in Bandit Country.

The fucking chair just keeps wandering about the place on its own. Is probably Pinocchio-dancing in the workshop right now. I think it might have been wiser to have a wooden seat but I didn't have enough sticks for that. The best part was standing one afternoon quietly turnining all the spindles.

The floor oak BTW - and it was the lowest grade they sold: sawmarks, knots, the odd spoiled one - is 20mm thick and if memory serves was £20+ a metre after I had battered them into submission. They supplied I don't know how many metres to your ScoGov Shrine. So they had no need to make money off me. 20mm should last as long as the rest of the joint. Certainly longer than the next government.

mongoose said...

6000 square metres

blackholesunset said...

The National Gallery film was everything you said it would be, Mr Ishmael. A wonderful mixture of curators at work and the marvellous, often stunning, artworks themselves.

call me ishmael said...

Oh, that's good, mr bhs. I have been tempted to buy it on DVD, for those times when I'm up all night, leaning on the windowsill but I have found that writing these things down kinda fixes them in my mind, so my thanks to you, for reading them.

call me ishmael said...

Thanks, that is nice, mr mongoose, unstained, but my friends wanted dark oak boxes, a matching pair, and the odd refectory table I have made, well, people can't wait three hundred years for it to darken. If I had to do it again, I would persuade people to have their wood as it comes from the trees, with a bit of oil, and bees wax, like the Shakers did, before they killed themselves off. Did you see that board, in Moser's book, the one he can't bring himself to use? I know that feeling. I will come back to this.

mongoose said...

I have in my shed a table-top. It's maybe 4' by not quite by 3'. And more than 2" thick. Has a border of lighter something which might be cherry around a great hunk of red hardwood. The old man was making a table and then died on us. I don't need or want a coffee table that weighs 50lbs and which is half a bloody pool table in size. But I could use that chunk in the middle. I just cannot bring myself to fire up the table saw and do it.

blackholesunset said...

You're more than welcome, Mr Ishmael. The thoughts and commentaries shared here are a blessing.

Bungalow Bill said...

I've just watched it too and it was wonderful. Mr Wiseman who made it is 85, I see, and this beautiful, subtle, loving film was an old man's masterpiece.

I can see this being watched 500 years (and more) from now, on some unimaginable technology, and still being marvelled at. Which is the very point, or one of the uncountable number, this work makes.

call me ishmael said...

Thanks, mr bungalow bill.