Arty but definitely not farty…


Question: What’s art history for?


a) To give privileged kids a subject to get a degree in

b) To keep art historians in work

c) To provide everyone with a key to a magical world of colour, wonder and imagination

Up until a few years ago I’d give you full points for saying a & b. But c?  Maybe if you’d substituted ‘the few’ for ‘everyone’ that might have been nearer the mark. Which leads me to art history as television.

Is it entertainment? Is it education? Is it art? The joy is these days you can decide for yourself – choosing from a virtual galaxy of programmes available on YouTube, BBC iplayer, old OU broadcasts. From the pale males of the Anthony Blunt era whose measured, static presentation gives you the visceral pleasure of actually standing in a British art gallery while the rain lashes down outside. You can go on a trip with the positively bonkers Sister Wendy (who suggested that all those dirty schoolgirl jokes about nuns and candles did have some factual basis). And how about checking out Robert Hughes’ seminal The Shock of the New which weirdly seems like the shock of the old now but it’s still thrilling; a bit like re-reading or re-watching A Clockwork Orange.

All this choosing for yourself is all well and good but sometimes we all need a little guidance, a little nudge. Waldemar Januszczak‘s last installment of The Renaissance Unchained airs tonight on BBC4 and if the first three are anything to go by there should be some nudge, nudge, wink, wink to go along with the nudge in the right direction. If this all sounds gimmicky – it’s not. Waldemar’s love of his subject shimmers like the Venetian satin he told us about last week. And in a series about art it’s wonderfully free from artifice. His trademark opening soundtrack of flat-footed pad-pad-padding over piazzas and cobbled streets – telling us he’s everyman schlepping his way across Europe in order to send us back that precious postcard.

Not for him zipping along the autostrade in a sporty little number and slipping effortlessly into the local lingo. No posing about in linen suits and brushing away a floppy fringe as he gesticulates in front of a Caravaggio. Waldemar is big, sweaty and wears his East European heritage as proudly as his flashy death’s-head bling ring. Best of all as he isn’t a stereotype we don’t get the stereotypical point of view. Proving that you don’t have to be that unremarkable kid from the privileged background to get access to that magical world a thousand years plus in the making.

Tonight is Hell, Snakes and Giants – can’t wait!!







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