“The Impressionists: Painting and Revolution” – BBC

In 2001 Waldemar Januszczak joined forces with Picasso’s great friend and definitive biographer John Richardson, to produce their magisterial three part television series on the painter, Magic, Sex and Death. Whenever I’m asked what I mean when I say that, up until the advent of the internet, television was the most powerful educating force since the invention of the printing press, this is always the (first) example that I site.

I could never understand exactly what it was that Picasso saw in Cezanne. What could a painter for whom everything was so easy and effortless have possibly gleaned from one for whom everything was so effortful, and so painfully, pedantically pedestrian? Cezanne, Richardson explained, had become ever more obsessed with the idea of maximising colour throughout the canvass, by eliminating any “dead space”. But the laws of perspective are very clear in that regard. Colour both fades with distance, and changes in intensity depending on how far away it is from the light source. What to do.

Eventually, and incredibly reluctantly, Cezanne decided to disregard the laws of perspective, so that those luminous landscapes of the south of France of his could be saturated throughout the entire canvass in those lush greens and browns and blues. Not only that, but in a vain attempt to atone for his sins, he took any obvious area of perspective, say a road that moved away from the foreground into the distance and the houses that lined it on either side, and he deliberately exaggerated their perspective, making the diagonals of their facades even more angular.

So he broke the laws of perspective, twice, deliberately! This is what so attracted Picasso to Cezanne. Why should a work of art merely re-present reality? Couldn’t the newly arrived camera do that far more effectively? What exactly was art for now? Cezanne showed Picasso the road out of that conundrum, and the result, eventually, was cubism and all that that ushered in.

Since then, Januszczak has made a host of brilliantly engaging and wonderfully informative programmes on Gauguin, Van Gogh Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, the Baroque and sculpture. And whilst he’ll never have the opportunity of teaming up with anyone quite as erudite or as well positioned as Richardson is on Picasso, all of his programmes are supremely insightful. The only blot on his copybook was the one he did on Michelangelo, Secrets of the Sistine Chapel, which was uncharacteristically lacking in any coherent narrative.

Almost in acknowledgement of that, his current show, The Impressionists: Painting and Revolution couldn’t possibly be clearer in the story it sets out to tell. In his regular guise as the Art critic for the Culture section in The Sunday Times, he wrote that he’d been moved to make the series after reading a throwaway remark by his fellow contributor A.A. Gill, the merely hilarious restaurant critic, but serious TV critic. He had dismissed Impressionism, with characteristic insouciance, as being boring. This series is Januszczak’s response.

In three parts, the first episode gave us mini portraits of Impressionism’s four pioneers, Pissarro, Renoir, Monet and Frédéric Bazille, the movement’s forgotten hero, who died at 28 in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Not only did he explain why what they were doing was so revolutionary, he demonstrated how they’d been enabled to literally broaden their horizons. It was the invention of tubes of paint in 19th century England that allowed those early pioneers to set up their (now portable) easels outside and produce fully fledged works of art en plein air. Before that, the actual mixing of paint had been so cumbersome that all anyone had been able to do beyond the four walls of their studio was to produce sketches. This, and the new types of paint brushes that then followed, was one of the many practical things that facilitated their radical revolution.

If you don’t manage to catch any of this, yet another of Januszczak’s superlative series’, and you’re not already a regular reader of his, try to get your hands on any of his television programmes. They all of them educate, inform and entertain. Brilliantly.

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  1. […] peer­less Picasso: Magic, Sex and Death, and most recently with The Impres­sion­ists (reviewed here). So this one hour spe­cial on Rem­brandt, Velázquez, Van Gogh and co. is not to be […]

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