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? Cezanne, Richard­son explained, had become ever more obsessed with the idea of max­imis­ing colour through­out the can­vass, by elim­i­nat­ing any of what he referred to as “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 across 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 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 invent­ed cam­era do that far more effec­tive­ly? What exact­ly was art for now? Cezanne showed Picas­so the road out of that conun­drum, and the result, soon after, 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 was on Picas­so, almost all of his pro­grammes are supreme­ly insight­ful. The only blot on his copy­book being 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, bril­liant­ly acer­bic on restau­rants but much more seri­ous and con­sid­ered on the medi­um of tele­vi­sion. 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.

Speak Your Mind