Waldemar Januszczak and the curse of the Sistine Chapel

Waldamar Januszczak.

The finest writers on art, at least in the English language, are Peter Schjeldahl and Waldemar Januszczak. And they straddle the Atlantic like two colossal light houses, the former from somewhere in Williamsburg where he files his celestial copy for the New Yorker, the latter from his muse in Chelsea where he writes a weekly column for the Culture section of the Sunday Times.

If you haven’t seen this already, treat yourself.

Januszczak has gone on to forge an almost flawless career as a documentary film and series maker where he focuses principally on late 19th century Paris. But he’s equally adept and comfortable on the Renaissance and everything in between. All of those movements that led from there to the birth of Modernism as it burst forth from Paris at the turn of the 20th century.

He is both deeply knowledgeable and consistently illuminating on everything from Picasso – on whom he teamed up with the peerless john Richardson – Gauguin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, to the Baroque, sculpture and the birth of Impressionism, reviewed by me earlier here. But that ‘flawless’ is stained by that ‘almost’ courtesy of an albeit understandable fixation with the Sistine Chapel.

In 2011, he made his one and only dud, The Michelangelo Code: Secrets of the Sistine Chapel, which was recently screened again on the excellent Sky Arts. All of its parts are as engaging and enlightening as you’d have hoped and expected. All of that research into the Medici popes, the Franciscans and his meticulous reading of the bible and the scriptures was well worth the considerable effort it obviously cost him.

But none of it adds up to anything. There’s no there, there. He plainly sees some sort of connection between the Branch Davidians and that madness at Waco, Texas, and the chapel’s ceiling. But if anyone can tell me after watching it what that connection is, I’ll send you on a bar of chocolate and a can of fizzy pop.

He’s wonderful company and a glorious guide, and I am more than happy to have sat through the thing for the second time. But for the life of me, I’ve still no idea what any of it was actually about.

If you’re unfamiliar with Januszczak, then you should search out some of his articles, any of them. His criticism is absolutely bullet proof. And if you can, watch any of his documentaries. But you should probably treat The Michelangelo Code as something of a bonus track, a deleted scene. Strictly for aficionados only.

You can see the tailer for the Michelangelo Code here.

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Revealing Warhol Documentary on Sky Arts.

4172660325_d98f2b485f_zThere’s a very interesting thesis at the heart of Ric Burns’ Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film, currently being shown on Sky Arts.

The general consensus has always been that Warhol’s output can be divided straight down the middle, by Valerie Solanas’ attempt on his life in 1968.

There was all of that frenetic yet incredibly focused energy that he put into an extraordinary variety of work before. And then there was a long and protracted decline as the shock of coming so near to losing his life shattered his confidence and sent him forever into a premature shell.

By the early 60s, the shy, asexual workaholic had established himself as one of the most successful art directors in east coast advertising. When he then launched himself as a full time artist his success was meteoric. And between 1962-8 he was one of the key people responsible for transforming New York into the centre of the world.

velvet_underground_a_pFirst came Pop art. The seeds of which, the film convincingly argues, had been sown in him by the sight of the stained glass windows at his local church. His pious mother had taken her sickly child there every weekend and he’d gaze up at them for hours on end.

That was followed by the now famous and genuinely iconic silk-screen portraits. The Marylins, Elvises and the Jackie Os. But there were also the avant garde films, the happenings and the music. All of which culminated with the Velvet Underground and the four seminal albums they produced.

It seemed like the entire artistic universe was centred around Warhol’s whirlwind and increasingly infamous Factory on East 47th Street.

But, the film points out, Warhol had acquired his nickname Drella for a reason. A combination of Cinderella and Dracula, it cleverly suggested an ingénue who sits innocently watching. But one that’s secretly and silently sucking all the blood from all who come into contact with him.

The drag queens, pimp, pushers and assorted wannabes that Warhol was openly encouraging to gather there and hang out might have been fantastic fodder for his art, music and film. But he was demonstrably using them. And there were few of any of them producing anything of worth. The Velvets were the exception not the rule.

Promising so many lost souls the earth was always going to cost him, eventually. And when Solinas shot him for not carrying her with him up into the heavens, there was a sense of inevitability rather than surprise about it.

ufzetxepkmvbbig.jpg.pngRic Burns is the younger brother of Ken, and the pair made the seminal The Civil War in 1990, which was followed up by Jazz in 2001. They’ve carved out a reputation for austere if slightly conservative, old school documentaries. And there’s nothing wrong with that. As this fine 4 hour plus film demonstrates.

And although it does sail dangerously close to hagiography, as the NY Times suggests in its superb piece here, Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film nonetheless makes a very convincing case for its claim that he was the most important artist in the latter half of the 20th century. Keep your eye out for it.

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“Da Vinci – The Lost Treasure” – BBC

Every now and then, viewers write into the BBC to complain that the only thing Fiona Bruce seems to be good for is striding in and out of shot with those elegant, never-ending legs of hers. They ought of course to be castigating her employers for not making better use of her, instead of laying the blame at the woman herself.

Just what they’re missing by asking her to act as little more than window dressing on the Antiques Roadshow was revealed by the wonderful programme she produced on Leonardo for BBC1. It was made with two ends in mind. First, as an introduction to the newly discovered Salvator Mundi, which was recently revealed as one of Leonardo’s lost masterpieces. And second, as a celebration of the National Gallery’s mouth-watering exhibition of Leonardo’s principle paintings.

Given that the incurably curious Florentine conducted detailed studies of pretty much just about everything, and succeeded therefore in completing only a handful of paintings, the discovery of the Salvator Mundi really was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events. And a painting that was sold for just £45 in 1956 is today valued at in excess of £120 million.

Happily, this coincides with an exhibition of his work that the National Gallery will be putting on between now and February next in London, and which will now include the newly authenticated Leonardo. Almost as excitingly, the exhibition will also provide an opportunity to scrutinize a rarely seen exact replica of The Last Supper that Leonardo so disastrously experimented with, and which began to deteriorate almost from the moment he finished it.

Interestingly, no reference was made by Bruce to the fascinating article in the New Yorker on the laborious and thorny authentication process that the Salvator Mundi underwent (here). David Grann began his typically expansive piece as a fairly standard overview of how a lost masterpiece becomes authenticated. But halfway through, it suddenly morphed into an exposé on Peter Paul Biro, a Hungarian émigré based in Montreal who claimed, enterprisingly, to have pioneered a method of authenticating artworks by revealing hidden fingerprints using his own microscopic photography. Coincidently, the article suggested, he had more than a passing acquaintance with many of the works he successfully “authenticated”.

That I suppose would have been a different programme. As it was, Bruce used the compact hour to confidently and concisely present a crisp overview of Leonardo’s work and life, and to offer up a mouth-watering preview of the National Gallery’s exhibition. The sight of her serenely and authoritatively chatting away in French and Italian to academics in Paris and Florence ought to have been enough to silence her many doubters. Needless to say, it did nothing of the sort, and they all complained in their droves about it.

This programme did exactly what it should have done. It made the exhibition unmissable. And the National Gallery is to be congratulated for embracing an exhibit other institutions might have shied away from.

“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.

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog’s riveting documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams was greeted with universal acclaim when it was released in cinemas this spring. He’d been given unique access to the magnificent suit of cave paintings that were unearthed at Chauvet in the Ardèche, north of the Riviera in 1994. The paintings that were discovered there were so sophisticated that all our ideas of what Stone Age man was capable of had to be completely re-imagined, as articulated by Judith Thurman, one of the brightest stars in the New Yorker’s stellar firmament (here).

Initially though, as Fintan O’Toole argues here, the find appeared to produce more questions about our Palaeolithic ancestors than it did answers. First; how is it that the paintings at Chauvet, which date to around 31,000 years ago, seem to be evidence of an already completed tradition?

Since then though, finds have surfaced in Namibia which date to 25,000 ya, in Fumane in Italy dating to 34,000 ya, and in Australia which date to at least 30,000 ya, and probably to 40,000 and earlier. And they all show evidence of exactly the kind of trial and error that we should have expected.

More to the point, cave paintings were part of a wider explosion in our evolution which dates to around 45,000 ya. It was then that we began to ritually bury our dead, to produce the thousands of “Venus” figurines that have been found throughout the whole of Eurasia, to wear personal ornamentation, and to trade, all of which are evidence for the advent of language. The cave paintings at Chauvet aren’t the beginning of this process, they’re its culmination.

Second he asked; given that cave paintings weren’t intended as hunting manuals, yet depict only animals (there are less than 5 or 6 humans in any of the thousands of cave paintings so far discovered) what exactly were these cave paintings used for?

In a word, belief. Cave paintings are yet more evidence that it was then that we first began to practice belief.

The best way to think of cave paintings is to see them as functioning in the same way that stained glass windows do in a Christian church. They clearly refer to, and are part of the rituals performed there in front of them. But with only the images to go on, we can never know what those rituals were. All we can say is that they must have been of fundamental importance, for them to have taken so much care and trouble in producing them.

All of which only adds to the allure of the film. And don’t worry if you missed your chance to see it in 3D. All that the 3D does is to give an inherently fascinating film an impressive gloss. It’s the film’s content that captivates, not the delivery.