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.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!

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.