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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7 Best TV Programmes for Christmas 2011.

1. Brian Cox’s Night With The Stars – BBC2 9pm, Sun 18th.

With his recent book on Quantum Physics making it abundantly clear that the poster boy of popular science is first and foremost a serious scientist, this one hour special is a wonderful opportunity for him to open up that dizzyingly complex area to the general public.

Anyone lucky enough to have seen either his Wonders of The Solar System, or the subsequent Wonders of The Universe (see below) will know that this the one man capable of making the Quantum universe genuinely exciting and ever so slightly less opaque.

2. The Conformist – Channel4 230am, Monday/Tuesday 19/20th.

A rare chance to see (or at least to record) Bertolucci’s seminal film from 1970. Ostensibly the story of a man who just wants to fit in, and who therefore joins the Italian Fascists in the 1930s, the ordinariness of his wishes are continually undercut by the film’s richly stylised and self-consciously Brechtian portrayal of the world he inhabits.

Hugely influential, the film’s cinematographer Vittorio Storaro was promptly poached by Francis Ford Coppola, for whom he went on to shoot The Godfathers I and II, Apocalypse Now and One From The Heart. Forget the fact that Bertolucci went on to prove himself quite the most over-rated film maker of his generation. Sit back and luxuriate in this opulent style fest.

3. The Art of The Night – BBC4 9pm, Wed 21st.

Waldemar Januszcak, the brilliant art critic for the Sunday Times, has been producing exemplary programmes on art and artists for over 15 years now. Most famously, he and John Richardson produced the peerless Picasso: Magic, Sex and Death, and most recently with The Impressionists (reviewed earlier here). So this one hour special on Rembrandt, Velázquez, Van Gogh and co. is not to be missed.

4. Other Voices NYC – RTE2 805pm, Christmas Day.

The only outlet for alternative music anywhere on Irish television, this (presumably temporary) move from Dingle to New York should play into the show’s strengths, by further highlighting the communal roots that Irish and American music mine and share.

5. The Johnny Cash Christmas Show – BBC4 950pm, Christmas Day.

Johnny Cash joined by Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, The Everly Brothers and of course the Carter family for a 1970 Christmas special. Enough said.

6. For One Night Only – The Dubliners – RTE1 1030pm, Christmas Day.

The 50th anniversary of their coming together, and a celebration of the release of the original line-up’s first three albums. A rare treat.

7. Wonders Of The Universe – BBC4 7pm nightly. Mon 26th-Thu29th.

For anyone who missed it first time around, here’s another chance to see Professor Brian Cox’s pleasingly dense overview of what we now know about the universe, and how we now know it. And don’t be put off by the somewhat ponderous first half hour. From then on in, it’s gloriously detailed and happily science heavy (reviewed earlier here).