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.

You can sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right, and I shall keep you post­ed every month on All the very Best and Worst in film, tele­vi­sion and music

7 Best TV Programmes for Christmas 2011.

1. Bri­an Cox’s Night With The StarsBBC2 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 NightBBC4 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 NYCRTE2 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 ShowBBC4 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 Dublin­ersRTE1 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 Uni­verseBBC4 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).