Close up: three union jacks wave vigorously in the blustery British winds. Traditional classical music chimes, staccato beat travelling across the air as your brain tries to align the rhythm of the music to the images of the flags. A voice rings out in an urgent tone, primed with dramatic pause and rhetorical flourishes.
The originality of approach in the BBC series on British modernism, British Masters, is obvious from the opening scene. If television documentaries are sometimes criticised for refusing to risk alienating their audiences by taking a controversial stance, British Masters staunchly refuses to play to the crowd. Because impressionism, cubism, surrealism, and abstract expressionism are now conventionally popular and often featured on television, they are either sidelined or dismissed in favour of a very British tradition.
Indeed, if you watched the series, you would know we Brits have a lot to wave our union jacks about in terms of our national artistic legacy – ‘one of the greatest artistic movements in all of western culture,’ according to presenter Dr James Fox. Almost every painting the series looks at is ‘the work of a genius’, or ‘probably one of the greatest ever’. Excitingly, this very British art is not only of the finest aesthetic quality but also has a profound social value. Before the second world war it prophesised what was to come; afterwards it demonstrated what it was to be ‘British’.
Miraculously, Fox sees no disjunction between his revisionist mission to reclaim British modernism from its undeserving omission from our museums, television programmes and art history books on the one hand and the power of the claims he makes about it on the other. British modernist art was always undervalued, yet simultaneously influential enough to ‘define for a nation what Britishness was’ (the concept of what British identity and nationality is or was or means is never problematised in the programme itself).
Some of the artists in the programme – Sickert, Hamilton, and Hockney for example – are extremely famous in Britain today, but not as part of a very British lineage. Fox’s refusal to acknowledge David Blomberg’s debt to cubism, Sickert’s debt to Degas, or Hamilton and Hockney’s debt to Warhol and US pop art is symptomatic of the presenter’s unfortunate predilection for following his own agenda with, at times, little regard for the facts.
As John Preston from the Telegraph aptly points out, when Fox discusses Mark Gertler’s ‘The Merry-Go-Round’: ‘[He] gave the clear impression that this was painted in 1914 and was “a dark and brutal vision of the future, a premonition of Britain trapped in the insanity of a never-ending war”. But “The Merry-Go-Round”, as Fox must – or should – have been aware, was actually painted in 1916.’
Good visual analysis is marred by Fox’s compulsive exaggeration. In a scene showing shots of Stanley Spencer’s incredible Sandham memorial paintings, painted hands become a ‘handshake between the past and the future’.
The striking subjectivity of these analyses is accounted for by Fox’s own motivations for making the programme: ‘A few years ago I was at a conference on 20th century painting. As I queued up for a coffee in the canteen I overheard a French historian describe Britain as “the land without modern art”. His friends all laughed in agreement. I was livid. And ever since I’ve been determined to prove them wrong.’
Personal vendetta is supplemented by cliché and stereotypes. Brits love an underdog, which is why we also love British modernism. British art is tasteful and ‘understated’ – like us Brits. It’s figurative and painterly too: well-made and dependable, like a good piece of British manufacturing. Like the ‘golden age’ of the British empire, for Fox modernism was a unique chapter in British art, after which standards have seriously slipped.
Contemporary art is narrowly defined as the populist stuff of the YBAs (Young British Artists) Hirst and Emin, and dismissed for valuing celebrity and concepts above craftsmanship. Foreigners are inferior, women artists non-existent and all mediums bar painting obsolete. The internationality of the art world and the great work in photography, video and net art, much of which is highly valued outside the realms of the cynical art market, are invisible to Fox.
Dramatic in tone, music and visually (in one scene Fox presents the programme clad only in a towel!), British Masters is the opposite of the qualities he claims to admire so much. It’s brash, overstated, undignified and its argument in bad taste. Rather than genuinely championing a repressed branch of history, the series is the epitome of television as populist medium par excellence.
Popular opinion is attacked in a hyperbolically personal style instead of well-considered argument and evidence. The central thesis of British Masters becomes a populist argument against populism – and if you believe in the power of television to form as well as reflect popular opinion, it is one based on worryingly reactionary and conservative principles.