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The Independent Culture
The long shots in Sister Wendy's Story of Painting (BBC1) are curiously reminiscent of Where's Wally?, a series of children's books in which the game is to find the striped jersey and woolly hat of the hero tucked away somewhere in a mass of detail. The point of Where's Wendy? is slightly different - as you stare at the picture, you have to guess where that little black wedge of reverence is going to appear from next and towards which masterpiece of world art it is trundling. Sister Wendy's unvarying habit, such a useful aid to continuity in a globe-spanning co- production of this kind, also serves as a kind of kite-mark, to be stamped on great works of art as a guarantor of their spiritual wholesomeness. Here she comes, emerging from behind the dropsical pillars of an Egyptian temple, so it must be tomb-painting that is going to get the breathy makeover. Now it's the fairy-tale turrets of the chateau of Saumur in the background, so it must be the Tres Riches Heures that are going to be enlisted in the cause of spiritual humility.

But she began her new series with a trickier challenge. Standing in a beautiful but undistinguished stretch of pasture, Sister Wendy conjured up the distant world of our "small hairy ancestors", chasing woolly mammoths through the snow and ice. Then she pointed downwards, beneath the ground: "Somewhere, underneath my feet," she breathed, in the awed tone she uses throughout, "is the proof that they were like us in all the ways that really mattered." The proof was the cave paintings of Lascaux - evidence, for Sister Wendy, that our distant ancestors lived in a state of existential wistfulness, envious of the beauty and simplicity of the animals that surrounded them. I don't believe this, anymore than I was persuaded by that assertion of common humanity - it's likely that in all the ways that really matter, the men or women that painted the Lascaux images were as distant from us as the moon, however beautiful we may find their images.

But perhaps it's just that Sister Wendy irritates my organ of contradiction, in the same way that pollen grains lodge in the nasal passages of hay- fever sufferers, provoking and inflaming. I would need some kind of intellectual anti-histamine to be able to watch without feeling a sneeze coming on. It isn't that the series is terrible - as the title, the timing and the gather-round tone of voice all suggest, it seems to be pitched at children, and for them it's likely to provide a captivating introduction to art. Nor is it a mystery that television should have become infatuated with the presenter: she offers a luminous, unhesitant passion for her subject and her way with words can be exact and exciting. The comparison of the arms of a group of Egyptian mourners with the fronds of a sea-anemone was wonderfully just, capturing the formulaic identity of the waving limbs as well as the tidal sway that appears to sweep through them. What's more, the narratives she tells, even if you suspect their exact truth, have a certain emotional plausibility.

So it's not that her charms are undetectable - rather that they are so conspicuous as to almost obscure the objects she stands beside. When she points out, discussing the illustration for February in the Tres Riches Heures, that the figures before the fire have exposed their genitals, it is less an occasion for respectful observation than for a popular party- turn - the Nun Who Wasn't Embarrassed (though she does settle for a rather coy formula - the men are described as "warming their ... lack of underpants"). This self-conscious sweetness of presence, and the rather cloying charity of her take on history ("Richard was a disastrous king, poor lamb") is likely to leave some grown-ups with the paradoxical sense that they are watching a megalomaniac of humility. Sister Wendy is not a new Kenneth Clark - she is the Patience Strong of art history.

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