Television review

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The Independent Culture
One of the pleasures of A History of British Art (BBC2) is that it is unafraid of superlatives. The word "most" must come a close second to the word "British" as the most frequently employed in the series. There are two reasons for this - the first is that the script doesn't take out the characteristic insurance policies of criticism, the small print of "probably", "arguably" and "maybe". It is brave in its judgements. The other is that Graham-Dixon is positively entrepreneurial about the undervalued assets he has uncovered. He wants to sell us what we own already, to break our habit of self-deprecation (and to do it he is even prepared to say how good we are at self-deprecation). As some critics have already pointed out, there is a distinct thrill of pride to this, the artistic equivalent of having the national team win a difficult away match.

There are real dangers here - aesthetic rapture is a fatally easy option for arts documentaries, enlisting the viewer's learnt respect for old masters and inherited wealth to make everything pass in a haze of unreflective admiration. It is relatively easy to make films which are just a complicated way of saying "Isn't it lovely?". So it's important that A History of British Art is also prepared to take risks with ideas. Some reviewers, while admiring the old-fashioned virtues of the series - its reminder of a great didactic BBC tradition - appear to have been slightly rattled by the sudden appearance of arguments, as if Kenneth Clarke had pitched up in the Royal Enclosure wearing Bermuda shorts. In the first episode, for example, Graham-Dixon connected the whitewashed walls of a puritan English church with the arctic canvases of modern American minimalists. It was a link too far for some, but for me this passage was the series at its best: safe, incontestable truth coming second to a daring provocation. I'm still not sure whether I believe his argument or not, but the fact that I am still thinking about it is something to be grateful for.

The succeeding episodes have revealed another strength, which is a chain of association from programme to programme, even when the subject under discussion has shifted considerably. The "whitewashing of England" returned in part two, during an intriguing excursion into Shakespeare's imagery - a response, Graham-Dixon suggested, to a world which had been puritanically deprived of visual indulgence. And in last night's episode, the "Northern realism" of Holbein, studied closely in programme two, resurfaced in a face by Stubbs. "My Wife, My Horse and Myself" used a studiously reactionary painting by Sir Alfred Munnings as an emblem for the received opinion of Georgian painting - an art of inventory and possession - and then proceeded to undermine it, pointing out the powerful sexual caress of Gainsborough's brushwork (he used to sign his letters to women "Yours up to the hilt") and Reynolds's allusive games with Renaissance poses. Most fascinating of all, Graham-Dixon traced the maturing of the English horse, from the prancing plinth it provides in Van Dyck's equestrian portraits, through the domesticated realism of its appearance in 18th-century portraits, to its transformation into a full-blown moral agent in the paintings of Stubbs. I imagine this argument might frighten the horses, too. Those gleaming thoroughbreds were offered to us not as comforting examples of British pedigree, but as existential heroes, reminders of our bodily isolation. And Stubbs's bloodline, Graham-Dixon argued, runs not into the hack realism of Munnings, but into Picasso's screaming horse in Guernica. A History of British Art offers many incidental pleasures - beautiful landscapes and unfamiliar treasures (including a wonderfully unnerving Stubbs painting of the Earl of Clarendon's gamekeeper, isolated in a darkling wood). But it is the ideas which really make it work - bold without being reckless, passionate without being infatuated, patriotic without being insular.

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