A scholarly dissection, but the heart is missing : REVIEW

"There was an explosion in my heart," said the painter Avigdor Arikha about the great Poussin exhibition at the Louvre in 1960. "I went to this exhibition and came out drunk." He was talking in a richly suggestive Late Show (BBC2) film about Antho ny Blunt, which revealed that scholarship puts espionage into the shade when it comes to loyalty, betrayal and tragic allegiance to error. Arikha was a refreshment here, a reminder that great painting can be an intoxication, and he was set against Blunt'

s stoic command of the emotions. His words came to mind while watching Neil MacGregor, the director of the National Gallery and presenter of Painting the World (BBC2), a meticulously ascetic exploration of some of the gallery's most important paintings.

Two things need saying about this series; firstly, it is exemplary in almost every respect and, secondly, it doesn't work. I'm not sure why, but at least one of the reasons may be mechanical. Though MacGregor says he will focus on just one of the gallery's paintings in each programme, in practice it is very difficult to know where he wants your attention to rest. The offer is an appealing one - it promises to relieve you of the awkward burden of obligation a great gallery brings to bear, the sense that you're visiting a hospital in which you have to stop at every bed. But the programme doesn't keep faith with it, calling in other paintings in a way that seems to dissipate its concerns.

This is a pity, because the series never seizes you more than when it begins to lose itself in a painting - MacGregor's scrutiny of the Bronzino Allegory of Love was a compelling itemisation of its hidden stings. Even here, though, there is a slightly off-putting coolness; the series sometimes seems to suggest that paintings are merely coded communications from the past, intellectually fascinating but essentially mute until a translator speaks for them. Most strikingly, there is barely any sense that the paint matters, that the blur and swipe of brushwork can deliver a sensuous pleasure quite independent of scholarship.

It may be that the problem is just the chemistry of the camera; MacGregor is an exceptional director. His job requires a rare combination of talents, both a firm hand and a fine eye, and it is inconceivable that he could have achieved what he has done without a passionate personal response to great paintings. But his style before the camera - decorous, well-mannered, buttoned up - seems designed to conceal such feelings. He is given to academic politesse ("We shall come to ..." "We shall see"

) and mild, donnish jokes, but you feel at all times that he is absolutely in control of himself, never quite staggered by what he's seeing. You simply cannot imagine him, like Arikha, reeling across the parquet.

You might be grateful for this. BBC2 is currently screening two intellectual series of far more Bacchanalian tone - The Last Machine and Crusades - both of which have been identified in some quarters as gimmicky betrayals of the BBC's educational traditions. I think the attackers are wrong - that they have failed to discriminate between a thoughtful joke and a stupid one, but it's undeniable that both programmes contain moments which are embarrassing, where the fantasies seem silly rather than captivating. Such things are bound to happen when people get drunk, whether it's alcohol that does it or ideas. It's also true that there have been some ghastly parties recently, series in which the intellectual ice was melted so successfully that nothing was left behind but slush. But Painting the World, for all its merits, reminds you that sobriety also has its dangers. Watching its scholarly cataloguing of a great gallery's contents, you occasionally yearn for those involved to go off and get out of their heads on art.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent