A scholarly dissection, but the heart is missing : REVIEW
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.
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