The Week In Radio: Put in the picture by a revealing royal appointment


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The Independent Culture

The Art of Monarchy on Radio 4 began with a small black-and-white photograph. In it was a two-year-old girl standing in front of a large ivy-smothered house and staring daggers at the camera. In the background an elderly lady, whom you presumed to be her grandmother, looked benignly on. The date was 1927, the girl was Princess Elizabeth, and the photographer was her father Bertie, the future King George VI.

Wisely, the presenter Will Gompertz didn't dwell on the picture's composition or aesthetic merits. That would have been pointless, as he was the only one who could see it. Thus, on one level, The Art of Monarchy was about the art and artefacts collected by the British monarchy over the past thousand years. On another, it was a masterclass in how to talk about art and to render it vivid to an audience who are effectively blindfolded.

Gompertz's modus operandi was to look for the meaning and the symbolism in everything from royal portraits to ceremonial spoons, and to see what they could tell us about their owners. His role was less that of an art historian than of a sleuth.

So what could be gleaned from the picture of Princess Elizabeth? First, that her father Bertie liked cameras, and so was interested in technology. Second, that he must have been a proud and caring father to want to take a snap of his daughter despite her steadfast refusal to crack a smile. Third – and this was the most bizarre theory – that the naturalism of the picture is linked to both Bertie and his daughter's success as monarchs. At the time the picture was taken neither Bertie nor Elizabeth knew that they would sit on the throne and thus had the time and space to muck about in the garden taking snaps. The pattern of royal history, remarked one expert, would suggest that those sovereigns who knew their fate from birth were less effective than those who took the throne unexpectedly and had experienced a period of relative normality. And that, listeners, is the secret of our Lizzie's success. Eat your heart out, Sherlock Holmes.

Where The Art of Monarchy took a forensic approach to its subject, Front Row went straight to the horse's mouth, talking directly to the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, whose works are currently on show at the Tate Modern. Kusama's paintings, sculptures and collages of polka dots influenced everyone from Andy Warhol to Damien Hirst. Kusama talked of collecting seeds and flowers as a child and drawing them in her bedroom. The repetition of images, she said, helped her through a childhood beset by mental illness, though you had to wonder if they were the cause rather than the cure: "It reached the stage where I would see flowers everywhere, all over the walls, all over the ceilings, and they would come towards me. I fell down the stairs once because of this and the doctor said, 'You are painting too much.'"

Kusama's recollections of strange visions were so vivid and affecting that they essentially removed the requirement for us to see the art for ourselves. Over on Radio 3, Night Waves' mooch around the Freud exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery had the opposite effect. Presenter Anne McElvoy was joined by William Feaver, Freud's friend and biographer, to view his portraits, though their uninspired descriptions, made against the sound of shoes clacking on the gallery floor, underlined our distance rather than bringing us closer to the work. The more they talked the less we could see.