Radio: War: what is it good for? Wonderful paintings

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THE SOLDIER beckoned him over. A coach had been destroyed by a mortar; one man had received the full force of the blast. Peter Harrison is a war artist, commissioned to paint such scenes; but he couldn't. He recoiled in horror. The soldier was laconic, his own sensitivities firmly, professionally suppressed. When Harrison got back home, much later, he painted a picture he called The Cleanser. It shows a man whose eyes, save for two minuscule dots, are completely blank: as Dickens described his own creation of Bill Sykes, it is a portrait of unrelieved evil.

This story opened a remarkable series on the World Service called The Likeness of Being, in which Laura Cumming considers the human impulse to create enduring images. "Warriors" last weekend went from Bosnia, to ancient Spanish wall-paintings of soldiers in bristling, exaggerated nudity - then to the Chinese terracotta army, to the cartoon propaganda of Trajan's Column, and to Goya's ferocious, gruesome masterpieces.

Cumming, who also presents R3's Night Waves, is a clever, thoughtful broadcaster. With Roger Fenby producing, it is not surprising that this series is so good. Fenby is adroit at reportage, music and sound-effects: brazen military trumpets were set against Donovan's sad little song "The Universal Soldier", and the episode ended by describing a fallen warrior carved during the 5th century BC and discovered in the temple of Athene Aphaea. Though the man is dying, there is no grimace on his face, but a look of transcendent inwardness.

The second edition went out yesterday, but it is repeated tomorrow night at 10.30pm. It concerns "Lovers", and begins by circling around Rodin's The Kiss, trying to see if the couple's lips actually meet. It's impossible, and it may be this polite discretion, this awareness that a kiss is a very private thing, that has made the sculpture so popular - coupled with the shiver of excitement that runs through both bodies.

There is no such discretion in the explicit carvings around the Hindu temple they visited next. This time the soundtrack was backed by suggestive sitars and solemn readings from the Kama Sutra, describing positions that were at least acrobatic. And then they were off to Japan, where exotic clothing literally draws a veil over an activity which is none- too-gnomically described by the message on a fluttering fan: "Its beak firmly caught in a clam-shell, the snipe cannot fly away, of an autumn evening."

Freud looks old hat when you consider Botticelli's Mars and Venus, which was, we learnt, commissioned as an instructive present for a young bride. Mars is sound asleep, his limp hand and discarded lance hinting at the reason behind the Mona Lisa inscrutability of Venus's resigned expression. Cumming ended with a visit to Rembrandt's The Jewish Bride, in which she discovered an image of the love that will live beyond death, miraculously expressed in the woman's glance - anxious, preoccupied and tender.

The same idea dominated Wednesday night on R3. In the Proms (R3) interval, between Messiaen's austere meditation on "Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum" and a magnificent performance of Mahler's stupendous "Resurrection" symphony, came The Art of Resurrection. A strange story emerged from it.

During the Second World War, all the Old Master paintings from the National Gallery were stored for safe-keeping down a Welsh slate-mine. Although the Gallery itself displayed some contemporary works and, famously, ran the Myra Hess concerts, people began to miss the great pictures, and to demand their return. In January 1942, just when the war was going particularly badly in the Far East and the bombing in London was at its worst, it was decided that one picture per month should be returned. A vote was taken as to which should be the first and, overwhelmingly, the winner was Titian's Noli me Tangere.

Tens of thousands of people came to see it. It shows Christ appearing to Mary Magdalen in the early morning of Easter Sunday. In the course of a fascinating conversation between Richard Coles and Neil MacGregor, Director of the National Gallery, it became clear that the extraordinary, luminous picture can be read as a meditation on love transcending death. The only thing that marred it was Coles referring to "the Maudlin", as if she were drunk or a college.

Now. R4 is still spewing out new ideas for its daily quiz shows, and this week produced two more. There's a new bookish one called The Write Stuff: (it took, apparently, four meetings to think of the title). It's not at all bad, though it's a mistake to pit a couple of old Independent books editors against each other. John Walsh and Sebastian Faulks were competitive as spermatozoa, virtually silencing their high-powered female teammates with their eagerness on the buzzers. But Irene Thomas - of course! - was the outright star of X Marks the Spot, a strange treasure- hunt in which contestants decipher cryptic clues against the clock, using reference books - or Irene's brain, which is quicker and more accurate.

Incidentally, if you were thinking pictures on radio an odd idea, how about mime? No, you're right, it didn't work - and it's not great street entertainment either, as I discovered from John Hegley's enjoyable autobiographical Everything You Wanted to Know about Busking (R2). I listened for a bit, tossed him 10 francs, and moved on.

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