Sewell's double-page diatribe at Renaissance man's missing mellifluence

David Lister
Saturday 27 November 1999 00:02
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ONLY PERHAPS in the impassioned world of art criticism can one critic insult another by calling him "inveterately heterosexual".

With withering putdowns such as this, Brian Sewell has taken on Andrew Graham-Dixon, a much younger critic, as Sewell points out more than once, and one who was given a "plum" job on television in preference to other critics - a fact which Sewell also laments more than once.

In a double-page spread in London's Evening Standard newspaper, Sewell attacks the BBC's new showpiece art programme Renaissance, a series of six programmes on BBC2 presented by Graham-Dixon, a former art critic of The Independent. Sewell, best known as a detractor of contemporary art, is outraged at the BBC's treatment of the Renaissance period. World- famous paintings and sculptures are interspersed with shots of aeroplanes, ships and autostrada. Worse, for the Sewell sensibilities, he complains that "someone should have coached Andrew in the rhythms and stresses of Italian, of the mellifluence of which he seems oblivious."

With what might be considered as a touch of bitchiness, Sewell goes on to reveal a private conversation between the two of them. He writes: "Poor Andrew is not a Renaissance scholar. When, two years ago or so, he told me that he had embarked on this series, I blurted: `Good Lord, have you any qualifications for such a plum commission?'And to this the honest soul replied: `Well no, but I'm learning as I go along.'"

Last night Graham-Dixon said he was expecting such a piece from Sewell but had been delighted by the many good reviews the series had already received.

He added: "Brian misquoted me. What I said to him was that no one could claim to be an expert on 400 years of human thought and art. In what sense is Brian any more than I qualified to pronounce on Monet one week, Mantegna the next and Damien Hirst the next?

"Brian is a professional curmudgeon to the point that I don't think anyone takes him too seriously. Reading between the lines, I think he quite enjoyed the series."

Sewell, however, says that he wonders "why the BBC has so extravagantly employed this Tweedledee to Sister Wendy Beckett's Tweedledum".

But his most pointed insult comes when Graham-Dixon "asserts that in his gawky hobbledehoy of a David, Michelangelo turns away from the erotic". Sewell writes: "One is inclined to gasp in astonishment that any man, (and least of all a supposed art critic and historian), no matter how inveterately heterosexual, could fail to recognise the sculptor's manifest response to adolescent awkwardness and sensuality - did he indeed walk round the statue and gaze upon the boy's beguiling buttocks?"

A BBC spokeswoman said: "Experts don't always make the best television presenters. This series was developed around Andrew as a follow up to his A History of British Art. What the BBC likes is his lucid, eloquent way of talking about art. He has never claimed anywhere to be an expert on the Renaissance.

"Brian wouldn't be Brian if he didn't sound off about things. But some critics very much like the series."

A CRITICAL VIEW

On Melvyn Bragg

"Just as Toad would give a sort of programme of entertainment for the evening - speech by Toad, song ... composed by Toad, sung by Toad ... so Bragg gives a sort of programme ... the Portuguese novel by Bragg, incest in Cumbria by Bragg ... and how to become a Peer of the Realm by Toady."

On William Rees-Mogg

"Why would anyone want to employ that William Rees-Mogg? Accumulated experience, I imagine, although I've seen very little evidence of it."

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