Tuesday, 18 May 2010

BBC1's Modern Masters

There is a wonderful new programme on BBC1 called "Modern Masters" charting the life and explaining the works of modern artists that influenced contemporary art, design and architecture. I am enjoying the series enormously as Matisse, Dali and Picasso are each dedicated an episode.  Including Andy Warhol.

The programme is presented by Alastair Sooke, who is only 28. His boyish charm, enthusiasm and at times emotional moment really bring an engaging and exciting light to younger audience. It feels like a friend is telling you all these things rather than a university professor lecturing you.  I was a bit speechless when Alistair was sitting in Matisse's cathedral and was somewhat overwhelmed by what he saw... I am generally not a big fan of men who cry so it was surprising to see his emotions. In a good way.

Even though I know about the lives and works of these artists, I still learned new things about them from this series. I thought that each episode was very comprehensive and well-made in the span of only 60 minutes.

People in the UK watch it here!


Abstract from Press Release w/Alastair

Why were these four artists (Picasso, Matisse, Dali, and Warhol) chosen for BBC One's Modern Masters?

There were arguments to be made for a number of 20th-century artists, but the ones we chose all had something in common: in their own lifetimes they were international celebrities, multimillionaires who were lauded by the general public, and not just the critics. As a result, they had a profound influence not only on art history, but also on the world around us. In so many ways, we can still see their legacy today.

Filming must have been quite an experience...

We spent three months filming towards the end of 2009, and I had the time of my life. One minute I was interviewing John Richardson, the most respected Picasso scholar in the world; the next, I was chatting to Dennis Hopper, who used to hang out with Warhol in the Sixties. That's what I wanted to illustrate in this series: modern art doesn't only belong in the gallery, but touches on so many different and surprising areas, from film to fashion to architecture – even car design.

Did you discover much you didn't know about the four artists?

Yes! You learn so much more about an artist by following in his or her footsteps. Of course, I'd read a great deal about their careers, but seeing the places where they lived and made art, and meeting people who actually knew them, gave me an entirely new sense of their work. And seeing many of their masterpieces at first hand in museums all over the world, often when nobody else was there – well, that was a real thrill, and an immense privilege.

What do you think motivated them?

None of our modern masters followed the rules handed down to them by academic tradition and art history. Picasso was inspired by the African masks and tribal sculpture that he discovered in Parisian flea-shops, whereas most young artists of his era were dutifully studying antique sculptures in the Louvre. Matisse pioneered Fauvism by painting the world around him in bright, almost delirious colours that made people laugh in his face and assume he was nothing but a lunatic. Dali's paintings encapsulated his own fears and anxieties and deepest desires with a candour never before seen in the history of art. And Warhol broke every rule going: he aspired to become a machine, churning out screen-printed works of art in his studio, which was known as the Factory, at a time when people prized the individuality and painterly touch of artists above everything else. I found that inspirational.

Did they have anything in common?

The thing that really struck me was that none of them conformed to anything. For years, Picasso was courted by the Surrealists – but he never wanted to pin himself down to any one art movement. All of the artists had a restless, almost anarchic spirit – even Matisse, who looks so professorial, in his suit and tie, in the photographs of him that have survived. They refused to accept convention. They wanted to break with tradition, and, to do this, earned for themselves a great sense of personal freedom. There's some kind of life lesson in that.

Was filming the series an intense experience for you personally?

I was surprised by my reaction to several works of art, but perhaps most memorable of all was my visit to the Dominican chapel that Matisse designed, down to the very last detail, towards the end of his life in the small town of Vence where he lived in southern France. I found it so moving that someone so old, who had come through so much, could meticulously plan and build such a beautifully tranquil space. Here was a man who had often suffered from terrible anxiety, who was a rabid insomniac for much of his life, who had survived duodenal cancer, and who had lived to hear his daughter's terrible memories of being tortured by the Gestapo during the Second World War. And he had built such a special space, which was the culmination of his life's work as well as a real triumph of the human spirit over adversity. I was overwhelmed. I could have stayed there all day.

Do you wish you had been alive at the same time as these modern masters?

Absolutely. That period of early modernism now feels like such a heroic golden age in the history of art. These artists were titanic figures, wrestling with the past, breaking with tradition, and forging a completely new visual language that was simply extraordinary. I think it must have been really intoxicating to live through that era. I like to think I would have championed their work. But, if so, I would have been in a real minority, since most people at the time thought that these artists were completely crazy!

Did you encounter anything unexpected during filming?

I expected to interview some important people in the art world, for sure, but I never thought in a million years that I'd share a drink with Pamela Anderson, chat to Dennis Hopper, or exchange a few words with the French president's wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy! Lots of people find Noel Fielding from the Mighty Boosh hilarious – and here he was telling me that Dali's Surrealist vision had an enormous influence on his decision to become a comedian. It just goes to prove that the work of these four modern masters continues to touch people in all areas of life today. That's really amazing.

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