Daytime TV: The beauty in art

Gary Day is transfixed by the intensity of Coptic art but finds the avant-garde more prosaic

November 26, 2009

Andrew Graham-Dixon found himself in the desert. The same one where Saint Anthony found God. It hadn't changed much. A little emptier, perhaps, now that all those hermits had gone.

Andrew was there to see some early Christian paintings. They had only recently been discovered in a small monastery. Scenes of the apocalypse blazed forth from walls that hadn't seen a duster for centuries. It's amazing what you can find once you decide to have a good clean.

The paintings belong to the Coptic tradition of Christian art. The faces stare out at you with an intensity undimmed by the passing of time. Their eyes have seen a truth from which they cannot turn away. You feel you are blocking their view of it. You feel you have to look over your shoulder to see what it is. But something warns you not to. You begin to appreciate why someone let the desert hide these paintings.

Even Andrew breathed a sigh of relief as he sat back in a taxi on his way to the Cairo Museum. For a little while, anyway. "Left here," said Andrew. The driver ignored him. "He seems to have his own ideas," Andrew confided to the camera. "I'm not sure we are still in Cairo," he said after a while.

Was one of Britain's foremost art critics about to be kidnapped before our eyes? No, the driver did know where he was going - as you might expect - and Andrew managed to keep his appointment with Dr Zahi Hawass, the curator. What did he think of Andrew's theory that Coptic art is the bridge between Greek and Roman painting?

But the good doctor was too busy waving to his female fans. He has quite a following. Signing autographs and posing for photos means he can't always keep track of what's in the museum. "Did you know that you have mummies with faces painted on the cloth?" asked Andrew. There was an embarrassed silence. "Well," said Andrew as Dr Hawass removed his microphone, "it is a big place."

Then it was to Rome where we found Andrew frowning in the catacombs. There was no Christian painting here until 200 years after Christ's death. And then it was simple and direct, emphasising the essential. Because artists were not interested in the natural world, only the supernatural one, they chose to ignore perspective, preferring instead a flat surface that could dazzle with heavenly light.

Andrew is relaxed, urbane and sophisticated. But not when he is clinging to a rope being winched up into a monastery. "It's not very dignified," he wails as he hangs over a large drop. It took a while for the monk who had pulled him up to prise his fingers from the rope.

Andrew is a superb presenter not because he knows a lot, although he does, but because a mosaic will knock him back in wonder. Standing face to face with the stained-glass splendour of Bourges Cathedral, he recalled that such windows were a metaphor for the quest for illumination. After watching Andrew's The Art of Eternity (BBC Four, Monday 16 November, 11.05pm), the same could be said about a television screen.

Gus Casely-Hayford wants to know where modern art is now (BBC Four, Where Is Modern Art Now?, Wednesday 18 November, 9pm). I want to know if you can be an art historian without a double-barrelled name. Gus did not hop on the bus but on to his bike. He pedalled around London, meeting odd characters as if he were in a Mike Leigh film. "There's something in art that's transferable without learning," he opined as a man in a wetsuit and snorkel slapped past him.

Some artists can freshen up a phrase. The sculptor Sir Anthony Caro defined the avant-garde as that which "keeps culture alive". Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas treated it as if its heart had stopped and needed constant shocks to get it restarted. Art needs its naughty children but it also needs its grown-ups.

Such a one is Tom Price. He makes small-scale sculptures of Africans. They subtly refer to and subvert those who, like anthropologists, presented them as types. Another is Cornelia Parker. "I resurrect things that have been killed off," she says. Hirst just dips them in formaldehyde. There's the difference.

Waldemar Januszczak (Ugly Beauty, BBC Two, Saturday 21 November, 8.45pm) was entranced by the emptiness of the Venetian lagoon, the mist and the softly rocking water. He is right-in-yer-face, a kind of art-historian version of Ray Winston. But he didn't tell us much about beauty, ugly or otherwise.

We know it's found in unexpected places, like seeing Shirley Bassey on Strictly Come Dancing (BBC One, Saturday 21 November, 6.50pm). I once heard her rehearsing in Cardiff on a wet May afternoon. She still has a voice that could make a desert bloom.

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