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Bonhams Magazine

Issue 51, Summer 2017

Page 4

Andrew Graham-Dixon has made more arts documentaries for the BBC than anyone else – and he isn't finished yet. Alastair Smart meets him

There aren't too many people who can say they've had pizza and a glass of wine at 2am in the Sistine Chapel," says art critic and TV
presenter Andrew Graham-Dixon. "But I'm pleased to say I'm one of them."

He's discussing the most memorable moments of his three-decade broadcasting career, one of which came in Rome, while filming a series on the Renaissance. "They allowed a crew of 10 of us in there one night, after hours, with a set of Swiss Guards for company. At first, the Guards looked on us suspiciously, thinking we might be English hooligans or something – but as time went on, they relaxed a little, and towards the end of the night even appeared out of the blue with a vast tray of pizzas and drinks. I still wonder if Adam wasn't reaching out his finger for a slice of the pepperoni."

I meet Graham-Dixon on a spring afternoon at London's National Gallery, at his suggestion, in front of another Renaissance masterpiece, Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne, in Room 2. We can walk and talk from there, he says.

Graham-Dixon has presented around 40 art documentaries for the BBC, many of them series. That's more than anyone in the corporation's history. His most recent, the three-part Art of France – which was broadcast earlier this year and charted the progress of the visual arts in France across the centuries – was hailed as "absorbing" by The Guardian and "a documentary of considerable erudition" by The Daily Telegraph. What's the winning formula?

"I suppose, above all, I'm interested in connecting art with history and the culture in which it was made," he says. "Hopefully there's not too much oohing and aahing in admiration of masterpieces – rather, a considered look at art in some sort of bigger context." In Art of France, this meant lengthy sections dedicated to the likes of Montaigne and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

"I try to ensure, though, that however serious or profound the ideas in a show are, the language and manner in which they're conveyed needn't be. I try to be an accessible presence and use words that anyone, from a 10-year-old to a 110-year-old, can understand."

Talking of youth, which TV presenter inspired Graham-Dixon most as he was growing up? "The first programme I remember having a real effect on me was John Berger's [four-part series from 1972] Ways of Seeing. It was so full of ideas. I know he was tackling art from a largely Marxist perspective that now seems quite dated, but it was Berger's passion I liked most. Arts on the television up to that point had felt like a university lecture more than anything".

I assume Graham-Dixon has the august presenter-scholar Kenneth Clark in his sights here. Lord Clark's 13-part Civilisation from 1969 – in which the erstwhile Director of the National Gallery travelled 80,000 miles and spent a then-record £130,000 exploring Western culture across the ages – is perhaps the most famous arts series of all time.

"Civilisation certainly had an impact on me, but only in the sense I thought I could have done it so much better," Graham-Dixon says. "It may have been filmed in the 1960s, but Clark's attitude, opinions and cultural preconceptions date back to the 19th century... this idea that one man in one series could tell the whole story of civilisation as he saw it.

"He was an authority figure that, particularly initially, I found myself reacting against. Let's be frank, Clark was incredibly patronising. I prefer a style of taking the viewer with me rather than talking down to them."

In Clark's defence, Graham-Dixon concedes that the technical equipment had a part to play in dictating presenters' styles. The cameras of old, such as the iconic Marconis, were much bigger, heavier and less mobile than they are now, which meant a lot more standing still, lecturer-like, and a lot less sweeping through galleries apace à la Graham-Dixon.

Doesn't he feel, though, that perhaps we've lurched from one extreme to another – from talking down to dumbing down? It seems the rage among the latest breed of TV historians to insult our intelligence by dressing up in period costume and/or resorting to dramatic reimaginings of historical moments? "I assume you mean someone like Lucy Worsley in her bonnet, climbing into a carriage... It's not something I really do, but I believe that so long as you make your programme with honesty to your source material, diversity in presenters isn't bad."

To be fair, Graham-Dixon himself tends to strike a winning balance between boyish enthusiasm and insight. He has never been one to hold back his awe (or let his mane of hair go unruffled) when confronted by a masterwork – but he quickly regains composure and brings his decades of art-historical learning to bear. (He studied English at Christ Church, Oxford, followed by a postgraduate degree at the Courtauld Institute.)

He has had his critics, of course, usually because of an apparent fondness for putting himself at the heart of every scene – and an apparent awkwardness when sharing the screen with anyone else. The late art critic, Brian Sewell, said that by the end of Renaissance, he was "far more familiar with the feet and features of the presenter than with the subject he presents". The TV critic, A.A. Gill, meanwhile, said Graham-Dixon's "attempts to engage folk in banter sound like a secret policeman's interrogation".

The man himself, though, is unfussed, saying criticism "goes with the territory" in a profession as visible as his.

Graham-Dixon's series in recent years have mostly focused on a geographical area. So before Art of France, he gave us Art of Scandinavia, Art of the Low Countries, Art of Germany and more. In many ways he's covering the same ground as Clark did, albeit delving into non-Western traditions too, including China and Japan. Nothing if not ambitious, in Art of China he tried to summarise, in three hour-long episodes, an artistic culture that dates back uninterrupted to Neolithic times. (In a memorable scene, he compared one of the great chambers of the Terracotta Army to St Pancras station, describing its guards as "lined up like commuters travelling into eternity".)

Graham-Dixon is currently working in the Middle East, and planning series on Latin America and on Africa too. Which is his favourite country?

"I adore Italy," he replies. "But in terms of filming and the series of which I'm most proud, I'd probably say Russia. The country is so vast and thrilling, it's like one giant film set. I really felt as if I was telling an epic tale.

"Everything's so messy and rough around the edges too. You have hugely valuable [Aleksander] Rodchenko archives kept in a filing cabinet to which only a secretary with a Donald Duck keyring has access. I never had a clue which way things were going to turn out, because access to pieces was so sporadic.

"One day I was searching for a picture of Stalin, but none of the major public institutions had one on show. Eventually we were told, unofficially, that there might be one in the State Tretyakov Gallery [in Moscow]. So I was ushered past security and taken 20 minutes down into its deep dungeons, where they store rack after rack of unseen paintings. They waded through these for another 20 minutes until, finally, they found the portrait. At which point all the museum staff and workers with me disappeared in a flash. They couldn't bear to be in a room with Stalin.

"It was totally unplanned, but I couldn't have asked for a better exposition of what Stalin means to modern Russians than that."

With the BBC going through a period of retrenchment and redundancies (its arts department suffering more than most) and with President Trump threatening to cut both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 2018, these are precarious days for those making arts documentaries. In economically straitened times, the arts are often deemed a luxury. Does Graham-Dixon fear for the future of programmes like his own?

"The appetite for them is still clearly there. Art of the Low Countries, which was shown on BBC World News, was watched by 70 million people worldwide. That is a huge number.

"The particular problem at the BBC is that [as a public service broadcaster] it's under great pressure to justify its licence fee from the government, and the bosses think the best way to do this is to make programmes with mass appeal. So it's spending huge chunks of its budget on these and leaving just small change down the back of the sofa for serious programmes. My counter-argument is that unless it makes intelligent, diverse television, the argument for a licence fee – and, indeed, BBC itself – is weakened."

So if he were BBC controller for a day, what action would he take? "Change the spending priorities at a stroke. Cut one period drama they make each year. The £20 million that it costs would fund around two years' worth of documentaries."

Clearly, Graham-Dixon doesn't think the problems in arts programming are terminal. Indeed, the day after we meet, he's off to Dubai to film at the top of the Burj Khalifa, among other spots. If he's lucky, the staff may even bring a selection of local culinary delights to the 154th floor.

Alastair Smart is a freelance art critic and journalist.

Andrew Graham-Dixon's latest series, The Art of France, was screened in February. It is available for download from the BBC iPlayer.

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