Interview: Andrew Graham-Dixon

Andrew Graham-Dixon Andrew Graham-Dixon

Andrew Graham-Dixon: Art critic, journalist, novelist, presenter of The Culture Show.

Born: London, 1960.

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Art is a really interesting way of looking at identity, because people invent a particular view of themselves for many reasons.”

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Personal Style: Crumpled, urbane.

Previous television work: A History of British Art, Art of Eternity, Art of Germany, Art of Russia, Art of Spain, and many others.

Andrew's latest series, High Art of the Low Countries, begins on 4 April, on BBC Two at 9pm: a history of the ground-breaking works that emanated from The Netherlands and Belgium.

Van Eyck, Vermeer, Rubens, Franz Hals, Rembrandt, Hieronymus Bosch, Van Gogh, Mondrian and Magritte; it's a shifting culture of early adopters, new technology, piety cut through with hellish visions, portraits of friendship and madness and new ways of seeing.

Plus tulips, canals and bikes.

Andrew Graham-Dixon talks to BBC Arts & Culture

There's a somewhat territorial theme to your television work?

Andrew's TV highlights

AGD: Art of Spain

AGD: Enjoying art is important, it's about pleasure and enjoyment. It's my job to communicate that, but there's a level behind that where we're thinking about what nations are and how they function.

So, yes, I think what interests me is that probing away at national identity, and self-definition... who are we, what do we want everyone to think we are, that sort of thing.

Art is a really interesting way of looking at that because people invent a particular view of themselves for many reasons. Sometimes it's political, sometimes personal, sometimes for business or military reasons, but what they all have in common is that they are an invention of history. And that very, very often, they're not telling the truth.

That misinformation is key. You can look to art to tell you something of the complexity that lies behind stereotypical national ideas, the impetus behind that myth-building.

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So how does this idea of self-identification come to the fore in the new series?

Andrew Graham-Dixon cycling in Holland Andrew takes to the road

With Holland versus Belgium it's a difficult one. There you're talking about not just national identity, but an existence across territories.

The Low Countries have been parts of different nations at different times - just look at the history. Flanders, The Duchy of Burgundy, Belgium etc, how do you begin to understand that culture?

The Romans said Holland wasn't even inhabitable, just a marshy wasteland populated by herring-eaters. Just like the story of Venice, it was a manufactured place, made habitable by human endeavour.

Descartes said 'God made the world, the Dutch made Holland', and he was absolutely right, they'd dragged themselves out of the mud, basically.

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The Dutch 'Golden Age' of the 17th Century features heavily, when they were a trading people very keen to advertise their skills.

Andrew Graham-Dixon in front of Rogier van der Weyden's altarpiece Rogier van der Weyden's The Last Judgement

Yes, and theirs was a totally new society as well, a republic, and the mechanisms by which they were constructing that meant that their art was not that far from propaganda. "Work really, really hard, people. Irrigate those canals and then we'll have beef for dinner!" Not as blatant as in Russia, but not that far off.

The sheer amount of effort that went into creating Holland is astonishing, and it's visible in the art. Even a street image; you look at it and think, 'every little brick, every building, had to be raised above the canal on purpose'. None of it happened by accident.

The group portraits that you see, the way in which the burghers and guildsmen were displaying themselves in a new corporate style. They weren't royals, they were traders. It was a new model, they were the new models.

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So Dr Tulp (of Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp fame) was advertising his skills as well as having his portrait painted?

Yes, in a way he was building his brand. A great prince didn't need to say anything much, he just sat there and looked grand, but the Dutch were people inventing new sciences, new specialisations, their whole culture exists through initiative and trade.

It was the opposite of a feudal system such as we had in England, where you could leave everything be for 1000 years and come back and the landowners would still be rich and the poor would still be downtrodden.

Fragile cultures tend to be innovative, with feudal society there's no motivation - it all kind of works, so why change it?

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632, Rembrandt The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632, Rembrandt

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And Belgium?

Well by contrast to Holland, Belgium and Flanders can't quite find that simple sense of unity. It's a more fractured identity by definition, because it has been so many territories. No wonder the European Union is in Brussels; that's the dream, to be united as part of a greater entity.

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What are you trying to transmit with your shows in particular?

Andrew Graham-Dixon

One of the things that the BBC is for, with its public funding, is making the world a more enjoyable place to live in. That's what I think. My role, I hope, is to shed enough light on a place that people might go to.

For example, Spain not just for the Sangria and sun (although there's nothing wrong with that), but also to see that there are whole aspects to the culture and interior life of the country.

Let's say people go to Venice for a holiday - it's fantastic. Canals, galleries, it's amazing. But how many know the basic fact that it was built by people on the run? And it's the only thing that makes sense, really. Why else would anyone but refugees from murderous Visigoths be forced to make their society on the sea?

The sea is so important. They're out there on the edge, they have to travel, to trade, to see new ideas and new technology. The port civilisation is a naturally scientific one.

That's what you see with Holland as well, I'm sure of it. Why would anyone but a bunch of outsiders be forced to live in such an inhospitable environment. And yet, when they moved on, they really moved on.

There's a quote from an English traveller saying he'd never seen so many people buying paintings, and we know it was true. Several Vermeers were owned by bricklayers, butchers and just ordinarily prosperous folk.

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So relatively ordinary people had some of the finest works that Western art has produced on their walls?

Manuscript

Absolutely. And you know, the technology we have today, it's perfect for this stuff. You can see a level of detail that the owner themselves might have struggled to see.

There's a book of illuminated manuscripts, made in around 1500, probably as a wedding gift for the Queen of Portugal. Portable, colourful, expensive, entertaining, the iPad of its day I guess... frankly I was surprised they let us film it, it's so precious. It's one of the finest manuscripts ever created, and no-one will ever come close to painting in that way again.

Imagine seeing that on a nice big HD telly, eight times the size of life itself - it's going to be amazing.

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The High Art of the Low Countries is on BBC Four from 4 April 2013. Watch on BBC iPlayer.

Andrew also presents A Night at the Rijksmuseum, celebrating the reopening of the Amsterdam museum after a 10-year restoration: BBC Four on 18 April at 10pm, following the final episode of The High Art of the Low Countries.

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