TV blog

As an art historian with a strong interest in all of the different cultures of the world, I have been to some wonderful and fascinating places.

But never anywhere quite as dramatic and surprising as China, where I spent almost three months last year for BBC Four’s Art Of China.

Watch the trail: Nothing quite prepares you for the experience



China's landscapes are spectacular.

As for the painting, the sculpture, the architecture - well I hope anyone who watches Art Of China will agree that it is thrillingly strange, different from anything they've ever seen, and just breathtakingly beautiful in the way it is made.

I'd never been there before, so this was a real journey of discovery for me - and I really hope that comes across in the series that we've made.

The art of China has also been full of surprises for the Chinese themselves, especially in recent years.

So much digging and excavating has taken place, that they have made a huge number of stunning archaeological discoveries, often by chance.

One of the first places I visited was the remote remains of an ancient place called Sanxingdui, in the Sichuan Basin in south western China.

Some builders digging new foundations had uncovered jaw-droppingly bizarre and wonderful three-thousand year old relics: vast human heads made of bronze with ghoulish staring eyes, masks of beaten gold, a great tree made from metal, complete with fruit and birds perched on its branches.

The discovery of treasures of the lost and ancient city Sanxingdui

The civilisation that produced all these wonders had been all but forgotten, but now it's suddenly risen from the dead!

In neighbouring Shaanxi province I visited the most famous example of China's ancient cult of the ancestors, which led them to bury their dead along with their most precious things: the First Emperor, buried with his army of terracotta soldiers.

What most people will be less familiar with are the astounding bronze charioteers also found in his burial site, whose job it was to chauffeur him around the afterlife.

Made from more than 3,000 separate pieces, they're probably the most sophisticated objects ever made from bronze to survive from the ancient world.

Designed to be fully functioning, these bronze chariots could roll along the ground

I'll never forget reaching the great deserts of the Silk Road afterwards, like walking on the surface of the moon.

Here I visited the great Buddhist cave complex at Dunhuang, painted with images of hell and salvation by generations of artists over a thousand years and more.

Later, I travelled south to the Yellow Mountains, where you can stand above the cloud line, amid the peaks, and imagine that you've gone back a thousand years - and that you're actually standing inside the scene of some beautiful Chinese scroll painting.

China's major belief systems, Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, all place nature at their centre

The mountains inspired different generations of Chinese artists in different ways.

To many painters of the Song Dynasty they symbolised the mighty order of nature, but also the necessary pecking order of human society, with the Emperor as the tallest peak, surrounded by the lesser peaks of his courtiers and the foothills standing for the common man.

To the much later painters of the Yuan Dynasty, who were part of a Chinese elite marginalised and exiled by their new Mongol leaders, the mountains were a place of retreat and defeat.

Their scroll paintings of nature, although exquisite, are also infused with a sense of melancholy.

Finally I looked at Communism, mostly by travelling the urban landscape of Beijing, since it was the city on which Mao Zedong most tried to leave his stamp.

Tiananmen Square, which ironically means “Gate of Heavenly Peace Square” was his creation, for example.

When Communism was first on the rise in China it was viewed by many people with great hope – hope that their nation would finally be modernised, and at last catch up with developments in the west.

For me, the most moving work of art to survive from those years is a scroll painting by Xu Beihong, who was one of the leading artists of the time and also a friend of Mao.

A beautiful depiction of a galloping horse, meant I suspect to symbolise China itself heading towards a bright future.

Galloping Horse is an enduringly famous image, still reproduced throughout China today

The future did not turn out to be quite as bright as Xu Beihong hoped, but still his picture is a deeply touching and poignant document of its time.

I started doing the Art Of... more than 10 years ago now. There have been six series so far (and counting).

If there's a single driving purpose behind the project as a whole, it's been to broaden the horizons of art as usually seen on the telly - to go beyond the usual suspects, if you like, to look past the art of the Italian Renaissance and French Impressionism.

Where next? Suggestions gratefully received...

Andrew Graham-Dixon presents of Art Of China.
Art Of China is on Wednesday, 30 July at 9pm on BBC Four and BBC Four HD. For further programmes times please see the episode guide.

More on Art Of China
BBC Four: Art Of China: Andrew's Best Bits

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • Comment number 34. Posted by Sophie Maden

    on 27 Oct 2014 11:10

    Hi veronica, thanks for getting in touch. Programmes are generally available on BBC iPlayer for seven days after broadcast.

    You can find out more about BBC iPlayer availability on their help pages.
    (http://iplayerhelp.external.bbc.co.uk/tv/progs_avail)

  • Comment number 33. Posted by veronica

    on 24 Oct 2014 19:45

    Why is the last episode not available on iPlayer?

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  • Comment number 32. Posted by Alan Hayling

    on 5 Sept 2014 16:06

    I'm the Editorial Director at Renegade Pictures, and I'm very grateful to viewers who have alerted us to factual errors in The Art of China.
    The production team on this ambitious series, worked tirelessly to make sure that the series was factually accurate. There are often conflicting factual references in different research materials, and our team thoroughly researched each reference in order to establish the correct information.

    On one occasion I'm afraid that the wrong writer was incorrectly attributed as the author of The Book of Change. We are very sorry that this was overlooked during the filming of the series.

    On another occasion, a viewer noticed that we used the incorrect translation of 'xi shuai guan' as 'grasshopper container', rather than the correct translation which is 'cricket container'.

    We corrected both errors as quickly as possible for any future transmissions, but I am very sorry that they were not noticed during the production of the series.

    One viewer commented that it is difficult to believe that the Prosperous Suzhou scroll could include 12,000 figures. For any viewers who are interested, there are a number of Chinese sources which state that there are 12,000 figures, which is a number based on a scholar's research from 1960. The three most recent sources are as follows:

    1. FAN Jinming, Qingdai suzhou chengshi gongshang fanrong de xiezhao (Flourishing Commercial and Industrial Activities in the Cities of Suzhuo during the Qing Dynasty: Prosperous Suzhou). Shilin, issue 5, 2003.
    2. HUANG Xizhi, cong "shengshi zisheng tu" kan qianlong shiqi suzhou dui jiangnan shehui jingji de yingxiang (Prosperous Suzhou: On the impact of Suzhuo on the Southern Region Economy during the Qianlong reign)" Agricultural History of China, 2003.4
    3. MA Xinming, "Shengshi Ziheng Tu" yu qing qiangi shang ye chengshi (Prosperous Suzhuo and the Cities in the Early Qing Dynasty)", Suzhuo College of Education, 1990.

    I'm delighted that so many of you have enjoyed the series, and for all the positive feedback we have received. It was a challenging series to make, but I am very proud of the end result.

    Alan Hayling
    Editorial Director
    Renegade Pictures

  • Comment number 31. Posted by 1000FOT

    on 25 Aug 2014 14:30

    @ John Thompson

    Yeah, I've seen that one - and also the culture show special on viking art (with AGD as presenter). And yes, they were good - although I'm not hugely interested in that particular era. Which is probably because it's the one period of scandinavian culture that I actually know a thing or two about. ;)
    That's what bugs me a little bit, perhaps - often when danish/norwegian/swedish culture is being talked about, there is a tendency to focus on that historic period. I'm not saying that period isn't worth highlighting from time to time - but what I'm missing are programmes that cover the middle ages and onwards. I mean, were there any interesting art being produced in Scandinavia during, let's say, the 19th century..? (apart from the works by Munch, I guess) That's what I'd like to know about.

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  • Comment number 30. Posted by LollyLavender

    on 25 Aug 2014 09:15

    I found your documentary really inspiring and returned to review the third part, in particular the scroll entitled Prosperous Suzhou. It seemed difficult to believe there could be 12,000 figures in the composition, and compared your description - 30 meters in length, 12,000 figures, a team of artists 3 years to make - with Wikipedia which attributes the work to the Qianlong court painter named Xu Yang, taking him several years to execute and containing 4,800 figures on the 12 meter length scroll. I can imagine the possibility of Xu Yang directing a team of others to create this wonderful work, but am curious to understand how to view your documentaries in general because in this instance the general information is not terrifically accurate.

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  • Comment number 29. Posted by jenanry

    on 20 Aug 2014 14:47

    This was a beautiful thought-provoking programme and, as has already been mentioned, was a very refreshing change from the Sports and repeats channel that the main BBC channels seem to have become this summer.
    Andrew, as to where next, how about 'Art of the Khmer'? The name of Angkor Wat is well-known but what about the artistry of Angkor Wat and the rest of the temples and the people over the ages? (also, should this suggestion be taken on board, I think it only fair that the person who suggested it should get to tag along as well as a reward)

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  • Comment number 28. Posted by Tania

    on 19 Aug 2014 15:12

    Art of South America please!

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  • Comment number 27. Posted by John Thompson

    on 18 Aug 2014 15:22

    Hi 1000FOT, this is the peak of BBC at its best,I agree.Moving through eras and landscapes as
    Andrew does.It's also good to discover the art of a civilization that is so far from ours,in some ways
    its civilization is more ancient in being it seems more immersed in culture,despite more modern
    movements of revolution.You say you're Swedish and don't see any programmes on Scandinavian art,but only yesterday,Sunday 17th August 2014,there was an excellent one: Secret Knowledge: The Art of the Vikings,although it mainly covered Danish and Norwegian art pieces,pagan,pre-Christian,then the effects on it of Christianity.It also showed how this culture affected Britain.Most of the art was in the Swedish National Museum.There have been a lot of documentaries,too,on this period.

    As to what other art to cover,I suggest Mexican art,ancient and modern,marvellous!
    Also the art of the Middle East,mainly Islamic.
    Australian aboriginal art.
    Modernist painting,if in periods,say Cubism,fantastic!
    Etruscan votary,burial mounds and art works.
    Mesopotamian art and sculpture.
    African and Oceanic sculpture
    The earliest forms of art(e.g Lascaux Caves etc.)
    Neolithic art.

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  • Comment number 26. Posted by lesley fennell

    on 17 Aug 2014 21:21

    Hi Graham, I have avidly watched all your "Art of...' . Thank you for sharing your knowledgeable and sometimes moving insights with us- delivered with warmth, humour and generosity.
    You ask for suggestions for the future. Well, I recently completed a dissertation on 2 Finnish artists - Helene Schjerfbeck and the almost unknown H.Ahtela ( real name was Einar Reuter). These two were friends, but the subject of my writing was the influence they had on each others style. Their art, for me, is some of the most sublime I have ever encountered. During my research I was so impressed by the beauty of Scandinavian art and Finnish art in particular, so ... How about Art of Scandinavia ???

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  • Comment number 25. Posted by Lewis Bavin

    on 16 Aug 2014 22:22

    I have never seen any of the other 'Art Of ...' installments but if they are even half as good as Art Of China I will definitely give them a watch. A very high quality program, I'm truly sick of the tripe that is on nowadays & surprised this show got any funding at all.
    BBC Four (& Radio 4) are what we should be paying our TV licence for.

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