The Art Of Germany

Monday 6 December 2010, 11:51

Andrew Graham-Dixon Andrew Graham-Dixon Presenter

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"Every nation writes its own history in three books, the book of its words, the book of its deeds, and the book of its art: the last of the three is the most reliable."

Well, that was John Ruskin's theory, and I'd go along with it.

I hope our new series, The Art Of Germany, lives up to Ruskin's proposition and tells the extraordinary tale of this often deeply divided nation through its art. It's an epic journey.

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From the primeval forests of Germania (as the Romans christened the place) to the Renaissance world of Durer, Altdorfer and Grunewald (what a painter of blood, sweat and tears he was!) to the Romantic castles of Bavaria and on into the deep, deep darkness of Munich and Berlin under the Nazis - ending with the art of the last 50 years, which in a very affecting, powerful way has all been about remembering, atoning, regenerating.

At times, when we were making these shows, I felt really weighed down by the almost unremittingly tragic patterns of German history.

Watching the programmes back, compared say with The Art Of Spain or The Art Of Russia, I was really struck by their relative solemnity and slowness of pace, which wasn't something we consciously set out to aim for.

It's just a question, I think, of form mirroring content. But I hope the experience of watching them is hopeful, at times even uplifting, rather than purely melancholic!

The actual art of Germany was so often created to lighten the gloom or to heal the wounds of the past.

So there's this constant seesawing in the series, between bleakness and hope, a kind of fight between grim political realities and art's ability to raise people up, to take them somewhere else.

And my goodness the art of Germany is wonderful.

I honestly believe that to many people in Britain it will be like travelling to an undiscovered country, full of barely known treasures.

Andrew Graham-Dixon at the Graphische Sammlung in Munich, Germany

Maybe I am wrong, but how many people watching at home will already be aware of the great limewood carvings of Tilman Riemenschneider (the greatest artist who ever set out to carve a piece of wood), the seething landscapes of Altdorfer, the bruised, mystical, almost empty world of Caspar David Friedrich, the solemn, strong, powerful photography of August Sander, the scabrous caricatures of Otto Dix, the genius of moderns such as Baselitz and Beuys?

I could go on and on, but I really am curious to know whether all this stuff will be as unfamiliar (or at least surprising) to the audience as I suspect it may be.

Most unfamiliar of all, I suspect, will be the material we cover in episode three, which is both the blackest and the most hopeful show of all.

In it, I attempt to demonstrate how the whole Nazi project was driven by a twisted sense of aesthetic priorities - to show how Hitler really did begin with art and architecture, poisoning culture as a dry run for his poisoning of Germany itself.

For me, it's the most surprising and revelatory of the stories we tell, but again, I am only guessing about its impact and I would be very interested to know what viewers make of that particular programme.

I think it'll be genuinely new and really shocking to many people. And I think it's an important piece of TV in its own way, because the opportunity to change people's ideas about a huge part of our shared history just doesn't come along that often.

But I'll just have to wait and see what everyone else makes of it...

The Art Of Germany follows The Art Of Spain and The Art Of Russia, with more to come, energy levels permitting! Which countries would you like to see more Art Of... from? Suggestions below please (no promises we'll make them into TV).

They are definitely as knackering as they are fascinating to make, what with six weeks on the road each time - and no, it's most definitely not five star luxury. I've got the photos to prove it.

But the truth is I've really loved doing the Art Of... sequence.

Andrew Graham-Dixon and sculpted character heads by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

I think of it as a rolling 'series of series' not just about art and culture but cumulatively, a part-by-part history of the whole western world. A kind of alternative remake of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, done by stealth!

And of course Kenneth Clark never talked about the art of Spain, or indeed the art of Russia. I guess he must have thought they weren't entirely civilised places.

But then that's a very important part of the point of these programmes, to broaden the story of 'civilisation' and the story of art, away from the usual suspects and show people how much else there is to explore in the cultures of other less explored countries.

On that note, I suspect there's been a certain British reluctance to engage with German culture - with the obvious exception of German music - over the last generation or two, and I wonder if all the bitter memories of war have played a part in that.

As far as I know this is the first overview of the German art tradition made for British TV, so I just hope everyone watching gets something out of it (even Basil Fawlty!).

Andrew Graham-Dixon is presenter of The Art Of Germany, part of BBC Four's Germany season.

The Art Of Germany continues on BBC Four and BBC HD at 9pm on Mondays.

For further programme times, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

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

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Excellent programmes! Can't think of a better way to deal with the subject or a better presenter. We are both in the arts but are learning an enormous amount from this thought-provoking series.

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    Comment number 2.

    You make me curious for episode three! And yes you revealed unknown treasures for me (the limewood carvings of Tilman Riemenschneider , the landscapes of Altdorfer).
    But I think the title 'The Art of Germany' is too pretentious, it implies another approach (chronical history). So perhaps if the series was (sub)titled 'The Unusual Suspects' :) I would know what to expect!
    And I would like to see Art from the Netherlands! Or doesn't that offer new perspectives? As a Dutchman it would make me feel so proud...! (Jan van Eijk, Jeroen Bosch, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Mondriaan ... but too familiar I guess ... ?)

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    Comment number 3.

    Yes, if the "series of series" is a review of western history, then "Art of the Netherlands" seems essential

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    Comment number 4.

    Great work ! I would like to see the art of the USA because it is considered as non existent as the German one. Dutch art is everywhere to be seen, so something more challenging than Netherlands would be welcomed. What about african art ? By the way, I'm French

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    Comment number 5.

    Dutch art everywhere to be seen, yes; Netherlandish culture itself really explored? Rarely on TV, I think; mainly the individual artists.

    If you look outside Europe, then the Art of India is probably a top contender... or indeed one of the Arts of Africa? Which Art of Africa, though... there are so many

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    Comment number 6.

    Has The Art of Scandinavia been covered much? What about Canada? Australia?

    The USA seems too vast for just three episodes. You could concentrate on a particularly city -- The Art of New York seems like a good bet.

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    Comment number 7.

    I hope you will be reading this, Andrew! I'm British and live in Volkach, one of the villages you cover when talking about Riemenschneider's masterpieces in Part One. In fact, I've been a guide to the pilgrimage church you visited for over 25 years! Your first programme was BRILLIANT !! What a pity we didn't meet.
    But even more of a pity is the fact that I cannot access your film on iPlayer here in Germany. Is there any other way I can get hold of a copy? Everyone here wants to see how the famous BBC ( it is held in the highest regard over here) devoted several minutes to their hidden gem - and they can't all go over to U.K. to do so.

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    Comment number 8.

    With no knowledge of any art from Germany, but a big fan of Andrew's previous programmes, I came to this series with an open mind. Am loving it so far, can't wait for episode 3. How about the art of Britain next - there's plenty of it. or alternatively the art of the Netherlands. All those dutch Masters.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 10.

    I watched the first two parts so far. The program is fascinating and I feel a little ashamed that someone from Britain has to show me how culture of my own country can be presented in a wonderful inspiring way. The examples picked by Mr Graham-Dixon have been chosen very well and the insight and thoughts that he provides with them are really worth sharing. Thank you so much! I am looking forward to part three. From now on I will also watch out for more of Mr Graham-Dixon's interesting and very enjoyable work.

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    Comment number 11.

    A big thank you to everyone who has commented so far - such positive feedback, it really means a lot to all of us who worked on these programmes. Especially nice, too, to see some complimentary remarks from German people: we were hosted so well by so many people on our travels there, after all. I am sorry not to have commented sooner, but I have been away in New York meeting the American publishers of my biography of Caravaggio: a far cry from Art of Germany! (although I did also meet a couple of American broadcasters who might take the series). Plus I had a bit of trouble signing into this site due to being something of an incompetent in matters involving computers. Anyway, I got here in the end! Do please keep the comments coming in and I will drop in again soon if I possibly can. Tonight's programme is in some ways the most surprising of them all, in the sense of telling an unfamiliar story. And please do bear in mind that these are not histories, these series, they are essays/arguments - so if we leave out an artist it is not necessarily because they aren't in our minds, it's just because there is no room for them, or their work is not related to the theme we have chosen to explore...

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    Comment number 12.

    Andrew. The series has been, so far, hugely watchcable, instructive, accessible and fascinating; thank you to all involved. Any idea when will Art(s) of Spain and Russia be repeated?

    Art of Netherlands yes... but what about that other forgotten corner of the world, South America? Argentina? Brazil? Chile?

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    Comment number 13.

    Well, I agree. So many wonderful subjects out there to be explored. The problem is making the time. We are looking into the possibility of cloning me so that I can present two series at once, but at the moment the science doesn't seem to be far enough advanced... Actually, on second thoughts, I am sure one of me is quite enough! I hope the third and last programme doesn't disappoint you.

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    Comment number 14.

    thus far I have really enjoyed this series and as ever I enjoy his presentation style which is more personable than the late and great Kenneth Clark.
    His manner may have been aloof but KC did a lot more than most contemporary critics to enlighten and encourage an appreciation by the great British public of the finer points of Western Art.To his credit KC was prefectly aware of the genius of various artists from various countries but I suspect his taste was decidedly more traditional than that of Andrew Graham Dixon's though none the worst for it both in terms of the quality of art he appreciated and the incredible background knowledge he possessed.
    Art is very subjective, and largely a matter of taste and although his views are sometimes a radical departure from my own( I suspect he doesn't always value good draughtmanship as much as he might)he nevertheless introduces viewers(artists and non artists alike ) to many gems which are truly inspirational.
    I am familiar with most of the artists depicted but nevertheless it was a real treat to learn more of the historical background behind the imagery.
    Intrigued by AGD's 3rd prog and his conclusions esp regarding the likes of Arno Breker because although he acted in the service of a vile regime in my view history will be unkind to him because in terms of technique he was a truly great much the same way Leni Riefenstahl was a genius with her inovative film techniques...this said most of the art of the Third Reich was utterly forgetable,emotionally flat and often technically mediocre.
    This said as an artist and an art lover I'd rather witness works of artistic genius by persons of questionable character than endure second rate art by artists who are more correct.
    If I were to choose one German artist to be the champion it would be Max Ernst both in terms of the breadth of his range of technique, his incredible imagination and humanity.
    I have only been to Germany once and I thoroughly enjoyed it...excellent beer and I found the people to be generally friendly and reserved rather like the English in some ways

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    Comment number 15.

    What a wonderful series, as all the others have been. I'm humbled by my lack of knowledge about anything German!!! I found myself wondering how so?

    Would love to see something else that challenges the average perspective. I'd like to feel totally ignorant again!

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    Comment number 16.

    They are superb programmes - please keep on making them! Two suggestions - one is what about an Art of Holland and Flanders - surely Bruegel via Rembrandt to Van Gogh is worth doing? Also how about selling DVDs of your programmes? I really regret the absence of a "Renaissance" DVD. Marina

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    Comment number 17.

    I 'regret' to say that 'all this stuff' did not come as a complete suprise to me. And it shouldn't really: I've a first class honours degree in European Humanities, can speak German and take at least one holiday a year in Germany. But your series is stimulating and entertaining anyway!! I'm glad you have explained how selective you have necessarily had to be. I just hope you have stimulated more British people to go to Germany to see what it has to offer. There has been something worthwhile to see in virtually every German city I have ever visited. My latest 'bummel' was to Luebeck and Schwerin. Hell's teeth! The Staatliche Museum Schwerin - what a collection! what a hidden gem! I am recording Part 3 of yours series tonight and will watch it later. I am curious to see if you mention Bernhard Heisig. I stumbled across an exhibition of his works at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin a few years ago. For some reasons I cannot get his nightmarish visions of Breslau in April/May 1945 out of my head.

    I admit to knowing very little about the art of Eastern Europe except via comparative studies of the 'European Renaissance court' (a very long time ago). I have visited Krakow, but chickened out of taking the train on to Lviv/Lvov. Why not the Art of Poland, Ukraine, Belorus, Lithuania? You could have real fun exploring the concept of national identity, and religious identity, in this context! Just a thought. After all, Poland and Ukraine are co-hosting the European Football Championships in 2012, and will be in all our thoughts in that year - or more precisely for five weeks in the summer, or until England are eliminated.

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    Comment number 18.

    Today's programme (the third) blew my mind. Here was the eagle-eyed critic Graham-Dixon expatiating on the sadness of the painting Hitler bought, or the deeper meaning of a grotesque from the Communist East; and most of the time he was standing slap in front of the picture so that we could not see it! How on earth can a supposedly top-notch programme on the premier arts channel commit such a howler? Add the constant, irrelevant, intrusive musical sound-track which now seems inseparable from any documentary, and the concoction became unbearable. I switched off. What a waste of a potentially rewarding subject.

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    Comment number 19.

    no great surprises and all the same tired arguments to justify domination by substandard rubbish post 1945...not very difficult to intelligence is well above average thank you.
    As suggested by the programme the Nazis profited from the discontent many felt with many forms of modern art which were anti-aesthetic.
    In my view the best way to celebrate TRUE democracy is to have an art scene which reflects taste and views in ALL their variety ...NOT BY PANDERING TO THE WHIMS OF A CHOSEN FEW.

    "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."

    The logical extension of that to art is a place for disparate types of art(including much of that I had to endure on the programme tonight)but also having an art scene that is largely in tune with the tastes of the majority too.... and that includes representational and figurative art...that way artists,art lovers and the general public who subsidise an art scene they generally despise don't get angry and react in a similarly unreasonable manner.

    I am familiar with much German Art and to this day there is a fine tradition for exquisite draughtsmanship but one could be forgiven for thinking the inmates of Twycross Zoo had done their thang on tonights programme....I doubt that much of the art is appreciated by anyone other than would be "Art" students who lack percievable ability,buyers who are either devoid of taste or are looking to profit on false pretences or critics who enjoy the opportunity to indulge their own talents(verbal,written etc) and undermine the activity they lack ability at......ART

    Andrew Graham Dixon is a highly intelligent and articulate man...he has the gift of the gab ....I'll give him that, but his taste at times smacks of a man who lacks artistic talent and a need to feel better about his limited artistic ability...and that is the chief appeal of much that is contemporary.....Francis Bacon struggled with his art because he wasn't very good ...if I painted like him I'd get blind drunk every night too.

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    Comment number 20.

    Just wanted to say that this has been a completely fascinating documentary series. I watch every programme you produce on art, and often tune in to your parts on the Culture Show too. Your work on Caravaggio was infinitely interesting, and your series on Spain, on Russia, and on British art were equally great. I also enjoyed the programme on the Medici family.
    Thank you for making these three documentaries.


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