Modern Masters with Alastair Sooke: Do the walking tour

Thursday 29 April 2010, 18:12

Mark Bell Mark Bell Commissioning Editor, Arts

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Just a few days to go until Warhol, the first of BBC One's Modern Masters series, is broadcast. It feels like we are paddling into uncharted territory - putting modern art and a new presenter Alastair Sooke into primetime BBC One. What are we trying to do?

The history of western art more or less makes sense until about a century ago when everything seemed to go a bit crazy. The normal rules of painting suddenly ceased to apply. Suddenly artists were less interested in making straightforward pictures of the world around them.

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Maybe it's partly because the world got more complicated. Einstein rewrote the laws of physics and Freud labelled the unconscious. Photography seemed to be able to do the job of straight depiction quicker and better. And because the art got weirder, knowing what to make of it got more difficult.

New artistic movements arrived at dizzying speed - impressionism, expressionism, Dadaism, futurism, surrealism - it's not surprising that people looking at this new art started to feel a bit alienated. And even now, 100 years later, I think many people still feel confused.

By concentrating on the work of four key artists - Warhol, Matisse, Picasso and Dali - we give a sense in Modern Masters of what happened to art in the 20th Century.

They each changed art in their own way: Warhol as a pop artist, Dali as one of the original surrealists, Matisse as the master of colour and simple form, and Picasso, who could probably have invented modern art on his own. (It's said that a normal day for Picasso would be to paint three masterpieces before breakfast, then spend the day on the beach seducing beautiful women.)

Modern Masters presenter Alastair Sooke

Alastair Sooke is new to presenting, and he's a natural communicator. He knows about the art and talks about it in a clear and memorable way. And he's a good sport too - dressing up as Andy Warhol, trying his hand at a Matisse cut-out, and taking Dali's hovering fried egg for a walk.

Alastair goes to meet artists, biographers and curators and also talks to designers, advertising gurus and people from the fashion world to find out how these artists influenced culture more broadly.

The designer Paul Smith reveals that he gets a lot of his inspiring colour combinations from Matisse. Noel Fielding from the Mighty Boosh talks about how Dali's surrealism influenced his comedy and one of Picasso's models reveals how she inspired the actress Brigitte Bardot.

Hopefully you get a sense that these revolutionary, cheeky, inspired artists did more than paint a few pictures and make a lot of money - they really did change our world. I hope the series will inspire people to go out and discover all the art that surrounds us, much of it there to be enjoyed for free.

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Alongside the series, BBC Online have a great website which includes a series of walking guides around some of the country's modern art landmarks. Viewers who can get to London's Victoria and Albert museum in May and the first half of June will be able to see rarely-seen works from their collection by our four masters Warhol, Dali, Matisse and Picasso.

I tried out the Glasgow and London walks myself, armed with a print-out art walk from the BBC website. First off, I headed for the central London one last Sunday, accompanied by my bike and a musician friend.

By Marble Arch we came across the monumental sculpture of a horse's head. The absurdity of it - a horse balancing on the tip of its nose - makes me think of Dali, as well as the faithful anatomical rendition. Of course, as I have the guide with us, I know it's not balancing, it's drinking.

Heading back along Bayswater Road, you notice the influence of the modern masters in the artwork hanging for sale on the railings of Kensington Gardens.

Mark Bell with his trusty bike on the walking tour

There is Dali, Matisse and Picasso in the heavy nudes and erotic dreamscapes. There might be a bit of 1970s music album cover art in there as well. Some very British nods to Warhol with paintings of Colman's Mustard, Marmite and Flake bars. There are also butterflies and spin paintings, which makes me realise that what Damien Hirst, one of today's most celebrated modern artists, does is perhaps not quite so easy as he makes it look.

On Tuesday, it was off to Glasgow, where I took my folding bicycle on the sleeper train. The Walk of Art (or in this case bike of art) was a great way to see some of the best of the city on a crisp spring morning.

There is some great modern sculpture on the city's streets and in public places. On the way back down Sauchiehall Street I spot an elegant-looking sweet shop, prominently featuring the Dali-designed Chupa Chups logo along with some Warhol screenprint-inspired graphics.

The very act of embarking on a walk with art appreciation as your goal makes you see the world in a different way. I hope that the series too will persuade people to look at the work of these and other modern artists afresh.

A hundred years ago modern art was in its infancy. By now it has proved it is here to stay, though it will be interesting to see what the art it has inspired looks like in 100 years' time.

Mark Bell is the commissioning editor of BBC Arts. Modern Masters starts at 9pm on Sunday, 2 May on BBC One

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    Comment number 1.

    By concentrating on the work of four key artists you give a very narrow sense of what happened to art in the 20th Century.

    How can you hope that the series will persuade people to look at the work of these and other modern artists afresh, when it's all just a rehash of the art canon?

    Women appeared in this evenings show as the fashion advisor and the muse... Come on BBC this is Wiki art for dummies.

    There's more to ART than this.

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    Comment number 2.

    Thanks for this show and thanks to Alastair Sooke, I thoroughly enjoyed the show. The way Warhol's life and artwork has been investigated is brilliant.

    I found rather interesting the idea of the billboard as a map to dig deep into the artist's life and bring out a compelling read of the artist's artwork.

    Dennis Hopper as final interview of the show was striking and he cites Duchamp's intuition of "the artist in the future would be a person who points his finger. He won't be a painter, he'll say that's art and it'll be art " which leads to my point: please BBC do a show on Marcel Duchamp as one of the Moder Masters.

    I reckon there is plenty to say and investigate about Duchamp's artwork. The way he interpreted the Cubism and brought it to a certain extend as installation art with "The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)" and the way he shaped and defined installation and photography as a form of modern art.
    I would be delighted if this show happened.

    I am looking forward to watching the next show.

    Many thanks

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    As a lecturer in the history of art, and an active art critic, I feel passionate about the importance of making art history enjoyable, and opening up modern art to new audiences. Whilst recognising the challenges inherent in introducing modern art to a popular audience, I am nevertheless shocked by the sheer superficiality and banality of the first programme in the series, and Alastair Sooke's unnecessarily dumbed-down script. Could you not have found somebody else in either the art world, journalism or academia with a much stronger background in the history of modern art who could have done a better job?

    The entire underlying concept of the series appears to be to show how such artists work has been appropriated by the commercial sector, as if this is alone were proof of its 'awesomeness' and ultimate success. Where is the engagement with its politics? Or any close reading of the works in question?

    Why present a series on Warhol, Picasso, Matisse and Dali, when these are some of the most popular and over-exposed artists of the twentieth century? And what does it mean to start with Warhol? Why the confused periodisation? What about Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Hannah Höch, Robert Rauschenberg? Why not introduce some of the great and less popularised (and not exclusively male and white) practitioners of the twentieth century? How is Sooke defining his version of modern art?

    Perversely, Sooke's inability to properly engage with these artists or their works doesn't render them more understandable or approachable, rather it makes them seem even more remote and incomprehensible.

    I spent some time trying to work out who the target audience for this programme is, or what that audience could actually gain from it. I still have no idea.

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    Comment number 4.

    I absolutely agree with the above comment. This show had the air of a Newsround report; we were stunned to find it was actually on BBC1. Alastair Sooke is simply terrible. He was awful on The Culture Show and is awful here. Unwatchably patronising, inarticulate and, most distressingly, seemingly apologetic for the art itself; repeatedly calling Warhol 'weird' in the most facile way imaginable.

    I'd say that this show should be on CBBC, but - as another commenter has said - the utter superficiality of this programme would be a worryingly misleading introduction for youngsters wanting to be educated or enthused.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I agree with comments 3 and 4. This was a disappointing show which failed to inform, educate or entertain. Matt Collings' programme on 'What is Beauty?' a few months ago was far superior: accessible but informative, challenging yet comprehensible. Could you encourage the presenter and producers of this new series to watch it for some guidance or better still just get Matt Collings or someone equally qualified to present programmes on the visual arts in future.

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    Comment number 6.

    I must admit, I wasn't impressed. The guy presenting certainly knows his stuff, but I felt that his approach was that of talking to a bunch of GCSE students. In the first five minutes, I almost turned off, as I thought is this guy for real! He just seemed to be stating the bloody obvious, and then he would use irritating phrases like 'Warhol did ... silk screens of the 'movie star' Marilyn Monroe'. The 'movie star'! Never!! I thought she was just some gal who worked down the caff. The diagrams connecting his work with painting, film, and music were unnecessary, like being back in the school class again! And the dressing up...unnecessary. Something that else that bugged me, his analysis of his paintings, saying things like 'you pick up this feeling of...', as opposed to the singular 'I' pick up this..... Art should be subjective, whatever he picks up from a painting, is not necessarily the same way I, or you, or anyone else regards the piece. For example, some people might say Warhol's soup cans are his way of showing the disposability of modern day society, whereas Warhol said himself that it was something he ate all the time, and so was just a good image to paint. In other words, 'take from it what you will'. Anyway, I just hope that the forthcoming editions are better. There was a far better three-part documentary on Channel 4 in the early noughties, which contained a lot more about his proteges (Edie, International Velvet, Ultra Violet etc), who in themselves became another aspect of Warhol's art. This was completely missed out in this documentary. However, I did enjoy watching the silk screening process with Gerard Malanga. I always wanted to know how that was done.

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    Comment number 7.

    It was pitched at just above Tony Hart level. The BBC's patronising panjandrums seem to think all we plebs can understand is celebrity and So these words are repeated endlessly by our usual faux naive breathless boyish presenter Alastair Sooke, who surely must be a little more clued up then he is forced to pretend so that we can identify with him in our blessed ignorance. All arts shows have to explore questions, we need to watch the host go on a journey, meet people, shake their hands, have a coffee with them. No information or interview is allowed to be unframed by this gonzo rubbish. We can't just be told a fact by an expert or watch someone who knew Warhol speak. No no no, that would be too hard for us, and the people on tv must be as stupid as the people on tv think we are. Especially with arts, which no one likes anyway.

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    Comment number 8.

    This show is a lazy piece of commissioning. Superficial ideas for shows will produce superficial television. Anyone who knows anything about 20thC art would realise that it can't be explained, or even meaningfully introduced, through inane hagiographies of less than a handful of totally unrelated artists. An inept idea that deserves to be roasted as a turkey.

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    Comment number 9.

    I just watched the Warhol show, and I enjoyed it very much. I agree the artists are semi-unrelated aside from the fact that they fit into the loose category of 'modern artists', and thus I think it opens up the possibility of more artists being covered in more editions to make a more complete picture of 20th century art. Maybe Alastair does pitch it slightly too simplistic at times (as mentioned above), but sometimes it's good to be reminded of some of the basics and jog the art memory bank. Two thumbs up from me

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    Comment number 10.

    I have been a professional artist and University Lecturer for many years, and having just watched Alistaire Sooke on Matisse. I think it was an insult to the intelligence of any layman watching. Blue Peter would have done a better job. Apart from his own ill informed, simplistic assumptions as to Matisse's motifs he chose to interview other practitioners who displayed little knowledge as to what Matisse was attempting to achieve. I suggest that if Sooke is in any way serious about studying the works of Matisse, he could do no better than read the works of Pierre Schneider. Just how far is the BBC intending to dumb down?

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    Comment number 11.

    I watched last weeks programme even though I'm not a Warhol fan and it still didn't make me like his work but I thought it was a different way of presenting art to the masses. Yes it is narrow to focus on 4 artists but i think they've picked the more well known names for those who have no knowledge of modern art but who may have heard of them or possibly seen images in places like Ikea as the programmes have mentioned.
    I am an art graduate myself so would say I have some degree of knowledge (no pun intended)but I think this engages those who have the misconception of art being stuffy and boring. It may be classed as dumbing down but if it inspires others to find out more or become involved or visit all of our amazing galleries and invest money in these institutions then I'm all for it.
    I enjoyed the Matisse episode far more than I expected this evening and even I was moved at the final chapel scenes (helped by the tear-jerking classical music in the background of course)as it was the complete antithesis of what would be considered a normal place of worship but it summed up his approach and attitude towards the established art scene.
    Matisse's enthuiasm reminded me of why I was so determined to study art from an early age-shame I've never been able to get a job doing what I love doing best too :(

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Very harsh criticisms here for what I thought was an interesting program, nicely done.
    I was happy with the first program about Andy Warhol, too.
    Though I probably know stuff-all about Art I enjoy any program that gives me a relaxed insight into it.
    The presenter seemed knowledgeable enough, and I liked his gentle, enquiring approach to the subject and to the interviewees.
    It was refreshing to have this delivery, rather than the know-it-all don type (naming no names, like Simon Shama) who fires his words at the viewer like cannons balls to slaughter those lowly mush-heads who only get their intellectual sucker from TV.

    This series seems to advertise itself as a tasty slice of the subject, so I am looking forward to the next episode (very suitable for a Sunday evening viewing).
    I am sure a more in-depth series would be welcomed. Maybe BBC4 would commission one or two of the comment-givers; if they think they are up to it!
    More art, and The Arts, on TV please.


  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    It's possible that my comments will offend Alastair Sooke... If this breaches the BBC guidelines then I doubt that more people than myself and the moderator will read this:

    I have watched both progammes in the series so far and have been interested by the work... but very disappointed by both the style and the format of them.

    In Scotland the word 'Sook' describes a sycophant who shamelessly flatters in order to associate with those they conceive to be their betters (While secretly believing themselves to be superior); so the presenters name is extraordinarily appropriate.

    In the first programme of the series 'the Sooke' (As he shall be referred to hereafter) asks the question; referring to Warhol "Was he any good?" He then goes on to shamelessly flatter Warhol's shade and to wax lyrical about the way that the artist was trying to portray Marilyn Monroe's 'feelings' in some of his more famous work.

    The camera lingers over the presenter far, far too often in a shamelessly self glorifying way that even Warhol would have been ashamed of. He gives us absolutely no insight into the works themselves and makes no real critical analysis of anything we see, preferring instead to promote himself and his own subjective opinion. I was particularly offended by the cynical lingering use of the "moved by art" moment in the chapel... He may indeed have been moved for a moment but the continual close-ups of him attempting to squeeze out tears were a trifle nauseating.

    Aside from the presenter this might have been an interesting series (And I would still reccommend it for 10-13 year olds for whom it is accidentally pitched); probably more so if it had been presented by an ingenuous newcomer to modern art, who would certainly have had far more interesting insightful things to say. Unfortunately we are learning far more about the "Sooke": we know that he recently got engaged, that he is enamoured of the wife of the French president and that he rode in a "Boxy" taxi in St Petersberg although why any of these facts are at all relevant remains a mystery...

    I genuinely hope that the next two progammes are more credible. I hope that someone will one day ask these two questions:

    A. If it is not worth a fortune, is it still art? (The better the art the more it is worth or vice versa?)
    B. If no artist was permitted to sign their work, how would we tell what was art and what was charlatanism?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Oh Dear,
    I watched the Matisse program last night and am still cringing at the scene where he came over all emotional in the Matisse chapel. Surely it's for the audience to decide whether they feel moved by an artists work and life. The whole thing seemed phoney and forced.
    Poor editorial decision making.


  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    What was the tear jerking classical music during the chapel scene please. (It was more affecting than Sooke)

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    If anyone knows the title of the ambient music, and the artist at the start of the Modern Masters - Matisse programme, please let me know.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Responding to Peter Herring (above) the music in the Vence Chapel scene was Spiegel im spiegel by Arvo Pärt. The skillful use of music was, in my view, the one saving grace of this programme.

    Unlike presenters of previous TV series on Modern art (e.g. Robert Hughes, Matthew Collings, Waldemar Januszczak, Andrew Graham-Dixon, Ben Lewis) who had some demonstrable expertise to bring the the table, Alastair Snooke appears to have cribbed his ideas (platitudes) from some sub A-level primer on 'Modern Art', which he gushes back at us without any critical reflection or insight.

    Did I really hear him say (on a BBC programme purporting to offer some sort of intelligent insight into Modern art) 'Does Miffy like Matisse?' This man is the Bertie Wooster of TV arts journalism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    In my opinion there is too much snobbery in the art world and this programme has made me remember why i love art so much. Why has there got to be critical reflection or insight, use your eyes, open your minds, formulate your own opinions.

    I have thoroughly enjoyed both programmes and the love that alastair has for his subject is obvious. I applaud the emotion that he felt he was able to show at the end of the Matisse show, it made my heart leap that he was able to relay the joy and astonishment of the moment.

    Art isn't about being po faced and stuffy, your programme is fantastic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I can't wait to watch your programs about Picasso and Daly.
    "when the inspiration comes, it should find you working" Pablo Picasso.
    "Do I believe in God ?. Yes when I work." Henri Matisse.
    A little piece of advice. In analysing one should always flee from the causality principle.
    Is it not curious that the green-and-orange bad boy made his last work of art in the conventional blue and yellow of the time of his beginnings?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    With its use of archive film and witnesses, I found the programme on Matisse marginally more informative than Warhol, although Sooke's reliance on transferring dumbed-down emotion tended to treat the entire audience as artistically uninformed. I thought that there was a danger that anyone taking an interest in 20thC art for the first time would have suffered, through a dearth of artistic context and the crafting of Matisse to fit some sort of populist bill or other. Again there was a heavy emphasis on how Matisse's technical simplicity, reduction of content and use of colour has been exploited commercially, when there could have been so many other approaches.

    The need to create internal harmony was glossed over, along with Matisse's underlying expressionism, with its terminological distinction - 'expressiveness' being largely independent from 'expression'. It was never made clear that rather than simply seeing Matisse's art as a discharge of powerful emotions, or an attempt to give life to his own feelings, his forms were choices investigating abstraction, line and colour. They can be seen as external to emotions he might have possessed at the time the works were created. Some clarification regarding expression and decoration might have been achieved through Matisse's own words;

    "I cannot copy nature in a servile way; I am forced to interpret nature and submit it to the spirit of the picture. From the relationship I have found in all the tones, there must relate a living harmony of colours, a harmony analogous to that of musical composition...The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive; the place occupied by the figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything has its share." (Matisse H. La Grande Revue 25th December 1908.)

    It might also have been helpful to have placed Fauvism in some sort of context, perhaps mentioning Roualt, Camoin, Marquet and Manguin - all grouped around Matisse and students of Gustav Moreau at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts - not forgetting Matisse's association with Andre Derain in Collioure. I know that a core theme is to present evidence of 'what modern art has done for us', but these programmes so far seem to be a loose, fairly partial biography of the artist, interspersed with this one aspect of consumerism.


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