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.

  • rate this

    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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