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Wednesday 29 Oct 2014

Programme Information

Network TV BBC Week 19
Modern Masters feature

Master piece

Alistair Sooke presents Modern Masters

Modern Masters

Day and time to be confirmed BBC ONE

As BBC One's new, four-part modern art series Modern Masters takes a look at some of the most notable and influential artists of our time – Picasso, Dali, Matisse and Warhol – Programme Information catches up with presenter Alastair Sooke to find out more about him, and his experiences while making the programmes.

Alastair, 28, has been staff writer and commissioning editor on the arts desk of The Daily Telegraph for more than six years. He has interviewed many of the most renowned artists in the world, including Anthony Caro, Chuck Close, Gilbert & George, Antony Gormley, Richard Hamilton, Anish Kapoor, Anselm Kiefer, Jeff Koons, Steve McQueen, Yoko Ono, Martin Parr, Ed Ruscha, Julian Schnabel, Richard Serra and Mark Wallinger. He has reviewed important exhibitions at all of Britain's major museums and galleries and contributed to a number of arts programmes on radio and television, including The Culture Show on BBC Two.

When did you discover your love of art?

When I was very young. My mum is really artistic (she's a talented artist herself) and took me to lots of museums and galleries. Our house was stuffed full of her big art books – and I've kept the tradition alive. The flat I live in now is groaning with all the art books that I've bought myself over the years. I'll never get round to reading them all, but it's nice to have such a splendid collection of images.

Were you an artistic child?

My mum would often give me paper to draw on – as soon as I returned from nursery, I'd spend every waking hour doodling away. I did art at A-level and even won my school's art prize, but I always knew that I wasn't talented enough to take it further. But I've always been intrigued by trying to write about art, because it's such a challenge to use words to accurately convey why something non-verbal is actually any good. I guess that music critics face the same challenge. I relish that.

Did you study the masters?

I read English literature as an undergraduate, but after university I went to the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and studied ancient Greek and Roman art – we covered about a millennium's worth of art history, all told! Ancient art is the foundation of the entire Western tradition, so it was an incredibly useful thing to do, and taught me how to analyse, criticise and discuss images in their proper context – in short, how to approach art.

Why were these four artists (Picasso, Matisse, Dali, and Warhol) chosen for BBC One's Modern Masters?

There were arguments to be made for a number of 20th-century artists, but the ones we chose all had something in common: in their own lifetimes they were international celebrities, multimillionaires who were lauded by the general public, and not just the critics. As a result, they had a profound influence not only on art history, but also on the world around us. In so many ways, we can still see their legacy today.

Filming must have been quite an experience...

We spent three months filming towards the end of 2009, and I had the time of my life. One minute I was interviewing John Richardson, the most respected Picasso scholar in the world; the next, I was chatting to Dennis Hopper, who used to hang out with Warhol in the Sixties. That's what I wanted to illustrate in this series: modern art doesn't only belong in the gallery, but touches on so many different and surprising areas, from film to fashion to architecture – even car design.

Did you discover much you didn't know about the four artists?

Yes! You learn so much more about an artist by following in his or her footsteps. Of course, I'd read a great deal about their careers, but seeing the places where they lived and made art, and meeting people who actually knew them, gave me an entirely new sense of their work. And seeing many of their masterpieces at first hand in museums all over the world, often when nobody else was there – well, that was a real thrill, and an immense privilege.

What do you think motivated them?

None of our modern masters followed the rules handed down to them by academic tradition and art history. Picasso was inspired by the African masks and tribal sculpture that he discovered in Parisian flea-shops, whereas most young artists of his era were dutifully studying antique sculptures in the Louvre. Matisse pioneered Fauvism by painting the world around him in bright, almost delirious colours that made people laugh in his face and assume he was nothing but a lunatic. Dali's paintings encapsulated his own fears and anxieties and deepest desires with a candour never before seen in the history of art. And Warhol broke every rule going: he aspired to become a machine, churning out screen-printed works of art in his studio, which was known as the Factory, at a time when people prized the individuality and painterly touch of artists above everything else. I found that inspirational.

Did they have anything in common?

The thing that really struck me was that none of them conformed to anything. For years, Picasso was courted by the Surrealists – but he never wanted to pin himself down to any one art movement. All of the artists had a restless, almost anarchic spirit – even Matisse, who looks so professorial, in his suit and tie, in the photographs of him that have survived. They refused to accept convention. They wanted to break with tradition, and, to do this, earned for themselves a great sense of personal freedom. There's some kind of life lesson in that.

Was filming the series an intense experience for you personally?

I was surprised by my reaction to several works of art, but perhaps most memorable of all was my visit to the Dominican chapel that Matisse designed, down to the very last detail, towards the end of his life in the small town of Vence where he lived in southern France. I found it so moving that someone so old, who had come through so much, could meticulously plan and build such a beautifully tranquil space. Here was a man who had often suffered from terrible anxiety, who was a rabid insomniac for much of his life, who had survived duodenal cancer, and who had lived to hear his daughter's terrible memories of being tortured by the Gestapo during the Second World War. And he had built such a special space, which was the culmination of his life's work as well as a real triumph of the human spirit over adversity. I was overwhelmed. I could have stayed there all day.

Do you wish you had been alive at the same time as these modern masters?

Absolutely. That period of early modernism now feels like such a heroic golden age in the history of art. These artists were titanic figures, wrestling with the past, breaking with tradition, and forging a completely new visual language that was simply extraordinary. I think it must have been really intoxicating to live through that era. I like to think I would have championed their work. But, if so, I would have been in a real minority, since most people at the time thought that these artists were completely crazy!

Did you encounter anything unexpected during filming?

I expected to interview some important people in the art world, for sure, but I never thought in a million years that I'd share a drink with Pamela Anderson, chat to Dennis Hopper, or exchange a few words with the French president's wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy! Lots of people find Noel Fielding from the Mighty Boosh hilarious – and here he was telling me that Dali's Surrealist vision had an enormous influence on his decision to become a comedian. It just goes to prove that the work of these four modern masters continues to touch people in all areas of life today. That's really amazing.

Was it fun making your own Pop Art self-portrait in the style of Warhol?

It was fascinating to meet Gerard Malanga, who was Warhol's right-hand man during the Sixties. Malanga actually taught Warhol how to make screen-prints and worked with him on all those series of pictures, such as the Marilyns, that are now iconic. And here he was directing me to screen-print my own self-portrait. No matter that the result made me look like a pink mouse wearing red lipstick: for the day, I felt a very special proximity to Warhol.

Do you have a new appreciation of the artists' work having tried to make it yourself?

Yes. I think that a lot of people still find modern art a little strange and alien, and often dismiss it by saying, "Well, my five-year-old could have done that." But it's not true! One day, I had a go at copying from memory one of Matisse's most famous cut-outs. He made a slender figure representing Icarus, a character from Greek myth who flew too close to the sun. But when I tried to do the same, I ended up with a man who looked like he had a massive beer gut. It made me appreciate the skills and the lifetime's worth of knowledge and experience that gave Matisse the confidence to make exactly the right incisive cut. Matisse used a big old pair of shears to hack out shapes that look so graceful and beautiful. It's quite an achievement.

How do you hope that viewers will feel after watching the programmes?

I want people watching the series to feel thrilled and exhilarated by the works of art – just like I am. Modern art isn't something sacred that must be worshipped in stuffy museums; it isn't irrelevant or scary. The work of these four modern masters has had an impact on all of our lives. I'd love people to engage with art: the more time you spend looking at and thinking about a masterpiece, the more you get out of it. And anyone who's still sceptical about modern art after watching the series should try one of our Walks Of Art – walking guides to modern art in British cities, which can be found at – or visit the accompanying exhibition at the V&A Museum in London.

BBC Online:

Accompanying the Modern Masters series on BBC One is the website (available closer to transmission).

Virtual exhibitions of Matisse, Picasso, Dali and Warhol are curated by presenter Alastair Sooke. Users can take a virtual tour to view their art, watch interviews with the people they've inspired and see for themselves the way each artist is uniquely connected to the world we live in today.

Downloadable Walks Of Art provide a walking guide to modern art in 10 British locations: Birmingham, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, London South Bank, London West End, Manchester and Oxford. Each walk is mapped out with times and distances and features local examples of buildings, landmarks and other objects inspired by the work of the four modern masters.


Modern Masters – Picasso, Matisse, Dali And Warhol

Free exhibition at the V&A 1 May-23 June 2010

In conjunction with the BBC series, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London is launching a special Modern Masters exhibition which runs from 1 May to 23 June.

More than 50 works have been drawn from the V&A's collection to illustrate these 20th-century masters' engagement with the printed medium. Both celebrated and less-familiar prints in a range of techniques are included, spanning a period of 75 years and representing one of the most creative and diverse artistic periods in the history of Western art.

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