Britain and Europe - European art: radio programme. Sample containing about 2535 words speech recorded in educational context

2 speakers recorded by respondent number C865

PS63G X m (a, age unknown) unspecified
PS63H X u (nl, age unknown) unspecified

1 recordings

  1. Tape 139401 recorded on unknown date.


[recorded jingle]
a (PS63G) [1] Good evening.
[2] This is another in our series on Britain in Europe.
[3] Tonight, and during the next two Tuesday programmes, we are going to look at cultural links and influences.
[4] This evening I have with me Norbert Lynton, who is Professor of History of Art at the University.
[5] Norbert, is British art influenced at all by what goes on in the Continent?
nl (PS63H) [7] I think British artists, much more than the general public, British artists are pretty aware of what's going on on the Continent.
[8] Influenced is more difficult to say.
[9] I think very often the influence goes the other way.
[10] Now that's something we in England, in Britain I should say, are not particularly aware of, but a lot of British artists who are very well known on the Continent, that in Britain would seem, you know, too avant-garde to be known to the wider public.
a (PS63G) [11] Could you give me an example, or examples?
nl (PS63H) [12] Well, I could, but they'd be meaningless in a sense.
[13] I mean, well, by coincidence there's an exhibition at this moment at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London; upstairs there's a show of Tony Cragg.
[14] Now I'd not seen his work before, that's partly because I'm in Brighton and not in London and don't get up that often perhaps, but he has hardly shown in England, whereas he's very well known in Europe, using Europe for the Continent.
[15] He's had many one-man shows in European galleries, but this Whitechapel show is his first real sort of public display in this country.
[16] Now this applies to many other artists.
[17] A man like Richard Hamilton, for instance, who's now pretty well known in this country, was much better known on the Continent of Europe and in America, in Switzerland, in Germany, in Northern Italy — Milan particularly — much better known there than he was for decades.
a (PS63G) [18] Traditionally, I always feel that the influence goes the other way.
[19] I think of people, grand old British artists, like Turner for example, going on grand tours and coming back to Britain and going through, as it were , a period of painting where he is influenced by what he's seen and heard and experienced in Europe, and then more latterly I think of France as being, Paris as being the centre of art and British artists going and spending their period in Paris and coming back and going through an impressionist or an expressionist phase.
[20] I don't sort of think of it as art going in the other direction.
nl (PS63H) [21] Well, you're suffering from, if I may put it that crudely, of a well-known British disease of a lack of self-regard in a sense.
[22] The British in their quiet way think of themselves as the salt of the earth, and quite rightly too, but where matters of culture are concerned they do have this tendency to think that the best things happen abroad and at best can be borrowed from abroad.
[23] In Turner's time art was very international.
[24] Rome was, I suppose, the capital of the art world, but Rome was essentially an international place where many a Britisher was famous; where Flaxman, for instance, had established himself as one of the most famous artists in the world.
[25] We hardly mention him nowadays.
[26] Turner did the grand tour, certainly; he learnt a lot in Italy, but he learnt equally a great deal from English artists and from Dutch artists [...] and in so far as he used the grand tour, and used what Rome and other countries had to offer, that's what every artist did, every European artist, not just the English.
[27] And of course there have been many moments when English art was very important on the Continent indeed.
[28] An obvious example is the Pre-Raphaelites, who, whilst still being spurned in England, except that they were collected by, I don't know, Manchester businessmen, spurned in London, let's say, were enormously influential in Brussels, in Paris, and in Germany and Austria.
a (PS63G) [29] Can I ask you a rather difficult question?
[30] As an amateur person, as it were, interested in art, I get very confused about what's been happening in the past fifty to eighty years.
[31] I think I can more or less understand in general terms what happens up until sort of the impressionist time, maybe just post-impressionist.
[32] After that it all gets rather confusing.
[33] There seem to be so many different terms — action paintings, abstract impressionisms, realisms, geometrical art, monochromes, dozens of other different terms.
[34] Is there any real development and trend that could be explained perhaps in rather simple language to people like myself?
nl (PS63H) [35] There's no one dominant trend at the moment I don't think.
[36] Impressionism has really made things very difficult in so far as people think that impressionism is a kind of normal state for art to be in and anything else is a kind of deviation from good sense.
[37] Impressionism was a very extreme form of art.
[38] I'm amazed it ever happened.
[39] I am even more amazed that, having hated it, people have now come to love it quite so much.
[40] I mean I can understand why they do and I like the stuff myself, but I don't share the belief that I get from all sides that impressionism is what art should be like normally.
[41] You see impressionism isn't art about anything very much, it's art as description — a very lively, lovable form of description, pure and simple — whereas normally art has been full of messages and meaning and didacticism if you like — full of morality and sermonizing very often, and that is normal for art.
[42] A lot of modern art has tended to be that way, often abstract art, that people think is meaningless, is in fact full of very serious messages if only people are willing to listen to them.
[43] It's a big subject but I'm in a sense referring to it only in this context because it's precisely in these areas that British art in the twentieth century has been very important.
[44] A man like Ben Nicholson, elderly now, rather frail, still I hope working — certainly last year he was still working and exhibiting — is part of an international modern art tendency, or number of tendencies and is recognized as such, and yet if you examine his art, it's full of Englishness as well.
[45] You see one can be both.
[46] One can be both part of the international abstract art and some of his work is abstract, and even in that context bring into it qualities that once one knows the idiom people can recognize as purely English and one can also, at the same time as he was much of the time, be a figurative artist that do landscapes, interiors, figure paintings (rarely), and figure drawings of a very high quality, and again they are partly of an international modern [...] and they are partly essentially English works.
a (PS63G) [47] What about the art public?
[48] It seems to me that ultimately artists must be successful or otherwise because of the public response to their output.
[49] Is the British public different from New York public or the Continental public?
nl (PS63H) [50] Ah, alas, I don't know how to say this without seeming to go to extremes.
[51] Only in Britain would eminent, highly educated people, leaders of society, heads of educational institutions, ministers, etc. etc., think it was worth mocking modern art.
[52] Please believe me, this is absolutely true.
[53] You go to an avant-garde exhibition in Germany or in Italy, in France, in New York of course, and you find that a lot of people want to be informed about it and even, if they are not normally art people, they accept it in the sense of not mocking it.
[54] In Britain it seems to be a kind of tradition that if you refer to modern art at all, you make jokes about it.
[55] Even Henry Moore until quite recently was still being mocked for the holes that go through his sculptures and so on, and the tradition continues.
[56] I used to find it kind of funny.
[57] I find it painful because it wastes a lot of effort.
[58] It means a lot of being enjoy being on the wrong side, if I can put it that way.
a (PS63G) [59] Certainly, on my visits to exhibitions, such as at the Royal Academy, my impression is that the British public much prefers the older works, as it were.
[60] At the post-impressionist exhibition you could scarcely move at all for people, but at the new spirit in painting exhibition, which is currently on at the R A, there's a lot of space and people on the whole go round very quickly and are rather sceptical about it all.
[61] This actually reinforces what you're saying I suppose.
nl (PS63H) [62] Yes, I think you would find that everywhere people will crowd into especially post-impressionism, which is Van Gogh, etc., more than they would into an avant-garde exhibition.
[63] I don't mean that people necessarily have to like what's going on.
[64] What I'm begging, especially our leaders so to speak, to do is to stop thinking that it's all kind of a joke that's being perpetrated by idiots or by [...] of some sort against the public.
[65] Alas the exhibition at the Royal Academy, it should be fuller of course because there are some good things there.
[66] Any exhibition is worth going looking at and thinking about, but I do think that that is an extraordinarily bad exhibition.
[67] It's the first time I've come away from an exhibition thinking that the exhibition as such was stupid.
[68] Not everything in it is stupid, but there's no point to the exhibition and there's certainly not a new spirit being displayed there.
a (PS63G) [69] They certainly seem to be unrelated, many of the artists and the canvases and the paintings shown.
nl (PS63H) [70] Well a very ordinary thing has happened there, but it has happened on such an extraordinary scale that I think it's worth saying.
[71] The work on show, of course, let's say was done in the seventies, I mean we're only in nineteen eighty one now.
[72] Most of it was done in the seventies, some was done in the sixties.
[73] Many of the artists on show of course are quite elderly, and some of them are dead.
[74] What that exhibition in fact is doing is that it's not saying here's a new spirit in painting, it's saying that we the organizers, having not bothered to show you these things in the sixties and seventies, will now allow you to see them in the eighties, and we will pretend there's a new spirit because we think it's good for the art world to have new fashions, new movements, or at least something new going on that will produce some kind of emotional pressure.
a (PS63G) [75] But in fact they're all rather dated?
nl (PS63H) [76] It's all rather dated, and some of it's very good and some of it's so so, and some of it's plain ordinary.
a (PS63G) [77] Let me ask you about one particular artist, whose name has actually escaped me at the moment [laugh]
nl (PS63H) [78] That doesn't help!
a (PS63G) [79] He does more or less blank paintings of single monotone colours of various kinds.
[80] Now, can you remember the name of the artist?
nl (PS63H) [81] Oh yes, Alan Charlton.
a (PS63G) [82] Alan Charlton.
[83] Now, with the best will in the world, I stand in front of that sort of painting and I get very little from it.
nl (PS63H) [84] Yes.
a (PS63G) [85] Now, have you got any comment to make about that?
nl (PS63H) [86] O yes.
[87] erm I could lecture you for hours at a time on the subject.
[88] This kind of art's often referred to as minimal art, which helps, you know, like most stables there's a quite way of referring to stuff, and indeed very often this kind of art relates to very simple forms, which just one colour, or perhaps no colour if it's a piece of wood for instance, or a large canvass covered with just one colour, a monochrome canvas — you referred to monochromes earlier.
[89] It started as a movement, that is again the critics that is that again the critics picked it up and made something of it worth discussing in the mid-sixties.
[90] The only short way to help people with this kind of art, I think, is to refer to things like pyramids.
[91] There is a sense in which after much complex art, much elaborate art, much sermonizing art of the sort I was talking about earlier, people sometimes get the urge to simplify things down and in a sense they say let's go back to the five finger exercise, let's see what a note on the piano sounds like instead of playing, you know, Chopin or Stravinsky all the time, let's remind ourselves what the actual note sounds like, or two notes together, or one note and then a gap and then another note, and you suddenly become aware of the richness, in a sense in these very simple elements.
[92] In the case of Alan Charlton, he has these six very fine grey panels, by very fine I just mean they are handsomely proportioned, they are very carefully coloured to a very precise, not just colour but also weight of colour and brightness and so on, but the way they're shown in the Royal Academy Exhibition, and this is part of it's stupidity, is, well I got the feeling it was intended to kill them to stone dead by putting them next to something very loud, very elaborate, very expressionist, a vast canvass by a very good painter by Mutter.
[93] To put these two things together is like forcing people to eat, I don't know, salt and sugar in the same spoonful.
[94] I am not saying which is the salt and which is the sugar — it just is absolutely designed not to produce an intelligent reaction in the spectator.
[95] The only way to show [...] work is to show it either absolutely by itself, in a very plain setting, so that you can notice every detail of how the light falls on it and so on, or to show it with other absolutely minimal works, so again you get this utter simplicity and you become very aware of the space in which the thing is hanging and so on , but there must be a very clear, simple setting, as indeed for new classicism, and I sometimes think that this kind of art is the son or grandson of new classicism, in which incidentally Britain was the leading country.
a (PS63G) [96] So, lastly, where is art going in the future?
[97] Would you care to gaze in your crystal ball?
nl (PS63H) [98] Briefly, no.
[99] I've tried it sometimes, never long enough to know whether I did it successfully or not, but I found there is absolutely no way of telling because even if it changes in a way one can predict, what one can predict is the way oneself changes or the world changes at the same time.
[100] The thing about art is that it isn't just a nostalgic wallowing in things of the past that are comfortable, but art as an adventure, and one just has to go along with it.
a (PS63G) [101] Thank you very much Norbert.
[102] Next week, Michael Hall will be talking about music.
[103] Until next week then, goodnight. [recorded jingle]