Oil on canvas, pixels on laptop

Digital media have changed the way we experience film and pop music, but can they do the same for painting? Robert Hughes, the art critic who presented The Shock of the New in 1980, has written of “the tyranny of the unseen masterpiece”, memorably if incoherently adding that “reproduction is to aesthetic awareness what telephone sex is to sex”.

But sometimes reproduction is the only option, and in any case, the museum experience isn’t always a transcendent one. When the academic TJ Clark wrote, in his book The Sight of Death, about the ideal circumstances in which he viewed two paintings by Poussin during a stint at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, he was describing a situation that most of his readers will never have. His access overlapped with that of ordinary art lovers only when one of the paintings was sent back to the National Gallery, and he looked at it, “miserable and stupefied ... listening to the songs played by the cellphones”.

It is important not to exaggerate the virtues of reproduction, or to treat digital data as an alternative to what Hughes called “the seen and fully experienced masterpiece”. But the fact remains that painting leads a vigorous small-screen life, and one that, even if it cannot replace or replicate direct experience, isn’t always inimical to aesthetic awareness.

Waldemar Januszczak’s latest series, The Impressionists (BBC2 Saturdays), sets out to remind viewers that impressionism, now seen as pretty and genteel, represented a violent break from the academic painting of the mid-19th century. Januszczak’s presenting style takes a little getting used to. He appears to have a mild case of Clarksonitis; over-pronouncing words as if he didn’t believe them, he seemed constantly on the verge of saying “Phwoar!” Januszczak is capable of describing Renoir’s “feathery, flickery and decadent touch” but he is more often to be found doing damn foolish things in the name of reconstruction, asking sublunary questions (“How adventurous is that?”), and making blokeishly down-to-earth observations: “You know what the French are like about bread.”

As the presenter of Manet: The Man Who Invented Modern Art two years ago, Januszczak might have explained that while Manet refused to show in the impressionist exhibitions, he is nevertheless linked to the movement; instead, he chose to leave him out altogether. Otherwise, he was authoritative on the art-history front, describing changes in paint, brushes and easels, and their effect on paintings by Pissarro, Renoir, Monet and Frédéric Bazille. (Januszczak’s website www.zczfilms.com, where you can buy his previous documentaries, carries some images and interviews.)

The documentary on a movement or period makes for a more varied – ie less tedious – viewing experience than the documentary on a person or event. And in British Masters (BBC4 Mondays), another series showing as part of the BBC’s “Art Revealed” season, the excellent new presenter James Fox provided a resonant portrait of a group – though not a coterie – of interwar British painters including Stanley Spencer, William Coldstream and John Piper. Fox’s programme, structured as a series of short, almost discrete documentaries on his chosen figures, was just as engaging as Januszczak’s.

Fox’s thesis, in the second of his three programmes, was that British painters between the wars established different visions of England – very different in the cases of, say, the surrealist Paul Nash and the anti-modernist Sir Alfred Munnings. Throughout, Fox exhibited a tendency to use the word “English” as if we are all agreed on its meaning. So John Piper’s Blitz painting “Interior of Coventry Cathedral, 15 November 1940” is like Picasso’s “Guernica” but “so much more English”. But he made a persuasive case for the undervaluation of the painters he discusses. Next week, he moves on to the modern period, whose leading figures – Bacon, Hockney, Freud – suffer no such lack of praise.

The value of critic-presenters like Januszczak and Fox is emphasised by the art apps available on the iPad and iPod. Some can be installed for free but the MoMA and Art in Yorkshire apps are among the few even worth the trouble of downloading. The National Gallery charges £1.99 for its Love Art app but, despite superior production values, it’s not much good. The images, organised according to such themes as “Love”, “Heaven” and, bizarrely, “Life”, are accompanied by perfunctory voiceover descriptions. Music is played – perhaps in place of the singing cellphones? – but we are given no dates or contextual detail.

At the moment, the closest we have to a satisfactory art history app is the BBC’s online project Your Paintings, an attempt (in collaboration with the Public Catalogue Foundation) to make a digital archive of all 200,000 oil paintings currently owned by public collections. So far the site has digitised more than 60,000 paintings, which can be searched by artist, country or gallery. The site’s Guided Tours, from Januszczak, Fox and others, are educative (and music-less). The enterprise may not make laptop art appreciation any more nourishing than usual but it reveals how many masterpieces are, if not right around the corner, then near enough, and not only in galleries containing what TJ Clark calls “kids with squeaking Nikes”. Your Paintings may peddle phone sex – but it’s also a fine advertisement for the real thing.


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