Tag Archives: 2010s

The People’s Portrait: Capturing Human Experience on Television and Canvas

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The People’s Portrait follows the story of Falklands War veteran Simon Weston as he becomes the first person voted for by the public to be painted for the National Portrait Gallery. Chosen by viewers of The One Show, Weston is painted by esteemed artist Nicky Philipps, who is perhaps best known for her portraits of the royal family.

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The main focus of the programme is Weston’s recovery from the serious injuries he suffered during the Falklands War. His story captures popular narratives that resonate both on a societal and individual level: overcoming adversity, courage, loss and triumph. As such, Weston is portrayed as the archetypal war hero. This image is brought to life by clips taken from a documentary Weston was involved in at the time of his injuries and rehabilitation. The audience is not just being told the story; they are witnessing the unfolding of events on screen in scenes that are often distressing and emotional.

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The finished portrait is a representation of this narrative. Throughout the programme it is clear that Philipps’ task is to capture this human experience on canvas. However, in contrast to Sky’s Portrait Artist of the Year, which follows a relatively unknown artist as he paints author Hilary Mantel, Philipps is already an established artist who is respected within the art world. The ‘reveal’ of the painting at the end of the programme is not to the audience. We see the finished piece before it is unveiled at the gallery. Our anticipation is on Weston’s reaction to the piece, which he does not see prior to the unveiling. We are not being placed in a position to critique Philipps’ piece, but rather witness Weston’s reaction as the figure of ‘the war hero’ that has been built up throughout the programme is reflected back at him.

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The outcome of both the portrait itself and the documentary surrounding it serve similar ends. Both represent Weston’s story, capturing the narrative in a form that aims to provoke a strong emotional reaction from those who see it. However, whereas one piece moves through time and space; telling as well as showing, the other captures a single moment in time; static and silent. The process of painting the piece is portrayed as an emotional journey of understanding the subject, resulting in the nature of art being represented in the romantic sense of capturing human experience and universal truth.

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Although there’s a sense that some would write The People’s Portrait off as more of a human-interest piece than an arts programme, I would argue that the two categories are in no way mutually exclusive. At their core, the arts engage us in shared human experience, expressing our very nature of being. I would suggest that perhaps there should be more arts programming that engages with the audience in this highly emotive way, provoking us to feel the art being presented on screen, rather than just witness it. Encouraging us to engage with it on an individual level, as opposed to just understanding it within a wider cultural and economic context.

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Good Swan, Bad Swan: Dancing Swan Lake

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World-famous ballerina and artistic director of English National Ballet, Tamara Rojo, invites the viewer backstage as she prepares to take on the dual lead in the iconic ballet Swan Lake.

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As part of BBC Two and BBC Four’s Ballet Season, Good Swan, Bad Swan: Dancing Swan Lake presents a candid account of the challenges Rojo faces in terms of the performance of the two contrasting characters she will be playing.

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In contrast to Dancing in the Blitz, a previous programme from the Ballet Season, Good Swan, Bad Swan centres around interpreting the performance of the piece itself, as opposed to examining its social impact from within a wider cultural context.  Furthermore, the purpose of the programme is not to provide an introduction to Swan Lake, but to provide a deeper understanding and analysis of the main themes and symbolism within the story. Descriptions of the story within the programme provide the context for a deeper interpretation of the characters within the piece. As such, it seems apparent that the programme is aimed at an audience of those already somewhat familiar with ballet and ‘high culture’ in a general sense.

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The story of Swan Lake provides a linear narrative in which to place this analysis, starting from the moment the character of the White Swan, Odette is introduced. Between clips of the performance itself, we see Rojo in rehearsal studios and in her dressing room discussing the nature of the character and how this is represented within the performance.

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In one sequence Rojo is rehearsing a scene while talking the viewer through what each movement symbolises. Rojo is essentially teaching the viewer how to read each movement of the performance, providing them with the tools to interpret the subtle meanings of the piece.

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Although, of course, Rojo did not create Swan Lake, her interpretation of the piece is still one that carries a sense of validity and substance. As opposed to the analysis of say, an expert in the field who has seen Swan Lake numerous times and read countless books on the topic, the perspective of the performer provides a valuable insight into the process of creating the work itself. Through their performance, the work is recreated again and again.

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Good Swan, Bad Swan essentially presents a character study through the narrative of Rojo preparing to undertake the dual lead in Swan Lake. The programme is less about Rojo’s role as a performer, and more about understanding themes and symbolism surrounding the key characters within the piece.

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Programmes like Good Swan, Bad Swan demonstrate how television can compliment the arts by creating more informed audiences. However, I am hesitant to suggest that programmes such as this make the arts more accessible to a wider range of people. There is still the sense that these programmes are primarily targeted at those who are already familiar with ballet, and ‘high culture’ in general. So whilst they serve to nurture such audiences, they do little to contribute to expanding them.

Dancing in the Blitz: Telling the Story of British Ballet

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As part of the BBC’s Ballet Season, David Bintley, director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, explores how the British public came to embrace ballet during the Second World War in Dancing in the Blitz: How World War 2 Made British Ballet.

As would be expected from a programme that focuses on events which happened during World War II, there is a strong focus on British national identity. The programme invokes the ‘Blitz spirit’ narrative of persevering in times of hardship and adversity to provide a social context for charting the development of British ballet.

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The programme’s focus is primarily on the ballet performers and other individuals involved in the company, rather than the art of the performance itself. This, along with historic context of the Second World War, makes the programme accessible to audiences who may not be overly familiar with ballet. The programme’s focus on the social context in which British ballet developed provides a framework of understanding that is accessible to a greater number of people than that of an artistic analysis of the movement.

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The programme uses a lot of archive footage and images to illustrate Bintley’s narration and the personal accounts of the performers. This footage is interlaced between shots of Bintley providing pieces to camera at the locations featured in the archive images.

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This juxtaposition between the past and the present is also used in studio footage in which dancers perform in front of projected images to create a sense of visually connecting the historic and the contemporary.

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This link between the historic and contemporary is most markedly represented within the opening shots of Bintley walking past what appears to be World War II re-enactment soldiers. A sequence that sets the tone for what will be a journey through history that combines the images of the past with the storytelling of the present.

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At the beginning of the programme, Bintley states that he is setting out to tell the ‘story’ of British Ballet. The process of creating the narrative for this story is represented and constructed on screen. We see Bintley go to talk to various experts and historians within the field and visit ballet performers to gather first hand accounts of their experiences. In this regard, the story being told is one that is also being actively made throughout the programme by these discoveries and recollections being put together.

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The linear nature of historical accounts is one that lends itself well to this idea of storytelling, but within stories there is also usually a sense of drama and suspense. Something to keep the reader reading, and in this case, the viewer watching.

To create this sense of drama, certain parts of the historic account are emphasised within the narrative. An account in which the Ballet Company are in Holland at the time of the Nazi invasion is given a lot of attention in particular. A member of the Ballet Company gives a personal account of the events that occurred, providing an emotive dimension to the narrative. Archive footage is also interlaced between shots of Bintley at various locations described within the accounts, providing juxtaposition between the historical images and the contemporary recollections of the events.

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Dancing in the Blitz combines archive footage and storytelling to create a historic account that is entertaining and accessible to a wide audience. Even without any previous knowledge of the artistic merits of ballet, viewers are able to feel engaged with the personal accounts presented and the familiar narrative of wartime Britain. The multitude of archive clips and images used also creates a visually appealing experience that illustrates this narrative. Despite these elements, the programme is still seemingly marketed at niche audiences with its 9pm slot on BBC Four, where it must battle for attention with other prime time programmes on the more mainstream channels.

Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Televisual Surrealism

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Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry is a two-part series presented by writer Jonathan Meades. Through the course of the two programmes, Meades presents a rationale for the artistic and architectural merit of 20th century concrete Brutalist architecture.

Meades’ narration throughout is continuous and the speed at which the information is given can be rather overwhelming for those not familiar with the history of this architectural movement. This combined with the somewhat monotonic nature of the Meades’ mode of address demands that the audience pay full attention to the words being spoken in order to make sense of the audio-visual essay presented throughout the programmes.

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This notion of the audio-visual essay is reinforced by what could be described as ‘subheadings’ being displayed on the screen to introduce and group together each point of Meades’ argument.

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The programme features the typical on location shots of the presenter standing in front of concrete buildings, and stock footage and images of Brutalist architecture. Black and white images of concrete structures also feature at various points throughout the programmes, a stylistic choice that mirrors the nature of the architecture being discussed.

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However, interlaced between these more conventional shots is studio footage that takes a more bizarre stylistic approach.

 In many of the studio shots Meades is shrouded in darkness, standing next to images being projected on a screen. The use of shadow in such shots creates a somewhat film noir vibe.

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Continuing with this cinematic theme, there are various dreamlike scenes throughout the programme similar in style to that of avant-garde and surrealist cinema. Indeed, a number of shots would not look too out of place within a David Lynch film.

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Post-production editing is used to create scenes that disrupt the audiences’ perception of viewing ‘reality’ through the television. In one scene Meades stands in a room facing himself to illustrate a particular point about outward appearances.

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A number of shots have also been edited in post-production to create scenes in which Meades is superimposed upon other images, creating compositions that are striking in their irregularity.

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These superimposed images often feature Meades as semi-transparent, creating a ghost-like visual effect of not quite being there. Even more disconcerting is that Meades is often still and silent in these transparent images while his audio narration continues.

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Even some of the on-location filming breaks the usual conventions of the pundit style. Shots of Meades stood still and silent are accompanied by his narration, creating a discrepancy between what we see on screen and what we hear.

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Television’s mediation of reality is often something that is hidden from audiences. We do not usually see the cameras, studios, production crews and so on that construct what we view on screen. The surrealist approach to programming displayed by Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness demonstrates how arts programming can be experimental in regards to how reality is presented on screen. The dreamlike scenes juxtaposed between more conventional shots draw attention not only to the ways in which television mediates a view of the world, but also how our own senses construct our everyday lived experience of reality.

Fake or Fortune?: Arts Crime Drama

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Fake or Fortune? seeks out missing masterpieces of art using ‘cutting edge science and investigative research’ to distinguish the originals from the convincing fakes. As the title suggests, the programme focuses on the monetary value of art, with this value being a product of an original painting’s unique authenticity. Any discussion around the artist themselves, or the style of art is always a means to gather evidence to determine the authenticity of a piece, rather than to judge and appreciate its aesthetic value. In this regard, aesthetics take a backseat to monetary value and the art becomes an object that is defined through its authenticity.

Along with its Sunday evening 6pm slot on BBC 1, the familiar face of news presenter Fiona Bruce is an attempt to appeal to more mainstream audiences. The focus on monetary value, as opposed to aesthetic critique also goes some way to separate it from the niche category of other arts based programming, as viewers are able to understand and feel engaged with the series even if they do not possess a vast amount of knowledge around the works and artists being featured.

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The form of the programme really sets it apart from the majority of traditional arts programming, and again, gears it more toward a mainstream audience. Both the stylistic themes and narratives throughout the series are reminiscent of a detective or crime drama. To begin, the overall concept lends itself to this genre with the mystery of “is it real, or fake?” thread throughout each programme.

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To answer this question, clues and evidence are gathered to determine the painting’s authenticity. Fiona Bruce travels to various locations to talk to experts within the field who analyse the style of the painting, and others who examine legal documents and letters to track when and where the painting was sold. The painting is also analysed by a number of scientific methods, in which elements such as the paint can be traced back to the date it was used. Throughout the programme graphics are used illustrate this scientific analysis of paintings, reinforcing the idea of looking beyond the aesthetic qualities.

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This physical ‘dissection’ of artwork is a stark contrast to the way we are accustomed to seeing great paintings hanging in a gallery, even if that gallery is on our television screens. The viewer is no longer experiencing the aesthetic effects one feels when viewing a painting, but is interpreting its physical properties.

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The music used throughout the series is also evocative of the crime-drama genre. It comes in during key moments throughout the programme to build tension and create a sense of suspense.

Controversy arose when a Chagall painting the programme discovered to be fake was to be destroyed under French law. The destruction of ‘fake’ reproduced paintings protects the authenticity of the original while ensuring that any reproductions may not be sold under false pretence. The controversy surrounding whether the fake Chagall should be burned raises questions not just around issues of authenticity and ownership, but also reproduction.

The irony when watching Fake or Fortune? is that television itself is a form of reproduction. When exploring arts broadcasting it is interesting to consider if the cultural value that is embedded within a piece of original art changes, or even decreases, in a mediated world in which these images are freely transmitted. Great paintings are now available in millions of homes around the country, even if they are not hanging on the walls.

Rococo: Travel, Pleasure, Madness

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Rococo: Travel, Pleasure Madness is a three part series presented by art critic, and former Head of Arts for Channel 4, Waldemar Januszczak. The series focuses on the social context in which the art of this historic period was produced, with little discussion around artistic techniques or critique of the style. Rather, Januszczak sets out to provide an understanding of this artistic movement beyond the aesthetic value of the works produced in order to enlightened the viewer with the rococo’s ‘wider achievements’ beyond the ‘pink frilliness’ that has come to define the era.

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The series is shot entirely on location. The audience is given the sense that they are going on a pilgrimage to gain a deeper understanding of the art produced during this period that is informed by experiencing it in its original context.

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When artworks and galleries are shown, they often feature other people wandering around, observing the paintings to reinforce the sense of first-hand experience and physical presence.

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This sense of presence is also furthered by the use of handheld camera shots following either just behind or beside Januszczak as he walks and talks. This, along with Januszczak’s informal style of address, gives the impression that you are accompanying him on this journey to discover the deeper meaning behind the art of the rococo. Rather than the presenter being portrayed as an authority figure in the style of Civilisation or Ways of Seeing, Januszczak acts as a travelling companion, or at most, a rather over-enthusiastic tour guide.

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Throughout the series there are instances of people in period costume acting out scenes to illustrate Januszczak’s discussion. During these scenes the camera is positioned to capture Januszczak watching the drama unfold with us. This combination of the contemporary and historical throughout the series gives the impression that the viewer is being taking taken on a journey through time as well as geographical space, emphasising the importance of situating art within a historical context.

Most strikingly, there are also points within the programme where actors dramatise scenes from paintings:

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Such scenes demonstrate how through the medium of television art can be brought to life in a way that transforms how we relate to it. It is no longer a static image of a past moment; it has become a contemporary moving image that has the ability to capture a range of moments and emotions that can alter and distort the meaning of the original piece.

However, with the strong focus social context, you sometimes get the impression that the art featured is merely a backdrop for extensive accounts of particular popular figures or cultural trends from the rococo period. Rather than an analysis of artistic methods, viewers are given the contextual knowledge to interpret the art at a deeper level and understand the moments that have been immortalised within the pieces. This, along with Januszczak narration with its multi-textual references throughout, suggests that this programme is aimed at an audience that possesses a certain level of education and understanding in regards to ‘high-culture’. This imagined audience is also evident in the scheduling of the programme. Being broadcast at 9pm on BBC 4 puts the series in competition with primetime shows on the more mainstream channels such as BBC One, ITV and Channel 4, creating an alternative choice for viewers interested in more niche programming.