“It’s late on a Parisian evening in 1882. The newly opened Folies-Bergère is busy. Here up on the first floor gallery, the mirrored bars are dazzling with lights for the trapeze performers flying about the main auditorium. Make your way through the jostling crowd, some watching the show, many others chatting, drinking and being seen, and you find one of the newly permitted female bartenders is free. You think you’ve caught her eye amidst the frivolity going on around her. Or have you? She’s certainly caught your attention even though she’s not really looking at you. It’s those eyes. And those eyes belong to the girl at the bar of the Folies-Bergère here on one of the walls of the Courtauld gallery in the heart of London. And you can find it by typing the title of the painting into your internet search engine. Type in Bar at the Folies-Bergère”
And so begins the first in BBC Radio Four’s new series Decoding the Masterworks, which yesterday featured an in-depth examination of Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bèrgere’.
Presented by art historian Dr Janina Ramirez, along with various other experts, the three-part series ‘examines famous and familiar works of art in minute detail’ to ‘provide context, biographical background and artistic insight’ and ‘decode these masterworks for today’s audience’.
Recorded on location and complete with the sound of reverberating footsteps and voices echoing across the open space, on closing your eyes it isn’t too hard to imagine yourself right there at the Courtauld gallery.
Indeed, the commentary the programme provides might put you in mind of those audio guides that are often given out at tourist traps around the country, and no doubt leave a number of disgruntled human tour guides out of work.
But of course, just like walking around a gallery with your eyes closed, you cannot see a painting through radio anymore than you can listen to an opera through a newspaper.
It would seem inherently obvious that the visual arts are a particularly tricky subject to present through the medium of sound. Often when the visual arts are featured on radio it is in the form of interviews with the artists themselves or the human-interest stories that surround the work and its creation. Rarely is the aesthetic analysis of a piece the primary focus.
But could the Internet be changing this?
It seems that the Internet is the new Radio Times in terms of providing material to accompany radio broadcasts. Where once the listener would sit at home listening to football commentary while referring to their numbered pitch diagram to follow the action, we are now directed online for supplementary visual content to accompany broadcasts.
For those listening to Decoding the Masterworks online, in the text description box below the programme iPlayer radio helpfully informs you that:
The use of the Internet as a platform for visual content in radio broadcasting may indeed be expanding radio’s coverage of the visual arts in a variety of different ways. But at what point does such additional content become necessary rather than just supplementary?
There seems to be an assumption that most listeners tuning in to Decoding the Masterworks are already quite familiar with the pieces being discussed. As Ramirez states towards the beginning of the programme:
“Even if you can’t get to your computer or tablet at the moment, you probably know this image. It’s ubiquitous; you find it on biscuit tins, t-shirts, posters…”
However, the ‘minute details’ of the paintings being examined are surely far beyond the capability of even the most photographic of memories. So is the Manet aficionado who is listening while driving to work still being left in the dark?
Indeed, when it comes to aesthetic analysis in the visual arts, it could perhaps be argued that in many ways it is not the image that supplements the radio broadcast, but in fact the radio broadcast that supplements the image.