In this new three-part series on BBC Radio 4, BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz travels the country to meet various art collectors and uncover the stories behind how they came to own various significant pieces within their collections.
Visual Arts on the Radio
The series is based around the concept of removing art from the traditional context of galleries and museums and exploring it within domestic settings. This idea of giving the listener access to paintings that until now were confined to the private sphere of the home seems a rather paradoxical subject for radio. How do we represent the visual arts through the medium of sound alone? Gompertz addresses this issue right at the start of the programme where he encourages the listener to visit the online gallery on the BBC website to view images of the pieces being discussed.
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.
As the title suggests, the series is heavily branded as focusing on national identity and piecing together an “unofficial autobiography of Britain” through exploring how “ordinary” people have obtained artworks of cultural significance. At first this seems to suggest the idea of a shared cultural narrative that hangs on the walls of galleries and museums that is incomplete due to these private collections hidden away from the public eye. But what emerges throughout the programme is a stronger narrative that centres on the diverse attitudes towards art within society represented by the individual collectors and the motivations behind their collections.
The first couple we meet addresses themes around the commodity of art. They note that they have had to borrow money to fund the purchase of many of their paintings and they are primarily focused on verifying the authenticity of pieces in order to sell them at auction.
The next collector draws our attention to the aesthetic value of art. Jonathan, a “well-dressed businessman”, owns a ceramic plate by Picasso. The plate was passed down to him from his father who had met Picasso while on holiday and the artist was apparently drawn to his dismissive attitude towards his work, which was of the view that “any five year old could do it”. Jonathan also recounts that while he was growing up his father kept the plate in a drawer rather than on display because “he thought it was hideous”.
In contrast to the previous two collectors, we are then introduced to a performance artist who seems to take on a far more anthropological approach to her art collection. In between a performance of one of her poems, we hear sound bites of her pointing out various objects that she has obtained while travelling, including maps from Sri Lanka and African drums. She goes on to discuss two paintings hanging on the wall that she was inspired to purchase after being informed of the struggles of women in Ghanaian society.
These somewhat contrasting attitudes towards the visual arts represent a microcosm from which to consider wider societal attitudes towards arts and culture in Britain. By removing the context of institutions such as museums and galleries and situating discussions around art within the domestic setting of the home, there is a far more personal approach to the interpretation and narrative history of art that captures the diverse and dynamic nature of how the arts and culture are constituted within society.