“The Art of Russia” on BBC TV

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

Eighteen months after an epic series involving a journalist going in search of Russia and the BBC’s at it again. Only this time its Andrew Graham-Dixon’s turn, however, to help viewers understand what Winston Churchill described as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

But like Russia: A Journey with Jonathan Dimbleby, in The Art of Russia Graham-Dixon quotes Fyodor Dostoevsky, reads a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina on a train and sails on the River Neva. Neither would have been commissioned by a Putin-era Pravda. Yet only one journalist reveals the enigma, unwraps the mystery and solves the riddle.

That’s not to say Dimbleby’s five-part, 10,000 mile exploration – or for that matter the History Channel’s four-part, 1000-year documentary Russia: Land of the Tsars – doesn’t break new ground. Rather, it’s Graham-Dixon’s trilogy exploring “how art moved from being a servant of the state to an agent of its destruction” which solves the mysteries of the Russian soul. It’s no exaggeration to say, that, knowing a little bit about Russian art brings to life the culture and personality of the entire country. At least nine authors agree, otherwise they wouldn’t have written about the role of artists as interpreters of society in Russian Art and the West (2007).

The challenge of uniting disparate tribes into one Russian nation would appear to have little to do with art. Not for Graham-Dixon. In the first episode entitled Out of the Forest, he describes how peoples under Ivan the Terrible emerged from their wooden subjugation by the Mongols. In tracing Russian Orthodoxy, he criss-crosses time and space from prehistory to Peter the Great and Prince Vladimir’s recreation of the glories of Byzantium on the soil of Kievan Rus in between.

Graham-Dixon’s sentences are loaded with colourful detail and you certainly get a lot of information for your hour’s viewing. Although why interviews with an icon collector and a family who lived through the Stalin-era were not consigned to the cuttings floor (or, with regard to the latter, shown in episode three), only the writer and presenter can answer. That said the art critic should be applauded for not spouting spasiba (“Thank you”) at every possible turn, like the veteran broadcaster Dimbleby before toasting innumerable shots of vodka.

Our second programme starts where the first finishes: St. Petersburg. Introducing viewers to (what he calls the wife of Peter the Great) “Elizabeth the Great” and Ilya Repin, Graham-Dixon takes us on a journey of royal excess and mass rebellion in Roads to Revolution. Talking about the Royal Commission (dubbed ‘The Hippopotamus’) used to undermine Royal authority, he tells us “Ironically, what had been conceived as a grandiose celebration of the power of the Tsar became a rallying point for those who wanted to overthrown his regime.”

Never has a presenter appeared so authoritative. He’s nothing if not a complete master at work. His tendency to compare historical works with contemporary ones allows even the non-Sovietologist to engage with the (popularist) narrative. His enthusiasm is utterly infectious. This is no more the case than in our third instalment, Smashing the Mould, when he opens “Pandora’s box” and discovers Vladimir Mayakovsky’s and Alexander Rodchenko’s Constructivist post-revolutionary posters portraying a language of social engineering. He’s just as engaging, though, when he lies on the floor of a Moscow Metro station and admires one of “the people’s churches” for all its glory.

Yet, it’s his thesis of the cinema as another form of religion that goes to the heart of the matter. “In the fantasy world of the film set you could create a perfectly edited version of the birth of the Communist state,” Graham-Dixon says. Sergei Eisenstein’s film October is “the Soviet gospel through the lens” and thus, he adds, “a Communist version of the Bible’s book of Genesis.”

Back to the forest, Graham-Dixon takes us from pre- to post-Perestroika art. Dishearteningly, however, given Russia’s resurgent nationalism, he concludes with a reinterpretation of the old Soviet Socialist Realism and a portrait of Putin: what he labels “Communist art with the ideology removed.” Prehistory, history, post-history - whatever the period, we learn that Russian leaders have continually attempted to fuse the many into one using art as a tool. Yet, not all are prepared to conform. What the future may bring is anyone’s guess but Graham-Dixon has just increased the number of those interested.

BBC licence fee payers have been spoiled with a cornucopia of presenter-led documentaries in recent months - each hosted by a distinguished personality, I might add. Given the nature of Graham-Dixon’s opening film, the obvious comparison would be with Diarmaid MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity and, in particular, his third episode Orthodoxy – From Empire to Empire. As authoritative as the Oxford don is, however, his six-part series was a complete waste of BBC funds given Channel Four’s earlier eight-part series Christianity: A History.

This failed commission only underscores Graham-Dixon’s feat and the gamble it was for the BBC to send a journalist to cover the same history only months after an epic production.

comments powered by Disqus