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Art history explosion on BBC Four: Renaissance Unchained and Botticelli’s Venus

ByLeonora Rae

Mar 11, 2016

Really excellent art history documentaries are few and far between. Equally, attention spans are not what they used to be. Last Tuesday we were given an art history overload when the BBC aired two shows consecutively.

For the first hour, much-loved art critic Waldemar Januszczak led us on a rather bizarre journey in the first of his four episodes for new series Renaissance Unchained.

If you are familiar with Richard Ayoade’s glorious Travel Man you will know that only a man of such awkward brilliancy can pull off a tattered, vintage suitcase.

Januszczak, on the other hand, clung to the object with considerably less grace, using it as a prop to store his terrifying taxidermy. At one moment, in reference to Jan van Eyck’s undisputedly famous Arnolfini Portrait, he reached into the old case to reveal a stuffed squirrel, something he had no doubt acquired post-customs.

Although Januszczak’s comical presenting technique appeals to the masses, his clunky gestures and Jeremy Clarkson-esque inclination deter a total immersion in the incredible works being shown.

This can be highly frustrating. His second episode, strangely titled ‘Whips, Deaths and Madonnas’, was much the same, despite the apparent rise in viewer figures.

Following Januszczak’s hour-long episode was a gripping 30-minute documentary on artist Sandro Botticelli, presented by Samantha Roddick, founder of erotic emporium Coco de Mer. Although opening with the same archetypal shot of Florence, Botticelli’s Venus: The Making of an Icon was gripping from the get go.

With additional input from art critics Nancy Durrant and Jonathan Jones, Roddick sought to discover the mystery behind the Renaissance enchantress, Venus, the most joyful celebration of female sexuality.

Roddick’s calmer, more thought-provoking approach to viewing art was most refreshing following Januszczak’s somewhat tiresome gallivanting.

Despite the ill-advised air times, it is immensely encouraging to see that art documentaries are in high demand and, although somewhat questionable in their methods, are presented by such knowledgeable, enthusiastic individuals.

Image: Jiuguang Wang

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