Andrew Graham-Dixon is one of Britain’s best-known art historians. Having hosted countless series and documentaries, his most recent adventures include Italy Unpacked with chef Giorgio Locatelli and the not-long-finished BBC4 series, Art, Passion & Power: The Story of the Royal Collection.
That’s a fairly standard blurb, but Andrew is not a standard man. For a start, he has led the charge in bringing to life what an art historian truly is: a critic, a historian, a cultural studies expert, an archivist and an invigorated interpreter of visual meaning.
He’s also not your standard speaker. Opening quite simply with, “right, I’m going to talk about some art, because that’s what I do”, you knew there would be no waffle and fluff with Andrew at this evening at the North Wall.
I had been a little fuzzy on what to expect from this talk in the ‘Inspiring People’ series put on by the North Wall and St Edward’s School. After over an hour spent listening to Andrew Graham-Dixon, however, it became glaringly obvious what this was: a rare opportunity to simply listen to someone talk about the thing they love most, which in turn makes them inevitably inspiring.
The premise of Andrew’s talk was simple: that by knowing more about the context in which a painting was created, we learn much more about what we see in the painting itself. Dismissing the standard museum labels, Andrew instead took us on international and cross-century journeys to reveal the hinterland behind five great works.
Patrick Caulfield’s 'Fish and Sandwich' gave us an entertaining insight into the Government Art Committee and the diplomacy of painted ham in Riyadh; Caravaggio’s 'The Beheading of John the Baptist' gave us violence, politics and Christian terrorists in Renaissance Europe; Turner’s watercolour of 'The Burning of the Houses of Parliament' gave us the quite eye-opening idea that objects are not real, rather light is what exists and is eternal.
Continuing, somehow, from that bombshell we moved on to Jasper Johns and his silenced cries in 1950s America, finally ending on Giovanni Bellini’s 'The Resurrection' and the soon-to-be-rutting bunnies hopping below the risen saviour.
This was a genuinely captivating and unpompous talk about art by a man who not only knows his stuff but also is willing to tell it all, warts and all. In doing so, he breathed new life into the art that we otherwise only scratch the surface of when we look but don't learn.