The pleasures and perils of talking about art on the radio

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

‘I like not knowing why I like it,’ declared Fiona Shaw, the actress, about Georgia O’Keeffe’s extraordinary blast of colour, ‘Lake George, Coat and Red’. O’Keeffe was inspired by the lake in upstate New York but there’s no discernible lake on the canvas and no coat, although there is plenty of red. When Shaw is asked to describe the painting for us, her listeners, by Alastair Sooke, the presenter of The Way I See It, she puts her head in her hands. It’s almost like an amateur painting, Shaw concludes, and yet ‘it absolutely isn’t’.

It’s an early work from 1919 when O’Keeffe was 32. At the time she was  experimenting with abstraction, testing its limits, creating a study in pure colour that bears no relation to anything you can necessarily describe. That swirl of black, leading into blue, could be the lake, or is it the coat?

In Radio 3’s big-statement series about art (produced by Paul Kobrak and Tom Alban), 30 ‘leading creative thinkers’ have been asked to choose an artwork in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and to tell us, in just 15 minutes, why they like it and, with the help of a curator or two, to explain how it came into being. Shaw, an ideal choice of guest, has such an incisive mind and powerful choice of words that O’Keeffe’s vision comes to life even though we cannot see it. It’s about something she felt at Lake George, Shaw decides, using paint instead of words. ‘It’s a response to being alive.’

On the surface The Way I See It is a really simple concept but it’s daring and dangerous because talking about art to an audience who can’t see what is holding your attention is so difficult to pull off without sounding pretentious. Surely it would be much safer to leave such programming to TV? On the contrary, it sets a challenge for the guests that enforces a rigid discipline, no flourishing or floundering allowed, while as listeners we have to work at conjuring up the image for ourselves purely through what we have heard about it. The payoff is a recalibration of how we often think about art, channelling us to go deeper, think more carefully.

This week’s Between the Ears (also on 3) was also radio at its best, taking us inside an experience, on this occasion tempting us into Maison Bertaux in the middle of Soho for a cup of coffee and something delicious to eat — a fondant fancy, fruit tart or chocolate éclair. The café has been on Greek Street since 1871, established by an exile from Paris, a Communard forced to flee the French capital because of his political views. They still bake on the premises, which used to be closed on Mondays because fresh cream was not available after the weekend, and the café still provides refuge as much as refreshment, in spite of Soho’s ups and downs through the peep-show years.

The present owner Michele Wade began working at Maison Bertaux as a Saturday girl while acting in a stage play at the Lyric and for years she combined her theatre life with serving tea and cakes. Hannah Dean and Alan Hall’s programme gave us an imagined Madame Bertaux (with suitably seductive French accent) to set the scene. Her memories are interspersed with Wade’s early experiences waiting on tables and comments from her customers, who in the past were often refugees from the Coach and Horses, soaking up alcohol with sweet delights (of various kinds) until the pub reopened for evening service. Jeffrey Bernard, formerly of this magazine, was a favoured customer, everyone smoking like chimneys, the fumes percolating through the meringues. There was always a lot going on, Wade recalled in this evocative programme, ‘nothing to do with selling cakes’.

Gillian Tindall’s book of the week for Radio 4, The Pulse Glass (abridged by Libby Spurrier and produced by Sara Davies), explores the past through objects, using them as talismans for memory, opportunities to explore the huge complexity of the past’s effect on us now. Her thoughts are sparked by the sudden death of her younger brother, leaving behind a train set modelled on the designs for a railway line that was never built. Why go to the bother of painstakingly trying to recreate something that never existed?

She visits the British Library and is privileged to be shown the oldest book in the Western world still to have survived in its original binding. It’s a Latin translation of St John’s Gospel that belonged to St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, copied by a monk in the north-east of England in the 7th century. It was buried with the saint and spent 400 years with him in his coffin, then time with the Jesuits in France and was finally acquired by the library in 2011. Handling it now is like being given a doorway into the past, says Tindall; its presence wipes out centuries. A useful reminder that things carry on pulsing, in spite of superficial turbulence.

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