Sunday, 5 February 2012

bbc english #4: making an impression

It’s official. The BBC is now employing kindergarten pupils to write up its ‘soft’ news stories. I am, of course, being facetious, although I do question how the author of the latest badly written article on the BBC website came to be employed by the corporation in the first place. The subject matter is interesting enough—the artist-in-residence for London’s Olympic Delivery Authority has produced a photograph that mirrors a well-known painting by the nineteenth-century French artist Georges Seurat, his Bathers at Asnières—but the quality of the writing is extremely poor. The following sentence is probably the worst:
Georges Seurat’s famous painting, which is housed in London’s National Gallery, is a famous 19th Century impressionist masterpiece.
Seurat, Bathers at Asnières [National Gallery, London].

There are six points that I would make about this sentence. The first, and most obvious, is the redundancy: we don’t need to be told twice that the painting is famous. In fact, we probably shouldn’t be told once, because it is highly questionable whether this painting is famous, if we define ‘famous’ as being recognizable by someone with no knowledge of art or art history. By this definition, there is only one painting that can unequivocally be described as ‘famous’: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Of course, there are paintings that are well known, at least to a local audience, such as Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire or Constable’s The Hay Wain, both of which also hang in the National Gallery and which, as prints, are often found adorning English living room walls. In a poll of listeners to Radio 4’s Today programme in 2005 to find the ‘greatest’ painting hanging in a British gallery, these paintings came first and second, respectively, which perhaps reflects nationalistic values, or a sense of relief that England has produced the occasional world-class artist. Seurat’s Bathers came nowhere.

Turner, The Fighting Temeraire [National Gallery, London].

Constable, The Hay Wain [National Gallery, London].

My next three points relate to the compound modifier ‘19th Century’: (1) while there is no sense in which it is incorrect, stylistically ‘19th’ is more appropriate to a text message than to a journalistic article (I would spell it out); (2) the hyphen seems almost to have disappeared from low-level English writing, which I attribute to ignorance of its value, given that in this case it would serve to distinguish the adjectival use in this example from the (unhyphenated) noun phrase; (3) although there are established rules for when to use an initial capital, such as to begin a sentence, for abbreviations, and for the initial letters of people’s and countries’ names, I discovered as a book editor that there was a huge grey area where people appeared to be making up their own rules based on what they considered important. However, there is no justification for capitalizing ‘century’, which is merely a designated period of one hundred years and is in no sense what used to be called a ‘proper’ noun.

Then there is the labelling of Bathers as ‘impressionist’. It is true that, like many of the impressionist works being produced around the same time, this painting was rejected by the jury for the Salon, the annual official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. And it is also the case that Seurat was a founder member of the avant-garde reaction to these rejections, the Société des Artistes Indépendants, but Seurat’s painting technique had nothing in common with the bold brushwork and apparently unfinished quality of a typical impressionist painting. On the contrary, he was influenced by quasi-scientific theories of colour perception that were popular at the time, which led him to develop a technique that became known as ‘pointillism’, the painting next to each other of small dots of complementary colours across an entire canvas. It is a technique that requires a considerable amount of meticulous work, and ‘meticulous’ is not an obvious adjective to use when describing impressionism. Perhaps the only quality that Seurat shared with quintessential impressionists such as Cezanne and Monet was that he didn’t paint like Poussin or Delacroix, which was probably the criterion on which rejection for the Salon was based.

Having raised the spectre of errant capitalization above, it is with some hesitation that I pose the following question: should the names of art movements be capitalized, which is done by many writers? I take a generally minimalist line on the subject of initial capitals, but the question is more awkward than it may appear. I have no problems with ‘cubism’ or ‘abstract expressionism’, because it is clear that art movements are being referred to, but what about ‘symbolism’? In addition to being an art movement, it is also an ordinary word. Reluctantly, I would therefore have to concede that initial capitals are required for art movements, which also covers the distinction between the Romantic movement in music and literature at the beginning of the nineteenth century and the altogether more mundane notion of romantic love.

Finally, I challenge the notion that Bathers is a ‘masterpiece’. The mediaeval craft guilds of Europe had apprentices, journeymen and masters, and in this context a masterpiece was the piece of work produced by a journeyman to demonstrate that he was ready to graduate to the rank of master. By definition, there was only one masterpiece. Of course, definitions change, but I think it is useful to retain the notion of singularity. And most art critics agree that Seurat’s masterpiece is not Bathers but A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte. However, I’m still not satisfied. After more than a century of modernism in art, no one believes that the human form need be portrayed realistically, but pointillism does not lend itself to a sympathetic rendition. Because the juxtaposition of complementary colours means that those colours are mixed in the eye of the observer rather than by the artist on a palette, the surface of such a painting has a luminosity that can be put to better use. The technique works more effectively in landscape painting. I contend, therefore, that Seurat’s masterpiece, painted in the last year of his life, is Port of Gravelines Channel.

Seurat, Port of Gravelines Channel [Indianpolis Museum of Art].

This painting captures perfectly the hazy light that is so typical of flat coastal regions in temperate latitudes, and what I think is striking is the exquisite rhythms and symmetry of the repeating motifs. And, before I forget, as an editor, this is how I would have altered the original sentence:
Georges Seurat’s painting, which hangs in London’s National Gallery, is a well-known example of nineteenth-century post-Impressionism.
There is a postscript to this story. When I first read the offending sentence, I copied it into a Notepad file for future reference. The following day, I was unable to find a link to the article anywhere on the BBC website, leading me to speculate that it had been pulled by someone who was as appalled as I was about its quality. However, I tracked it down by pasting the sentence into Google. What really surprised me when I ran the search was that this sentence, complete with errors, had also appeared on twenty-five other sites, all of which, presumably, have no system of quality control.

other posts in this series
1. BBC English.
2. Grand Slam.
3. More or Less.
5. Explaining Science.

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