Waldemar Januszczak

The Hard Hitting But Entertaining Critic by Geoff Harrison

If you are looking for an art critic who can make art understandable and accessible, then English born Waldemar Januszczak could be your man.  He has an easy, conversational style of presentation that I have always enjoyed.  Often humorous and witty, he is credited with doing for the arts what David Attenborough has done for the natural world.


He began his career as an art critic with the Guardian in the 1980’s before switching to the Sunday Times in 1992.  In 1997 he founded a company called ZCZ Films which has produced over 30 films covering travel, the arts and even dogs.  In his program Puppy Love from 2000, Januszczak takes a swipe at dogs and particularly their owners who he can’t stand.  From the snippet I’ve seen on Youtube, it looks hilarious.

His 2009 series “Baroque! From St Peters to St Pauls” reinvigorated my passion for the arts after a disastrous return to the workforce.  It was dark and brooding in segments, but highly entertaining and informative.  His self-deprecation is something I appreciate yet at the same time his profound knowledge of and passion for art history is clear.

But he has an acerbic tongue, or should that be pen?  His hatred of the Turner Prize is legendary dating all the way back to 1984.  “The British art establishment, having already shown unforgivable ignorance and wickedness in its dealings with Turner's own Bequest to the nation, is now bandying his name about in the hope of giving some spurious historical credibility to a new prize cynically concocted to promote the interest of a small group of dealers, gallery directors and critics.”

One year on and things hadn’t improved, ‘The Turner Prize, like the rot of the Arts Council, the rise of business sponsorship with strings attached, the growing importance of the PR man in art, the mess at the V&A, and the emergence of the ignorant "art consultant" is the direct result of inadequate government support for the arts. Forced out into the business circus, art has had to start clowning around.’  Both quotes are from The Guardian.  Of the 2014 prize Januszczak described it as “yawn-forcingly, heart-crushingly, buttock-clenchingly bad” and urged people not to go.

Unfortunately, Januszczak’s invective has also been directed towards Australian art, in particular the exhibition “Australia” mounted at the Royal Academy in 2013.  The Times seemed impressed with it, describing the exhibition as long overdue.  But over at the Sunday Times, Januszczak disagreed and described it as light weight, provincial and dull.  Yet in his most recent TV series “Big Sky, Big Dreams, Big Art – Made In The USA” he seemed to be championing exactly that kind of art – at least in the snippet I uncovered on the Net.

John Olsen                                                  Sydney Sun

John Olsen Sydney Sun

Januszczak describes McCubbin’s famous Pioneers triptych as “poverty porn” (work that one out), Fred Williams desert landscape as “thick cowpats of minimalism”, and most indigenous art as “tourist tat”.  He reserved his most fierce attack for John Olsen’s Sydney Sun describing as “a cascade of diarrhoea”.   Olsen responded by describing the comments as foolish and an attempt to put the colonials in their place.

Januszczak’s website ZCZ Films includes a shop that, strangely, contains very few of his most recent programs.  The ABC informed me they were frozen out of negotiations to screen his 2016 series The Renaissance Unchained by the BBC agreeing to an exclusive rights deal with Foxtel Arts. One assumes this also applies to his other recent films.  The Renaissance Unchained is still not available on the website.  This tends to make one feel very lonely in OZ, unless one can afford pay-tv.

Rogier Van Der Weyden by Geoff Harrison

Like many artists early in their careers, I was somewhat intimidated by the masters of the past, and in my case they were the Heidelberg School artists of the late 19th century.  But never mind them, what about Rogier Van Der Weyden (about 1399-1464).

Rogier Van Der Weyden                                                                       Descent From The Cross

Rogier Van Der Weyden                                                                       Descent From The Cross

His "Descent From The Cross" (c.1435) measuring approximately 2.6 metres wide is considered one of the masterpieces of the Renaissance.  It is a triumph of draftsmanship, composition and emotion.  The clear, cool colours of the new oil paintings which were just appearing on the scene at this time are another highlight.  I'm not of a religious inclination at all, but I do acknowledge the contribution religion has made to art and architecture.

If you care to look, you will find on Youtube a 5 minute segment from the series "The Renaissance Unchained" hosted by Waldemar Januszczak featuring this painting.  It is a very moving account of a work of genius which was a commission from the Cross Bowman's Guild - hence the shape formed by Christ's body.

The Renaissance - A Fresh Perspective by Geoff Harrison

My favourite art historian/critic Waldemar Januszczak is at it again.  Following on from his excellent series on the Rococo and Baroque, he now turns his attention to the Renaissance in his latest series The Renaissance Unchained.  Given the mountains of material that has trawled through this period of history, you have to wonder what fresh perspective could Januszczak offer.  

He challenges the accepted line put forward by the world's first art historian Giorgio Vasari that the Renaissance began in Italy and that Michelangelo was at its centre.  Januszczak argues that being the first to put pen to paper on these matters meant Vasari's views "could harden quickly into art historical certainties that were passed from generation to generation.  And these weighty certainties were not easy to challenge."   So Januszczak makes a case for the Renaissance having its origins in Flanders and Germany.

Given that the series Rococo was not screened on either the ABC or SBS, I assume the same will apply this time around too.  I am only discovering these series by checking out the BBC4 website - rather sad really.