Culture / Editor's Own / Interview

“Having Artists is a Social Luxury”: Andrew Graham-Dixon in Conversation

Journalist and broadcaster ANDREW GRAHAM DIXON has wrapped over a hundred one hour films on the History of Art, including the BBC’s Art of Scandinavia in 2016…

Xander Brett

Andrew, we probably know you best for your work down south… your Italy Unpacked series with the chef Giorgio Locatelli for example. What drew you north? And am I right to say you only work in the Mediterranean?

Well, not really! I embarked in 1994 on a series intended to follow on from Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisations series. I proposed a series of national stories. We started in Spain and went on to do programmes on France, Germany, Russia, America and China. I think in all, there are around fourteen national stories. Art of Scandinavia was part of this initiative.

You did a feature on Viking art during your time as a presenter on the The Culture Show. Did you know about Nordic art before you filmed Art of Scandinavia?

A certain amount, yes. I was interested in Scandinavian architecture, and in the history of Denmark and Norway. They’re interesting places to film in, because their weather is so extreme. Like Russia, they’ve been on the edge of things, but they’ve had an impact that outweighs their population… like so many small countries, such as Holland or Great Britain.

It’s interesting you mention Great Britain and Holland together. We have many things in common with the Dutch. Most importantly, we’re both Protestant, like the Scandinavians. Has this manifested itself in our art?

The impact of the Reformation has been strong in both places. Like any major cultural movement, it has massively different effects in different places. Cultures are like viruses: they mutate. I find the effect of nationhood on art fascinating. In the case of Germany, the acquisition of nationhood was traumatic: firstly for them, then for everyone else.

In Art of Scandinavia, each country has their own episode. Too often, we lump Scandinavia together into one ‘unified’ entity. Are there any artistic similarities, however?

Denmark and Sweden had the best relationship because they both had empires. Norway has always been a bit apart, because for much of its history it was very backward. The idea of having artists is a social luxury, so when Norway started to have artists there was a sense of mission. The Danes and the Swedes have tended to be slightly more cosmopolitan.

Your documentaries differ from other Art History programmes because you talk about architecture and design, as well as just painting. What are the roots of Nordic architecture?

Well it all begins with those magnificent stave churches of the Vikings. The carpentry techniques were transferred to making ships. They actually flat pack – with hints of IKEA perhaps – old buildings to a park outside Oslo. I think these techniques are apparent in modern American architecture now too, following waves of Scandinavian immigration to North America in the 1920s and 30s.

What were your experiences of Nordic egalitarianism in architecture?

Scandinavia was already a bit more open, and they had social support systems to build on. Sweden built a nation-state through housing and, in Norway, the welfare state was built on the weather. When there’s a welfare issue in the Norwegian climate it’s not a problem, it’s an emergency. The climate theory of nationhood is utterly discredited in modern terms, but I think it still has something to commend it. You can see it in Norway’s oil management. They saved up so well they now have something like 300,000 NOK (£25,000) of income per year for every person in the country.

Andrew, finally, I’m very interested in the production process for a series like this. Who comes up with the idea, how long does it take to film, and do you stick around for post-production?

It’s done as teamwork. I propose a series and choose the producers for each episode. Each producer knows their programme better than me, but I know the arc of the overall series. We all do a lot of reading, thinking and travelling, and we shoot the series in about nine days.

ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON is a journalist and broadcaster. To order a DVD of Sweden’s episode of Art of Scandinavia, follow a link to his website.

For the latest Nordic news, follow @FikaOnlineBlog on Twitter.

This article is a Fika Online exclusive.

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