YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Fall Preview / A Guide to the Season in Arts and Entertainment

Sister Wendy Shares Her Faith in Painting on PBS

TV review: Series features a British Carmelite nun bent on turning art back into religion.


Ironic observers once held that our secular society had turned art into a surrogate religion. Then--after the auction boom of the 1980s--they decided art had downgraded itself to luxury merchandise. Now they'll probably be surprised by a new five-hour television series starting Sunday on PBS. Its host is a bona fide, card-carrying British Carmelite nun, Sister Wendy Beckett. She seems to be out to turn art back into religion.

"Sister Wendy's Story of Painting" is a panoramic primer tracing the form from its magical function in the ancient caves of Lascaux to the mordant social subversion of Andy Warhol. Her rapturous evangelism and crisp commentary make the series an infectious introduction for beginners and a nostalgic revival-meeting for the cynical. Nothing this good in the genre has come out of England since Kenneth Clark's "Civilisation" a quarter-century ago.

Unlike the urbane Clark, Sister Wendy brings art the wisdom of a certain innocence. She joined the Sisters of Notre Dame at 16, earned top honors at Oxford University, then--in 1954--returned to her homeland in South Africa to teach. An epileptic, her frail health necessitated a return to England. In 1970 she went into seclusion, living in a trailer in the gardens of a monastery in Norfolk. There she steeped herself in art through postcards, reproductions and voluminous reading. Reading, as it will, led to writing.

Now, 15 published books later, Sister Wendy has also become the darling of British cultural television, a medium she never watched until she was in it. Bespectacled and toothy, this very model of a classic English eccentric still seems delightfully befuddled by it all. But make no mistake, she knows what she's doing. She just doesn't come packaged in the usual pompous obfuscation.

The series, made on location, tracks the development of painting from Egypt through Greece, Rome, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo Europe. It focuses on Romanticism in England and France during political and industrial revolutions that brought painting from Impressionism to such radical modern art rebellions as Cubism and Surrealism. The advent of Abstract Expressionism shifts the scene to New York.

Sister Wendy embraces it all with enthusiasm, intelligence and the conviction that painting embodies all that's most worthwhile in the human spirit, its capacity for both passion and transcendence. Selections never stray far from art's recognized canon. Her list of painting's greatest hits, like everybody else's, includes Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, Leonardo's "Mona Lisa" and Velazquez's "Las Meninas."

What makes her version special is the freshness of commentary literally improvised in front of the camera. Emotionally transparent, she smiles, looks reverent, flaps her hands, occasionally scolds and rarely fails to mine some gem of insight.

She speaks of a noble equestrian procession illuminated in the great French late Medieval manuscript "Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc du Berry." Having noted aristocratic elegance mired in trappings of convention, she points out some barely noticeable peasants swimming naked in a background stream. She asks rhetorically, "Who is really happy, really free?"

At the same time, Sister Wendy believes fervently in encouraging everyone to personal interpretation of even the most sacrosanct art. Clearly she intends to have hers.

She acknowledges the aesthetic greatness of Jacques-Louis David's "The Death of Marat" but holds moral reservations about the painting's function as political propaganda.

Having provided a perfectly clear and respectful explanation of Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Memory," she exits the scene muttering, "horrible painting. . . ."

Sprinkled through the program are wistful references that seem, indeed, personal. Viewing Monet's wrap-around water-lily paintings in Paris, she says, "It's been many years since I've been swimming but these pictures make me feel like I'm underwater." She lyricizes about abstracted undersea scenes by Henri Matisse and Paul Klee.

She's equally sympathetic toward artists who never found marital partners such as Van Gogh or depictions of star-crossed love as found in Botticelli's "Venus and Mars" or Gainsborough's tragi-comic pastoral "Robert Andrews and His Wife." We're reminded of a nun's vow of chastity.

In New York, she speaks vividly of the way Warhol's dead-pan images of Marilyn Monroe subtly expose the lethal quality of modern celebrity. Sighing, she says, "I wish he could have known Princess Di."

Recent events make the remark poignant but underline Sister Wendy's compassion for humankind's endless struggle against its own vulnerability.

Painting used to function as a way of gaining worldly immortality. Today the form is regularly pronounced dead. Sister Wendy ends examining a rather frantic nude self-portrait by Lucien Freud, widely considered Britain's greatest living painter. Admitting that painting is beleaguered, the nun simply will not accept the idea of its demise. She has infectious faith.

* "Sister Wendy's Story of Painting" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28.

Los Angeles Times Articles