TV UK, 16 September

Self Portraits: from Dürer to Opie.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

In Self Portraits (Channel 4, Saturdays at 7pm), Matthew Collings looks at the history of the self-portrait and its place in art. An in his usual deceptively whimsical style, he makes a lot more of the subject than you might think.

In the opening episode, Collings looked at how the emergence of the self-portrait during the Renaissance expressed what he styled as the official ideology of Italy at the time, humanism. Artists would paint themselves along with their patrons into religious scenes, bringing together the divine and the human in a radically new worldview. But it was the German Albrecht Dürer who produced the most striking self-portrait of the time, presenting himself unmistakably as Jesus Christ (as he had been portrayed in religious art), thus highlighting the peculiar relationship between religion, art, and artists.

In the same episode, Collings documented contemporary artist Julian Opie’s fascinating attempt to capture in a digital cartoon the confidence-boosting smile he gives himself in the bathroom at parties. It’s not immediately obvious what official ideology that expresses, or what conception of what it means to be human, but it will be interesting to see whether Collings is able to shed any light on this in subsequent episodes.

Space Race (BBC2, Wednesdays at 9pm) uses dramatic reconstruction to document another historical period of frenzied creativity, and again causes us to look at our own time and ask difficult questions. The future is not what it was. The opening episode, however, was focused on how the postwar space race emerged from the war itself, with the first race being a very literal one between the Americans and the Soviets to get to the site where the Nazis had been developing the V2 rocket. The Americans won that race, and recruited rocket scientist and SS colonel Wernher von Braun. In this telling, both von Braun and his Soviet counterpart Sergei Korolev had dreams of reaching for the stars, and had to struggle with military handlers who were more interested in delivering nuclear packages across continents.

In next week’s episode, Korolev gets the upper hand after convincing a jovial Nikita Kruschev to let him work on a satellite programme, while von Braun faces scrutiny into his Nazi past. Entertaining as this is – the bullish, vodka-swilling Russians are always good value – the dramatic reconstructions are as frustrating as ever, making it hard to know what to credit and what to dismiss as embellishment. What appears to be archive footage is mixed up with the drama, with only occasional sources, such as Korolev’s letters to his wife, mentioned explicitly.

The series is the first ever co-production between Russian and US TV companies, under BBC editorial control, which perhaps explains the presence of British soldiers as well as Americans and Russians in the opening episode. With neither power now capable of mounting a serious space programme, however, the whole thing has a rather wistful quality. We are reminded how firmly rooted the space race was in the Cold War, but also how the ambition of those involved transcended it. Whatever ‘official ideology’ has replaced those of the Cold War, it seems to have little space for space.

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