Review: David Attenborough's Africa

David Attenborough's latest series shows we're not so different from the beasts.

The BBC have impeccable timing; just as the nation prepares for the onset of a case of January Blues, national treasure David Attenborough arrives on our screens, bringing with him a glorious display of animals and nature both industrious and wild.

Africa is a six-part series exploring the wildlife of the rich continent housing vast rainforest, savannah and desert. As well as being educational, last night’s series opener captured some amusing comparisons between us and our wilder counterparts. We share the same instincts of survival and the quest for love, as well as some remarkably similar social reactions.

Belligerent alpha male giraffes sparring in a Western-style showdown made for gripping viewing, with the upper hand changing unpredictably; an unnerving reflection of our society where two testosterone-fuelled youngsters might lock horns over a lady rather than a watering hole.

The featured Golden Wheel Spider epitomises most humans’ natural instinct in times of danger. After numerous attacks (by a wasp of all things) the arachnid cuts his losses and does what any self-respecting being would do: he curls up in a ball and cartwheels down the sand dune to safety.

The interplay between the Black Rhinos was at first extraordinarily intimate, using the latest photographic technology to capture never-before seen night-time interactions. This, however, quickly descends into something comical. We witness one Lothario trying his luck with an unsuspecting female, who at first seems open to the idea of cavorting in the dark - but upon her suitor’s below average performance, she pretends to be asleep. As David Attenborough points out, 'a girl can only put up with so much'.

It is unsurprising that this masterpiece took more than four years to shoot, so intricate are sequences like the Pompilid Wasp foraging for water in the expanse of the Kalahari Desert. As ever, Attenborough’s familiar, soothing and gently enriching narration aids Africa's intrigue. Menial, routine activities such as stalking prey and caring for young become fascinating and frequently amusing. The understanding of nature he has after 60 years is unrivalled, and his passion is endlessly apparent.

Majestic and enlightening, with quirky editing and some astounding shots, the series brings to light new creatures and explores new sides to those which are so familiar. David Attenborough told the New Statesman in 2011, “If you remove the licence fee, it would be gone in a decade”. As long as programs like Africa continue to be made, the fee is worth every penny.

Read the New Statesman's latest interview with David Attenborough here.

Black Rhinos. Photograph: Getty Images
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle