What does “The Year of Making Love” teach us about relationships?

Answer: probably nothing. But there's a deeper point - is going on telly what it takes to find love these days?

Will brought a rose. Kay looked suitably impressed. “Do I fancy him?” she asked the camera. “Maybe. I don’t know his personality yet, so that’s a big thing. I’m looking forward to finding out what he’s like.” Will was a little more forthright in his assessment. “I wouldn’t say I fancied her yet,” he told the camera with what a tabloid reporter might describe as a ‘cheeky smile’. “One thing that’s clouding my judgement at the moment is that I’ve seen another girl sitting quite close to our table that I do find attractive and is probably more my normal type...” Then I watched Rogan and Natalie go on a first date before “sharing a bed” (demure choice of words the voiceover lady’s, not mine). Next morning, Natalie divulged no information; Rogan smiled demurely at the camera. And then Andy went with Kirsty to Amsterdam, his plan being to “ask her out when we get there.” Months – or twenty-something minutes later – Newquay sunset in the background, Andy leaned in and told Kirsty: “I’m in love with you. You’re absolutely an amazing girl.” They kissed in the surf and the programme-makers played a gentle neo-folk song over the moment. 

I have been watching The Year of Making Love on BBC Three for the last few weeks, and I am exhausted. It’s basically a social experiment, something they’ve called “Britain’s biggest blind date”, in which three experts have used “scientifically robust” compatibility tests to match up hundreds of couples. Their cameras will follow the pairings for a year, to see if scientific matchmaking can yield love. “Millions of people are single because they’re hooked on this crazy idea that there’s just one perfect person out there,” says Thomas the profiler. “The reality is that we have several potential good matches.”Over the course of the six episodes, we see just a few of these unions (if not the ‘science’ that matched them in the first place) and not all of them are good.

The overwhelming take-home from watching other people actively seeking and then pursuing love is “gosh, that looks like a lot of work”. There was snogging, there were awkward chats, a lot of booze. And there were a whole series of baffling (to my clearly under-achieving eyes) dates set up: one woman set up her date at the gym, where the fledgling couple took a lesson in Muy Thai boxing. One told her date to prepare material for a short set at an open mic comedy night. Another couple went sky-diving. I sat watching at home, wrapped  in a blanket, agog. Whatever happened to a nice cup of tea and a sit down? Never have I been more bewildered by the mating habits of Britain’s young. Is this what it takes to find love nowadays? Well, buy me a cat and a lifetime prescription for animal allergy tablets, because spinsterhood looms large and I never saw a stereotype I couldn’t smash. The question is: will no one think of the lazy-in-love?

It’s a question I have been asking more and more recently, for whatever reason. There’s been a glut of long form essays on relationships: deep ruminations on whether love is supposed to fade, or if we are killing romance, or if dating is not a recipe for love but the fleeting joy of “hook-up culture” (these articles always have something made up and buzzy in them). Did our parents and grandparents worry like this? Is love really this complex? Comedian and actor Aziz Ansari gave an insightful interview to the AV Club last week, in which he talks about modern love in relation to modern manners and technology and laments the tyranny of choice. One bit stood out for me: 

I read this one guy’s texts where he texted a girl once and then texted again an hour later, after she didn’t respond. There were audible gasps in the audience when I read that.

Communication was a big thing in The Year of Making Love . There were men who said they would call and never did. Women who sent text messages that went unanswered. One memorable standing up; her to camera at the last minute: “I don’t think I can put myself through it.” Him to camera, outside the restaurant: “I’m not hurt, [I’m] pissed.”Many iterations of the sentiment behind the statement: “I don’t know if he/she is really into me”. People who promised themselves (again, on camera) they weren’t going to do something and then doing exactly that. So many feelings! All on display for our viewing pleasure. It was excruciating to watch: have you ever really watched two people kiss? What a ridiculous idea it is. It’s the most awkward thing in the entire world, and never more so than when practiced by young, sometimes lightly intoxicated people who barely know one another. Falling in love is hard – who knew? 

By the end of episode one, Natalie had “shared a bed” with Rogan again, and hadn’t heard back. “That gives me all the answers I need, really,” she told the camera. Between a shaky breath and blinking back tears, she added: “For the sake of my sanity, I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to continue being involved in this.” Meanwhile Will and Kay, the first couple to be matched on the day, were also the first couple to drop out (the tyranny of choice strikes again – I had been right to judge him harshly!). Beyond all the flirting, and the bravado, and the snappy dialogue, when things fell apart, they all looked so young. They all looked so broken. And so I remembered the untouchable Annie Hall: relationships are “totally irrational and crazy and absurd. But uh, I guess we keep going through it because, uh, most of us need the eggs.”

Marching off into the sunset. Photograph: Getty Images

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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