With the aid of YouTube, you can watch an episode of Robert Hughes’ documentary series The Shock of the New each week, just as it first aired on the BBC and PBS in 1980. But I defy you to watch “The Mechanical Paradise,” the first of its eight installments, and not plow through the rest in a day. Hughes, a prolific art critic who has written books on everything from Francisco Goya to America’s culture of complaint to the city of Barcelona to the history of his native Australia, has also hosted television programs about everything from Caravaggio to Utopian architecture to the Mona Lisa. The Shock of the New, a project which found expression as a book as well as these broadcasts, takes on the ambitious task of tracing the progress of modernism through visual art. But the roots of the movement run deeper into history, and so this first episode begins at the base of the Eiffel Tower, a monument to the accelerating scientific and technological progress of the late nineteenth century that would so disrupt the aesthetics of the twentieth.
As a reader of art criticism, I’ve long trusted Hughes’ writing on these subjects more than I do anyone else’s. Clear, bold, concrete, and always, in a bluntly stealthy way, more nuanced than it seems, Hughes’ textual persona stands against what, in his autobiography, he calls the “airy-fairy, metaphor-ridden kind of pseudo-poetry” that he sees as having flooded the field. As a guide through the history of artistic modernism, he proves as no-nonsense yet dryly entertaining on film as he is on the page. Whether turning our attention toward special details of Braque and Picasso’s canvasses or zipping around in a 1900s roadster, Hughes presents with the assurance of authority but not its intellectual overreach, pulling you along to Fernand Léger, the Futurists, and Marcel Duchamp. And as a viewer of television documentaries, I’ve long trusted the late seventies and early eighties as the form’s golden age. In this episode and beyond, The Shock of the New showcases what the productions of that era did best: a moody electronic score, archival clips creatively used, and extended sequences that give us time to really look. (Voiceover work by Judi Dench and Martin Jarvis doesn’t lose this chapter any points, either.)
All episodes of The Shock of the New: “The Mechanical Paradise,” “The Powers That Be,” “The Landscape of Pleasure,” “Trouble in Utopia,” “The Threshold of Liberty,” “The View From the Edge,” “Culture as Nature,” “The Future That Was“