“SHE painted my heart and soul.” In Survivors: Portraits of the Holocaust (BBC2, Thursday of last week), we were privileged to witness a most unusual and inspired royal commission.
The Prince of Wales chose artists to produce portraits of seven of the UK’s dwindling number of survivors from the Nazi death camps. The pictures are now part of the Royal Collection. “Witness” is the key word: the point of the project is to bear witness, in the most prestigious location possible, to the reality of the unimaginable horrors of that genocide, etched on the faces of those who lived through it; to witness to the extraordinary human qualities of these survivors; to witness to the valued and honoured place that Jews hold in our society.
And creating a portrait is, in itself, the most acute act of witness, as the artist engages as deeply as possible with the reality of the sitter, and then conveys that reality for the rest of us to see and learn. We saw the relationship between painter and subject grow and flourish, both partners in the transaction coming to know and value each other.
Of course, the subjects told their stories, plumbing the unspeakable depths of brutality, violence, and humiliation which humans can visit on others. It was powerfully distressing, and yet also a testament to human courage and resilience, even to humour and joy — and, perhaps, surprising gratitude: “How lucky we have been to have spent 75 years in the best country in the world.”
A relief, surely, to turn away from fallen humankind not to rapacious animals red in tooth and claw, but to the innocence of the plant world. For most viewers, The Green Planet (BBC1, Sundays), presented by Sir David Attenborough — who, in his tenth decade, displays more energy, physical and intellectual, than most people half his age — will seem a spectacularly beautiful glimpse of the diverse wonders and generous co-operation of flora; for me, it uncovers appalling depths of aggression and cutthroat competition.
The urge to procreate and survive is paramount, and if, in the race to grab sunlight and nutrients, it means annihilating your neighbours, then it’s their jolly bad luck. Perhaps some bitter satisfaction can be gleaned from realising that, although Homo sapiens easily wins the award for destroying most thoroughly our common home, we are merely more successful than many of God’s creatures apparently pursuing the same goal.
No one could expect from Monty Don’s Adriatic Gardens (BBC2, 21 January) anything like so forensic an analysis, but this exquisite coastal journey from Venice to Greece offers kindly and thoughtful accounts of what human gardeners are up to: economics is the key. Wealthy people create gardens to delight the eye and mind; for the poor, the whole point of horticulture is, obviously, to provide yourself with food and natural medicine.