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Andy is dandy

Americans are crass, crude and insular. They worship the handgun and the electric chair in equal measure. They pollute the planet, bomb innocent civilians and force unwilling consumers everywhere to buy their overpriced running shoes and oversize hamburgers. They even wrecked the Winter Olympics with their whooping, flag-waving and U-S-Aying.

That's the picture painted by the British media, where columns of America-bashing are common. "The one issue that all the papers agree on, from far left to far right, is anti-Americanism," says Michael Gove, assistant editor of the Times of London.

But this spring, the London media, and Londoners in general, have found at least one aspect of America they can admire. The artistic community has been swept off its collective feet by two huge exhibits of American artists, bridging two centuries. Both have earned rapturous reviews and extensive TV coverage, with the result you have to "queue" for an hour or more to get into either one.

The 19th century is on display at the Tate Britain gallery in a collection of colossal landscapes _ some of them 10 feet tall _ put together into a show called "American Sublime." The exhibition features paintings that are iconic for Americans, including the leafy forest scenes of the Hudson River School, Frederic Edwin Church's mighty Niagara Falls and Thomas Moran's misty Grand Canyon. But the works are "almost entirely unknown in the U.K," as critic William Packer wrote in the Financial Times.

At the Tate Modern, one of the pillars of 20th-century American art can be found in a retrospective look at Andy Warhol. The exhibit features some 200 paintings and sculptures, including all the classics: the Campbell's Soup cans, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, Elvis and the electric chair.

The notoriously nasty London critics _ well, most of them _ have responded to both exhibitions with uncharacteristic praise.

"Tate Modern's wonderful Warhol show reveals a visual genius," said Richard Dorment in the Daily Telegraph. "The cumulative evidence of his art declares that he was, indeed, magisterial," said Adrian Searle in the Guardian.

The grand landscapes of "Sublime" have fared even better with the critics. "It's a breathtaking show," said Geoff Dyer in Prospect magazine _ something he found surprising because so many American landscape artists "tended, until recently, to be considered second-rate." Even Brian Sewell of the Evening Standard, no fan of things American, agreed that the "Sublime" paintings induce "astonishment and awe."

For the British, much of the fascination stems from the back-and-forth transatlantic influences on display. The inspiration for American landscape painting of the 19th century came largely from Britain. The European and American artists who painted the American wilderness took their basic ideas from the British giant J.M.W. Turner.

Moreover, the "sublime" philosophy that drove painters like Church, Moran, Alfred Bierstadt and Jasper Francis Cropsey was advanced by British thinkers.

A century later, when Andy Warhol was strutting across the American stage, the flow of artistic influence was largely reversed, as the British critics have acknowledged. "When you get all the Warhol in one place," said Mark Lawson, the BBC's arts critic, "you can see how important the guy was for everything that came after. A lot of the contemporary British art scene is right there in that show."