Appellate Judge James A. Stewart has seen way too many ancient statues with broken noses.
"Every generation takes from the past what it needs to make sense of itself."
Art of the Western World promises to cover everything "from Ancient Greece to Andy Warhol" in its roughly nine hours. It does, but that's a mixed blessing. Author Michael Wood hosts.
The nine one-hour chapters, on three discs, break down as follows:
• "A White Garment of Churches"—Romanesque and Gothic art and architecture pop up in Europe. Manuscript illustration and French cathedrals are among the topics.
• "The Early Renaissance"—Italian merchants buy frescoes and arguments surround a Florence dome's construction. A famous Jan Van Eyck wedding portrait, images of Hell, and the first art book are featured.
• "Realms of Light: The Baroque"—Pope Urban VIII gets a mural, Caravaggio takes liberties with religious paintings, and the mass market for art comes to Amsterdam.
• "An Age of Reason, An Age of Passion"—French and English gardens are compared, complaints about "bottoms and breasts" in art are reviewed, and the French Revolution and Napoleonic era are discussed.
• "Into the 20th Century"—Modernists, especially Pablo Picasso, make tracks for Paris. Dada, geometric abstraction, futurists, surrealists, the Bauhaus, and art deco are discussed.
• "In Our Own Time"—New York becomes an art center. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Christo are discussed.
Art of the Western World at times feels like a college introductory course crammed into nine hours. It doesn't help that the show often has a very simple structure, with an expert walking around while the camera pans a great work. Some of the experts can be interesting; for example, Robin Middleton of Columbia University gives a lively, humorous tour of a manor. Beyond that, there's some interesting material on the cultural context for the various works and interesting side trips, such as a gift shop tour that illustrates the ubiquity of the impressionists. However, the format still can get tedious. I also didn't like the fact that there's only occasionally a title of a work on screen, and the artist's names are never shown; that's especially annoying when the show zips through concepts and artistic careers at a good clip. You might consider watching with the captioning if you really want to catch everything.
Around a dozen artists are featured in text bios on the discs; the bios are decent summaries, but there's no illustration with them. A booklet takes a few topics—stained-glass windows, frescoes, the Paris salon, pop art, and missing masterpieces—and fleshes them out in short essays. Probably an outline in the booklet, with names and major works, would have been a good way to make sure viewers get everything.
The 1989 picture is faded, and often has flecks and other flaws. Sound quality is decent, but not outstanding; you won't have any trouble hearing the talking heads. You'll also notice that a museum is located, by the words on the screen, in "East Berlin."
You will also notice a lot of those "bottoms and breasts" in paintings and sculptures; if that's something that's not for you, neither is Art of the Western World.
Art of the Western World isn't perfect, but I suspect that it would be impossible to come up with one documentary that handles its broad topic fully. Still, it could be worthwhile for someone who already knows something of art and wants an overview. Whether you watch it or not, I'd recommend seeking out documentaries targeted more specifically to artists or movements that interest you.
Not guilty, but not for everyone.
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