Judge Eric Profancik likes to tell stories with flannel board.
"There are a million stories in the world of art. This has been just one of them."
One random day I was flipping around the hundreds of channels on my television when I stumbled across The Private Life of a Masterpiece on Ovation. It quickly became one of my favorite shows, but Ovation seemed to be showing the same 6 or so episodes over and over again. Last year it came out on DVD and I snatched it up. When I saw the description for Every Picture Tells a Story I knew I wanted to see it. I had never heard of it before but I knew I would enjoy it. I was right. So, for those of you who have never heard of either show, what's this all about?
Facts of the Case
Waldemar Januszczak, art critic for The Sunday Times (UK), hosts this eight-episode series that delves into the story behind some of the greatest works of art. Each episode focuses on one piece, examines the context of the art and the artist, and posits the story behind the picture. The works of art he discusses are:
Episode 1: "Mr. and Mrs. Andrews" by Thomas Gainsborough
It's all about art. Now while that may sound dry, boring, and not anything you'd be interested in, give me just one second. Let's presume that you've never seen an episode of Every Picture Tells a Story (or Private Life of a Masterpiece), you have no interest in art, yet somehow you end up at an art museum, dragged there by some significant other who finds the touring show of Renaissance Masters something he/she definitely has to see. What do you do? You dawdle along, glancing at the art, wondering what all the fuss is about. You don't get it. That's what this series is all about, helping you understand what is going on in the art.
This series works under the simple hypothesis that the artist is telling a story in his picture. Januszczak believes he has uncovered this story, and he presents it to you so you can understand why this art is so important. He explains the art to you, simply, gently, yet intelligently, giving you the insight to appreciate the art beyond the bare talent of the artist. It all boils down to being able to appreciate the art for what it is, and how it may have affected other subsequent art…I'm certain some of you are still not convinced this is something you'd like, for it sounds like another art appreciation class you had to take in school. That's not the case. While such a class can be a dull and tedious experience, giving you scads of information that you are forced to memorize, Every Picture truly does tell a story. It's done in a friendly fashion, gently coaxing you into a greater world. It's not a dreaded class but a welcome chat.
I would be remiss if I failed to compare the two series, as I was want to do upon popping in the discs of this series. At first, I was not impressed with Every Picture, for my love of Private Life was deep and strong. So I found much to quibble with immediately, from the odd theme music to Januszczak himself. In each case, both grow on you. Januszczak initially comes across as a hammy actor, working to add grand drama to the art. That added drama—a television drama feel to it—soon wanes, and Januszczak's quirky personality soon becomes endearing. The series transforms into an excellent and wonderful diversion, and when it's over you wish they had done more than eight episodes. The eight episodes can easily be watched in three quick hours.
Between the two series, only one piece of art is in both, "Le d éjeuner sur l'herbe" by Édouard Manet. After watching Every Picture I decided to review what Private Life had to say on the topic. Imagine my surprise to find Januszczak as a featured expert during the program, which then led me to wonder which series came first. But that's of no true importance here (it's Private Life) as I was further surprised when Private Life ended up not even proposing the same ideas as Every Picture. That forced me go to back and determine that the programs, albeit with the same purpose of explaining art, come to different conclusions. And that's perfectly acceptable and great. There shouldn't be a right "answer" in art. Who is to say that Januszczak truly knows the real story behind the art? Both series present fascinating information allowing you to make your own opinions, just better informed opinions.
Tech specs are right in line with your typical television fare. The video is a letterboxed full frame transfer that is crisp and clean with accurate, robust colors, allowing a high level of detail to come through. The only nitpick is that I did notice just a bit of aliasing here and there. It's nothing major and won't detract from the overall set. Audio is a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, giving the dialogue-intensive series a clear presentation. Oddly, I did notice that the volume of each episode varied, in that episode 1 would sound "good" at "25" but episode 2 would need to go to "23" and so on. Again, not a problem, it's just odd.
The discs have a few bonus features but are limited and add little to the title. Included in the packaging is a 20-page book. Each episode is given two pages, one showing the art, the other posing questions about the work, and then giving a detail of the other art shown in that episode. On each disc of the set you will find "The Rest of the Story" and artist biographies. The latter is self-explanatory, but the former goes into a bit more depth about some main posit presented by Januszczak. Both of these items are text-based.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are eight episodes each only 23 minutes long? That seems a pretty lazy attempt if there are "a million stories in the world of art."
However you wish to slice it, Every Picture Tells a Story is an
excellent and sadly short series. Even with my upfront bias from that other
Every Picture Tells a Story is hereby found not guilty of stealing the "Mona Lisa." (It really was Vincenzo Perugia's doing on that one.)
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