The Louvre is hosting a showing of Judge Victor Valdivia's collected masterpieces. You'll marvel at his use of color and shading in his sketch Some Stripper I'm Drawing from Memory.
"We have become careful and skilled restorers of the great art of the past. But nobody can restore to our minds the meaning that works of art contained for those who first beheld them."—from the episode on Michelangelo's David
The Private Life of a Masterpiece: The Complete Seasons 1-5 is an ambitious and intelligent attempt to do so. This set compiles 22 episodes of the BBC series, and it's one of the best shows ever assembled on the history of art.
Facts of the Case
The Private Life of a Masterpiece uses interviews with art historians and critics, artists, and art fans, along with reenactments and recreations, to discuss the creation and importance of classic paintings and sculptures. Here are the episodes collected on the seven discs:
Disc One: Renaissance Masterpieces
Disc Two: Seventeenth Century Masters
Disc Three: Masterpieces 1800-1850
Disc Four: Masterpieces 1851-1900
Disc Five: Impressionism and the Post-Impressionists
Disc Six: Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century
Disc Seven: Masterpieces of Sculpture
The Private Life of a Masterpiece is a scholarly look at artworks from throughout history, densely packed with stories, information, and analysis. Unlike the light and fluffy shows dedicated to art that are usually seen on TV, these are ambitious and thoughtful. Some episodes are so packed with information, in fact, that it can be daunting to sit through more than a few at a time. Should viewers be scared? Should they expect esoteric terminology and turgid lectures? On the contrary, though the episodes do demand attention, they are lively, entertaining and satisfying. This is not the type of show that can be put on as background noise, but viewers who watch it carefully will be rewarded with some of the most enjoyable educational shows available on art.
Don't be put off by the premise of the show. Though there's some technical talk about the creation of the artworks, and art historians do discuss some of the symbolism and meaning of the works, none of that is ever arcane or incomprehensible. The show is excellent at putting even complex artistic and technical ideas in terms that are both clear and concise. In addition to the experts, there is also input from various art lovers interviewed at galleries admiring the artworks and relating personal anecdotes that relate to them. Modern artists are assigned with recreating the creations of each piece, explaining the techniques each artist used in making them. Other modern artists reveal new takes and variations on the old works and discuss those as well. Some of these segments drag a bit (the modern interpretations are never as compelling as the originals) but are only a small part of each episode. There are even some film directors to recall how these artworks shaped their visual style. Peter Greenaway (A Zed and Two Noughts) discusses the profound influence Vermeer has had on his work, while Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) waxes rhapsodically on La Primavera.
The show doesn't just discuss the creation of the artworks, but also puts them in context, both in the artists' careers and the political, social, and artistic movements of the era. So Whistler's Mother, which has too often been reduced to Hallmark-esque sentimentality, was actually far more controversial and groundbreaking than it's frequently been given credit for. With its spare minimalism and nearly monochromatic color scheme, it was a contentious and deliberate attack on the treacly and extravagant Victorian art of the era. Similarly, Renoir's Dance, frequently enjoyed as just a pretty picture of a great night out, is actually a defiant rebuke to the government of Paris, which was launching an attack on nightclubs like the Moulin de La Galette, considering them hotbeds of anti-government sentiment. On the Renaissance disc, the constant thread throughout the episodes is the infamous Lorenzo the Magnificent of the Medicis, the merchant and overlord of the city state of Florence. He served as the patron who commissioned both The Last Supper and La Primavera, and also hired goons to steal The Battle of San Romano from his brother's collection, even lopping off the top of the painting when it didn't fit in his home.
The series is full of great stories like that. It's the best kind of educational TV: intelligent without being pedantic, entertaining without being trivial. The series' dense barrage of information and images can be exhausting at times. It's definitely the kind of show that demands strict concentration. But the pace and volume is never overwhelming (even if it does come close at times) and it's downright charming to hear stories breathlessly told by art lovers who are eager to convey just how important and beautiful these works are and why some, such as Rodin's The Kiss and Goya's The Third of May, remain controversial even to this day. By detailing the tangled lives that each work has had (sometimes even many years after creation), The Private Life of a Masterpiece explains, thoroughly and convincingly, why many of these works still matter even today, many years later, and how and why they became iconic images that will remain recognizable for many more years to come.
The widescreen 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer and stereo sound mix are characteristic TV quality, though some of the older archive footage and photos sometimes look and sound more worn. There are no extras, but the episodes themselves are so comprehensive that none are really needed.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
With a show like this, it's possible to question some of the choices. The show dedicated to Sunflowers makes a convincing case that the picture was crucial to Van Gogh's development as an artist, but it still doesn't really prove that it's an undisputed masterpiece. Apart from its shockingly vivid colors, it's not really the type of painting that reveals more on repeated viewings. A better choice might have been Starry Night or Wheat Field and Cypress Trees, or perhaps one of his self-portraits. Similarly, a case could be made that while Demoiselles D'Avignon is a significant part of Picasso's career, his Guernica is simply a much more influential and well-known painting that has a greater resonance now more than ever. The choice of Christ of St. John for Dali is perhaps the oddest. Not only is it hardly the most well-known of Dali's work (The Persistence of Memory would probably hold that title), many of the Dali biographers and experts on the show loathe it, calling it cheap and sentimental and completely out of character for him. On one or two occasions, it sometimes seems that the show's producers have a specific painting in mind and force the show to fit it, rather than pick paintings that fit the show.
This also brings up the question of why some artists were left out. One glaring omission in particular is Paul Gauguin. Though he figures heavily in the episode devoted to Van Gogh, as one of the most influential artists of Post-Impressionism he really should have had an episode devoted to his work (The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob's Fight with the Angel) would have made a good choice for his episode). Also, the show's heavy Eurocentric perspective means that only two of the twenty-two artists profiled are not from Europe: Whistler (from Massachusetts) and Hokusai (from Japan). Why not open the show up to more non-European artists? Why not Frida Kahlo or Jose Clemente Orozco from Mexico, or perhaps Jackson Pollock or Arshile Gorky from the United States? Klimt's The Kiss may be an iconic image, but even that episode's art historians concede that it's the artistic equivalent of a one-hit wonder. Klimt never painted anything else of significance and it's had very little influence on the paintings that followed it, even within the Vienna art community that he was a part of. Of all the episodes, this is the one that could have been cut to make room for another more important work.
One final note: some viewers may wish to preview the series before screening it for the whole family. Even though it's generally an educational series, a few episodes contain moments of violence and nudity that could be objectionable.
It's possible to quibble with some choices, and some shows could have been reedited here and there, but the overall quality of the series is so high that these flaws seem minor. Viewers with only a passing knowledge of classic art will hear some fascinating stories and ideas, while devout art lovers will have even previously familiar artworks revealed in a whole new light. The Private Life of a Masterpiece is highly recommended.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Other Reviews You Might Enjoy
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
Review content copyright © 2008 Victor Valdivia; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.