Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Couch Potato as Art Lover

School holidays. A surfeit of kiddieflicks at the movies and nothing on TV until the ratings start again. It was for just such an emergency that Warren Lieberfarb unleashed the DVD player upon the world in 1996. He didn't invent it, he just threw the party where it was introduced to Wall Street types, Hollywood bigwigs and the investment community. Good on him and on Mrs Lieberfarb who no doubt slaved for days over the canapés.

The upshot is that we can now watch DVDs of our own choice when the local entertainment industry lets us down. And what better to watch than some of the many lovely series on art and artists that are available to borrow at your library or to buy if you want to keep them. Get online while the Ausdollar is hot!

Outstanding among these is the BBC series "The Private Life of a Masterpiece", comprising 22 45-minute episodes, each dealing with one important work of painting or sculpture. It shows the development of each work and what happened to it after it was created. The narrators are all experts from various great art galleries.

I found the episode about Degas' "Little Dancer" and the early years of the Paris Opera Ballet particularly interesting.

The series also gives a good overview of other works by each artist, great historical background to put the work in context, and demonstrations of the working process of the artist. This series is amazingly addictive because of its easy, casual narrative, brimming with tons of fascinating information.

I recently caught a few episodes of David Dimbleby's "Seven Ages of Britain" on the ABC, and borrowed the box set from the library so that I could watch them all. In this series, Dimbleby charts the history of Britian through its greatest art and artifacts, ranging from paintings and sculpture to jewels, religious relics, weapons, scientific instruments, architecture and fashion. The treasures are beautiful and the stories are fascinating.

From the charming and erudite Simon Schama comes "The Power of Art", in which he focuses on eight iconic works of art. Schama's premise is that, whereas plenty of great art was created in serenity, some masterpieces were made under acute stress: the artist struggling with the integrity of the conception and realisation of his work. In each episode, a great artist is facing an emotional crisis and uses his creativity to relieve the pressure.

Simon Schama places each work in the context of the artist's life and of the political and social mores of his time. He combines dramatic reconstruction and brilliant photography to give us a sense of the turmoil in which these great works were conceived and created.

Some of the featured artists are, as one would expect, the ones with turbulent lives: Caravaggio, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Picasso … but I found the episodes about Bellini and Rothko in particular, fascinating because I know less about them and the way they work.

Schama's interpretation of Bellini's "Ecstasy of St. Teresa" and Rothko's huge blocks of colour made me look at the works with a better insight into what the artists were trying to convey.

The works that Schama chooses are not necessarily the most famous or the best known by each artist: Van Gogh's "Wheatfield with Crows", rather than the sunflowers or a self-portrait; Rembrandt's "Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis" rather than the "Night Watch" … it is interesting to go down a track a bit different from the well-trodden one.

Then there is the delightful Sister Wendy, who has narrated several art history series for PBS and the BBC. She is very knowledgable and her enthusiasm is infectious. Her commentary is more superficial than that of the experts on the previously mentioned series, but her interpretation of the artists' intentions is always interesting and original.

She sometimes says very amusing yet slightly mischievous things, in her naïve way … Wikipedia claims that she became a consecrated virgin by Papal Decree in 1970, but one has to wonder if she is really as innocent as she appears!

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