Monday, 4 July 2011

Taking Refuge On The Couch

School holidays are upon us again and a nasty rash of Kiddieflicks has broken out at the cinema. The only remedy is to stock up on DVDs and retire to the couch.

I have discovered a very entertaining series called "Landmarks of Western Art". It comprises six DVDs ranging from art in the late Medieval world to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

I have chosen to watch The Baroque first, having a soft spot for all those diagonals and curves and dramatically lit moments of passion - a nice change after the cool, classic restraint of the Renaissance, but not yet refined to the charming "prettiness" of the Rococo.

I don't mean to denigrate the rococo style; all those floral flourishes and Mozart-like twirly bits are lovely. But today I am in a Baroque mood.

The artworks under discussion are beautifully photographed and the pundits know their baroque onions. They have a few interesting theories of their own to advance and the commentary is engaging, but why the producers saw fit to choose two commentators who both lithp, is beyond me. Surely there are art historians without speech impediments that they could have employed? Maybe perfect diction is an expensive optional extra.

The DVD covers the architecture and sculpture of the era as well as the painting - I liked the part about the arch-rivals Borromini and Bernini. Borromini's gorgeous church of St Agnes in Rome out-baroques the baroque - is there room for one more curlicue?

Bernini's buildings blur the lines between architecture and sculpture with his wonderful high reliefs. His major sculpture, the Ecstasy of St Teresa, has to be up there in the Top Ten with Donatello's David and Michelangelo's Pieta.

Art historian Tim Martin is more restrained in his analysis of St Teresa's writhing ecstasy than Simon Schama, who, in his series "The Power of Art", implies that Teresa is doing her Meg Ryan impression. Well, maybe he's right: the angel above her looks smug enough. Bernini was by all accounts a bit of a lad and that is a facial expression with which he would be familiar!

We then move on to Caravaggio, master of the art of dramatic lighting. Had he been born four centuries later, he would have made his mark as a film noir director. From Italy and Caravaggio, it is a natural segue to Spain and Velasquez, who took Carvaggio as his inspiration.

We check out Poussin and Claude Lorrain in France, then on to the Netherlands: Hals, Rembrandt, Rubens and Vermeer.

An entertaining and informative program, with lovely pictures. I was sorry when it ended, but I had the Couch-over-Cinema advantage of being able to go back and have another look at the best bits.

Another advantage of the couch over the cinema, is that you can have Interval. The Dutch call it Pauze: in Holland they stop the movie in mid-sentence exactly halfway through, flash PAUZE on the screen in big friendly letters and everyone goes out to eat ice cream and smoke horrid little black cigars. In my house we spend the Pauze making tea and visiting the bathroom.

Back on the couch, I slip Matisse/Picasso into the player.

This is an engrossing film by Philippe Kohly about these two giants of modern art. I think of them as the Warne and McGrath of the art world: each a genius at what they do, but in different ways; two very different temperaments who complement each other. Matisse chose to paint the beauty of the world and ignore things that would disturb the viewer, while Picasso wanted his art to grab the viewer by the throat and make him look at the reality of the world we live in.

Picasso once said: "You have to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing. No one has ever looked at Matisse's painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he."

In spite of their initial rivalry and their very different temperaments, each came to acknowledge the other as his only true equal. They developed a close and complex relationship.

With archive footage and photos and a wealth of examples of their work, the documentary traces the separate paths Matisse and Picasso followed, looks at their points of contact, and sheds light on how the genius of each artist nourished that of the other.

The contributors to the film are all people who knew the artists well and it gives a fascinating insight into their friendship and how each influenced the other's work.

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