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Understanding Art: Hidden Lives of Masterpieces

Release Year:         2010
Studio:         Acorn Media
Format:         Colour; Widescreen; NTSC; SDH Subtitles
Rated:         Not Rated
# of Discs/Episodes:         2 Discs / 5 Episodes
Running Time:         259 Minutes
DVD Release Date:         June 18, 2013
Screenwriter:         Juliette Garcias
Directors:         Juliette Garcies, Stan Neumann
E:Top Picks Rating:         8.5/10

Acorn Media Write-up:  
This exceptional series documents the Louvre’s study days, in which works by five major artists -Raphael, Rembrandt, Poussin, Watteau, and Leonardo – were collected together, removed from their frames, and set on easels, replicating the feel of an artist’s studio. Curators, historians, restorers, and scientists from around the world came to examine and discuss them in total freedom.

Looking through their eyes and listening in on their conversations, we observe the restorations, repairs, and often capricious changes made over the centuries. From up close, we see the faint lines where the artist changed his mind, witness how time has ravaged the canvases, and debate the evidence that a master painted a particular work. Engaging animations explain and simplify complex language and concepts. By revealing what isn’t meant to be seen, this fascinating series shows that art is more than meets the eye.

•    16-page booklet with articles on the genesis of the series, tools used to analyze painting, art restoration developments and controversies, and the art of attributing Rembrandts
•    Biographies of the artists

Jon Ted Wynne Review:  
When one considers the flood of titles available on DVD for consumers to buy, it would be logical to surmise that the most commercial programs have the most value. In terms of making money for the distributor that may well be true, but in terms of aesthetic, artistic, educational and historical value, programs like UNDERSTANDING ART: HIDDEN LIVES OF MASTERPIECES are hard to beat. Of course the appeal of the subject matter is limited, but that in no way limits any measure of its importance.

What makes a painting (or any work of art) great? Its ability to inspire, provoke, elicit a variety of responses from awe and wonder to frustration and debate are a few things which come to mind. The premise of this five part series certainly builds on the theory that great art should inspire discussion. Bringing together a large group of art “experts” is, for the most part, a fascinating exercise to observe. Occasionally some of the people in the know come across as precious and arrogant, but that is to be expected in such a specialized field where large egos are to be found in abundance. For the most part, the comments and debate are spirited, interesting and fun.

The irony, of course, is that not a single one of the assembled guests has a fraction of the talent of any of the five featured artists. It is amusing to hear some of the theories put forth as to the artist’s original intention, or the evolution of such and such a painting (a bit of the canvas trimmed here, a repair made there). True, there is great intellect on display but it amounts to nothing in the presence of the timeless beauty of the art itself.

Do we really need the collective wisdom of the curators, historians, restorers and scientists before we can appreciate a great painting for what it is? No, we don’t. But the insight of experts can sometimes assist in helping us to maximize our appreciation. It’s a question of discernment. One might look at a painting of Rembrandt’s and decide “I like this,” but not be able to articulate why. This is where the perspective of one with a trained eye might help. Bearing this in mind may provide just the right amount of objectivity needed to enjoy this program for what it is: a journey of discovery.

Unquestionably the highlight of this series is part five. The genius of Leonardo Da Vinci cannot be encapsulated in a single painting because his talents were not contained to a single medium. Inventor, scientist, designer–anything artistic and Leonardo was master. Watching his paintings discussed and details of his life (the little that’s known) elevate this exercise in artistic appreciation to a new level.

The series is not so high brow as to exclude the less artistically informed. For example, the clever use of animation and the accompanying booklet all contribute to the producers’ worthwhile intention of educating the viewer in an accessible and entertaining fashion. Further, the animation references great art of another kind by using a crooked arm image borrowed from the great Saul Bass’ credit sequence for Otto Preminger’s film The Man With The Golden Arm.

Yes, this is specialized material, but by no means is it exclusive. And it is a wonderful reminder that any painting (or work of art) has a lot more to it than meets the eye.