DVD Review: Every Picture Tells a Story (2003)

Acorn Media & Athena Release
A Series of Titles That
Celebrate Lifelong Learning

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In Every Picture Tells a Story, filmmaker, writer, and long-time art critic for The Sunday Times Waldemar Januszczak takes great delight in donning multiple hats as a journalist, art critic and scholar, as well as amateur sleuth. He isn't out to solve a crime however and instead devotes his time to tracking down all of the interpretations, clues, historical notes, and deceptive touches included both in the canvases and in the academic world surrounding eight masterpieces.

Familiar to any art fan-- these succinct, easily approachable and highly engrossing explorations of some of the most immediately recognizable and oft-debated works from da Dinci's captivating Mona Lisa to the haunting mystery in Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Marriage-- will definitely captivate in this stunning collection.

Running just 187 minutes-- the set is far shorter and much less expensive than any art history course and comes with the added bonus of looking at glorious paintings in some of the world's most famous museums in a vicarious DVD version of a field trip rather than staring at a white board at a local continuing education center.

Additionally the slim-packaged 2-disc collection offers a beautiful full-color viewer's guide with more highlights. Filled with questions to help get you further inside the lessons or episodes (which I found of equal interest for reading both beforehand and after the show ended to think about the paintings in greater detail) and "other works featured" along with "avenues for further learning," the tiny booklet leads you to additional information via a featherweight companion in lieu of a textbook that could be used as a doorstop with a price-tag that's right in line with a brand new door.

Balancing out what could be in the hands of another some pretty dull topical material if spoken in a monotone or with an unquestioning, blind reverence for the masters-- instead and like a good critic-- our humorous host Januszczak has a great deal of fun questioning choices and ideas throughout, inspiring viewers not to fall into the trap of just saying "well, it's a masterpiece, of course it's good," without asking why since they've been repeatedly told that over the years.

Offering some fun tidbits about the painters that borders on gossip which is seasoned throughout along with all of the factual information to entertain-- we realize quickly from the start it's not like most yawn-inducing offerings when Januszczak mentions for example that talented artist and most likely complete cynic Thomas Gainsborough was only in it for the money.

Despising those who sat for him (and only thinking of the works in terms of how much he could profit from each gig), the remarkably fast painter's 1750 oil on canvas unfinished work Mr and Mrs Andrews opens the series. Most likely the artist's own judgment of "two aristocratic 18th century British landowners," who are seated way off to the left side of the painting (showing their wasted land on the right that they'd taken away from the commoners via Britain's newly passed "Enclosure Acts")-- it's a great introductory choice to open the set since it invites discussion from the start and builds one up for one of the most discussed works which closes the collection (and one in which I actually had to tackle explaining in grad school).

While it's suspected that the Andrews couple intentionally halted Gainsborough from more symbolic and critical inclusions which leaves it unfinished, it's strongly felt that the painter "may have intended to depict bird carcasses in the unfinished area in the lady's lap as a not-so-subtle comment on the couple's marriage and social position," making it yet another great reminder of the power of the artist to convey meanings below those simply on the surface, driving home the point of subtext in art with the utmost of clarity.

Moving onto Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulip which you'll decidedly want to skip if you're preparing a meal or have recently eaten as our host takes a wicked delight in discussion the Renaissance's obsession with dissection and the anatomical theatres wherein people paid a great deal (especially in Holland) given their-- as Januszczak notes "passion for dismemberment," he continues to study one of Venice's most revered masters-- Giorgione via his Greek mythology inspired The Tempest.

Analyzing the display of gender in some of the classic works-- Januszczak explores Botticelli's celebration of a bride's fertility in a way that's supposed to make us sense her virginal modesty and shyness in The Birth of Venus to da Vinci's near femme fatale with his Mona Lisa whose bewitchingly mysterious smile captivated Napoleon to such an extent that it hung in his bedroom for awhile.

Further paintings of curiosity include Caravaggio's Boy Bitten by a Lizard regarding which Januszcack takes great pains in likening to the life lessons of the painter himself and warnings against hedonism as it intriguingly empathizes more with the lizard than the sensuous, pleasure-seeking boy in the eyes of some along with Edouard Manet's scandalous (and possibly even with a choice of being deliberately sacrilegious) painting Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe (a.k.a. Luncheon on the Grass).

Shockingly depicting some fully clothed men and an immodestly naked woman looking directly at the viewer as either a mockery of the old masters or an angry response painting to his father's alleged affair with a woman who would later become Edouard's wife-- while back in 1863 its brash boldness caused the "biggest scandal in the world of art" because of the nude woman's immodesty, the painting that stayed with me the most was the one we debated in grad school in the form of the final effort The Arnolfini Marriage by Jan van Eyck.

On the surface, a work that deceptively feels as though it's a mere piece of marital portraiture in the celebration of the union of a wealthy merchant family yet one that nonetheless manages to forgo the notion of a newlywed piece since the female appears extremely pregnant-- the painting is dripping with symbolism and a sense of melancholy. It's one that is also widely theorized as immortalizing the pregnant wife in a posthumous manner after she passed away during childbirth. Hauntingly beautiful yet eerie and ghost-like, van Eyck's painting makes an ideal final chapter to the informative and fascinating two disc set and makes us wish that the Athena Learning venture which had previously aired on Ovation Television would soon be followed with another installment to investigate more masterpieces.