Home > Art, Reviews, Television > TV Quickshots #10

TV Quickshots #10

The Private Life of a Masterpiece (BBC; 2001-2010)


Francisco Goya’s The Third of May, 1808

The BBC’s long-running popular art history program mostly sticks to the same formula but covers its subject with admirable depth, sophistication and accessibility. The documentary series ran for a decade on the venerable British network, examining one great and famous work of art in all of its many facets per episode. It’s an admixture of art criticism, biography of its creator, analysis of technique, social and political history, chronology of the artistic provenence, and a more general examination of how these works of art penetrate the popular consciousness and tessellate creatively with prevailing mass capitalist moods (if my word choice sounds sexually suggestive, kindly observe the way that openly eroticized works like Rodin’s The Kiss and Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus are discussed in their respective episodes).

The choice of paintings hangs pretty near to widely-accepted works of artistic genius, hitting the usual Italianate (Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Leonardo, various other Ninja Turtles) and Netherlandish (Rembrandt, Vermeer, Breughel) masters. There is a striking dearth of British artists or paintings tackled by the series (only American-born, British-based James McNeill Whistler’s famous portrait of his mother made the cut out of the entire Anglophone world), which is odd considering the show’s country of origin. British art may not quite have produced a work as iconic as Munch’s The Scream or Hokusai’s The Great Wave, but if Simon Schama’s Power of Art found time to delve into Turner’s The Slave Ship, surely Private Life could argue for another homegrown masterwork.

Putting aside the focus on mass appeal, the involuntary continental bias, and the sometimes counter-intuitive observations of series regular and The Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones, the casual or newly-minted autodidactic fine art fan could do worse for general introductions into the art history realm than The Private Life of a Masterpiece, especially with so many episodes locatable for free on YouTube.

Categories: Art, Reviews, Television

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