Around 30,000 years ago, that jump was made. Suddenly, mysteriously, courageously, humans learned how to bring art into their world. But how? And why? These are questions asked often throughout the BBC documentary mini-series "How Art Made the World." The series, hosted by author, teacher, and historian Dr. Nigel Spivey, has a lot on its mind, and in trying to cram it all within a tight five hours, we wind up with more questions than answers. Yet there are enough fascinating revelations here to please fans of history and admirers of the evolution of art.
Each episode tackles a different angle of art history, to varying success. "More Human Than Human," the series' opener, places a curious eye on the inescapable habit we people have in making unrealistic exaggerations of the human form in art. Today, of course, we have models and advertising that highlights a "perfect" example of the body, but thousands of years ago, around the globe, our ancestors were busy carving their own versions of perfection: women with giant breasts, rumps, and waistlines. Later cultures offered up other imagery, and even when more realistic artworks were created, those did not seem to last, with further works returning to hyperbole. Why? The series suggests something instinctual is at play.
"The Day Pictures Were Born" studies the earliest known cave paintings and the theories behind their creation. Long believed to be simply portraits of hunters' prey, new clues indicate this to not be entirely true. The series follows a lead that claims this art to be depictions of hallucinations experienced during tribal rituals. It's a fascinating theory, one that allows us to visit long-lost corners of the globe, yet the producers put so much weight onto this that one wishes a broader approach was taken, one that does not limit ideas to this one path.
The habit of politicians to manipulate art for their cause is the focus of the third episode, "The Art of Persuasion." Following a too-lengthy discussion on the work put into President Bush's speech at the 2004 Republican convention, we finally get to the good stuff, detailed looks at how leaders like Alexander the Great used manipulated or even false images of themselves to make themselves appear better to their subjects.
"Once Upon a Time" is a study of visual storytelling that's equally interesting and disappointing. Lengthy "storyboard"-like tellings of the great conquests of noble kings make for some curious viewing, but then the episode finds itself relying too often on modern motion pictures (almost entirely limited to clips from "Babe" and "Star Wars") in an attempt to hook the viewer. By taking a modern approach, the series then overlooks other types of visual storytelling, such as television and comic books, and its final thesis, that silent pictures are lesser than talkies because sound adds that last vital piece of connecting emotionally with the audience, is rather insulting to anybody who made great art in the age of silents.
Finally, "To Death and Back" wraps things up by detailing the various obsessions cultures have had over the millennia with representing death in their art. Gone is the clunkiness of the previous two episodes; this finale is focused and engaging. The series tackles images both hopeful and grim before settling on a discussion of violent imagery in religion (the crucifix being both disturbingly gory and, in context, optimistic).
Through it all, Dr. Spivey puts forth a conversational attitude similar to other light-hearted Brit TV documentaries, the kind that finds the host cracking wise from time to time. Spivey gets stuck in a rut as his script finds him asking "why" and "how" every couple of minutes, which frustrates at times. Still, it's breezy and informative enough to make for some very enjoyable viewing.
Warner Bros. and BBC Home Video collect all five hour-long episodes of "How Art Made the World" onto two discs; the first three episodes are on the first disc, and the last two episodes plus all bonus features are on the second. The discs are in a standard single-wide keep case with a hinged disc holder.
Not counting the archival footage (which is understandably weaker), the video presentation here is gorgeous. The host segments sparkle. Presented in the original 1.78:1 widescreen format with anamorphic enhancement.
The Dolby 2.0 stereo is solid. Optional English subtitles are included.
"Behind the Scenes: Gobekli Tepe," a slight making-of centered around the archeological dig in eastern Turkey, is broken into four brief bits. The simply titled "Location Interview" (2:44) finds producer Mark Hedgecoe discussing his overall view of the series; "Sunrise" (2:55) is a bit of a video diary highlighting one morning's shoot; "Cranes, Cranes, Cranes" (4:09) reveals difficulties in getting the perfect crane shot; and "Nigel's Piece To Camera" (2:29) is the closest you'll get to a blooper reel, showing us that yes, even art expert documentary hosts can fumble at times. Considering the great care that went into putting this series together, limiting the behind-the-scenes stuff to a sampling of adventures at a single setting is rather disappointing.
The "Series Interview" (5:18) is a promotional piece hyping the series, featuring both Spivey and Hedgecoe. Both this and the "Behind the Scenes" shorts are presented in 1.33:1 full frame.
Finally, promos for "Building the Great Pyramid" and the BBC America cable channel play when the first disc starts up; you can skip past them if you choose.
While a bit too rambling to justify a purchase, there's enough here of interest to make this well worth watching once, especially those whose ears perk up at such a title. Rent It.