Since 2003, the BBC has run an enlightening and totally fascinating program called The Private Life of a Masterpiece. Each 40-minute installment of that show uses a combination of talking head experts, impeccable research and deep photography to examine a single great work of art, say Da Vinci's Mona Lisa or Rodin's sculpture The Thinker. The programs delve into the artists' lives and how their particular masterpiece reflects on their other work and that of their contemporaries. That aspect in itself is pretty wonderfully done, even if some of the info presented isn't especially surprising (Whistler's mother was a sanctimonious old biddy? You don't say!). The show really excels, however, when it gets into the story of what happened with these masterpieces after their creators passed on. Detailing the way these pieces wind up being coveted, stolen, vandalized, auctioned off for obscene sums, and reproduced on millions of coffee mugs ironically reveals a lot about how us humans interact with great art.
Which brings me to Great Artists with Tim Marlow. This show shares a few similarities with The Private Life of a Masterpiece: both shows hail from the U.K., they both date from the early '00s (these episodes aired in 2001), and of course both share the canon of great European art from the Renaissance up through the late 19th century as their main subject. Marlow's program takes on a more educational angle than Private Life, with each episode recounting a single great artist's life from birth to death within a somewhat brief (25 minute) framework. Although it lacks the cheeky humor and historical insight of the other program, it's still a worthwhile view for those who already have an interest in art history. For everybody else, check out The Private Life of a Masterpiece. Go ahead, you won't be disappointed.
Great Artists stays true to its name by building the program around its host and presenter, British TV personality Tim Marlow. Normally this would make me a bit leery, but the affable Marlow serves as a knowledgeable guide who illuminates but never upstages the magnificent artwork he's chatting about. Each episode follows Marlow as he journeys to the various cities in which the artists lived. When he goes into detail on specific works of art, he is right there in front of the piece demonstrating its significance - like the world's heppest art teacher. Like the Private Life programs, the camerawork gets extremely up close with the art, often revealing details and textures that one normally wouldn't be able to see (even in a museum).
Marlow's scripts are casual and informative, if tending towards the scholarly. If there's one flaw with Marlow, it's that he tends to fixate on recurring themes in certain artists' work, such as the sensuality in Michelangelo's painting and sculpture. The straightforward approach he takes is probably better suited for the classroom, but the luscious photography can be appreciated by everyone. On-location footage of modern day European cities like Venice and Delft, many of which haven't changed much in centuries, add considerably to the look and feel of the show. The new footage sometimes creates an unfortunate juxtaposition, such as when Marlow speaks of Raphael's consorting with prostitutes while unsuspecting female tourists are seen walking about. For the most part it serves as an enticing travelogue, however.
Since each episode is less than a half hour long, the programs jump through an artist's life and work in record time. The show itself actually benefits from a relaxed, breezy tone, though - and Marlow's cheery enthusiasm about the art is infectious.
Seventh Art has packaged Great Artists with Tim Marlow in two separate volumes of two DVDs each. The 14 episodes that comprise Series One are presented as full 25-minute long installments with no chapter breaks:
Disc One - Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Disc Two - El Greco, Peter Paul Rubens, Diego Velásquez, Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, J. M. W. Turner, Vincent Van Gogh.
Great Artists Series One has a single, clean stereo soundtrack mixed in a straightforward manner with a nice balance between narration, ambient speaking and background music. No subtitle options are provided.
The 14:9 image is presented slightly letterboxed in full screen mode. The lack of anamorphic widescreen is a bummer, but the image itself boasts a clean and richly shaded picture.
This dryly informative edition of Great Artists with Tim Marlow proves itself as no The Private Life of a Masterpiece (I hate to dwell on it, but that truly is the Gold Standard of art history documentaries). Its affable host and easygoing pace make it an entertaining bet for art history novices and experts alike, however. Recommended.