Understanding Art: Impressionism
Acorn Media // Unrated // $59.99 // September 18, 2012
Review by Randy Miller III | posted September 11, 2012
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I've never fallen completely asleep in class, but the closest I came on a regular basis was in art history. My college instructor was sputtering through her final semester after God-knows-how-many decades of faithful service...so at the very least, we took one for those lucky young pups sixth months behind us. She wasn't dull in the "Ben Stein from The Wonder Years" sense, but her delivery style would've knocked just about anyone out before 10:00 am. Sadly, first impressions can make or break any subject inside or outside school...and for most folks, one mention of "art history" will empty the room like a fire drill.

In the right hands, though, any dull subject can be as exciting as one you're already interested in. I've seen and reviewed great documentaries on everything from compulsive adoption to coal miners on strike, so anything's possible. Luckily, the branch of history covered in Athena's Understanding Art is a relatively accessible one: Impressionism, a popular French-born movement that began more than 150 years ago (and wasn't so popular back then). This four-part series is hosted by art critic Waldemar Januszczak, whose entertaining presentation style is as far from "coma-inducing" as possible. Understanding Art should have no problem holding the attention of outsiders, but interested parties will have more fun.

Episodes include "The Gang of Four" (Pissarro, Renoir, Monet, Bazille), "The Great Outdoors", "Painting the People" and "The Final Flourish". What's most interesting about these episodes is that a balance between 'standard biopic' and 'contextual analysis' is maintained quite well: we get a layered picture of not only who these painters were, but how and why their actions were so noteworthy. Other featured artists include Monet, Degas, Seurat, Manet and Van Gogh...and just for good measure, the latter are expanded upon during "Vincent: The Full Story" and "Manet: The Man That invented Modern Art", also included.

Understanding Art: Impressionism is a humbling experience at times, considering the origins of certain painters and their difficult task of obtaining supplies. Even so, these hour-long episodes manage to feel more inspiring than your average documentary, thanks in part to their light, breezy tone and layers of interesting details. Acorn Media presents this series as a three-DVD set; while it frustratingly falls short in the visual department, everything else about this release is as strong as the production itself.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Each of these four episodes has been presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays...but other than that, there's not much to write home about. Frustratingly enough, we don't get visually stunning results: the color palette is relatively dull and flat, image detail is only average and frequent digital combing proves to be distracting during close-ups of many paintings. If those problems weren't enough, macro blocks and compression artifacts can also be spotted along the way. Content like this almost demands the detail of Blu-Ray, but I'd have settled for at least a stronger 480p effort.

The audio aims low but hits the mark. Dialogue and music cues are relatively crisp without fighting for attention, while this Dolby Digital 2.0 mix features decent channel separation and no glaring defects. Optional English subtitles are also included, which should prove helpful for easy artist identification.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

Seen below, the menu designs feature simple design, easy navigation and relatively quick loading time. Each 60-minute episode is divided into less than a dozen chapters and no obvious layer changes were present. Each of the three discs is housed in a slim keepcase with one-sided artwork and everything fits inside an outer slipcover. A handy 24-page Viewer's Guide is also tucked inside for quick reference.

Bonus Features

Only two extras are included, but their length and entertainment value add a considerable amount of value to this package overall. These include a pair of Bonus Programs entitled "Vincent: The Full Story" (146 minutes) and "Manet: The Man That invented Modern Art" (90 minutes). These obviously go into great detail regarding each artist's personal and professional life, adding a number of much-needed layers to the lighter coverage they received during the earlier episodes. Unfortunately, a number of the visual problems from the main program return here...but on the whole, these two are well worth watching.

Final Thoughts

Art history is often seen by outsiders as dull and sleep-inducing, but Understanding Art is entertaining, engaging and, yes, educational more often than not. Though seasoned art buffs probably won't learn anything new, this four-part production is terrific for beginning or intermediate viewers...and when that's over, the extras devote even more attention to two of Impressionism's finest. Acorn Media's three-disc set stumbles in the A/V department, but everything else about it makes this a Recommended title.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey from Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.

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