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More than meets the eye

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Every Picture Tells a Story is an eight part series on paintings written and presented by British art critic Waldemar Januszczak. As the “zcz” part of his name indicates, Januszczak is of Polish parentage, but speaks with a strong London accent. He’s young(ish), sports a crew cut and an ear stud, and wears decidedly loud shirts. He’s opinionated, pours scorn on many accepted conventions about masterpieces of art, and is altogether a lively, even startling, presenter.

Januszczak is very well known in the UK as an art critic, so it is worth while pointing out just what he is doing in this series, which dates, by the way, to 2004. Waiting nine years before I got to watch it is about usual for me. He’s not offering art criticism here.

There are a number of possible way of presenting this kind of material to a general audience. The conventional way is to focus on the technology of art, and individual painter’s techniques which in some cases were revolutionary and influential. This is seen also in some film criticism, full of references to dolly shots (the camera moved on a trolly) and mise en scene (set design). I sympathise with this kind of film criticism, for I realise the critic is like me, and fantasises about being a film director. But applied to painting I find it completely boring, because I don’t know one end of the brush from the other. In fact I am the ideal subject for a documentary series on painting, because I am relatively unresponsive to it. My big discovery in art is that it’s not much good looking at reproductions of paintings in books or posters: you have to see them, in the flesh as it were. In the days of travelling exhibitions this is now more possible than ever. I can personally vouch for the kind of electric shock a Van Gogh exhibition gives you, or the rise of spirits the blue of Hiroshige evokes, or the stimulation engendered by a drawing of Leonardo, all of it lost in reproduction.

I believe these painters are truly immortal, and are present with their pictures in some mysterious way.

Another approach to presenting this kind of material is to embed the paintings in social history, give a “life and times” sketch that explains how and where the painting was produced. This appeals to  many people’s interest in human nature and general knowledge of history, but rather under emphasises the actual painting. This second approach at first sight seems like that of Januszczak in this series: he tells a number of “stories” about paintings, and Januszczak tells stories as if it were going out of fashion, often his own idiosyncratic views of the subject.

But no. In Every Picture Tells a Story Waldemar Januszczak is really focused on the painting he talks about. But he doesn’t tell you about how it was painted or why it is important. His “story” each time is a kind of koan. He wants you to see the painting. As TS Eliot might have said: “this is the reason of all our examination, to arrive at the place from where we started and see it for the first time”. It’s the shock of the new Janusczak is after. What it means to us he leaves for us to decide. (Funny how great poetry is always great prophecy. I read on in Little Gidding: …At the source of the longest river/The voice of the hidden waterfall/And the children in the apple-tree/Not known, because not looked for…)

It turns out, in Januszczak’s telling of it, that each painting is about religion, sex and politics, and in about that order of importance. Come to think of it, isn’t all art really about religion, sex and politics?

Birth of Venus (part) 1485

Each painting is given 24 minutes. Each episode starts with a bit of quasi musical electronica and a speeded up camera view of Januszczak travelling to the exhibition space where the painting he wants to see is located. It’s a bit unsettling. A sub text we should not miss is an ironic referral to the way dozens, sometimes hundreds, of paintings are squashed into an exhibition space, and solemnly inspected by respectful viewers trying to see what all the fuss is about. It’s this respectful context that Januszczak is trying to kill, with his scandalous stories, loud shirts and electronica. Because it hurts the paintings. They are above all paintings, not icons.

1. Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe of 1863, and who the naked woman is on whom the composition is focused, why she is naked (the painting was originally called The bath, but that’s not it) and whom the painting was aimed at.
2. The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp of 1632, and who the spectators are at the dissection, as well as the reason why they would want to be so portrayed, with some reflections on religious imagery in the composition.
3. The Tempest of 1506, an unfinished, rather mysterious composition by “Big George”, Giorgione, and why it is not a self portrait, but again, a religious allegory (religion bulks large in most of these paintings).
4. Mr and Mrs Andrews of 1750, a Gainsborough portrait that is a whole lot more than a portrait, and in which Januszczak sees a lot in the expression of Mrs Andrews’ mouth that doesn’t seem wholly justified.
5. The Birth of Venus of 1485, for me the best episode of the series, in which we learn why the subject is not the birth of Venus, the strange shape of the goddess’ body, and why men fall in love with her representation.
6. The Mona Lisa of 1506, for me the most disappointing episode, which is about, not the painting itself, but its reputation, and that of Leonardo. Leonardo is disparaged with no reference to the dangerous times in which he lived, and the painting has become famous, Januszczak tells us, only because it was stolen.
7. The Arnolfini Marriage of 1434, why it is not a marriage but a commemoration of a death, the part fruit played in painters’ compositions and, again, the religious significance of the composition.
8. Boy Bitten By a Lizard of 1600, who the boy really is, why Caravaggio was so subversive as a painter (and obnoxious as a human being), and the melancholy moral buried in the painting’s composition.

The filming is spectacular. Watching the paintings was not as visceral as being there, but they had far more impact than any reproduction I’ve ever seen. I would have liked more of the painting and less of Januszczak’s talking head, but it was a sensual experience to see the paintings, and I saw more because of Januszczak’s “story”.

mr and mrs andrews 1749

I viewed the Readers Digest edition of the series, which was a mistake. Their edition comes on three disks (70m, 70m and 50m per disk), not the two disks of other editions, and is missing the full colour booklet of resource material and reproductions of the paintings, as well as the DVD extras, the “making of” featurette and artists’ biographies, and it  costs 40% more than the current commercial release in the US. So I have no idea what the “extras” were like.

Enjoyable, stimulating, enlightening, sometimes contentious, sometimes silly, but entertaining, and recommended, even for those, like me, who are not “into” art.

The effect the series had on me is just what I think Januszczak designed for his viewers, a realisation that paintings, which seem to benefit so much from the prevalence of video reproduction, are in fact poorly served by a representation, which, while almost lifelike, isn’t. I’ll be out more in future, looking at these and other paintings, when I get a chance to, seeing the oil that is beginning to crack and chip, see the grime starting to dull the colours, marvelling that an artist can rival a poet or singer in emotional intensity merely by the way he or she spreads paint on canvas.

©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, 13 August, 2013 by in films and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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