If you’re looking for a general introduction to the history of art in western civilization you can’t do much better than Art of the Western World, a nine-part documentary which appeared on PBS in 1989 and is now available on a three-DVD set from Athena. Narrated by historian Michael Wood, the series moves from the Greeks and Romans through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance right up to modern times with stops at every significant period in between. It looks at architecture, sculpture, painting and even some of the more modern forms like collages and installations.
The whole set runs for 513 minutes, but even at that length, it covers a field so vast that it would be hard to do more than provide an overview, a kind of guide for further study. Still, in an accompanying bonus booklet, producer Perry Miller Adato insists that it is more than a simple introduction. With all the scholarly expertise gathered for each episode, he is confident that “it can supply students who already know the subject with new insights.”
He may well be right. Recognizing the impossibility of showing the viewer everything of importance in any given period, the filmmakers have chosen to spend their time focusing on several representative examples in greater detail. They pay some attention to other pieces to give some idea of the breadth of period, but their focus is on specific works and their place in the culture of the period. For example, in the episode on the classical ideal in Greece they feature the Parthenon, for the Gothic period, the cathedral at Chartres, and for the early Renaissance, Donatello’s statue of David. Later episodes take intensive looks at David’s “Death of Marat”, “Seurat’s Pointillist masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” and Picasso’s revolutionary Cubist innovation, “Les demoiselles d’avignon.” Concentrating their efforts in this way allows them the kind of close analysis that often yields “new insights.” One may not always agree with their choices, but none seems completely egregious.
Rather than cluttering up the screen with talking heads, they generally find one or two experts on any given episode—professors, curators, art historians—to explain the significance of what we are being shown. For the most part their choices are excellent; not only do they know their stuff, but their explanations are usually lucid and their presentations are quite animated. This is not to say that some of their commentary is not open to question; what discussion of art is not subject to opinion? Watching Robin Middleton from Columbia University romping around Syon House is nothing if not entertaining. Listening to Griselda Pollock’s Feminist critique of 19th century French female nudes is illuminating. Italian art historian Germano Celant’s assertion that post-modern art demands faith from its audience in the same way that religion does, that if a work is in a museum you have to have faith that it belongs there, is nothing if not controversial. Wood, himself, is an engaging host who projects his own sense of the import of his subject.
The central thesis of the series demonstrates the relationship between a work of art and the social values of the culture in which it is produced. In monarchial societies portraits of rulers show them on rearing horses controlling them with one hand to emphasize their power. Formal gardens surrounding neo-classical buildings in the age of reason point to the culture’s passion for order in the universe. Genre painting develops from a desire to mythologize the ordinary. Pop art emerges as a critique of consumerism. Certainly some of the specifics are open to objection, but the general notion that a work of art is some in some central way a product of the environment in which it is created is undeniable.
Since the series is over 20 years old, there are occasional problems with the picture quality, but these are few and far between and there are some spectacular shots of works of art that more than make up for them. The filmmakers linger over paintings, panning slowly to catch as much detail as possible. They circle free-standing statues to illustrate their every curve and angle. They roam through and around the great architectural monuments of the world. They use the camera to document the environment surrounding the work. Often they show something of the settings and scenery that provided the artist’s inspiration. If the color might have been better in a shot or two, it is never so bad for so long that it becomes anything more than a minor annoyance.
As PBS documentaries go, Art of the Western World is one of the best. It manages to paint a cogent picture of an extremely large subject without oversimplifying it and talking down to the audience. Moreover it allows viewers a taste of the variety of art that may well have them hungering for more, no mean accomplishment.