Ultimately your attitude to the BBC’s 2011 documentary Understanding Art: Impressionism will depend upon your reaction to its omnipresent writer, director, and narrative host, Sunday Times art critic, Waldemar Januszcak. The four-episode documentary (now available in the U.S. for the first time from Athena) about the major art movement of the 19th century is dominated by Januszcak. If you cut out all the footage of him trudging breathlessly up hills and rocks and steps, gallivanting around to the current sites featured in Impressionist painting, eating baguettes, and striking poses, you could probably eliminate at least one of those episodes.
It’s not that he doesn’t speak with authority, nor even that he lacks all charm, it is simply that he completely dominates the series. With few exceptions he avoids gathering the usual talking heads that provide commentary in the typical documentary, and does it all himself. For all intents and purposes, his voice is the only voice you hear, and after four episodes (not to mention the bonus material) his voice and its breathless tics get a bit old—at least as far as this viewer is concerned. One more shot of him lumbering through the countryside tracing the steps of Monet or posing on the river bank in imitation of a Seurat idler in the afternoon, and I’m ready to shout: “Enough Waldemar.” At the very least I find him distracting, at worst self absorbed.
On the other hand when he does focus on the artists and their work, he can be both informative, illuminating, even entertaining in small doses. The first episode, “The Gang of Four,” looks at the work of Pissarro, Bazille, Monet and Renoir. It emphasizes the radical change their paintings signaled from the conventional academic style dominating the art establishment. Episode 2 takes the painters to “The Great Outdoors,” explaining how new developments in artistic equipment like paint squeezed into tubes, portable paint kits and folding easels enabled the painters to get out of the studio and into the city and the countryside.
The third episode, “Painting the People” shows how they looked beyond landscape for subjects—Degas’ ballet dancers, Caillebotte’s floor scrapers, Renoir’s revelers. “The Final Flourish,” Episode 4, deals with Pointillism and the work of Georges Seurat, some of the early work of Van Gogh, and Monet’s Water Lilies.
All episodes are illustrated by a broad selection of the artists’ work from collections all over the world, as well as an abundance of footage of the places where they lived and worked. We get to see many of the actual scenes that inspired their paintings, although in some cases what we see now is not much like what they saw then. This is especially true of the city scenes.
Bonus material in the three-disc set, besides an informative booklet on the Impressionists and a short biography of Januszcak, includes a full-length 90-minute feature on Edouard Manet. Although he didn’t call himself an Impressionist and didn’t exhibit with them, Manet is often associated with the movement, and was as much revolutionary in his own way. His famous Olympia caused as much a furor as anything the full-fledged Impressionists did, if not more so.
There is also a three-episode examination of the life and work of Vincent van Gogh, Vincent: The Full Story, which runs about two and a half hours. Both films follow the same pattern of the main series—equal amounts of Januszcak combined with the ostensible objects of the film.
A note about the Van Gogh bonus disc: the 2004 film was produced before the publication of the 2011 book Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, which made the case that Van Gogh’s death might not have been suicide. It does however make very clear the fact that Van Gogh was impossible to get along with, presaging the psychological problems that dominated his final years. Both the Manet and Van Gogh films make excellent supplements to the main series, and if you find Waldemar entertaining, you get a whole lot more of him.