Understanding Art: Hidden Lives of Masterpieces is an interesting in-depth five part series that explores works of art in the Louvre in great detail. The documentary series is compelling and highly educational in a wonderfully entertaining way. The five artists being explored are Raphael, Rembrandt, Nicolas Poussin, Jean-Antione Watteau, and Leonardo da Vinci.
The premise of Understanding Art: Hidden Lives of Masterpieces is simple yet provocative; bring the art off the wall and to the people in order to see what cannot be seen from a distance. And in all but one episode, they do just that. The art is removed from the wall, taken out of its frame, and placed at eye level for art historians, curators, scientists, and restorers to discuss and explore. These professionals are given the ability to look at not only the front of the art but also the back, x-rays pictures, infrared pictures, as well as extreme close-up’s using computers. All of this technology reveals interesting information about the pieces of art as well as the artists themselves.
Throughout the documentary, the techniques (both old and new) are explained through simple narration and almost stick figure drawings, some of which can be quite humorous. You learn as much by these small tidbits of sideline narration as through the discussions of the professionals. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the rest is not just as informative. Listening to the recorded conversations of art professionals debating on a piece of artwork is both entertaining and compelling. If there was ever debate on whether artwork from the past is still alive, listening to these conversations will help you to make up your mind: it is. The debates and at times, professional arguments, prove this to be true.
One of the most interesting aspects of the documentary was when the paintings were turned around backwards and the professionals began discussing the backings. There were paintings on wood, canvas, and planks. Within the documentary they discuss the positive and negative aspects of using the various types of backings. What would happen to them with age and how they can be further restored or at least preserved as they are now. For instance, wood can get bugs in it or canvas will warp with age. Along with these considerations about the backing there is also the fact that the paint being used actually took decades to fully dry. This caused the backings to further warp and bubble if not taken care of properly. The effect on the art just from the decision of what kind of backing to use is made obvious.
The Athena release of Understanding Art: Hidden Lives of Masterpieces is a two DVD set including five episodes; “Raphael”, “Rembrandt”, “Poussin”, “Watteau”, and “Leonardo”. The set also includes a sixteen page booklet which contains information that can further your learning. The booklet discusses the genesis of the series, the tools that professionals use to analyze the paintings, developments and controversies surrounding art restorations, the art of attributing Rembrandts, as well as biographies of the five artists featured in the set.