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ArtPoints reviews Athena Media's DVD set

"Understanding Art: Impressionism"


I can think of a number of art education titles where, in spite of a vigorous attempt at entertainment, the material was dry, the production values low and presentation of the art, out of focus, poorly lighted and badly framed. Understanding Art: Impressionism is entertaining, informative, amusing, and brilliantly written, edited, filmed. I love this series.


I liked this series, Waldemar Januszczak with his charming British accent is knowledgeable, entertaining, witty and warm. My only criticism is that I would have like more discussion of the changes in politics that informed the Impressionists, such as the influence of the Revolution of 1848 and the resulting feeling that the common man is as just a subject for art as the moneyed classes. The discussion of the women artists in the movement, while touched upon in the series, was more comprehensively covered in the enclosed booklet.

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My favorite quote from the film series is that for the impressionists “The present is just as important as the past”

The Impressionists introduced humor and a youthful spirit into the visual arts, they worked to turn the older forms on their head as a rejection of the traditional subject matter. This series discusses the importance and significance of art in altering world views and supporting the changes taking place as modern optimism replaced the older, more somber and pessimistic outlooks. Some of this optimism is still with us in our post-modern era of disillusion and dissociation since the First World War. Some of Impressionist sensibility has persisted and can still be seen around us, as the film points out, perhaps only in candy wrappers and tea tins but it is still here.


There were many revolutions in the 19th century and the series covers each of them and explores the impact the technological and social changes had on art and the evolution of the Impressionist aesthetic.

Paint tubes enabled artists to go into the countryside with paints preserved in metal tubes for quick access and a greater variety of colors. Ferrules allowed brushes to advance from the simple rounds to a greater selection included what today we call flats, increasing how paint could be applied to canvas for new and innovative technique.

Photography for reference, painting kits with folding easels and access to new and novel locations by the increasing ubiquitous trains all combined to develop a new approach to art. The introduction of many of the tools still in use such as the color wheel and optics. Books on the science of art, theories on lines, theories on the meaning of color came into vogue at this time.


While many of these artistic tools remain with us much unchanged and much in use, an interesting discussion would revolve around our current revolution in artistic materials and techniques from the digital revolution.


Manet and other Impressionists actually returned to pre-modern forms, not only in reinterpretation of classic masterpieces but also by the inclusion of biblical and pagan symbols, literacy in these symbols and their meaning can be an aid in understanding the meaning of Impressionist work.


Teenagers and students, particularly those young people with a passion for art also have a passion for Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh, while actually a post-impressionist is covered in depth in this series, the entire third disk is dedicated to his life and work.


It is revealing why this is important to young people, van Gogh was an outlier, never accepted in his lifetime, his work moved beyond much of what was being created in his time including by the impressionists. He attempted to infuse his work with the maximum amount of emotion. As an artist, in the biography we have all been exposed to, he went from being misunderstood and unaccepted to becoming considered one of history’s greatest artists. What art student, what aspiring artist, feeling misunderstood and, even, disapproved of by some of their peers, would not look to van Gogh as an inspiration and model? This series clarifies much of the van Gogh story. In my opinion artists are not outliers, they are creative minds struggling to express their vision. Van Gogh's personality was not the reason for his creativity and was instead a hindrance to his success. This biography of van Gogh, reveals him to be disorganized, eccentric and irascible, a frequenter of brothels and bars, sometimes even cruel. His life is not one to be emulated.


I would find this series useful for art history teachers and libraries, of course. It is also wildly entertaining and informative, of interest to anyone with a lay interest in art history and Impressionism.

Understanding Art: Impressionism, Athena Learning, narrated by Waldemar Januszczak on three standard DVDs, 239 minutes. 
For more information Click Here

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