Episode 1: La Primavera -- Sandro Botticelli's allegorical masterpiece was painted in Florence, probably in the 1480s. It was one of the first large secular works since Greek and Roman times and featured the first sensual female figures of the Renaissance in a city awash with pious Christian images. Now over half a millennium old, it remains one of the most perplexing and enigmatic of all the great paintings. Why did Botticelli -- whose previous art was confined to conventional Christian images and portraits of the wealthy and powerful -- paint the groundbreaking Primavera? This program explains how, in the 1970s, a painting fixed above an ornamental daybed cited in a centuries-old inventory from a Medici house was recognized as being La Primavera, shedding new light on its creation.
Episode 2: The Battle of San Romano -- Created in Florence almost 600 years ago, this is an extraordinary record of how war was waged and an artistic breakthrough in the early Renaissance. Uccello's three paintings of the battle were the first to have the newly discovered laws of linear perspective applied to an outdoor scene. The artful arrangement of broken lances on the battlefield creates a believable sense of receding space in the midst of chaos. The paintings recount, and have themselves, a troubled history, but they still retain the power to enchant and disturb today. Uccello's style has been likened to Cubism and Futurism, his horses compared to Picasso's, and his lances to the Blue Poles of Jackson Pollock.
Episode 3: The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci -- Perhaps the most lionized, analyzed, and parodied of all Christ-centered artworks, with almost as much controversy about how it has been restored as in how it was created. Preparatory drawings and Leonardo's own notes reveal he used live models for the disciples and two different models for Christ. Sometimes he remained on the scaffolding for the whole day, forgetting to come down to eat or drink. But on other days, he would add only a few brushstrokes. But even during Leonardo's own lifetime, The Last Supper had begun to deteriorate.
Episode 4: The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca -- By common consent, this is considered one of the great religious pictures. The artist shows the risen Christ standing upright in his sarcophagus, with one foot poised on its rim. He is wearing a pink funeral shroud, and in his right hand he holds a flag with a red cross on a white background, which symbolizes his triumph over death. This is no idealized depiction of Christ. Blood continues to drip form the wound in his side, and naturalistic folds have appeared in his belly because of his raised left leg. His face is particularly striking. The bags under his staring eyes suggest that he has not slept, his nose looks flattened, and his beard is not well tended. Writer Aldous Huxley, who considered this "the greatest picture in the world," noted Christ's "physical and intellectual power." Piero painted the sleeping soldiers very close to the foreground; the unbalanced figure at the right seems about to tumble right out of the picture. By placing them in a variety of poses, the artist manages to keep them all unaware of Christ's presence.
Episode 1: The Night Watch -- Rembrandt's painting of a group of part-time soldiers setting out on parade is perhaps one of the world's greatest group portraits. It rivets all who come to see it and, in its own country, it has the status of a national symbol. This program tells the biography of the painting, from its conception in 1642 to its position today as the supreme painting in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. However, the painting is not actually the picture Rembrandt intended people to see. There are bits missing....
Episode 2: The Art of Painting -- When Vermeer had nothing to offer a rich French visitor at his studio, experts believe he became determined to paint a picture so amazing that no buyer would ever walk away empty-handed. The Art of Painting was the result -- his only picture that portrays an artist with a model. It is a pyrotechnical display of a painter's skills, and just how he achieved perfect perspective has been the subject of intense speculation and experiment for years. Vermeer must have cherished this painting because he kept it all his life, refusing to sell it despite great poverty. Much later, it also proved to be Hitler's favorite; he outbid Goering to acquire it.
Episode 3: The Rokeby Venus -- One of the most celebrated nudes in Western art, the painting was unknown until the beginning of the 20th Century. The artist was Velázquez, court painter to Phillip IV of Spain at a time when the Inquisition did not sanction the depiction of the naked female form. The work was first recorded in 1651 in the collection of a decadent aristocrat. During the Napoleonic Wars, it was brought to England and sold to Mr. Morritt of Rokeby Hall. The family put it on sale at the turn of the 19th century, and at last the Venus gained respectability when the National Art Collection Fund purchased it for the nation after a personal intervention by the king.
Masterpieces 1800 to 1850:
Episode 1: The Third of May 1808 -- The Third of May 1808 was the first painting to put the victims of war center stage. Painted in 1814 by Don Francisco Goya, the chief court painter to the Bourbon royal family of Spain, the picture was far removed from the conventional expectations of a war painting. Instead of glorifying the king, the army, or the state, Goya focused on a group of frightened, anonymous men being shot at point-blank range by a firing squad. Although the painting was an official commission for the king, he wanted nothing to do with it.
Episode 2: Liberty Leading the People -- Perhaps the most famous of all revolutionary paintings, Liberty Leading the People features the bare-breasted Liberty leading an odd mixture of Parisian rebels. Widely seen as portraying the French Revolution and later the model for Marianne, it was in fact drawn from the rising of 1830. Delacroix's Liberty meets all the requirements of the day. She combines classical good looks, the impassioned gaze of the visionary, and the attributes of an energetic, young Mother Nation. At her feet lies the rubble of the old order, plus a few of its dead or dying foot soldiers. The painting both shocked and inspired. Hidden for many years, it is now the most famous icon of uprising.
Episode 3: The Great Wave -- Possibly the most famous Far Eastern image in art, Katsushika Hokusai's woodblock painting depicts human vulnerability in the face of nature, with three fragile cargo boats about to be swamped by a giant wave. Hokusai was aged 70 when he created The Great Wave. He had been retired for some time but had been ruined by a profligate grandson who gambled away all his money. Homeless and destitute, Hokusai resumed work and designed The Great Wave as part of his celebrated sketchbook of works, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, begun in the 1820s. He was operating in a low-status, popular art market, with no notion that his image would have profound influence on Western art, nor that it would be endlessly reproduced, borrowed, and adapted around the world nearly two centuries later.
Masterpieces 1851 to 1900:
Episode 1: Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe -- Edouard Manet's masterpiece broke all the rules and forever changed the way nudes were painted. One of the most famous, curious, and controversial images ever depicted, it created a scandal upon its Paris debut. Manet's unconventional portrayal of women as brazen and modern immediately established his reputation. Today the painting still has the power to divide opinion amongst art historians as they continue to ponder the meaning and the motive of this baffling work.
Episode 2: Whistler's Mother -- Whistler's famous painting of his elderly, Puritan mother is one of the most satirized paintings of all time. Yet when his somber masterpiece was first unveiled, it was seen as a radical departure from the sentimental images beloved of the Victorians, which Whistler loathed. Provocatively entitled An Arrangement in Grey and Black, it was considered outrageous when it was first exhibited in 1871. But then, much of Whistler's work baffled the critics and scandalized the public. However, the painting is now regarded as a precursor of abstract art, the first example of American image-making, and a powerful icon of motherhood.
Episode 3: The Scream -- A disturbing image of an androgynous screaming figure, Edvard Munch's notorious painting supplied the 20th century with one of its icons -- the scream symbolizing the expression of political protest and social criticism as well as the stresses of modern life. This documentary traces its eventful existence, from its late-19th-century origins to its present-day significance. It also traces the troubled life of the Norwegian artist, who was haunted by the death of one sister and the mental illness of another, and who made endless copies of The Scream. Tracey Emin and Camille Pagila are among those who testify to its continuing power.
Episode 1: Dance at the Moulin de la Galette -- Described as the most beautiful picture of the 19th Century, Dance at the Moulin de la Galette is loved around the world for its joie de vivre. Painted by Auguste Renoir in 1876, it depicts a lively Sunday afternoon at the Moulin de la Galette dance hall in Montmartre. But, as the program reveals, though the painting has celebratory tone, Paris was then still recovering from its most bloody and turbulent time, and the Moulin de la Galette dance hall had been at the center of it all.
Episode 2: The Sunflowers -- Van Gogh's masterpiece is one of the most famous works of art in the world, but few people know the hidden history behind the painting. Inspired by a bunch of flowers that the artist found lying in a gutter, The Sunflowers was a product of Van Gogh's friendship with fellow artist Paul Gauguin, with whom he dreamt of setting up an artists' school in Arles, France. Within two months, however, the pair had fallen out and parted on bad terms. Shortly afterwards, Van Gogh ended his own life. At the funeral, his coffin was covered in the sunflowers he loved so much, and it was only after his tragic death that Van Gogh's work finally received the acclaim it deserved.
Episode 3: La Grande Jatte -- This enormous picture by Georges Seurat is one of the most enigmatic works of the 19th century. As Gloria Groom of the Art Institute of Chicago explains, "It is a weird image and things don't make sense and the space doesn't make sense and the proportions of the people don't make sense but it also has this wonderful totality about it." Although seemingly a simple scene of bourgeois leisure, some believe there are puns at work within the picture, casting a very different light.
Masterpieces of the 20th Century:
Episode 1: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon -- Widely regarded as the beginning of modern art, Pablo Picasso's masterpiece is a startling image of five prostitutes in a brothel. Created when he was just 26, the famous work was the result of an intense rivalry between Picasso and Henri Matisse. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon shattered the image of the female form in painting. The contorted, angular bodies of the prostitutes in Picasso's work were a far cry from the curvaceous, sensuous nudes that had adorned galleries for centuries.
Episode 2: The Kiss -- Klimt's Kiss is one of the iconic images of 20th-century art. Used in posters and postcards, it is his bestselling image. Klimt's pictures in all sell more posters and postcards than those of any other artist, including Van Gogh and Monet. The Kiss tells volumes about turn-of-the-century Vienna and its attitude to sex. The city of Freud was crawling with prostitutes but at the same time was conservative about sexual relations. Klimt was regarded as the most risqué and outrageous of all artists working in the city -- at least until he was outdone by his friend Egon Schiele. He portrayed women as sensually aware, in a marked departure from the classical tradition.
Episode 3: The Christ of St. John of the Cross -- Dalí -- The first of two extraordinary Crucifixions painted by Dalí in the early 1950s. In it, he claimed that he had a "cosmic dream" in which he saw that the nucleus of the atom is no other than Christ himself. He found this confirmed by a drawing of the crucified Christ by St. John of the Cross, the 16th-century Spanish mystic, which Dalí interpreted as a triangle inside a circle. Working from this, he arrived at his extraordinary perspective, unique in art, in which Christ is seen from above, making an inverted triangle. All was set above a Dalí-esque landscape, complete with figure taken out of the Velázquez painting and another from a Le Nain drawing.
Masterpieces of Sculpture:
Episode 1: Michelangelo's David -- It is one of art's most noted pieces, but it took failures by two sculptors before Michelangelo completed the work in the early 16th century. The cathedral committee demanded the addition of strategic copper fig leaves. Since then, David has been stoned; survived a nose job; and lost his big toe to an attacker in 1990. This documentary reveals the techniques Michelangelo used to recreate the human body so accurately on such a vast scale, and how contrasting interpretations view it as a symbol of either military might or of freedom.
Episode 2: The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen -- The cause of a major scandal when it was first exhibited in Paris in 1881, Edgar Degas's sculpture Petite danseuse de quatorze ans is now rightly recognized as one of the most important works produced during the 19th century. By using real fabric and real hair to complete the groundbreaking work, Degas blurred the distinction between art and life and paved the way for modern sculpture. Also revealed is the tragic story of the young model, 14-year-old Marie van Goetham, on whom The Little Dancer was based.
Episode 3: The Kiss -- Rodin's sensual sculpture, inspired by Dante's tale of the adulterous Paolo and Francesca, depicts lovers forever intertwined in the Inferno. The film re-creates Rodin's studio in which he developed the piece before carving several versions in marble for a Paris exhibition. The one on display at Tate Modern, London, features particularly distinct male genitalia, which caused an outcry when it was first shown in England. The film also includes archival footage of The Kiss wrapped in string by artist Cornelia Parker.