Private Life of a Masterpiece is a BBC award-winning arts documentary series that tells the stories behind great works of art reaching from the Renaissance to modern art.
Behind beautiful canvases and sculptures lie tales of political revolution, wartime escapes, massive ego clashes, social scandal, financial wrangling and shocking violence.
In this fascinating series, the truth behind many seminal works of art is uncovered, illuminating little-known facts and surprising revelations – the history, contemporary reactions, and legacies of each are illustrated. The series reveals the full and fascinating stories behind famous works of art, not just how they came to be created, but also how they influenced others and came to have a life of their own in the modern world.
Fulmar Television & Film Production for BBC Wales
Part 1: The Annunciation
The story of The Annunciation by Jan van Eyck, from around 1434-1436. The first moment in the Christmas story is the arrival of the Archangel Gabriel to tell Mary that she has been chosen to give birth to the son of God. Many painters have depicted this event, none better than the great Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck.
Van Eyck’s The Annunciation is a stunning painting, packed with complex imagery. And behind this extraordinary image lies an even more complicated story, worthy of any spy novel. Showing Archangel Gabriel telling Mary that she will bear the son of God, the picture is full of symbols and half-concealed messages. Today it is in the National Gallery of Art, in Washington D.C.
Part 2: Census at Bethlehem
A look at Census at Bethlehem by Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1566. The picture shows the arrival of Mary and Joseph in the town and also shows a Dutch village under the rule of a foreign army. The issue of Bruegel’s political engagement is still a hot topic. Some scholars believe that the Census is an attack on Spanish occupation and oppression of the Netherlands in the mid-16th Century. When Bruegel was dying, he apparently instructed his wife to destroy some of his work, which might get her into trouble.
The painting teems with human life as the best Bruegels do, but it also speaks to the 21st century in an extraordinary way. Acquired in 1902, it is currently held and exhibited at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.
Part 3: God’s Child
This film tells the story of Gauguin and his painting “God’s Child,” a reinterpretation of the nativity scene in which he used his 14-year-old, pregnant Tahitian mistress as his model. Scholars and critics celebrate Paul Gauguin’s “Te Tamari No Atua,” better known as “God’s Child,” painted in Tahiti in 1896. The Impressionist artist’s unorthodox painting defied traditional representations of the Christmas Nativity. God’s Child explores the most unusual feature of the painting which is the way that it presents Mary. Traditionally, decorum prevented Mary from being depicted as if she had really gone through the painful experience of labour, but Gauguin’s Mary is clearly worn out from the process of giving birth. It was also extremely daring to show Mary partially naked in a Nativity scene.
This is a Nativity, and since it is by Paul Gauguin, it is modern and fresh like few recent nativities. This painting is intensely personal. The Madonna is Gauguin’s young Polynesian mistress, who was pregnant with his child. It is a brilliant departure in other ways from traditional nativities, relevant to the contemporary world.