Lion roaring or man snoring?

Palettes
April 5, 1996

This video series from a French production company is likely to appeal to those who enjoy looking at paintings, feel attracted to art history as a subject but would like to put a toe in the water before plunging into a full-length course of studies. Of the 24 films so far completed under the overall title of Palettes, six are currently on offer in the United Kingdom. Each tape features a great painter and examines in detail a representative example of his work. Running time is about half-an-hour per programme, and the commentary is in English.

The accompanying printed material says: "Scholarly research at the Louvre and other international museums combined with lighthearted anecdotes give the series a distinctive character both authoritative and enjoyable." That seems a reasonable summary.

The videos certainly mark an interesting advance on that other product of popular publishing in the art field, the coffee-table book. They bring to the home environment a combination of sound, moving pictures and personalised presentation which add up to something not too remote from a live lecture in a gallery: rather like having a qualified guide on permanent stand-by in the sitting-room.

Whether the vigorous use of a full range of videographic techniques actually makes the assimilation of information easier than reliance on the printed word is something individuals will have to discover for themselves. The tapes bring to the screen a dazzling array of zooms, dissolves, intercuts, overlays and the like - not to mention background music and sound effects - which hammer home their points effectively. Technical ingenuity may not be an acceptable substitute for the pleasure of seeing the original canvas, but it is worth remembering that the tapes are intended to enhance a gallery visit, not replace it.

The selection of artists and the examples of their work chosen for study are unexceptionable, if predictable: Poussin (The Four Seasons); Monet (Waterlilies); Seurat (A Sunday on La Grande Jatte); Claude (A Seaport); Leonardo (Virgin and Child) and Vermeer (The Astronomer). Focusing on individual masters makes for a smoother and more direct progression through art history than attempting to cover in detail all the major movements to which successive generations of artists have contributed. The problem is to find individuals who, however great their genius, can be seen as totally representative of their times.

The technical quality is uneven, particularly the sound. Parts of the commentaries have a curious echo, suggesting they were recorded down a well. In one passage on the Leonardo tape, the noise of a lion roaring (or could it be a man snoring?) is heard in the background for no immediately apparent reason. Some of the spoken words could be usefully replaced by silence. There is not much to be gained from hearing a voice say, as the camera lingers on a dark tree standing on the slope of a hill: "A dark tree on the slope of a hill . . ." At times the scripts appear to have been prepared for the benefit of the blind, not the sighted.

The Monet tape is notably successful, enhanced by a commentary from Sir Roger de Grey, past president of the Royal Academy, which combines authority and perception. And Monet's tumultuous colours, unabashed by the transfer to videotape, emerge as ravishing as ever.

All in all, a useful series, though not without blemishes.

Don Harker is a former director of Granada Television, who paints.

Palettes

ISBN - Cat.no 0001 (Poussin), 0002 (Monet), 0003 (Seurat), 0004 (Claude), 0005 (Leonardo), 0006 (Vermeer
Publisher - Le Channel
Price - 14.99 (1 video) £.50(2), £40.00 (3), £75.00 (all 6 (plus p&p)

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