The third instalment of ITV’s Great Art aired this month. Presented by broadcaster and Artistic Director of the Royal Academy of Arts, Tim Marlow, each episode offers an in-depth look at the lives and works of household names like Picasso, Goya, Munch, Monet, and Cézanne.
The programme goes behind the scenes at exhibitions at some of the world’s most prestigious galleries and uses this as a springboard to delve into each artist’s life, speaking to art historians, family members, and using letters and diary entries to fill in the details. As well as looking at these artists’ works, a significant part of each episode explores the artists’ influences – cities, families, lovers, friends.
The places these artists lived in had a huge impact on their work. Spanish poet Manuel Rivas said, “a man’s homeland is his childhood”, which is certainly true for Pablo Picasso. Born in Málaga, he also lived in La Coruña and Barcelona, and the social contrasts of the latter were an influence on his work, particularly the Blue Period. Picasso settled permanently in Paris in 1904, where he changed “completely” as an artist; the difference between the culture in the French capital compared to Barcelona was immense at this time.
Almost a century earlier, Francisco Goya travelled from Spain to Italy to study the old masters, while Edvard Munch got a scholarship to study painting in Paris after his first successful piece of work. In the French capital, he engaged in impressionism and other newer, more radical styles.
For Claude Monet and his contemporaries, this sense of place was on a much smaller scale: the garden. The series stresses the ways gardening was an art form to these artists and describes Monet’s garden as a kind of “natural sculpture”. However, this episode, ‘The Modern Garden: from Monet to Matisse’, was probably my least favourite – it was too broad, featuring multiple artists, and lacked the depth of the other episodes. 50 minutes exploring the life of just Monet, for example, would have been much more rewarding.
Illness and death is another common denominator across the lives of these artists. Picasso’s Blue Period was fuelled by tragedy; this part of his career came after the death by suicide of a close friend, Carlos Casagemas. Meanwhile, Goya had a near death experience with illness in 1819, which is thought to have been the influence for paintings of Black Period. However, no one knows why he made these “nightmarish visions”; who they were for, or even if they were meant to be seen.
Munch’s father struggled with depression during his childhood, and he claimed this is where his own mental health problems originated. He also lost his mother and sister to tuberculosis at a young age, the latter of which inspired his first – albeit unpopular – exhibited painting, ‘The Sick Child’. Later in life, he had a tumultuous romantic relationship with Tulla Larsen, and much of his art reflects troubled relations between men and women.
There are some fascinating insights into these artists’ interior lives in this series – I learnt a lot from it, discovering the stories behind iconic works I’d only seen in pixelated form on the internet.
However, there are five episodes in this run of Great Art, and not a single one features a female artist. A quick Google search reveals that the same can be said for the previous two seasons – that’s 15 episodes and zero women.
Of course, all of those featured are great artists whose effect on the art world has been immense. But looking at the line-up for a series like this makes you think: who gets these programmes made about them? Who gets to have their story told and retold, again and again?
Episodes 1 – 4 of Great Art (Series 3) are available to stream on the ITV Hub now.