Four Art Documentaries You Won’t Regret Watching

Re-posted from Short Compositions on Life, Art, PR and More (originally posted on 7.26.2009)

Since it’s summer and vacation time – that period of the year when we feel like accumulating new experiences, seeing and learning new things – I feel like recommending a few documentaries I watched recently and enjoyed a lot.

What I propose today is: “Mark Twain” (2000), “Stravinsky: Once at a Border” (2008), “The Impressionists” (2006) and “Frank Lloyd Wright” (1998).

“Mark Twain,” a 2000 PBS production directed by Ken Burns, is a fabulous depiction of Twain’s extraordinary life and literary legacy, covering Twain’s childhood in Missouri, his years as a journalist in California, and eventually his settling down in Hartford, Connecticut.

One defining moment in Twain’s life was his trip to Europe and the Middle East, initiated in 1867. The trip was funded by a local newspaper, and resulted in a detailed collection of travel stories called “The Innocents Abroad,” published in 1869.

The second part of the documentary focuses on Twain’s masterpiece “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” published in 1884. Writers and scholars discuss at length its significance for the American literature, with all its subtle meanings and underlying premises, as well as the victory of friendship over prejudice. To understand a literary masterpiece it seems quite essential to actually get the historical context in which it was written, as well as its setting and geography.

Overall, Twain is portrayed as the prototypical American, a man who knew financial success during his lifetime as a result of his writings, was interested in science and ventured in business enterprises, had a beautiful family and owned a big house, a man who has seen and done it all.

“Stravinsky: Once at a Border” is a 2008 documentary produced by Studio Kultur and directed by Tony Palmer, a fine compilation of Stravinsky’s most famous pieces and defining moments, both from a personal and artistic perspective. The documentary covers Stravinsky’s upbringing in Saint Petersburg, his encounter with Diaghilev, his years in Switzerland and France, and eventually his arrival to the United States. Interviews with family members, artistic collaborators and friends do reveal the great genius’ personality, how he used to work, and what he loved to do. Interviews with Stravinsky himself are used in the program, and reputable performances of “Les Noces” and “Petroushka” are also included.

“The Impressionists,” a 2006 BBC production, tells the story of Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet and Paul Cezanne, their friendship as well as their animosity and quarrels, and the naissance of a new artistic movement. 1874, a defining moment in art – a group of extremely talented painters, rejected year after year by the Salon – the official academic art show, decided to organize their own, independent event. As it often happens in life, the Impressionists weren’t at once recognized and appreciated for their talent and innovation in art. It took some time for the public to show full appreciation and fall in love with masterpieces such as “Woman with a Parasol” (Monet, 1875), “Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe” (Manet, 1863), or “A Modern Olympia” (Cezanne, 1874).

I will conclude today with “Frank Lloyd Wright,” a 1998 PBS production, again directed by Ken Burns. Family members, architects and astute architecture critics and writers discuss Wright’s masterpieces one by one. From his rising as a young architect in Chicago to the culmination with Guggenheim Museum in New York City, Wright had shown a brilliant mind and a constant determination for what he called “organic architecture,” that is harmony between human habitat and natural environment. Wright was so involved in every project he created, so that he didn’t only design the house, but everything inside it: furniture, windows, doors, tables, chairs, carpets, lamps, and even napkins. Masterpieces such as Taliesen Wisconsin and Taliesen Arizona, Larkin Building (Buffalo, NY), Johnson Wax Building (Wisconsin), Kaufmann House known as Fallingwater (Pennsylvania) and Usonian housing projects are depicted in a way that fully reveals what kind of architect Wright really was, a visionary who liked putting people in places that were both aesthetic and functional, spacious and distinguishable.