A&E Makes Strong Impression with 'Biography' Special

Article excerpt

Byline: Ted Cox

The Impressionist painters, once the most daring and revolutionary of artists, are now among the most conventional. Impressionist exhibits, like the one coming to the Art Institute later this year, are cattle calls that attract hordes of visitors, most of whom will devote no more thought to the paintings than a cow chewing its cud.

After all, who doesn't like looking at pretty pictures?

So the temptation must be great for a cable channel like A&E to turn a miniseries on the Impressionists into a cheap and easy way to attract viewers. Show a few paintings, tell a few charming anecdotes about the artists' money-scrounging days and - voila - it's a special sure to garner big ratings with a minimum of effort.

So give credit to A&E and especially producer-writer-director Bruce Alfred for how good "The Impressionists" turns out to be. The two-part, four-hour miniseries, presented as a "Biography" special at 8 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Monday, doesn't settle for the pat or the easy. Instead, it strives to make a viewer appreciate just how revolutionary these artists were in their days. It also shows that, like all revolutions, theirs was not just a product of genius, but also of luck, necessity and simple pragmatism.

"The Impressionists" employs the usual documentary methods Ken Burns has made so familiar on television. It mixes still photos with music (such as Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition") and narration with quotes from letters and articles from the era (Amy Irving, for instance, provides the voice of Berthe Morisot), as well as the commentary of modern-day experts. It also drops in a few tasteful re-enactments of scenes where they can be done without being too intrusive or drawing attention to themselves. Yet it is distinguished most by the Impressionistic camera work - such as the pink sunset over a river that opens the documentary - and, of course, by the paintings.

Pretty pictures are one thing. Great works of art are something else entirely, and "The Impressionists" has them in abundance. It goes well beyond the admittedly excellent collection most Chicago viewers are probably already familiar with at the Art Institute.

It also tells a long story with an arc as subtly engaging as that famous Japanese bridge in Monet's garden. It's about how five or so painters - Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pissarro and Morisot, as well as Manet, who would later be lumped in among them - came together with a like-minded purpose, allied themselves against the powers that be of the French art world, triumphed and then splintered apart.

It makes a case right away for their importance. "Impressionism is now seen as a very comfortable art. We love it, we find it very serene and pleasing," says art historian Richard Kendall. "Impressionist art, when it happened, was the toughest, most radical, most challenging art of any period in history. It was one of the big breaks in the history of art. And I think, looking back at the Impressionist artists, the thing that still impresses me is just how brave they were, how courageous they were in putting their careers on the line."

Monet was probably the one authentic genius in the bunch - a skilled draftsman and painter who knew he was destined for greatness. …