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BBC Home Video presents
Sister Wendy: The Complete Collection (1992-1996)

"She doesn't interest him, ah, but the back...! And light plays on this whole beautiful body, from the long neck right down to the cleave of the buttocks, as though he sort of licked his paint adoringly over every part of her."
- Sister Wendy Beckett on Ingres' The Bather of Valpincon

Review By: debi lee mandel  
Published: June 19, 2003

Stars: Sister Wendy Beckett
Director: Tim Robinson, John Hooper, Ben Fox, David Kremer

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 09h:00m:00s
Release Date: October 15, 2002
UPC: 794051169020
Genre: art

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Sister Wendy Beckett is one of the most fascinating figures in the contemporary world of art commentary. In 1980, at the age of fifty, this South African native opened her life to her second greatest love, the world of art, and we are all the richer for it.

Do not let this timid figure fool you. Beneath the dark folds of her habit rages a deeply devoted passion—and a wellspring of intimate comprehension—of creator and creation, art and artist. Author of dozens of books on the subject of art, Sister Wendy came out of religious seclusion to host four documentary series, touring the world's art museums, churches and galleries, for the first time in her life confronting original works previously known to her only through books and reproductions.

"We know for certain that he never had an emotional relationship with a woman. Boys, yes." –on Leonardo da Vinci

This impetuous nun speaks uninhibitedly on the lives of the artists in a manner most secular critics gingerly circumvent. It's not that these details are not well known, but it seems other art historians deem them irrelevant to the work. Not our holy sister. She obviously understands that who the artist is prescribes the work. She has no personal agenda; she just states what she knows, in context. If anything, she overcompensates for the assumptions of her habit and strays further from what might be expected because of it. Her eloquent enthusiasm is more titillating than the generous surprise of her prurient observations.

In this collection, Sister Wendy gives a studied and deeply personal overview of the history of art, with a particular focus on painting. She shares wonderful insights about the artists, their time and their work, so that even those literate in the subject might discover something in her singular perspective. She tends to skip over many more famous works for other lesser-known gems of the masters; she occasionally skips over the masters to direct our attention towards more obscure painters.

To support and develop our understanding, the camera lingers over wide shots and details of the work while the sister discusses them; gorgeous vistas of the various cities add depth and historic value. Every so often, the camera captures a frame as brilliant yet subtle metaphor; other times it is ham-handed, such as placing the nun in tableaus of black and white.

Originally airing in the US on PBS, the BBC presents all four of Sister Wendy's series in one boxed set: Story of Painting, Grand Tour, Odyssey and Pains of Glass.

Discs One and Two cover Sister Wendy's Story of Painting (ten segments of approximately 30 minutes each):

In the first episode, The Mists of Time, the good sister journeys to southern France to visit Lascaux II (or faux Lascaux; the original was closed to the public in 1963 to prevent further deterioration of the original cave paintings), then to the great icons of ancient Egypt, and on to Greece, where she admires the archaic musculature of the human form. After covering Pompeii and Christian Byzantium, she ends far to the north with the Book of Kells.

In The Hero Steps Forth, our host moves on to examples of the religious and historic via Florentine gothic in Italy, including Giotto's The Lamentation, a truly exquisite portrayal of grief; in Siena, she discloses the secrets of the mutilated mural, Maestà, by Duccio, and the secular frescoes of Lorenzetti; with a brief word about St. Francis, in Assisi, Sister Wendy discusses Martini, then moves on to the Flemish town of Bruges and the end of the Middle Ages with the detailed work of Jan van Eyck, whom she describes as having a "scalpel-sharp eye." There, with Rogier van der Weyden and Hieronymus Bosch, she covers the advent of oil colors that designates the next leap in art history.

"The world changed here."

The Age of Genius has the sister delighting in the Italian Renaissance. Back in Florence, she begins with the Medicis and Fra Angelico, then introduces the viewer to the "new" obsession with mythology and the classical world. Delightfully, she spends time with Sandro Botticelli's Venus and Mars (is there a more beautiful male figure in art?) before moving on to Northern Italy for Andrea Mantegna and the science of perspective with Piero della Francesca and Leonardo da Vinci. (Here, Beckett chooses to discuss La Giaconda, the "Mona Lisa," although it hangs in the Louvre). In Rome, she's off to Raphaël's frescoes at St. Peter's and the blue-blooded Michelangelo Buonarroti's reluctant Sistine Chapel, with "Adam sprawled there in his naked male glory." (Second most beautiful male figure in art.)

Post-Renaissance art is the subject of the fourth episode, which leads Sister Wendy to the great Venetians: Giovanni Bellini, Titian and his pagan mythologies, and Giorgione, a most successful student of Bellini. In Northern Europe, it's on to the masterwork of Albrecht Dürer, the uncompromising portraitist Hans Holbein and then a bounce back to Venice for a study of Paolo Veronese before heading to Belgium again for the common man's world of Bruegel.

The 17th century brings reformation to the Church and ushers in the Baroque. Sister Wendy delves into the dark realistic drama of Caravaggio, and the seeming opposite personality of Carracci. A favorite of the sister, she lingers over Artemisia Gentileschi, the first great (known) woman painter, before traveling to Toledo to study El Greco and Peter Paul Rubens in this discussion of Passion and Ecstasy.

Three Golden Ages finds Beckett in the great capitals of the 1600s. In the wealthy Netherlands, she admires the Frans Hals painting she dubs the "Dutch Yuppie," then it's on to the quiet town of Delft and its resident master, Vermeer, who captured its light and silence. She spends time with Rembrandt van Rijn before returning to Spain and Diego Velàzquez's masterpiece, Las Meninas. (Surprisingly, she manages to slip in Poussin and Lorrain after that.)

The 18th century, a time of revolution in politics and economics, brings the sister's adopted soil into focus for the first time with the likes of Reynolds and Gainsborough. Then she's off to Paris and the Rococo, to highlight Watteau and Chardin. Standing before the work of Jacques-Louis David, she compares the compassionate figure in Death of Marat to a saint before contemplating David's student, Ingres (or "Ing-ress," as she calls him), for whom she confesses an understandable weakness. She spends time back in Britain to regard Constable, Turner and the Romantics, which leads on to France for only a brief nod to Eugène Delacroix and Theodore Géricault. The segment ends in Spain with Goya's romantic plunge into his "black paintings" near the end of his life. She happily spends much time on The Dog, a rare painting that heralds the modern era of art.

The Impressionists are next, beginning with Manet's scandalous "puny prostitute," Olympia. In a segment on Monet's Waterlilies, the first cinematic image of an artist at work is incorporated in the visuals before Beckett continues on to Renoir, an artist she plainly disdains as she discusses his famous Boating Party. After discussing Berthe Morisot, it's Edgar Degas ("One of life's voyeurs") and his misogynous eye for chorus dancers. Georges Seurat receives a nod on the way to post-Impressionism; Gauguin's Tahitian Nevermore and van Gogh's L'Eglise d'Auvers-sur-Oise ("It has no doors!") close this episode.

Sister Wendy celebrates the new century and the birth of modern art with her hero, Paul Cézanne. "Without him, the story that follows would never have happened." (Perhaps, but...) Then she's on to Pablo Picasso's experimentation, focusing on the controversial canvas, Demoiselles d'Avignon, in which, she says, he "abolished perspective" and "the integrity of the human body." While it took centuries for the host and I to part company (Cézanne), she wins me back with her brilliant proclamation that Picasso was as "famous as no other 20th–century artist, except perhaps one: The only artist whom the mighty Picasso greatly admired—and felt threatened by—was the mighty Matisse." Unfortunately, her focus lingers on The Riffian, and his chapel at Vence before leaving Matisse for Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, the doorway to abstract art, via Surrealism. Salvador Dalí's Persistence of Memory provides the program's most entertainment moment as, in her lisp, Beckett utters, "Horrible painting," before ending the segment with Marc Chagall and Paul Klee.

The last segment finds our host crossing the Atlantic to admire the titans of the New York School. On abstract expressionism she muses, "It takes time, but if you just...refuse to be off put, you'll find these paintings surprisingly rewarding." Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko are highlighted, but the sister will not let us escape without identifying the revolt against what the artist felt, by portraying only the superficial they could see: Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. Minimalists Frank Stella and Agnes Martin fill the screen until we head back to Britain's "great white hopes," Balthus, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud.

"One of the favorite subjects of Renaissance artists was Saint Sebastian, but alas, not because he was a great Christian martyr, it's because here was a chance to show a glorious male nude tortured to death."

Disc Three is home to both Sister Wendy's Odyssey and Sister Wendy's Grand Tour, the precursory travelogues to Story of Painting. Running about 10 minutes each, the subjects are as follows:

Sister Wendy's Odyssey (Great Britain)

Liverpool: Poussin, Hockney, Spencer
Cambridge: Vecchio, Titian, Cézanne
Oxford: Fra Filippo Lippi, di Cosimo, Lorrain
Salisbury: van Dyck, Levens, Ribera, da Sesto
Birmingham: Vigée-LeBrun, Beccafumi, Gossaert
Edinburgh: El Greco, Gerard David, Ramsey

Sister Wendy's Grand Tour (Europe)
Florence: Botticelli, Allori, Fra Angelico
Vienna: Rubens, Mantegna, Veronese
Rome: Bernini Caravaggio, Michelangelo's Pieta (filmed at a time after the attack)
Amsterdam: ter Borch, Rembrandt, van Gogh
Antwerp: Bruegel, Rubens, Jordaens
Berlin: Baldung, Burgkmair, Altdorfer
Madrid: Velàzquez, Goya
Paris: Cézanne, Matisse, Watteau
Venice: Carpaccio (Scarpaccia), Giorgione, Titian
St. Petersburg: Rembrandt, Correggio, Kandinsky

Disc four holds Pains of Glass (57m:56s), the earliest and weakest entry in the collection. With Reverend Dr. George Pattison at Cambridge's King's College Chapel, Sister Wendy discusses the biblical stories illustrated in the chapel's celebrated stained glass.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The main feature, Story of Painting, fares more favorably than the other series, but then it is also the most recent. Some of the cinematography is clear and beautiful, especially in the various exterior montages in and around the featured cities. Interiors—and detail shots of the real stars, the paintings—suffer just a little from less than optimum light, showing more grain. The works are generously represented; colors seem more true in most cases than not.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The audio is always clear and Sister Wendy is easily understood (once your ear is accustomed to her lisp). The voice-overs, of course, sound much better than the audio segments captured on location, but this is to be expected with a television level production budget, and a fault of the source material. Finding a median volume is challenging at times, but not enough to register a complaint here.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Book Gatefold
Picture Disc
4 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Brief biographies of artists written by Sister Wendy
  2. "Interactive Gallery" feature
Extras Review: It's one thing to keep the episodes intact by running the opening with every one; it's another to not be able to play all the episodes together, the shorter ones especially.

Each program has the option to experience the "interactive gallery" function, which displays an icon on screen that leads to still details of the featured paintings. This is a little more convenient than groping for the freeze-frame manually, but in the end, not terribly rewarding.

A 10-minute interview with the host, her text bio and brief notes on 24 artists, written by the sister, are also included.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

Bravo to the BBC for recognizing the art treasure that is Sister Wendy. Everyone at any level of knowledge on the history of art will gain from her unique perspective, making this an easy collection to recommend.


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