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Image Entertainment presents
Velasquez: The Painter of Painters (1991)

"Too lifelike!"
- Pope Innocent X, complaining about the portrait of him painted by Velasquez

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: January 15, 2003

Stars: Diego da Silva Velasquez, Philip IV
Other Stars: Francis Bacon, King Juan Carlos, Tim Hardy, Douglas Blackwell
Director: Didier K. Baussy

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 00h:55m:35s
Release Date: November 26, 2002
UPC: 014381933529
Genre: art

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
C- B+C-B- D-

DVD Review

It's hard to argue with the premise that Diego da Silva Velasquez is the greatest painter in the history of art, and that his Las Meninas is the greatest painting. (If you do care to argue the point, please do not do so in my house, as the wife, an art historian, will fight you to the death on this one.) Velasquez's brushwork is extraordinary—what seems so casually rendered, so loose, is astonishingly evocative and realistic, and he anticipates some of the innovations of Impressionism by more than two centuries. But he's more than just a great technical painter. He may well have been the foremost propagandist of his age, the court painter to Philip IV of Spain, and Velasquez's images of the king were the principal way that the subjects got to see their monarch. And of course it's not just court portraiture on which Velasquez's reputation rests: his religious paintings are devout and profound, and his many portraits of dwarves, great favorites of the Hapsburgs, are rendered with a singular dignity and sympathy. His influence has been and continues to be enormous, and a great documentary about the painter, his work and his time would do a tremendous service to students of art history.

This sloppy and careless documentary isn't that film, however. It does a poor job of both introducing Velasquez to the uninitiated or illuminating new light on the man and his work for those who may already have at least a passing familiarity; even worse, the paintings aren't shown off to especially good advantage. Filmmaker Didier K. Baussy got extraordinary access to a 1990 Velasquez exhibition at the Prado, in Madrid, but this seems like a tremendous opportunity lost. The camera pans by the paintings at awkward angles, and with limited exceptions lingers over the wrong, lesser ones.

But much more problematic is the absence of any sort of order to the manner in which the information about Velasquez is presented. Chronologically, the film is all over the place—in the stretch of just a few minutes, for instance, the film focuses on Velasquez's last years as the court painter for Philip IV, then backtracks to Velasquez's apprenticeship as a young man in Seville; we then jump forward to the early twentieth century and see Velasquez's influence on Picasso, and then it's back nearly a hundred years, for a brief mention of Manet's fondness for Velasquez's work. There's no thematic link to any of this, either, and makes the film feel, at times, like an undergraduate term paper desperately in need of organization, starting with a good stern lesson on the importance of paragraphs and topic sentences.

There are a couple of cool little bits, like a three-dimensional computer simulation of the setting of Las Meninas, designed to figure out the perspectival questions the painting poses; but the film doesn't offer any great answers, and the computer technology of a dozen years ago already seems absolutely ancient. Artist Francis Bacon appears briefly to discuss Velasquez, but it's a truncated interview segment, tantalizing the viewer with the possibilities of what might have been. (Bacon at least shows slides. They will not, however, be on the exam.) Similarly, the Prado exhibition is visited by Spain's King Juan Carlos, and the obvious analogy is drawn between him and Velasquez's great patron—but it's a comparison that ends with, basically, "Both these guys were king of Spain." (How very helpful.)

Trying to divine the salient facts of Velasquez's life and work from this movie is close to impossible, and isn't time well spent, in any case. The paintings are absolutely amazing, but there's little here that will tell you why; stripped of almost all historical and art historical context, this isn't a movie with much to recommend it other than the extended glimpses of the exhibition being filmed.

Rating for Style: C-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

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

Image Transfer Review: The film stock looks faded and muddy, and there's a significant amount of debris on the print used for the transfer to DVD, so the image is full of scratches and blotches. Worse, the richness of Velasquez's palette isn't done justice—the painter wasn't principally a colorist, and of course there's no substitute for a trip to the Prado to see the master's canvasses in person, but the plates in a decent art history textbook will give a better representation of the paintings than much of what you see here.

Image Transfer Grade: C-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The near-constant narration is a little overmiked, and heavier on bass than on treble—it's not entirely unlike one of those headsets you can rent at many museums, with some know-it-all curator providing a guided tour. Not bad, but not teeming with fascination, either.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 14 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Nothing but chapter stops in the extras department.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

Velasquez's art has survived and triumphed through the centuries, and a shoddily organized documentary about the painter and his work will do nothing to dim his stellar reputation. If traveling to Madrid isn't in your future plans, I'd recommend some of the works on Velasquez by Jonathan Brown, the American dean of Velasquez studies; you're sure to get more illumination out of just a few paragraphs than from this reverent but poorly constructed documentary.


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