Review of “Every Picture Tells a Story” Art TV Series

“Every Picture Tells a Story” Art TV Series

Distributed by Athena and TVF International (2009)

The UK art history series, Every Picture Tells a Story, is written and presented by the Sunday Times (UK) art critic and veteran documentary film-maker Waldemar Januszczak.  (Full disclosure: though I’ve not met Waldemar, he works regularly with one of my dear friends, the presenter James Fox).  The series examines in detail (or as much detail as you can swing in half an hour) eight masterpieces of painting, one per episode: Gainsborough’s Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, Giorgione’s The Tempest, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, and van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait (also called The Marriage Contract).  For the purpose of this review, we’ll focus on the last episode, on the van Eyck painting.

Waldemar is a lucid, engaging presenter with a thoughtful, engaging, measured delivery.  The series absorbs in a way that many art series do not.  It can be difficult to have as your focus an inanimate object about which one speaks, but which has no movement of its own.  A true test is whether the series would appeal to non-art lovers, or if it is only accessible to those already engaged enough with art to know much of what is conveyed in it.  Very few art shows are capable of drawing in the non-art lover, but this one is a candidate.

The half-hour format is certainly understandable, but it results in a glossing over of some of the more intriguing elements to the story, and leaves the viewer with many questions unanswered.  It is essentially time enough for a summary and one interpretation, which is what each episode provides.  And it does that well.  The only real objection is if the interpretation does not make sense or seem as self-evident as it is presented, then it leaves one wishing to raise one’s hand and ask questions of the presenter, which of course cannot be answered.

I love Waldemar’s willingness to poke fun.  In the van Eyck episode he stands before the Arnolfini Portrait brandishing the National Gallery’s catalogue and mocking it.  The latest interpretation of one of the world’s most famous paintings is to refuse to interpret it—saying that it is only a double-portrait of an Italian couple in Bruges.  This is an antithetical reaction to a painting that has confounded art historians for centuries.  I learned the famous Erwin Panofsky interpretation, after which the painting was called The Marriage Contract.  Waldemar disagrees with both the traditional, Panofskian interpretation (of which more in a moment) and the current non-interpretation interpretation.

My only real objection is that he doesn’t manage to convince of his new, alternative theory, and yet he presents it as if it has solved the mystery.  This isn’t much of a complaint, and I was thoroughly entertained throughout the episode (and the whole series).  But for fellow art historians, or observant viewers, it might leave one with a feeling of dis-ease or confusion.

I also love Waldemar’s brazen introduction, when he says that this painting shouldn’t really be in the National Gallery at all “because it was nicked.”  It had been part of a Spanish collection until the Peninsular War, when it ended up in the hands of a Scottish soldier from whom the National Gallery purchased it in the 19th century.  He suggests that “you figure it out,” and indeed it was likely war booty.  He doesn’t mention it, but van Eycks have a tendency to end up stolen.  The Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban, van Eyck’s self-portrait, was stolen from a painter’s guild hall—the pendant painting, a portrait of Mrs. Van Eyck, was locked into place with heavy chains, to make sure it didn’t “get nicked” either.  And of course van Eyck’s other great masterpiece, The Ghent Altarpiece, is the most stolen artwork in history, the object of thirteen crimes over its 600-year existence.

The iconographic argument over the painting can be summed up as follows.  Panofsky popularized the interpretation (which I was taught at university), that the painting was, itself, a functional marriage contract.  We can see a man in a red turban (van Eyck himself) beside a man in blue, reflected in the convex mirror that hangs at the back of the bedroom in which the Arnolfini couple are portrayed.  In the 15th century, in order to get married, one only had to hold hands and recite vows in front of two eyewitnesses.  Hence this could be a marriage ceremony taking place, with van Eyck plus the man in blue acting as witnesses.  This would explain the oddity that van Eyck so prominently signs, in Latin, “Jan van Eyck was here, 1434” smack in the center of the painting.  Waldemar says that this might be the case, but that the figure in blue “surely must represent you [the viewer].”  Unless all the viewers are wearing blue, I’m not sure that holds water, but never say never.

Panofsky’s interpretation included the view that Mrs. Arnolfini (or the future Mrs. Arnolfini) was not, in fact, pregnant.  Most viewers of the painting think that she is.  She does have a slightly protruding belly, accentuated by the fact that the dress is held bunched before her, to show off the expensive material that is the source of the Arnolfini family wealth.  Waldemar mocks anyone who doesn’t see her as pregnant.  I wouldn’t be so sure.  There are numerous elements to the picture that suggest that she is not pregnant—but would like to be.

One of the talking heads in the episode who has convinced Waldemar of her interpretation suggests that Mrs. Arnolfini died in childbirth and that this is a posthumous portrait of her while pregnant.  Could be.  But it is interesting to see the very same clues interpreted by one art historian in one way, and by another in the polar opposite.  Is one wrong and one right?  Probably, but will we ever know for certain?  Unless someone discovers van Eyck’s diary, in which he explains his painting for us, then we won’t ever know, and it will come down largely to a) what you see yourself, and b) what you were taught or read that most convinced you.  Art history is far from a science.

This new interpretation sees the statue of Saint Margaret in the background as a reference to Mrs. Arnolfini deceased in childbirth.  But Panofsky says that they are praying to Saint Margaret in hope of getting pregnant (something far more common in 15th century culture).  The biggest stretch is seeing the enamel crucifixion at the back of the room as a sacrifice that Mr. Arnolfini likens to his wife’s death in childbirth.  I didn’t buy that one.  Waldemar suggests that the pattens, or wooden clogs that are unworn at the corner of the room, symbolize the fact that Mr. Arnolfini “doesn’t plan to wander” and go out with any other ladies, now that his wife is dead.  I learned, via Panofsky, an interpretation that makes a good deal more sense to me: that the couple is overtly barefoot because they are in the midst of a holy ceremony, matrimony.  Two ways of looking at the same thing and coming away with completely different interpretations.  Waldemar describes the cherry tree outside of the window as a reference to lost Eden, citing Joost van Cleve’s Madonna of the Cherries.  Maybe.  But cherries are more commonly linked in pictures of Christ to drops of blood (as are red carnations), forecasting the crucifixion, and for this reason the baby Jesus clasps bright red blood-like cherries.  Again, is one right and one wrong?  Officially, almost certainly—but since we can’t read the mind of the artist, and both cases can be made intelligently and citing precedent, it’s up to you, to each perceiver, which you believe, or indeed if you believe a combination of the various interpretations.

Waldemar suggests that we rename this picture The Arnolfini Pregnancy.  But he neglects to present the arguments for Mrs. Arnolfini not being pregnant.  The feminine ideal of beauty at the time was pear-shaped, literally.  See the nude Eve from The Ghent Altarpiece or Saint Catherine of Alexandria, in two other van Eyck paintings, and you see non-pregnant, pear-shaped women.  He also does not mention the fact that a single candle is lit in a candelabra in The Arnolfini Portrait, and that there was a Northern European tradition that a candle be lit during a marriage ceremony and then laid outside the conjugal bedroom.  It would be extinguished by the parents of the young couple the moment the marriage was consummated.  Therefore a lit candle means the marriage has yet to be consummated (and therefore no one can be pregnant).  This may or may not be the correct symbolism here (Panofsky thought it was), but it would have been good to present the counter-point en route to the favored argument of the program.

The biggest discovery that shifted popular interpretation away from Panofsky is that many now think that Panofsky identified the wrong Giovanni Arnolfini in this picture.  He thought it was Giovanni di Arrigo di Arnolfini, while others now think it shows Giovanni di Nicolao di Arnolfini, who arrived in Bruges in 1419—when he was already married.  His wife died in 1433, the year before this painting was made.  That supports the death-in-childbirth interpretation.  But the iconographical interpretation didn’t convince me.

This show allows for only one argument.  That is its right, of course.  But with such a puzzling picture, it seems a shame to choose one that, for many viewers, will feel like a stretch that raises as many questions as it answers.  That said it is very well done, Waldemar as a presenter is fun and clear, and if the series prompts you to question its conclusions—well, thoughtful questioning and counter-arguments are the basis of good scholarship and lively dinner-party discussion.

Noah Charney is a professor of art history, TV presenter, and internationally best-selling author.  He recently published the best-selling Stealing the Mystic Lamb: the True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece, which is a biography of Jan van Eyck’s The Ghent Altarpiece.

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