Great Art Explained: A Fresh Look At World Famous Artworks


In addition to being a source of time wasting cat videos and minutiae, YouTube can also be an excellent means of learning something more meaningful on a multitude of subjects. Art history is a good example. Most of the world’s major galleries and museums have YouTube channels, with lectures about artworks and online tours of exhibitions. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, offers a wealth of material through its YouTube channel, including videos with step-by-step instructions on how to paint and draw and series like “Artists on Artworks.” The latest of these features is photographer Thomas Struth talking about the work of the great German painter, Gerhard Richter, in relation to the museum’s current exhibition. The National Gallery in London which just reopened to the public this week after its longest closure since WWII, also has numerous videos on YouTube, for people still reluctant to physically visit a gallery. Their series “Art History in 10 minutes” is just enough to whet your appetite. They look at familiar paintings like “The Rokeby Venus,” Velázquez’s only surviving nude and answer questions such as what made John Constable’s “The Hay Wain” so radical for its time”? A brilliant new addition to YouTube art history channels is Great Art Explained, launched last month by art writer and consultant, James Payne, whose entertaining and informative short films present a fresh look at familiar artworks.

Great Art Explained is the brainchild of London art consultant and guide, James Payne, who has been showing tourists around Europe for over 20 years. These educational tours often focus on the history of art and his films for Great Art Explained are an extension of these lectures. His fine art degree from London’s prestigious Central St Martins, plus his work as an art consultant and art and film writer for various art magazines make him the ideal presenter of this excellent new art history series.

Each short film in this ongoing series combines entertaining storytelling with clear concise information, presented in a 15-minute format that packs in more details than most full-length documentaries. It takes a fresh look at works of art that we have become so familiar with that we have forgotten how revolutionary they once were. If you think you know everything about the “Mona Lisa,” think again. The “Mona Lisa” is an icon, a brand and a superstar who gets six million visitors a year. Many of her visitors are there just for a selfie, unaware that behind that 500-year old smile is a painting that transformed the face of art. This painting was so ahead of its time that centuries later we are still trying to figure it out. For the “Mona Lisa,” Leonardo Da Vinci combined science, art and philosophy to create a deep insight into what it means to be human. Great Art Explained takes us through the techniques Leonardo invented, explains why she is dressed so simply, why the background scenery is wrong and what a portrait actually means. It also looks at new evidence of the science behind the most celebrated smile in history. 

Picasso’s “Guernica” is the most famous anti-war painting in history and the Spanish artist’s best-known work. It has gone from a piece that was created in protest at the horrific bombing of a small village in northern Spain, to an icon and a universal symbol of freedom from all wars. “Guernica” is a masterpiece that always leaves the viewer with more questions than they brought to it. Great Art Explained seeks to answer those questions, as it traces the work from its underwhelming reception when first seen in 1937 to its status, over eighty years later, as one of the most influential and iconic works of all time.  

Michelangelo’s “David” is the most famous statue in the world. From the moment it was unveiled, it was hailed as a masterpiece and a symbol of Florence. All over the world we are seeing statues being pulled down, as symbols of oppression. Michelangelo’s “David” has had its fair share of controversies but has always been on the side of the oppressed, the underdog with David representing the power to overcome adversity in the face of insurmountable odds. Great Art Explained explores how David was commissioned to be a religious symbol but became a secular one instead. Michelangelo understood the human body better than any physician and yet the proportions of the statue are so strange. Why are David’s head and hands so large? Why is his penis so small and, as a Jewish hero, why is he not circumcised? You can be sure that nothing was accidental when it came to Michelangelo! Great art Explained shows how Michelangelo’s David is anything but the story of a teenage boy who slew Goliath.

Thoroughly researched and cleverly presented, with stunning visuals, Great Art Explained makes you realise that familiarity with a work of art sometimes makes us indifferent to its power. Upcoming episodes in Great Art Explained will include “Judith Slaying Holofernes” by Artemisia Gentileschi and Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa.” At the moment, Great Art Explained is free to view so subscribe now to take full advantage of this clever new channel.


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