Picks and Pans Main: Video

updated 11/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

For viewers who want to meet some of the more celebrated artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, herewith a collection of fine-arts tapes:

PAUL GAUGUIN: THE SAVAGE DREAM

Paul Gauguin was an artist with a luminous eye and a melancholy soul. At 43, having abandoned his wife, five children and a life of bourgeois comfort in Paris, he set sail for the South Seas to live among the natives and to paint. In Tahiti he took a 13-year-old bride and began translating scenes from paradise into exuberant shapes and colors. This 45-minute profile deftly introduces the possessed artist, along with a sample of his vivid paintings and lesser-known early work. Though Donald Sutherland brings an actor's affectation to his reading of Gauguin's journals, it is the artist's words that infuse this production with its intimacy. "He left for me...the recollection that there are those unhappier than myself," wrote Gauguin in the south of France, following a working sojourn with his comrade-in-gloom, Vincent van Gogh.

Writer-director Michael Gill makes effective use of photographs, narration and footage shot in Tahiti and on Hivaoa, an island among the Marquesas, which was the artist's final sanctuary. It was there in 1903 that Gauguin, who had long suffered from syphilis and a weak heart, died in his hut at age 54. (Home Vision, $39.95; 800-262-8600)

IN A BRILLIANT LIGHT: VAN GOGH IN ARLES

This thoughtful production explores the man's art rather than his madness. Though it alludes to Van Gogh's early paintings in his native Holland, the 57-minute film focuses on the artist's extraordinary burst of creativity in Aries, France, toward the end of his brief life. Between February 1888 and May 1889, he produced 200 paintings and 100 drawings.

Van Gogh turned to art at 27 after failing as an art dealer's apprentice and evangelist. Penniless throughout his life, he sold only one painting, and at 37, long tormented by alcoholism, epilepsy and insanity, he was dead.

This tape benefits from the use of Van Gogh's writings, particularly letters to his beloved brother, Theo. And, unlike many art videos, this one is patient enough to linger without words on the artist's work and the scenes that inspired it. (Home Vision, $39.95; 800-262-8600)

PICASSO: WAR, PEACE AND LOVE

Toward the end of this tape, the old master makes one of his ritualistic appearances in front of the camera. He gestures, smiles, playfully wiggles his bottom in a clear-plastic chair. But as he performs, propping one of his oils in front of the camera, his coal-black eyes remain dark and still. These moments add poignant depth to this 1970 documentary. Three years after it was made, Picasso died, and in 1986 his last wife, Jacqueline Roque, who makes a fleeting appearance in the film, took her own life.

The survey of Picasso's career begins in 1937, the year he painted Guernica, his testimony to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. It concludes with a look at the sexually frenetic works of his last years and his monumental outdoor sculptures. Viewers interested in his blue and rose periods will have to look elsewhere.

As an introduction to the last half of Picasso's life, the tape is serviceable. But the camera whizzes too quickly past too many works of art—and the nearly nonstop background music intrudes. Like a tourist on a fast track, the tape rushes through 22 museums, seven galleries and 11 private collections in 51 minutes flat. (Kartes Video, $19.95; 800-582-2000)

PICASSO: THE MAN AND HIS WORK

Viewers will find an even more dizzying parade of paintings in this two-tape gift set. Part I (1881-1937) covers Picasso's early years in quick biographical brush strokes: This is where he lived, this is who he met, this is what he painted. All the important evolutions in his style are duly noted, but never analyzed. Part 11 (1938-1973) inches a little closer to the artist, showing him at home on the Côte d'Azur, taking his afternoon tea and toast, laboring over a copper engraving, roaming around the rooms he filled with his canvases. Much time is devoted to the feverish output of drawings Picasso produced in 1953, the year his lover Francoise Gilot left him. Producer Edward Quinn concludes his 90-minute valentine with a bouquet of hosannas.

Those looking for an illustrated chronology of Picasso's life are well served here, but do not expect an objective dissection of his work or a probe of his complex personality. Trying to get a sense of the man in this production is like striking a match to illuminate a darkened room. Too much remains in the shadows. (V.I.E.W. Video, $79.95; 800-843-9843)

A DAY IN THE COUNTRY: IMPRESSIONISM AND THE FRENCH LANDSCAPE

Watching this tape is like taking a bus tour from Paris, first through the tranquil countryside and cobbled villages that border the Seine, then south to Provence, with music by Debussy piped in to set a languorous mood. Along the way there are glorious fields of poppies and flowering orchards, factories sending up smudges of smoke, fat sheaves of grain propped up in lonely pastures, skiffs bobbing in harbors at dusk.

Such everyday, outdoor scenes inspired the artists of the Impressionist movement, which blossomed in France in the latter half of the 19th century. This 30-minute survey shows 40 paintings (part of a 1984 Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition) by such celebrated practitioners as Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Manet and Monet, artists who broke traditional rules to experiment with color and technique as they set down their "impressions" of life in flux. The overbearing narration seems startling, given the pastel splendors on this tour, which is best viewed in tandem with an introductory volume on the subject. (Finley-Holiday, $29.95; 800-345-6707)

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