Archive for May 5th, 2018


by Patricia Perry

Historian Simon Schama had an idea for a documentary series he thought someone at the BBC should do – a series about art that would take the viewer out of the staid and stuffy confines of the art museum to immerse them in the moment of panic and conflict that inspired famous paintings and sculpture. He wished to give viewers an indelible sense of how the artists’ passions and inner demons – as well as the conflicts of the society in which they lived – drove and informed their work.

Eventually, of course, Schama himself (a frequent presence on British television) became the creator and host for the series. Launching on the BBC in 2006, Simon Schama’s Power of Art would eventually reach the U.S. on PBS and is readily available in its entirety on You Tube for those who missed it the first time around.

And an even better title for the series might have been The Drama of Art.

Because there is a dramatic arc in each installment in the series, often underscored by the use of actors and historical re-enactments. Schama begins with one seminal work from each of the eight profiled artists (Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso and Rothko), using it both as an entry point into the artist’s life and work and a window into the society in which he lived. For Schama, the highlighted piece of art in each episode represents a turning point in the artist’s life or world view: a moment of redemption (Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa), a newly embraced political fervor (Picasso’s Guernica, Turner’s The Slave Ship), or a misunderstood failure in an otherwise illustrious career (Rembrandt’s mutilated masterwork, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis). The pairing of staged re-enactments with Schama’s scholarly-yet-cheeky commentary gives this series an unusual emotional resonance. We get an appreciation for each man’s art – what made his works great and why they still matter – but the lessons come with a heaping helping of sometimes pulpy drama, often comprising themes of lust, jealousy, betrayal, murder or madness.

The genius of this approach is that, true to Schama’s original ambitions, the profiled artworks become more meaningful and relevant – a vibrant outgrowth of their creator’s life and times rather than tasteful installations in a hushed, formal gallery. Schama connects with the art in a visceral manner as well as an academic one, and his chatty narration is smart but not intimidating.  He’s a welcoming and enthusiastic guide.

The dramatic recreations vary in effectiveness, though. In the initial episode, Paul Popplewell’s wild-eyed, sword-brandishing Caravaggio borders on cartoonish, reminiscent of nothing so much as cheesy, off-hours programming on the History Channel. (Keep your eyes peeled for a cameo by a young, pre-stardom Andrew Garfield as Caravaggio’s Boy with a Basket of Fruit.) But the series finds it footing rather quickly, with its second episode on Bernini proving to be a compelling, classic tale of an acclaimed artist laid low by hubris and rage who redeems himself with a startling sculpture, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. (In it, St. Teresa of Avila is shown in the throes of a religious ecstasy just barely distinguishable from ecstasy of a more… umm..  physical nature. I’ve actually seen this sculpture in Rome; Schama more than does justice to both its aesthetic perfection and the surprisingly suggestive nature of the saint’s pose.)

By the final installment, Alan Cordruner’s haunted intensity as the visionary abstract painter Mark Rothko combines with an emotionally overwhelming musical score and Schama’s fevered narration to enhance and exalt the murals Rothko created for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, but never allowed to be hung there. The episode feels tragic in its scope, but for all the amplifying flourishes mentioned above, it never once seems manipulative. Equally powerful is the Van Gogh episode, featuring a volatile, vulnerable Andy Serkis as the tortured Impressionist genius. A scene in which he consumes an entire tube of sunflower-yellow paint (with a mad, desperate yearning that the actor makes completely comprehensible) is too astonishing and disturbing to look away from.

Where Schama eschews the dramatizations in favor of more conventionally intellectual analysis, the series suffers a little. The episodes dedicated to Rembrandt and Picasso, while certainly interesting enough  from an academic perspective, feel oddly toothless and cold in comparison with the rest of the series. The art speaks for itself, to a point, but there’s no strong sense of what creating it cost the artist, personally or professionally.

I knew very little of Schama and nothing about this series until it was recommended to me by a fellow tour member on a trip to Rome in 2015.  Watching it upon my return home gave me a fuller appreciation for the Caravaggio and Bernini masterpieces I’d seen in the Borghese Gallery, and then I couldn’t stop watching the rest.  If my internet search on Schama is any indication, he’s a bit controversial in the UK, occasionally ridiculed or satirized. His latest venture, a reboot of Kenneth Clark’s legendary Civilization series, for instance, has been criticized for its ‘political correctness’ and alleged devaluing of Western culture.

I can understand where Schama’s irreverence might rub some stuffy academics the wrong way (Here for example, Bernini is dubbed “Mr. Fabulous;” Rembrandt is “Mr. Clever Clogs” and his final work is “a B-Movie flop of a painting.”)  And his insertion of himself into the Rothko episode (with an actor playing the 22-year-old Schama at an exhibition of the famed murals) might be just a bit too much Schama for some viewers (this one included). But after seeing Power of Art – and some of its episodes two or three times now – I’m a fan of his approach . And I look forward to delving into Civilizations next.

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