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"He wanted the Knights to feel it, not as a painting, but as a living drama going on right in front of them."—Simon Schama, describing Caravaggio's "The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist"
Historian Simon Schama's projects usually take tried and true subjects for BBC documentaries, historical figures who have always been treated with reverence and staid respect. Then Schama digs, tears, pulls apart the fabric of propriety to discover a story that for all its soaring triumphs still has a dark side. I have always relished his powerful series A History of Britain, in which he had the gall to call Edward II "just a loser" and show the connection between Churchill's glorious vision of a shining island empire and Orwell's creeping dread at what that empire might be capable of. He calls it history's "cruel way with optimism," and it is intended to spark debate about the lessons of history rather than casual acceptance of the modern world.
And now Schama has poised the blade of his intellect at the edges of the greatest canvases in western art. Eight paintings, each with a story to tell about its artist and his time. Ok, seven paintings and a sculpture.
Facts of the Case
Schama examines eight artists and their most transformative works of art over the course of three DVDs:
"Caravaggio:" The painting is "David with the Head of Goliath." But why did the artist paint himself as the severed head? Why did he believe that "genius is the villain?" In a crowded, sweating Rome of the 16th century, Caravaggio channeled the energy of religious fervor and his own tendency toward sin (including a tendency to get mixed up in crime) into muscular, visceral paintings that brought moral lessons to furious life. He broke every rule of propriety, "demolishing the safety barrier between the viewer and the painting," whether the painting is about local Roman boys or religious icons beckoning us toward faith. Pity his penchant for rule-breaking got him involved in a homicide.
"Bernini:" This time, a sculpture. Why does "The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa" display an ecstasy that seems far too carnal for the staid chapel she rests in? "Showy, visceral, and sexy" in his life and work, Bernini fused passion and torment in his designs with the same intensity as his personal rivalry with fellow artist Borromini. Unfortunately, he also had a tremendous ego, often stealing credit (and the occasional wife) from his assistants, friends, and anybody else in his way. Oh, and a violent temper. So when professional humiliation brought him low, he found a parallel between his exquisite pain and Saint Theresa's descriptions of being penetrated by an angel's arrow.
"Rembrandt:" The painting is "The Conspiracy of the Batavians Under Claudius Civilis," and it is only a fifth of its original size. Why did Rembrandt slice up one of his favorite paintings, a depiction of Holland's origin story? As the middle class took over from the Church as the great patrons of art, Amsterdam's trading empire brought Rembrandt to prominence. His technique: paint the mundane world of businessmen as it really is, earthy and wrinkled and full of stories. By comparison to Caravaggio and Bernini, Rembrandt's personal life was pretty vanilla. His worst sin was an inability to handle his finances. Ultimately, Rembrandt had to balance his artistic aspirations with the demands of the "corporate town" he lived in. When painting becomes a business in a town of "heroic merchants," of course you have to slice up your paintings when they don't fit what your boss wants—and a painting about rebellion is just not going to please the establishment…
"David:" How does the promise of the French Revolution become the resigned and limp arm of the dead Marat? "The Death of Marat" is Jacques-Louis David's most famous painting (and a tribute to his slain friend and paragon of the Revolution), but it was also a scandal. The French, weary of revolutionary rhetoric, were repulsed by it, the one-time ideologue David suppressed it, and even Schama admits he is "conflicted" about its glorification of the leader of the Terror. He even comes out and calls David a "monster" and a "propagandist," but he admires the wondrous lie of the painting. I find Schama's ambivalence refreshing. Art history usually just features the stuff the historian likes and usually avoids the messiness of politics, but Schama is willing to admit that David's painting is important for reasons beyond aesthetics: it digs at the heart of our own conflicted feelings about the legacy of the French Revolution even today.
"Turner:" Most people dismiss J.M.W. Turner as a painter of pretty seascapes and little more. But his 1840 work "The Slave Ship" took all his romantic techniques of lighting and texture and put them to the service of something deeper. To Schama, the well-mannered paragon of British painting is "a Cockney poet just short of madness," a wild man obsessed with fire, destruction, and chaos. This episode shows how successful Simon Schama's Power of Art can be at making us reassess artists we thought we knew. "The Slave Ship," in which we see slavers dumping their living human cargo overboard to collect on the insurance, is emotional and political, just like the work of David—only in the service of humanity rather than political rhetoric, "a British art that will act out the suffering of the victims."
"Van Gogh:" Only a few weeks after painting "Wheatfield with Crows," Vincent Van Gogh committed suicide. Was this intense burst of color a final cry for help? Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings) plays Van Gogh alternately as a twitchy intellectual and a gibbering maniac, and some viewers may find the performance excessive. But, well, everything about Van Gogh was excessive. The real surprise is how positive Schama finds "Wheatfield with Crows," as opposed to the conventional interpretation of the painting.
"Picasso:" "What can art really do in the face of atrocity?" The answer is "Guernica." If Pablo Picasso had never painted it, he still would have been the most famous artist of the modern age, the chameleon who changed the rules—over and over—for most of the 20th century. He would also have been one of the most egotistical, bullying, womanizing tricksters in art history. But he did paint "Guernica," an angry, confrontational critique of war and fascism packed with more layers than a modernist novel. It changed Picasso for the better—and for the worse. And "it rescued modern art from the curse of its own cleverness."
"Rothko:" I began this episode even more skeptical than when I sat down to Schama's look at Turner, since Mark Rothko is hardly a household name in contemporary art these days, at least compared to, say, Warhol or Pollack (both of whom would also make for an entertaining biography). But Schama implies that the abstract expressionist marks a crucial turn in art: the ascendancy of the American art scene and its love/hate relationship with commercialism. (He has a harder time selling us on the idea that Rothko was politically significant though.) In truth, the recreation central to this episode features a young Simon Schama discovering Rothko's exuberant paintings in London's Tate Gallery in 1970. This reveals the real motive behind the choice of Rothko, and the reason why this is the weakest episode of the series: Schama is really telling us more about his own interests in art than about the alleged importance of Mark Rothko.
There is a quote from Schama on the packaging for this DVD series that sums up the entire business: "Great art has dreadful manners. The greatest paintings grab you in a headlock, rough up your composure, and then proceed in short order to re-arrange your reality." The approach to art in Simon Schama's Power of Art can be summed up even more concisely in a single word: insistence. This is art that insists you listen to its story. Avoiding the straightforward "guy in a museum" approach of most art history documentaries, Schama gets into the artists' heads. Dramatizations, narrated by Schama, carry us through the intense lives of men who acted out their frustrations and ecstasies with paint—but only when they could not work out those issues in their lives. We learn much of the politics, especially the bad stuff, and even more about the rough men who made these works of art.
A while back, I reviewed the classic art history series Civilisation, which I had not seen in many years. I have great respect for what Kenneth Clarke did back in 1969, but while watching it, I always had the nagging feeling that for all that the show accomplished, it was always missing something. Now I see what it was missing. Clarke's show was about "heroic materialism." It was about stuff, not people. Clarke tended to dismiss people, unless they were monumental figures, like Shakespeare or Charlemagne. But if you are from the streets, or a woman? Simon Schama's Power of Art is about the people—all the people. It is streetwise and passionate. Abstract ideas like salvation and freedom and all that other stuff art is supposed to be about? These things are in the heads of the people who make the paintings. And it gets transmitted to us through our empathy for the rough and flawed souls behind the art.
It may sound like Simon Schama is trying to tear apart the wonders of civilization. Far from it. By humanizing these artists, by bringing them down to Earth, Schama gives their art a vibrancy that no conventional art teacher could impart. In an age where we avoid museums to stay home and watch television, he makes you stare in wonder at pictures that don't move. You will finally understand why these paintings are masterpieces, why these men are artists, and what the fuss has been about.
Schama's approach does not sit well with some people. His effort to instill some "power" into art does lead to some overheated moments, and the more passionate the artist, the more likely the dramatic scenes in the show tend to lay on the sex and violence. Each episode tries to mimic the style of the art. The Caravaggio episode relies on shadows and plenty of shots of the Baroque wild man pushing toward the camera. The Turner episode is awash in shades of red and gold, like the fading sunlight of one of his paintings. The Rothko episode is filled with moments of camp. There are moments when it goes too far, and in general, the stylistic games are pretty extreme for a BBC art documentary series. But Schama carefully balances the wry, gossipy narration with a gravitas that comes from the art itself. "Look at how wild these men were," he seems to say over and over—at the same time showing us images of proper museums and churches that transmute all that bad behavior into beauty and propriety.
It is also fair to argue that his choices for the key transformative works are unorthodox. Why Van Gogh's wheat field and not a more familiar piece, like "Starry Night?" Why do Rothko at all? The only two works that I already know the history behind were "The Death of Marat" and "Guernica." The rest I only recognized by the distinctiveness of their style. Maybe Schama is being a little disingenuous here: the art works that he chooses are not really the famous ones that changed what others would do. The ones he chooses are the key works that Schama feels summarize the lives of these artists and their times. He typically chooses late works which the artist (in Schama's assessment) offered a career comeback or final statement. Unfortunately, Schama never clarifies that strategy in his narration. The particularly hurts the Rothko episode, where none of the specific paintings are powerful or singular enough that I even remembered their names afterwards.
As a whole, Simon Schama's Power of Art succeeds in its mission, making us take another look at familiar artists and their work. To do that, of course, the show needs to look good. The series is presented in anamorphic widescreen, and much of the artwork was shot with high-definition cameras. This helps highlight the texture and detail, much of which usually gets lost on television. This may be the best looking art documentary I've seen.
We do not usually get many extras on documentary series DVDs, especially from the BBC. Here, Schama offers three commentary tracks which prove that he is not a stuffy academic. Producer and director Clare Beavan joins in to talk about the Bernini episode, where they laugh over the production difficulties (including getting arrested by the Swiss Guard at the Vatican!) and script controversies. She returns for the episode on Jacques-Louis David, and they have a good laugh over how tired Schama is by now with the French Revolution. Schama also admits that he doesn't hate David quite as much as he makes out in the episode. Director David Belton and Andy Serkis drop by for the episode on Van Gogh. Even Serkis is stunned by his own nutty performance (particularly the scene where Van Gogh sucks down a tube of his beloved chrome yellow). All three commentary tracks are light, friendly, and well worth a listen.
The third disc in the set also includes an interview with Simon Schama. He does admit that some great art is produced "under serene conditions," but what really drew him to this series was the possibility of making the stories behind the art as interesting as a revolution or some other historical upheaval. He does recognize the risk of overdramatizing the stories—which some critics of Power of Art have accused him of doing. Arguably, he makes that slip in the Rothko episode: including himself tends to sentimentalize the entire project. But for most of the show's episodes, the dramatic recreations do help get us closer to the personalities of the artists.
Schama chooses the art and artists he feels make you pay attention, whose stories are as important as the works themselves—and his tone throughout is insistent that you notice the details and viscerally react to them. You may find this approach pushy, over the top, and more flamboyant than academic. Indeed, I would not recommend Schama's version of historical narrative (whether this series or any of his books) as a substitute for the traditional approach. Rather, learn the traditional version of history, then listen to Schama tell you the parts that were left out. What you receive is a more complete picture.
In short, Schama has named his documentary series perfectly. It is indeed Simon Schama's version of art history—and it indeed conveys some of great art's power to transform our world.
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