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The Power of Art Hardcover – November 7, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Schama presents eight remarkable artists who created their masterworks against a backdrop of personal and professional distress. From politically charged commentaries (David, Picasso, Turner and Rembrandt) to intensely personal visions of the world (van Gogh and Rothko) and the reinvention of the divine (Bernini and Caravaggio), Schama takes these masters' hallowed works off the museum wall and drags them through in the mud and muck that went into their creation: Bernini's savage attack on his mistress with a razor, Caravaggio's rapacious gutter lifestyle, Turner's hands-on (and more) approach to painting, David's willingness to follow his political allegiances no matter the cost. Schama's approach succeeds admirably in breaking away from conventional art history; throughout, he comes across like a cool British uncle talking about art late into the night. He renders these canonical works and their creators immediate and hip, conveying what it might have been like to be shocked by their audacity and sheer newness. This book should be of great value in a classroom, making an enormously appealing introduction for students encountering these artists for the first time. Though professional art historians will not find much new here in the way of research and analysis, anyone even remotely interested in art will find much to enjoy.
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About the Author
Simon Schama is University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University in New York. His award-winning books include Scribble, Scribble, Scribble; The American Future: A History; National Book Critics Circle Award winner Rough Crossings; The Power of Art; The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age; Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution; Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations); Landscape and Memory; Rembrandt's Eyes; and the History of Britain trilogy. He has written and presented forty television documentary films for the BBC, PBS, and The History Channel, including the Emmy-winning Power of Art, on subjects that range from John Donne to Tolstoy.
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Top Customer Reviews
The book is a slightly oversized, semi-glossy heavy-paged volume adorned with numerous, full-color prints of the specific art pieces which form the focal point of the chapters. The text is divided into some eight chapters, each of which is focused on a particular artist. Most are painters, but sculpture is also included. Artists covered include Van Gogh, Turner, Picasso, Rothko, David, Caravaggio, and others. In his typical insightful manner, Schama takes us through the lives of these artists and reveals the often troubled and difficult circumstances surrounding the development of their artist skills. Unpleasantries are generally not spared in the description, but neither are the often unforeseen positive impacts of such experience on the artist. For example, we read of Bernini's triumphs and failures, his disagreement with fellow artisans, and his challenges to build some of the world's most renown sculptures. We also read of van Gogh's devotion that eventually lead him into the world of painting, and the often-troubled world of Picasso as he wrestled with the terrible events of the Second World War. Each chapter is beautifully described and draws the intimate connection between the artist's life and his expression on the canvas.
Can we enjoy art without knowing this information? Of course. But a work such as Schama's brings a whole new view to what we are looking at, and helps us appreciate the emotions at play when the artist undertook his works. Schama's book focuses on PEOPLE rather than GENRE, and in that sense, is not unlike his treatment of the French Revolution ("Citizens"). We walk away with a much greater appreciation, not only for art, but for the artisits, and it changes the nature of our interactions with their expressions. A wonderful book that can easily be read in any order by chapter, the work is a great one for bedside reading, but can also serve as a supplementary text for any art history course. The BBC version of the work in now available on DVD, but don't skip the text. Schama shines in this most interesting of written works.
Not for learning new/old techniques, but to take their art more seriously. It seem todays artists are so eager to please the buyer that the importance of the arts in historical sense has diminished greatly. I have always felt that art reflects the times we live in, and this book proves that the great artists through time have all created works that have had religious/political motivation.
As an oil painter this book has given me the motivation I needed to be different, for my work to have the emotional depth, to tell the story...
ONCE AGAIN THIS IS A VERY IMPROTANT BOOK FOR ALL TO READ.. SCHAMA IS BRILLIANT IN CONNECTING HISTORY WITH ART...A MUST READ
The trouble begins with the title, "The Power of Art", a conundrum that is never adequately explained by either the brief Introduction or the sections on individual artists that follow. Schama offers no over-arching theme with which to discuss the important question implied by the title; from his powerful desciptions of the art works, as well as his romantic view of the lives of his heroes, one may infer that he believes in some variant of Kant's aesthetic theory of the sublime, that great art overwhelms us with its aura, with the perfection of form maximally serving content. Unfortunately, in the absence of any critical or art historical context, there is nothing to tie the individual sections together, nothing to shape the book into a coherent whole other than the "gee-whiz" attitude towards the lives of the artists and their accomplishments. The narrative is far too detailed for the general reader and/or television viewer but, absent an explanatory theme, cannot satisfy sophisticated museum goers or art history majors. In other words, for whom is this book intended?
To be sure, the treatment of some artists, both through the narrative and the exquisite illustrations, is breathtaking. The writing on Rothko is never less than revelatory and the book opens with a thunderclap of a chapter on Caravaggio. Schama saves even more evocative writing for the life and career of Gianlorenzo Bernini, the great sculptor and architect, who usually gets short shrift in painting-dominated general histories of art. This chapter made this reader want to visit Rome and hunt down each and every Bernini sculpture for a moment of personal meditation and poetry. But the writing is often marred through the use of hip colloquial chatter, there's that problem with tone again, including some contemporary phrases ("SuperJew") that are highly disrespectful to his own text (as well as the reader). You can get some idea of his jokiness from the chapter titles: "painting gets physical", "rough stuff in the halls of the rich" (on Rembrandt, strangely one of the weakest chapters), "painting up a storm" (for Turner, groan). I am sure that such intrusions would never have occurred without the attempt to "dumb down" the book because of its tie-in status; I am equally sure that Kenneth Clark would never have committed similar offenses. Despite the allure of its writing and its illustrations, "The Power of Art" is more New York Magazine than New Yorker.