Simon Schama's Power of Art
DVD | Box Set
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Beautiful. Fascinating. Emotional. Art is all of the above. But only a few are powerful.
Explore the dramatic moments behind the creation of eight masterpieces of painting, sculpture and design.
Audio Commentaries with Simon Schama, Clare Beavan, David Belton & Andy Serkis
Interview with Simon Schama
Watching Simon Schama's Power of Art is like taking an Ivy League course in art appreciation, with the folksy but knowledgeable Schama as guide and interpreter. A collection of hour-long films on eight seminal artists and their groundbreaking works, which originally aired on British television, this boxed set is as entertaining as it is enlightening, with Schama doing for Western art what, say, Steve Irwin did for Australian natural history. Eight artists are featured--Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Rothko--and each portrait of the artist weaves biography and historical context to help explain the true power of his works.
The segment on Van Gogh is, as expected, emotional, yet Schama convincingly portrays Van Gogh as not consumed by madness, but fighting off the episodes with painting. Van Gogh painted one of his most evocative works, Wheat Field With Crows, which even his brother, Theo, recognized was about to put his brother on the artistic map. Yet, as Schama points out, within weeks, Van Gogh had killed himself. "Now why would he want to do that?" Schama muses--and then proceeds to narrate the tormented tale of the answer. Along the way, the viewer gains new appreciation for Van Gogh's signature works, including his famous sunflowers. "Technically, these are still lives," Schama says, "but there's nothing still about them... the sunflowers [seem to be] organisms landing violently from a burning sun." If the reenactments of the artists' lives are a bit overdone, it's forgivable, since the cumulative effect, in an hour, is a new appreciation of the work and the man.
Extras include frank and very funny commentaries by Schama and his co-producer, and lots of behind-the-scenes dish on how certain scenes were achieved. The teeming French opera scene in the "David" episode, for instance, was cast using just 20 French extras and then the rest created by CGI--"the scene works better, really, than [the film] King Kong," Schama says with delight. --A.T. Hurley
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The eight artists are shown in chronological order. Each is presented primarily through one of his works, but, along the way, you learn about other works and the milieu in which the artist lived and created. Don't forget to re-watch the episodes with the Bonus Extra commentaries. They and the final interview with Simon Schama added to my enjoyment of the series.
The series originally aired in 2006. The episodes total 463 minutes. On the DVDs, they are presented in 16:9 aspect ratio and stereo sound. English SDH subtitles are available on the episodes.
1. CARAVAGGIO and "David With the Head of Goliath"
It's a great introduction to Caravaggio and the whole series: "Italy 1610. Michelangelo Merisis de Caravaggio is on the run again. No stranger to trouble, this artist tangled with the law for most of his life.... We like to think, don't we, that the genius is the hero. That the good guy wins. But this is Caravaggio, and the genius is the villain."
Look at the artist's portrait. Isn't this a man who dares the viewer to cross him?
2. BERNINI and "Ecstasy of Saint Teresa" sculpture
Bernini's personality was the opposite of Caravaggio – witty, charming and cultured. Schama narrates: "The whole point of classified sculptures was to make humans less so, to give mortal flesh the heavy-weight smoothness of immortality. So, many of them ended up looking divine but bloodless." And then along came Bernini.
See how this star ends up out-Caravaggio-ing Caravaggio.
BONUS EXTRA: Commentary track with Simon Schama and Clara Beavan (producer).
These collaborators talk about how to light sculpture that can't be moved. They decided to not use English actors for the recreated Italian scenes. It's not just the spoken language, it's the body language.
3. REMBRANDT and "Claudius Civilis"
As an example of Schama's humor, here's his introduction to one of Rembrandt's portraits, "Elias Trip, head of the dynasty, thought of himself as a pillar of Protestant society. Your old fashioned sober-sided church-going arms dealer."
Rembrandt goes out of fashion and files for bankruptcy in 1656. "Claudius Civilis" is supposed to bring him back. Instead, he is reduced to humiliation.
Trivia: Schama tells how the burghers were so displeased with the giant painting "The Night Watch" that they refused to pay for it. I've seen elsewhere that this is a misconception, including in the other recommended art series, The Private Life of a Masterpiece: The Complete Seasons 1-5
4. DAVID and "The Death of Marat"
Schama asks, after telling us about David's life, "So why do I like David? Well, I don't. He's a monster. But he makes ideas blaze in dry ice. He is a fantastic propagandist."
Trivia: David is pronounced dah VEED. David had a scar on his face from a sword fight. In the fight re-enactment, the scar is shown on the actor's left side. At the end, it's shown on the right.
BONUS EXTRA: Commentary track with Simon Schama and Clara Beavan.
Beavan remembers shooting one scene: "You were coming along the corridor and there was a huge noise on the other side of the corridors.... I was getting more and more furious. I finally sent James off to see what the h*** the noise was. James came back and said, 'They're filming 'The Da Vinci Code'."
5. TURNER and "Slave Ship"
Turner became successful very young, invited to join the venerable Royal Academy at only 26 years old. He's known mostly for his serene landscapes, which, even at the time, were mocked for their warm tones.
But, Schama says of "Slave Ship": "This is my Turner, extreme Turner. The Cockney poet just short of rudeness."
6. VAN GOGH and "Wheatfield With Crows"
Schama says this painting "was a revolutionary masterpiece. It's the painting which begins modern art. Yet, within a few weeks the man who had achieved it had killed himself."
Vincent's younger brother, Theo, kept his letters. The re-enactments use Vincent's own words, which show an intelligent, well-read, questioning man.
Trivia: Van Gogh cut off the fleshy part of his earlobe, not the whole ear. Vincent and Theo are buried next to each other with simple gravestones.
BONUS EXTRA: Commentary track with Simon Schama, David Bottom (director) and Andy Serkis (actor, played Van Gogh).
The scene where Vincent (played by Serkis) eats a tube of paint is based on a real incident. This is a powerful visual and almost painful to watch. Schama says, "It's the half cry, half laugh at the end which is absolutely brilliant."
7. PICASSO and "Guernica"
Picasso was apolitical, more from self-absorption than anything else. The Spanish-born artist was in Paris in 1937 when the Nazi Luftwaffe bombed the anti-Franco town of Guernica into near oblivion. For Picasso, life caught up with art.
8. ROTHKO and the Seagram series
These are paintings you need to sit in front of and melt into. Schama: "While at first sight these paintings seem so still and composed, hang around for a moment and you'll see they're anything but."
BONUS FEATURE "Interview with Simon Schama" (24 minutes, no subtitles)
Schama tells us how this series came to be, through stories as well as reflections. For the Rembrandt episode, he remembers filming in front of the artist's large self-portrait: "I had this terrible sense he was looking at me and saying, through those fishy eyes of his, 'Well, I've seen people like you before... You come and go. I stay around."
Only occasionally does Schama resort to what I call "art speak", that incomprehensible and self-important commentary you too often find in art catalogues. Almost always, his commentary in "The Power of Art" is illuminating, humorous and sometimes pungent!
For this series, Schama has specially selected eight key artists to make his underlying point that art is indeed powerful, and all one need do is examine some of these personages and their key works to be convinced of just that point. Schama easily makes his case, but takes us on a riveting eight-hour journey from Caravaggio to Rothko in doing so. Our trip leads us to meet each of the artists (Caravaggio, Bernini, David, Turner, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Picasso, and Rothko), peer into the oftentimes emotion-charged lives in which they practiced their art, and survey of some of the major accomplishments of each, all flouted across the screen in high-resolution digital beauty. And yet, this is not really Schama's point at all: the point which he wants us to understand, to believe, to accept, to embrace, is that art can be powerful, often IS powerful, and that these eight people served as spectacular conduits of that power into their created works.
And so, for each of our eight personal witnesses called to the stand to defend Schama's thesis, we hear an often tormented roar of testimony, each of them having a unique story to tell in how art was powerful to them, and how that power impacted their and succeeding generations. Sometimes the power is, in Schama's words, a "lie" (for example, "Death of Marat" by David), and sometimes it is the power of guilt and redemption (Caravaggio's "David with the head of Goliath"). Sometimes it is an open doorway to another dimension (Rothko's works), and sometimes, the power of reminding us who we are (Rembrandt's "The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis"). We don't have to know about these paintings beforehand to learn Schama's lesson: as we work through each episode, we learn more than enough to understand these works, and why they were created. As such, the series serves as an outstanding lesson on the history of western art. But we should never be misled as to Schama's true purpose. He wants us to see the medium of art as a source of power, sometimes tapped, sometime not, sometimes legitimate, sometimes not. But powerful nonetheless.
The DVD set closely follows the printed text, which was released almost two years ago. I would recommend that one purchase and work through both formats to receive the maximum insight and experience of the endeavor. The book and the documentary make use of slightly different approaches to achieve the same goal, and watching the DVD first or reading the book first will in no way spoil the pleasure and meaning of the other. Both the DVD and the book are of first-rate quality, and it is easy to recommend both. Don't miss out on this latest of the Schama saga, and after watching, join the crowd of those that hope for more to come.