Customer Reviews: Simon Schama's Power of Art
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on July 20, 2007
Everyone interested in Western art will WANT to own this disc...we are confronted with the art works that make our brains spin and our hearts leap out. Simon Schama begins his discussion with Caravaggio's "David and Goliath." Rather than depict the artist as the heroic figure, Caravaggio astounds us by portraying himself as the severed head of the monster, the enemy. The film technique used by the director is to explore the biography of the artist, earlier works that lead up to this one, and the cultural moment to understand WHY the artist sees himself in this light.

In the next disc, one of the artists examined is William Turner. I had always associated Turner with wonderful use of light, color, and the birth of English impressionism. But Simon Schama shows us the dark side of
Turner...artworks like a limp Death riding a Pale Horse. The key artwork we are to contemplate is a painting of a slave ship...a deeply disturbing work of an infamous scandal in British history where slaves were thrown overboard alive into the churning shark filled sea. What Schama explains is that Turner's mother had gone insane after losing her daughter and been transformed into a screaming hysteric. Only after this film did I start to notice screaming heads in Turner's sunsets, vapors, and white clouds. Without the historical reconstruction, I would never have understood this side of the painter's work.

In the last disc, we confront Picasso and his greatest (political) masterpiece, "Guernica." We are taken on a tour of Picasso's interior life and witness his change: He grows from seeking liberation for creative art into seeking liberation of all people from aggressive power and fascism.

In summary, after having my "mind blown" by Schama's penetrating analysis of one work of art, I couldn't wait to see the next episode. Because the discussions, reconstructions, and art masterpieces themselves are very graphic, even disturbing, wait until your children are ready to show them this series...indeed, that is the point - the Power of Art - to move us.
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on July 21, 2007
I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Schama in a recent presentation of this documentary. I first became famliar to his work through his book "The Power of Art." His documentary is an excellent companion to a really great book. When the documentary began to be shown on PBS, I knew I had to have a copy (eventually,I bought two copies).

The most important aspect of this documentary, in my opinion, is connected to the fact that Simon Schama is not all too concerned with styles or techniques but with historical context and its impact in the work of each artist he selected. Each work is presented as a reaction to the events of the time. Simon Schama also goes deep into the lives of each artist and provides us with a better understanding of their motivations and personal relationships. These artists become very human and for that reason very much like us. The combination of these factors result in the creation of amazing works of art that are a universal manifestations of human nature and emotion. It is because the message of each piece is so human, so universal, that the art becomes memorable. It is for this reason that these masterpieces continue to talk to us beyond the limitations of time. This is the real power of art!

As an art history teacher, I truly enjoyed Simon Schama's approach to art history. I tend to teach in very similar lines. For those who are not necessarily interested in art (find that hard to believe) this documentary would provide a great deal of information tnat is exciting and entertaining.
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on March 3, 2007
I was fortunate to be able to see the BBC (Region 2) version of this series and I found it very compelling and interesting. Simon does a very persuasive job of explaining how and why (he feels) these greats (Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso) standout in the annuals of art. A very easily accessible series for even the most uninitiated in the subject; highly recommended by this art novice. I only wish there were more episodes in the series!
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on July 21, 2008
No doubt many are wondering: what was that haunting counter-tenor aria floating through the David episode: Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus in G Minor, RV 608: IV. In fact, there are a number of exceptional musical works that make up the soundtrack of this series, and that you should have to wonder what they are without mention of them in the credits is annoying. Mr. Schama's and his producer's failure to list music credits for each of the shows in the Power of Art, brilliant though the series was, was a grotesque oversight and they ought to be read the riot act. How such smart people could make so egregious and stupid an error as overlooking the power of the music they obviously spent so much time and attention selecting is beyond me. Quite infuriating! Details like these matter. After all, Mr. Schama has made a career looking at the details. He should know better.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon August 14, 2007
Schama's latest foray into the world of on-screen documentary is also his latest smash hit. Although fundamentally different than his earlier documentary ("The History of Britain"), this latest of his entries into the genre is another solid performer, destined to find its way onto the list of "best documentaries ever made."

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.
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on October 6, 2011
I came to this series because some Rembrandt paintings are comming soon to my city and I wanted to know more of the man before I saw them. I put his name in on YOU TUBE and this series came up. It really made me understand how these painters works evolved and the effects their lives had on making their art what it is. Not every episode uses actors to portray the painters but in those that do Esp. Van Gogh, Caravaggio & Rothko the actors give tour deforce performances. Masterpiece theatre caliber that is RARE indeed for a documentry. I gave most of two days to the episodes and came away with far more than I might have expected. I look forward to owning the DVD's. Mr. Schama's another MASTER of the Documentry of whom England has given so many.
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on August 27, 2008
I am a serious photographer, who is trying to find his way through the hassle of the modern world. What makes you to shoot a really "good" photograph? That's the search for every individual, who is in the need of expressing himself/herself in an artistic form. Is it equipment? Well! May be. But surely not exactly. So, I decided to dig deeper and try to understand how visual art was created in the good old ages when people were not technologically strongly supported to create an image as they are now. And during my research, I came across with this set of DVDs. Each episode is concentared on one masterpiece that the artist created. In the creation phase of the masterpiece, additional background information about the social happenings, the personality of the artist, the important steps in the artist's life on the way to the creation of the masterpiece are mentioned. It's very very useful for art enthusiasts to create awareness abour certain concepts, trends and styles. But surely an entry tool to warm you up to go further. In the endless sea of art, 8 artists are really not too much. But these 8 artists are selected to cover a significant poriton of the understanding of art history. When you watch the DVDs, I believe you would wish to know at least this much information about the other masters of art and their famous work. You will surely feel yourself richer and your approach to look at a visual art subjects or sculpture will surely change.
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on March 28, 2012
Like a very good dramatic play on Broadway; all details covered. You are held spellbound. This is Schama's best work. I don't think he can duplicated it. I would love to buy volume after volume of his presentations on art so full of passion and details of information; you feel you know the artists when he is finished and you know the period along with them. And I loved your attire: simple darkest black suit with whitest laundered shirt (opened) and your narrator's speech was off the chart and all that travel and all those beautiful places, all that marble and gold trim, beautiful galleries and furniture, and up close photography on the sculptures and paintings--everything was just unforgettably perfect. The music and voice/opera just glorious! THANK YOU SIMON, just what a professor should do if he has theater or Hollywood in his blood or in his dreams.
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The subtitle to this extraordinary series is "Eight Works That Exploded on to an Unsuspecting World." These are works not just wonderful in themselves, but art pieces with an enthralling history. Schama's story telling doesn't use just narration. We see locations, video and well-executed re-enactments, including Andy Serkis' riveting portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh.

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!

Happy Reader
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on May 14, 2013
I was a lit major in college. Used to love hearing a professor explain a great work. Schama does just that: he builds up the historical context and the personal life drama of each artist (six in all) with such force that I was taken aback.

Not for kids. It's raw, visceral, sexual, bloody, in the gutter, at the apex of fame, falling from the latter to the former, etc. etc. etc.

It'll take you on a journey that you'd hardly expect from "Art History." You will not be the same.
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