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Simon Schama's the Power of Art

BBC Worldwide // Unrated // June 19, 2007
List Price: $49.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted June 29, 2007 | E-mail the Author
The movie


Art. What does that make you think
of? Dead-quiet museum galleries? School field trips? Coffee-table
books? Any or all of these can deliver beautiful art to the viewer,
but a lot of the time there's also a sense of... well, of the art
being kind of dead. Embalmed, even, as if the label of "Masterpiece"
sucked it dry of vitality. What Simon Schama's series Power of Art
does is deliver the opposite experience: living art. Hot-blooded,
sensual, scary, thrilling, dramatic art. Forget the museum: Power of
Art takes you right there as these masterpieces were being created.
There's just one word for the experience of Power of Art, and
that's "Wow!"


Simon Schama, who also did the
absolutely marvelous series History of Britain, sets out here
to get us out of the hushed reverence of the art museum and into what
he calls the "drama of the creative moment." Each of the
one-hour episodes focuses on a single artist, some painters, some
sculptors and architects: Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, David,
Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Rothko. In a brilliant move, though,
the episodes never try to be all-inclusive, covering all the details
of the artist's life or doing a catalogue of all the major works.
Instead, Schama chooses a single work by that artist to be the center
of the episode, and circles around it to show how the artist got
there, and what it all meant. What was happening in the artist's life
that led him to create that masterpiece? What were the circumstances
of its creation, and how did they shape the result? What did it mean
to the people of the time... and what does it mean to us? How does
the art show us something about what it means to be human?


This choice of limited focus means
we really get to see and feel what's exciting about a single work. We
get to really look at it, with the camerawork and Schama's excellent
narration helping us to not just to see, but really to observe the
details and the power of the art. Popular culture encourages us to be
"cool" and jaded, to say "yeah, whatever" to what
we see, and to quickly flip the channel if there's not enough flashy
action going on. Schama's Power of Art deliberately challenges
this sound-bite mentality by inviting us to stop, look, and be
absorbed into the artist's work. When we pause to really soak it in,
all of a sudden something happens: we feel what the artist is doing.
It's both startling and exciting to experience art this way. Who knew
that so much drama and excitement could be packed into a single
painting, a marble sculpture, the arch of a cathedral?


Schama isn't afraid to look head-on
at the most challenging and even explosive aspects of art, helping us
to experience them as the artist intended, rather than condemning
them to a dry textbook or museum experience. Just to take the first
two episodes as examples, they draw us in with provocative questions.
Why did Caravaggio make a self-portrait... of himself as Goliath's
dead, severed head in his painting of David and Goliath? In Bernini's
sculpture of St. Teresa of Avila, could that really be a nun in the
throes of... orgasm? Shocked, intrigued, we're compelled to keep
watching, and Schama deftly unfolds the story of the artist's life
and masterworks. The Bernini episode is actually a great example of
what works brilliantly in the whole series: St. Teresa isn't merely
"sensual" but outright sexual... yet Bernini, the sculptor,
was a devout Christian. What's up with that? Schama takes us through
the unfolding story of Bernini's art career, exploring how his
visceral, sensual, even "fleshy" paintings were a brilliant
expression of his faith. In the end, we look at Bernini's St. Teresa
and are awed by the sculptor's daring use of physicality to convey
spiritual transcendence.


Everything about Power of Art
works beautifully. Schama's commentary is compelling: he's right
there in front of us, taking us to the art. he's clearly energized by
this great art, and he makes us feel the same way. The commentary,
which he wrote as well as delivered, fills us in on the details that
make the material interesting: we find out what's remarkable about
each piece, what's exciting about the creator, what was happening as
this masterpiece was being made. Intertwined with Schama's commentary
and exposition of the art are reenactments of key moments in the
artist's life, letting us see and feel what it was like at that
moment of intense creative drama. And drama it is: the stories
surrounding these artworks are incredibly interesting, as are the
artists.


The high production values support
the overall classiness of the program. The actors, sets, costumes,
and overall production of the reenactments is superb: they feel real
and compelling, and are always tightly tied into the narrative thrust
of the program. What we see in the reenactments is not mere color,
but is essential for understanding the art that we're exploring.
Interestingly, the characters in the reenactments sometimes directly
address the camera, a startling move that's also quite effective in
drawing the viewer right into the middle of the action.


Wow. That about sums it up. It's
abundantly clear that Schama loves the art that he's telling us
about... and he makes us love it, too. It's impossible not to feel
the visceral impact of the art that's shown and discussed here. My
only "complaint"? That there are merely eight episodes!


The DVD


Simon Schama's Power of Art
is a three-DVD set, packaged in a stylish gatefold case with a
slipcover.


Video


The episodes are presented in
widescreen anamorphic format, and look very good overall. Colors are
rich and natural, as befits a series that is looking at art. The
image quality for the reenactment footage is sometimes a little bit
soft, but the close-up footage and the coverage of the artworks is
nicely sharp and clear.


Audio


The stereo soundtrack is excellent,
with Schama's voice always clear and crisp, whether he's on-camera or
narrating as a voiceover. The music portion of the soundtrack is
nicely done and always correctly balanced with the dialogue and
voiceover. Optional English closed captions are provided.


Extras


We get more than just a great
program here; we also get some interesting special features. Disc 1
includes a commentary track on "Bernini" with Simon Schama
and producer/director Clare Beavan, and Disc 2 has two commentaries:
one on "David" with Schama and Beavan, and one on "Van
Gogh" with Schama, director David Belton, and actor Andy Serkis,
who plays Van Gogh. All the commentaries are quite interesting,
giving details about the creation of the episodes.


There's also a quite interesting
23-minute interview with Schama on Disc 3. Schama is truly a natural
storyteller: even in this informal piece, he is clearly energized and
excited about his material, telling fascinating stories about the
genesis of the program and his experiences while making it.


Each disc also starts with a
skippable trailer for another BBC documentary.


Final thoughts


I never imagined that I'd be on the
edge of my seat with anticipation while watching a documentary about
a painter... but Simon Schama's Power of Art just blew me
away. It's marvelous. What's more, it makes me want to go to a museum
and start looking at the works there in a new way: not just looking,
but really seeing and feeling them. Art as a window into the human
soul... it's true, but we don't feel it enough. We ought to, though:
and Schama makes it happen. This is documentary filmmaking that
transcends the label "documentary": it's amazing.

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