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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!


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


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.


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.


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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