Full of raunchy plots and stylish visuals, Simon Schama's new series, which tells the stories behind great art, puts most cultural programming to shameby Ben Lewis / November 19, 2006 / Leave a comment
“Simon Schama’s power of art,” the title of Schama’s blockbuster new series for BBC2, made me think instantly of the bombastic 1980s Frankie Goes to Hollywood hit “The Power of Love”: “The power of love /A force from above /Cleaning my soul”—a peerless slice of kitsch neo-romantic pop, propped up by an army of synthesised strings. It would be naive to think that a historian whose academic prowess is matched by his populist instincts hadn’t made this reference deliberately, and sure enough, Schama’s series is art historical power rock. “Art stops us in our tracks with a high voltage jolt of disturbance… it takes us places we had never dreamed of going,” he guffs, like a copywriter for an ad for the new BMW. But Schama’s televisual sleight-of-hand has always been to be smart while sounding simplistic. His new series is an unashamedly big sell for great art—but it’s also erudite, imaginative, scholarly and contemporary.
Schama has picked eight “masterpieces” around which to tell stories of each artist’s life and achievements. His selections all have brilliant stories behind them, tales of the artist staking everything on the creation of something that the world has never seen before. Schama’s choices are for the most part unconventional and surprising—he doesn’t give us any old Turner seascape, but Slave Ships with Slavers Throwing the Dead and Dying Overboard; we don’t get Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, but a classical painting for Amsterdam’s town hall. This is a history of wayward geniuses, libertine passions, violent tempers, extreme emotions, and ultimate salvation. Bernini sculpts nuns having orgasms; Van Gogh paints his psychoses into his landscapes; Picasso rescues humanity from barbarism with his paintbrush.
In one sense, this is “landmark” arts television as it has always been—a set of lectures by a presenter with some nice pictures attached. That’s how they made the BBC’s most famous landmark series, Civilisation, in 1969. But the similarities with Civilisation end there. Power of Art is the perfect reformulation of the landmark concept for the contemporary television market, or at least how television executives perceive it. Civilisation was a stroll through the big styles of western art; Power is a collection of tall tales. Analysis is out; concepts and stories are everything. So Schama doesn’t shy away from the kind of sweeping generalisation that television audiences swallow whole, but which would lead to snorts in even the dimmest lecture hall—quite where…