Encouraged by several positive reviews, I finally found time this month to watch Simon Schama's Power of Art series.  Originally broadcast on BBC2 in 2006, it's now available worldwide on DVD.  It consists of eight episodes featuring the following artists: Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Rothko.

The Good

Static art has always been a tough sell as a television subject.  Quiet reflection and lengthy observation are not really compatible with the superficiality and sensory overload of television.  Consequently, programs discussing painting and sculpture are few and far between, and we should be happy when individuals are willing to assume the risk of developing a miniseries focused on art.  Full credit, then, to the BBC and Schama for conceiving this project and getting it aired.

Schama has put the focus of the series not on the paintings, but on the life of the artists and the motivations and circumstances behind the creation of their art.  That's a great plus in terms of episode depth.  Instead of having to hurriedly cover an entire art movement or historical timespan in 60 minutes, Schama can spend the whole time focused on a single artist and the events that led to the creation of a single piece.  The deep contextual information makes the art much more personal and relevant.

Additionally, Schama's expositions about the artists' personalities and motivations are quite good, and he is obviously knowledgeable and passionate about the subjects he covers.  This is made explicit in the DVD's bonus interview, where Schama discusses the planning and development of the series, including some amusing anecdotes.

I must also give special recognition to whomever did the scouting for the on-location footage.  In several episodes, the one covering Van Gogh being the best example, the scenery and lanscapes do a fantastic job of making the viewer feel that they are looking at the exact same locations that surrounded and inspired the artists.

The Bad

In an attempt to appeal to a wide television audience, the series makes a number of stylistic decisions that are rather condescending to anyone with even a tiny bit of good taste.  For starters, the desire to prove that great art is the product of conflict and struggle slants the tone and narration towards the exaggerated and sensationalistic.  Schama often sounds like a celebrity gossip journalist, repetitively trying to manipulate the viewer's emotions with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Secondly, Schama felt the need to include quite a few explicitly acted scenes.  So instead of panned static images or discrete reenactments with voiceovers, we get actors saying and doing things that might (or might not) have been said and done as depicted, sometimes even breaking the fourth wall.  A bad idea in the context of a historical documentary, made worse by the fact that a lot of the acted scenes are disposable filler.  Examples of scenes that should have been, at most, just mentioned in passing or omitted altogether include Caravaggio teaching a dog to walk upright (I'm not making this up) and reenactments of Schama himself going to a Rothko exhibit in the early 70s.

Ironically, the case that Schama tries to make for the power of art is undermined by his own lack of faith in that power to move modern audiences without resorting to reality-tv techniques.  Thankfully, the level of superfluous docudrama varies among the episodes, with the first one (Caravaggio) being the worst offender.  So if you can get past that episode, the rest aren't as gratuitous.

The Bottom Line

Great concept, uneven execution.  How you view the series will depend on your level of tolerance towards the embarassing bits.  If you think that documentaries and drama are two distinct genres that should not be mixed casually, expect to do some cringing.  But on balance, especially if you're a fan of the featured artists, I'd still have to recommend giving it a rental because the pluses manage to outweigh the minuses.  It's especially nice to have documentaries about lesser-known geniuses (e.g. Bernini) who are not as popular as some of their contemporaries.

Just to make things clear, I've got no problem whatsoever with people mixing art, history, and drama in the context of non-documentary entertainment.  Girl With A Pearl Earring, a fictional story about one of Vermeer's paintings, is an example of that kind of mixture done properly.  I consider it to be a small masterpiece and one of the most visually beautiful films ever made.

Posted on Sunday, September 02, 2007
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Comments on this post

# re: Simon Schama's Power of Art

Interesting comments
? music was not listed in any of the credits.
I am curious re: aria in David's portion
Left by Danute on Jun 16, 2009 12:16 PM

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