Simon Schama's Power of Art (TV Series 2006– ) Poster

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Beautifully shot, well-produced, and ego-driven
jv-204 December 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Watching a documentary like this one you can't help but think of Schama as a sort of English version of "Carl Sagan" for the artistically curious. Although shot on a relatively big budget for this kind of documentary with an impressive BBC collaboration of cinematography, editing,and writing, subjectivity permeates the entire film. The choice of works is compelling and to his credit Schama does offer deep and powerful insights into the artists and art itself, but his own tastes and biases become apparent the longer you watch. He seems to have a slight disdain for the Italians and the French, and the portrayal of Caravaggio was laughable, thrusting swords repeatedly into the camera like a drugged, hippie freak. And calling Bernini a "bastard" for avenging his mistress and brother without fully explaining the context of the period he lived in is not exactly the professional tone of an art historian. Schama then seems to gush over British Turner and American Rothco unapologetically.

The re-enactments were very melodramatic (especially the music) and other performances that were over the top were Van Gogh in particular. All art is indeed subjective but when Schama tries to balance populism and academics the result can sometimes be a little shaky. He glosses over many important stories and works of the artists' lives confidently in search for a truth without admitting the art historian cannot accurately know everything about events that happened long ago. Art doesn't need to necessarily be political or propaganda-driven to be powerful, and anyone who watches this believing these eight works of art are the the most 'powerful' in history (according to Schama) would be hopelessly mistaken. But it is worth watching.
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A scandal!
kaaber-216 April 2007
Schama's series is highly watchable, and I enjoyed his History of Britain as well, but I must vehemently protest to his Bernini episode, which is, admittedly, visually rich, masterly filmed - but Schama makes the unforgivable mistake of basing his biographical material (which takes up half of the episode) on 17th century muckraker Filippo Baldinucci. Baldinucci, who aspired to be another Vasari, generously lent his ear to all the most envious gossip about the artist, and he went out of his way to be spectacular. Thus, we are treated to the disgraceful story of a megalomaniac Bernini whose genius went to his head, who nearly killed his own brother in a jealous rage, and arranged for a bravo to slash the face of Costanza Bonarelli, Bernini's unfaithful mistress, to ribbons, as Schama so vividly puts it. A Bernini whom even his own mother detested. All of this, however, is based on Baldinucci's low-minded attempt to vilify Bernini, and is written, not as Schama seems to suggest, by a biographer who closely followed his subject around in Rome, but by a biographer who was two years old at the time of the Bonarelli scandal related in so vivid details, and Baldinucci's scandalous book was not published until two years after Bernini's death - for very good reasons. It is totally inadmissible. Even the unsympathetic Pope Innocent X was forced to exclaim: "They say bad things about Bernini, but he is a great and rare man". Man - not only artist. For a truthful biography on Bernini, we must go to Howard Hibbard (who carefully gleans from Baldinucci all that is trustworthy). Among the despicable features of Bernini, Schama & Baldinucci report that he never credited his co-workers - the people doing the hard work for the artist - but which artist did? Michelangelo? Rembrandt? Da Vinci? Certainly not. An art historian like Schama should know that the artist was always turned into a brand name, and never laid claim to wield the chisel or the brush himself.

It's a shame about Schama's episode, for his treatment of Bernini as an artist is admirable, and I do agree that Bernini - as Schama says - transcended dualism and deliberately put erotic aspects into his portraits of saints, simply to show a transport that people can relate to. But the biographical yellow press diatribe of the program, collected with immoderate glee from fishwife Baldinucci - really, historian Simon Schama ought to know better!
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Art as it was meant to be viewed
amandabernice9 July 2007
Simon Schama's delectably paradoxical look at some of the great names in art uses a humanistic approach in viewing The Great Masters that at once humbles their genius as flawed humans and exalts their glorious talent. At once witty, sardonic, and sexy, Schama's approach to art couples socio-historical scholarship with the pure joy in viewing something that invigorates the eye, the brain and the heart.

The Power of Art utilizes Schama's wonderfully written narration he brings to so many of his BBC documentaries, as well as beautifully staged and acted mini-dramas to capture the artist's historical context.

By appealing to the everyman's enjoyment of beautiful art, the scholar's love of history, and the artist's appreciation for the myriad influences and subtleties of the craft, Schama's Power of Art is simply lovely.
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Could be half hour shorter
ignominia-15 March 2011
I saw 3 episodes of this series, the one on Bernini, Caravaggio and Rothko. The paintings are awesomely lit and Shama's observations are interesting and original but I could definitely go for less dramatization. The repeated shots of the Caravaggio's impersonator panting, sweating while fencing on his own are totally indulgent and don't add much to the story; the actor playing Rothko annoyingly trying to seem intense and interesting; these are unnecessary visuals that cheapen the content of the show. Do the producers think we need to see the artist's lives play-acted to engage us? Do they think their art is not enough for the viewer? I find that this approach is condescending and dumbs down the audience. The art, Shama's commentary and narration of the artist's history would have been excellent enough.
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Fake art critic engaging in ad hominem attacks against great artists
surangaf10 June 2015
This is a fake series on several levels. It features Simon Schama, whose credentials as an historian have been long suspect, and who has no credentials at all as an art critic with any aesthetic sensitivity. Instead he has a substantiated record as a propagandist, for modern western establishment and regimes, especially as a war mongering one. As for the content, series has less to do with works of art themselves, but is more concerned with retelling of anecdotes, of very doubtful veracity, about artists, their patrons, and rivals. These anecdotes, some of them entertaining, were obviously selected to prejudice the viewer favorably, or unfavorably, according to views of Schama or his producers. Anecdotes are illustrated with badly acted reenactments. In contrast, artworks themselves are shown only in badly lighted very short cuts. As an example, take episode on Bernini and 'Ecstasy of St Theresa'. It has lots of ad hominem attacks against the sculptor (and his patron popes and cardinals) through unsubstantiated anecdotes, but sculpture (which is a whole chapel in fact) is never shown in full on location. Its relations to other art works at the time or before (word 'baroque' is never used even to discard it), its composition from variety of media and materials, and its methods and techniques of creation, are barely referred to, if at all. While reference is made to St Theresa's own words which inspired the work, Schama seems to be unaware of the long tradition in Roman Catholic Church (and outside) of equating physical ecstasy and sexual union, with Divine Love. St. Theresa's words, while better expressed, are in line with that tradition, and with words of other saints, but this episode erroneously paint them as exceptional, and even unique.
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Nearly unbearable
LBJefferies30 June 2007
Whose Van Gogh is more nauseous, Kirk Douglas's or Andy Serkis's? Oh dear lord, how I wish I would have stopped watching this episode of Simon Schama's series, much as I stopped watching "Lust for Life"! How long before I can again look at one of his paintings without thinking of one of the worst examples of British overacting ever recorded? On top of this despicable performance, we are subjected to frenetic editing and oppressive sound effects. Deafening slurping of paint, pounding the canvas with the brush--I know painting and this is not painting. This is cheap pastiche after the video in the movie "The Ring". What a grotesque version of what was surely a beautiful-beautiful thing. Lastly and most reprehensibly, Mr. Schama takes advantage of the ignorant by presenting subjective opinion as fact. Van Gogh's Wheatfield is really the first piece of modern art? You say it so confidently it must be true--gimme a break. This is art history gone horribly wrong.
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Pabulum all dressed up
font12098 July 2012
If Mr. Schama spoke any more slowly, more painstakingly divided his syllables, I might not recognize the language he speaks in.

More importantly, the writers and directors of pieces like this should recall what information is available at almost every viewer's fingertips. One can access a summary of most documentary subjects literally within a few minutes. I tested this hypothesis with the hour long piece on Turner. In a few keystrokes, I was able to find two summaries on the web that included most of the data Schama presents. Perhaps ten, 15 percent of what Schama tells or shows us remained harder to find, and what consisted of original analysis was nearly absent.

And what is the purpose of the cinema-like shots that suggest some sort of hint toward reenactments? There is often little rhyme or reason to when or why they occur. They last a second or two and seem selected based on their potential for filler and gloss. At one point, we see a hand in shallow focus scraping at a canvas. This is supposed to help us imagine Turner doing his work as a painter? Gimme a break.

Watching something like this is nearly a waste of time. I suppose you could turn down the volume and imagine your own narration. Better still, go to a museum or library instead. At least you'll get off your couch.
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I Beg to Disagree
hamlet27923 October 2008
I walked into the Rothko Chapel, on the campus of Rice University in Houston, Texas, one day in 1974, expecting to find less than nothing, just another High Art hoax. My reaction was both overwhelming and totally unexpected. I literally wept, much as I also did years later when I saw the Van Goghs in Munich, and Michaelangelo's "Pieta" in the Vatican.

It's a total cliché whenever one meets another painter who's mad about Rothko. Sooner or later, the question of, "Did you cry in the Chapel?" comes up. It's very corny but most of us did shed a tear. You have to see it for yourself, It's quite a rush, the paintings are about 15 feet tall, mostly in blues, browns, and blacks. The emotional impact is quite something, hard to describe, you just have to go there some day and see for yourself. No photograph could ever do it justice.

Rothko was a genius and a tragic hero. He sought, and achieved, the expression of an authentic personal spirituality within the then-dominant idiom of Ab-Ex.

A painter of tremendous power and sincerity, to whom I am deeply indebted both formally and spiritually.

Anyone who's seriously interested in Mark Rothko, and what he was all about, should view Simon Schama's POWER OF ART, disc 3 this was first produced by the BBC in 2006; here's the review from the IMDb.

No lie, If you're a fan of Rothko, this video is a must-see. Informative, evocative, and almost unbearable in its emotional intensity. Be forewarned: this is not for the faint-of heart. It's Mark vs the uber-rich, narcissistic NYC art establishment – can you guess who wins? Nevertheless, it's the most accurate and loving tribute to the deeply troubled, painfully sincere, disturbingly self-destructive, humanist that was Mark Rothko.

Watch it – you won't be disappointed Old Simon Schama actually "got" Rothko. Not many people do, nor ever did; his brief, meteoric 'success' notwithstanding.

The video also includes a lot of Markus Rothkovitch (his original name) – cigarettes, vodka, warts and all – explaining himself.

Excruciating and unforgettable; don't take my word for it; just watch the thing – If you have the stomach for it.
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Sexing up the historian
Tenate927 October 2006
I have only watched Simon Schama's diatribe on Bernini and this 'review' is only on that one episode but I tend to think it's indicative of the whole series or even of his TV work in general. The write up in my local online listing said : Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Theresa shows a nun in the state of orgasmic bliss. How was it ever allowed? Simon Schama tells a story of sex and the sacred in Seventeenth Century Rome. The ultimate premise of the show is that after a rise and fall style career Bernini ( whilst not so favoured - 'POPEular' - as when at his summit ) Made the 'Ecstasy of Saint Theresa' sculptural masterpiece - which again thrust him into the limelight. Schama's thesis is that this 17 Century Baroque tour de force or gaudy, kitsch ode to the farrago that is superstition - viewed from a non-observable angle ( false from the perspective of an observer ) can be seen that the angelic spear holder is about to 'shove' the spears 'head' up her in a very sexually provocative manner - her face in a climactic climax at this 'Charismatic' event. This is bizarre and if you see this work as it's meant to be seen, the angle of the 'thrust' is into her heart ( As the original mythic story suggests - the divine joy/sleep of God etc... ). That the face, in a state of orgasmic delight or the last moments of death, tortuous pain or just dozing off are all same is very well known and doesn't add anything to his platitudes on Art, sex or Bernini. It seems to be just a fantasy of, or a cheap trick to put some sex appeal into this, not even slightly charismatic TV historian.
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The Caravaggio Episode is Actually All You Need
GertrudeStern1 August 2016
Simon Schama's introduction to Caravaggio -- who he was, what he was doing, how other people felt about that -- is sometimes rudimentary, but truly hypnotic. The hypnosis is only broken when Schama looks closely at a painting (his looking NOT being rudimentary) and says something super gut-busting with his weird cadences and intimacy.

For instance, in the Caravaggio ep, Schama dives into The Musicians, a piece featuring a cupid, a boy sadly tuning a stringed thing and baby Caravaggio himself, at the back of what Schama calls "this tight little group". Schama's ensuing analysis of the painting includes the lines "The lead singer is crying his eyes out, and he's just tuning up," and "(intruder) Oh yes, four youths in a closet. Exuse me, so sorry, don't mean to intrude! (tight little group) No no, come on in, darling, pull up a cushion, join us, we're just rehearsing." All of this is said in the most coy VO anyone has ever produced. He calls the painting "fleshy" and "claustrophobic". Really he just crushes it.

This series is worth watching for the re-enactments (many, many good re-enactments), but worth suggesting for Schama's magnetism and keen observations. We should probably make sure this is finding the farthest reaches of space. 9/10!

Update: I know some viewers are hot and cold on his unfolding of Bernini, but Schama's comments on the folds of The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa ARE enjoyable and that ep. IS dope.

Update 2: He calls Rembrandt "Mr. Clever Clogs"!

Update 3: Make it to the end of this series and you get to actually watch someone reenact Simon Schama himself as a 20 y/o ruffian staring at a Rothko. This man is a genius.
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popular art
dromasca26 December 2007
If there is such a thing as popular science probably the best name one can give to the genre this series belongs to is popular art. Simon Schama's series of commentary on eight masters and their masterpieces in the history of art have a uniting theme - how art can influenced by power and how power influences art - but yet seems to address mostly the non-initiated audience. The language of the series is sometimes the one of an specialist but no deep aesthetic lessons are given, and the central thread of the commentaries in most of the episodes is around the anectdotic explanation of the works, combined with actors rendering the central figures, in many cases with a very thick palette to use a plastic arts term.

The best moments of the series are in my opinion when the commentary raises atop the banal to create a real and veridical connection between works and times as in the episode about Picasso, or when the camera work of the director fits well the painters style as in the Van Gogh's episode. Yet some contemporary hints could have been avoided in the first, and the acted scene of Van Gogh's folly from the second. Schama is eloquent and catches the attention. Each episode in itself seems to have its better and its worse moments. As such series build in time, eight episodes may not be enough for a definitive conclusion, and the overall impression can improve if further artists and masterpieces will be explored in follow-up seasons.
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Art Made Approachable
JustaGuy9413425 March 2017
Highly recommended if you are not an art expert and want an entertaining introduction. These are not dull descriptions of piece after piece and esoteric opinions and pontificating. Schama attempts to liven things up and to set context by describing the artist and their environment as well as the art. He also tends to focus on a small number of pieces, which I think is a good idea. If he tried to cover the entirety of Picasso's or Van Gogh's work in an hour he'd put us to sleep. If you are someone highly educated on art, these are NOT for you. And judging from a couple of the reviews, some people have a serious problem with the erotic descriptions in the Bernini show...guess they don't like the association with the Roman Catholic church or something. I would ignore them. Worth your time, especially if you are trying to get someone interested in art without boring the ___ out of them.
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