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Review: Simon Schama's Power of Art

Posted on October 23, 2006 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Simon Schama's Power of Art

In the UK: Fridays, 9pm, BBC2, 9pm. Repeated Fridays, BBC1, 1.40am
In the US: Nowhere yet

There's a certain quality of being thrown in the deep-end with Simon Schama's Power of Art. Unless you look at the web site, you'll be at a loss to know what the point of the show actually is. There's no introduction, no explanation, just Simon Schama bleating on about Caravaggio from the word go. I thought I'd missed an episode at first. But no. We're here to watch Simon Schama and it's about art: that's all we need to know apparently.

The actual explanation for the show, “This is not a series about things that hang on walls, it is not about decor or prettiness. It is a series about the force, the need, the passion of art... the power of art,” makes approximately no sense whatsoever. Instead, it's best to think of the show as “Art: The Rock and Roll Years”, a series about 'interesting' artists and their lives. On the schedule: Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso and Rothko. And, so far, it's pretty good.

Through a combination of Schama wandering around in his trademark black coat through parts of Italy and dramatisations of particular incidents in Caravaggio's life and his paintings, we get an insight into the man and his work. Both Schama's commentary and the dramatisations are good, although the direction is idiosyncratic to say the least: with frequent re-use of the same clips and a bunch of regular-type English people as the entire population of Rome, more often than not the dramatisations provoked mild titters of amusement - ditto Schama's occasionally silly commentary.

All the same, once disbelief was suspended, it was possible to sink into the show and let the history of Caravaggio settle in. And by the time the episode had finished, I was a confirmed Caravaggio fan, so clearly Schama and co were doing something right.

In my time, I've walked through countless art galleries, read countless painting notes, and I have to admit, not a lot of it has sunk in. Art History tends to pass me by. So it's a credit to Simon Schama that three days after the event, I can still remember quite a bit about Caravaggio*. Then again, I can remember approximately 'bugger all' from A History of Britain, so let's give it a bit more time before we praise the educational qualities of Power of Art, hey?

If you're at all interested in art yet somehow, nothing ever sinks in, then give Simon Schama's Power of Art a try.

*Footnote: You may think that's because Caravaggio had an interesting life. However, a friend of mine used to write the Art History column for Jack magazine, back when James Brown published it. He wrote about Caravaggio once. I can't remember a word of it. Sorry Gareth.

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