Simon Schama's Power of Art (2006)

BBC

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Documentary Description

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. Power of Art is a BBC documentary series written and presented by Simon Schama. The series was broadcast in October and November 2006 on BBC2. It aired in Poland on TVP2 in February and March 2008, on PBS HD in the US and re -broadcast in September 2008 on TVOntario in Canada, on TV ONE in New Zealand and on ET1 in Greece. Each of the eight, one hour episodes examines the biography of an artist and a key work. The series explores dramatic turning points in lives of eight artists and the masterpieces that changed the way the world looks at art. A television history of the creative moment, the series features eight narratives of embattled heroes confronting disaster and triumph while making art that continues to resonate. Propelled by Schama's passionate storytelling, POWER OF ART melds dramatic re-enactments, location shooting and art photography to create a challenging series that explores the power and, ultimately, the whole point of art. "This is not a series about things that hang on walls; it is not about decor or prettiness," Schama says. "It is a series about the force, the need, the passion of art -- the power of art."

SIMON SCHAMA'S POWER OF ART takes viewers on a sweeping cinematic journey to the turning points in the lives of eight artists and a work that defined the career of each. In broadcast order they are:
* Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) and Wheatfield With Crows,
* Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Guernica,
* Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) and David With the Head of Goliath,
* Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) and The Ecstasy of St. Theresa,
* Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and The Conspiracy of the Batavians Under Claudius Civilis,
* Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) and The Death of Marat,
* J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On),
* Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and the Seagram murals.

In the series, Schama takes viewers to the murderous, messianic world of Baroque Rome; opulent Amsterdam; paranoid revolutionary Paris; righteous Victorian England; the madhouses and brothels of Provence; the carnage of civil war Spain; and New York in the 1950s, caught between Cold War jitters and Manhattan glitter. In each place, an artist is backed into a corner and facing a crisis of politics, poverty, passion, oppression or mental stress. In each story, the drama of the creative moment unfolds with the suspense of a crime, battle or love affair. Caravaggio, whose raw physical aggressions spill gloriously into his art, is at rock bottom when he tries to paint himself out of trouble with a shocking self-portrait: his own face on the severed head of Goliath. When a devastated Bernini needs a miracle to salvage his reputation, he sculpts one.

POWER OF ART walks the streets, visits the churches and imagines the studios. Through re-creations, viewers see the blending of the paint, the drop of blood that spatters on the floor, the glint of a steel blade and the death throes of a stricken bull. Throughout the series, Schama zeroes in on a pivotal moment in each artist's life while confronting a broader question: Does art triumph over commerce? What can art do in the face of atrocity? In the segment on Rembrandt, Schama asks, "What's the worst thing that can happen to a painter?" Each program charts a collision between the power of art and a skeptical or indifferent world. And in each case, Schama builds on his argument that art is a flood of truth, a flight of freedom -- an argument that makes an irresistible case for why art matters. Rothko took a firm stand for art -- sensuous, ecstatic, revelatory art -- over money. Picasso's Guernica forced people to confront the brutality of war. Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat reinvented image-making as political propaganda. In the series, Schama peels back the familiar to reveal the genuine. In the case of Turner, Schama explores "my Turner, extreme Turner, the cockney poet just short of madness. The Turner we ought to know. The Turner we really ought to revere." Instead of the familiar fable of Vincent van Gogh, the tortured artist who lopped off an ear (in truth, merely part of an earlobe), Schama delves deeply into the artist's fertile mind, his relationships with his adored brother Theo and the envious Paul Gauguin -- all the way into "the colors that barge into each other like drunks looking for a fight." In his own way, each artist sought art's power to deliver -- for a moment or for a lifetime -- the possibility of wonder. In their masterworks, Schama finds the history of humanity's creative spark and the hope of its rekindled future.

"Art is the enemy of the routine, the mechanical and the humdrum. It stops us in our tracks with a high voltage jolt of disturbance; it reminds us of what humanity can do beyond the daily grind. It takes us places we had never dreamed of going; it makes us look again at what we had taken for granted."
- Simon Schama
Source: PBS

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