The series consists of eight 1-hour episodes. Each episode focuses on a particular work of art by a particular artist. Viewed in order, the episodes proceed chronologically, beginning with Caravaggio and Bernini in the early 17th century through Mark Rothco in the mid-20th century. Included in between are some artists very familiar to me (e.g., Rembrandt, Van Gogh) and some essentially unknown to me (e.g., Jacques-Louis David, Joseph Turner). This of course speaks to the spottiness and informality of my artistic education, as all of the artists covered are completely well known in formal art circles.
So what’s the great attraction of this series to me? It’s all about the author and host of the series, Simon Schama. He’s a dizzyingly knowledgeable academic, as one might expect (and even hope for). But it’s his style as a communicator – as an artist in his own right – that makes the series so compelling. For starters, he’s a man with every right, and every potential, to be an utter art snob, except that he isn’t one. He understands, first and foremost, that art does not occur in a vacuum; that it is a product of and a part of the world in which it is created. Schama’s expertise extends far beyond the musty garrets in which the art may have been created or the serene galleries in which these works may now be viewed. He is a student of political, social, and economic history just as much as he is a student of art history. His ability to weave these factors together gives us an appreciation for the art unmatched in my experience.
But I still haven’t really illustrated Schama’s style for you. He is most assuredly unafraid of big words, but he doesn’t brandish them for purposes of linguistic ornamentation, but rather because he wishes to communicate something specific and assumes that he doesn’t have to slow down for us. He also has a sneaky, snarky sense of humor that may show up at any moment, but also in the service of his goal to communicate. It’s a tricky thing to nail down, because he doesn’t tell jokes per se. Here’s an example, from his episode on Bernini:
…What Bernini’s managed to make tangible is something that we all, if we’re honest, know we hunger for, but before which we’re properly tongue-tied. Something that has produced more bad writing, more excruciating moments of bad cinema, more appalling poems than anything else…
The first episode that particularly struck me was the episode on Jacques-Louis David. David was a Frenchman whose career cut across the time of the French Revolution, and he was active in the politics of the era. The work Schama focused on was David’s Death of Marat. By the time Schama had finished connecting this portrait to the upheaval and horrors of the world in which it was created, I found myself traversing a range of thoughts and emotions I have rarely experienced in contemplation of the non-performing arts. Suffice it to say that David was hardly a passive chronicler of current events. He was, rather, a propagandist of the first order and even, one might argue, a direct accessory to the murderous campaigns of a dictator. Whew! I don’t know that the life and times of, say, Peter Max would include anything quite that weighty!
Schama is on the record as saying that he considers the episode on David to be the heart of the entire series. Schama has even written a book specifically on the French Revolution, so it is perhaps no accident that this episode so grabbed me.
The TV series was produced a couple years ago, but it still shows up here and there on TV, so check your local listings. It is also rentable, and I presently have a rented copy of the entire series in my home so that we might make our way through the episodes in order and pick up the ones we’ve missed. If you want a triple shot of art, ideas and entertainment, I cannot recommend this series highly enough.