Posted: 06/17/2007


Simon Schama’s Power of Art


by Dianne Lawrence

Premiering on PBS, Monday, June 18 – July 30

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“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.”
— Simon Schama

One wonders if the power and influence art once enjoyed has been compromised by the overwhelming bombardment and explosion of visual imagery endured throughout the day. In this riveting and thoroughly engaging PBS series, art historian Simon Schama passionately confirms the continuing value of great art. Through the dramatic recreation of the lives and events of some of art history’s seminal artists, Schama illuminates the powerful passions, ideas and revelations of human spirit embodied in paint and stone. He also reveals wonderful, gossipy tidbits. Van Gogh never cut off his whole ear, just a fleshy bit. He actually did sell one painting and received a positively glowing review…a week before he committed suicide. When a Nazi general visits Picasso’s studio during the occupation he holds up a postcard of Guernica and demands “was it you that did this?” Picasso coolly tells him, “no, it was you” and offers it to him as a souvenir. We find out why Caravaggio uses his own face on the severed head of the slain Goliath and how Bernini, accustomed to a life of adulation and success, resurrected his career when things begin to sour. Schama’s language is poetic and plain-speaking, challenging and evocative. He asks “Shouldn’t art just stick to what it does best, the delivery of pleasure, and forget about being a paintbrush warrior? Or is it, when the bombs are dropping, that we find out what art is really for?” With dramatized detail, wonderful acting and great sets the series recreates pivotal moments in the artist’s lives, focusing on specific masterworks and the events whirling around them. As we watch these artists negotiate with madness, poverty, political intrigue, uncontrollable passions or overwhelming oppression, we move from contemplation of an image on a surface to the extraordinary life and forces that are embodied therein.

In broadcast order:


June 18, 9:00—11:00 p.m
· Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) and Wheatfield with Crows
· Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Guernica

June 25, 10:00—11:00 p.m.
· Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) and David with the Head of Goliath

July 2, 10:00—11:00 p.m.
· Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) and The Ecstasy of St. Theresa

July 9, 10:00—11:00 p.m.
· Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis

July 16, 10:00—11:00 p.m.
· Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) and The Death of Marat

July 23, 10:00—11:00 p.m.
· J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)

July 30, 10:00—11:00 p.m.
· Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and the Seagram murals.

Simon Schama’s Power of Art is a co-production of Thirteen/WNET New York and BBC. The series is written and hosted by Simon Schama. Series producer is Clare Beavan of BBC. Executive producers are Basil Comely of BBC and Margaret Smilow of Thirteen. Supervising producers for Thirteen Culture and Arts are Kristin Lovejoy and Junko Tsunashima; Bill O’Donnell is director of program development.

The Power of Art website allows viewers, students and educators to build upon the scholarship and research of the series, and to fully explore the artists, the paintings and the stories behind them. The Power of Art DVD is being released by BBC Home Video. The companion book is The Power of Art (HarperCollins, Ecco Press).

Dianne Lawrence is an artist and film critic living in Los Angeles. You may find out more about her work by visiting her site here.

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