The Power of Art is Simon Schama's latest work on the subject of art. In recent years, Schama has focused his writing projects a bit more on historical themes, including such topics as the rise of the Dutch Republic in the 17th century, the history of Britain, the origins and results of the French Revolution, and most recently, the rise of the slave trade between the continents prior to the emergence of the American Republic. In distinction from these pieces, most of which were best sellers and extremely well critically reviewed, Schama has turned his efforts to writing about what may be his greatest interest, the world of art. And although Schama has now become one of the most widely read "popular" historians, his love of art really shines forth in "The Power of Art."
The book is a slightly oversized, semi-glossy heavy-paged volume adorned with numerous, full-color prints of the specific art pieces which form the focal point of the chapters. The text is divided into some eight chapters, each of which is focused on a particular artist. Most are painters, but sculpture is also included. Artists covered include Van Gogh, Turner, Picasso, Rothko, David, Caravaggio, and others. In his typical insightful manner, Schama takes us through the lives of these artists and reveals the often troubled and difficult circumstances surrounding the development of their artist skills. Unpleasantries are generally not spared in the description, but neither are the often unforeseen positive impacts of such experience on the artist. For example, we read of Bernini's triumphs and failures, his disagreement with fellow artisans, and his challenges to build some of the world's most renown sculptures. We also read of van Gogh's devotion that eventually lead him into the world of painting, and the often-troubled world of Picasso as he wrestled with the terrible events of the Second World War. Each chapter is beautifully described and draws the intimate connection between the artist's life and his expression on the canvas.
Can we enjoy art without knowing this information? Of course. But a work such as Schama's brings a whole new view to what we are looking at, and helps us appreciate the emotions at play when the artist undertook his works. Schama's book focuses on PEOPLE rather than GENRE, and in that sense, is not unlike his treatment of the French Revolution ("Citizens"). We walk away with a much greater appreciation, not only for art, but for the artisits, and it changes the nature of our interactions with their expressions. A wonderful book that can easily be read in any order by chapter, the work is a great one for bedside reading, but can also serve as a supplementary text for any art history course. The BBC version of the work in now available on DVD, but don't skip the text. Schama shines in this most interesting of written works.