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Power of Art [Hardcover]

Simon Schama

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Simon Schama is University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University and the prize-winning author of fourteen books, which have been translated into twenty languages. They include The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age; Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution; Landscape and Memory; Rembrandt's Eyes; the History of Britain trilogy and Rough Crossings, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has written widely on music, art, politics and food for the Guardian, Vogue and the New Yorker. His award-winning television work as writer and presenter for the BBC stretches over two decades and includes the fifteen-part A History of Britain and the eight-part, Emmy-winning Power of Art. The American Future: A History appeared on BBC2 in autumn 2008.

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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  21 reviews
40 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Schama Classic, But in an Entirely Different Way ... 12 July 2007
By Ray - Published on Amazon.com
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.
49 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not Art Appreciation 24 Feb 2007
By Five in Gold - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
To say this book is about art would be equal to saying Moby Dick is about a fishing trip. Spanning five centuries, The Power Of Art is about politics, philosophy, sociology, psychology in addition to being a meditation on the transformative, illumunating and mysterious ways we are affected by art. Not every reader will get it, those that do not are those who would rush through a museum's galleries to get to the gift shop. You will learn that it takes more than eyesight to see the meaning of works of art.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Where is the power in todays art 20 July 2007
By MARGOGH - Published on Amazon.com
The Power of Art is a book that the serious artist of today should study.
Not for learning new/old techniques, but to take their art more seriously. It seem todays artists are so eager to please the buyer that the importance of the arts in historical sense has diminished greatly. I have always felt that art reflects the times we live in, and this book proves that the great artists through time have all created works that have had religious/political motivation.
As an oil painter this book has given me the motivation I needed to be different, for my work to have the emotional depth, to tell the story...

56 of 76 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Power of Television 19 May 2007
By Michael Salcman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This sumptiously illustrated book, the literary tie-in to a television series, is written by Simon Schama, a noted art historian and Rembrandt scholar; the book represents both the best and the worst of him. Readers of his articles in The New Yorker know that almost no one can describe a painting or a sculpture with the verve and detail of Schama. But the effort here to serve a more general and more commercial purpose has left him confused as to how high or how low he should pitch his voice.

The trouble begins with the title, "The Power of Art", a conundrum that is never adequately explained by either the brief Introduction or the sections on individual artists that follow. Schama offers no over-arching theme with which to discuss the important question implied by the title; from his powerful desciptions of the art works, as well as his romantic view of the lives of his heroes, one may infer that he believes in some variant of Kant's aesthetic theory of the sublime, that great art overwhelms us with its aura, with the perfection of form maximally serving content. Unfortunately, in the absence of any critical or art historical context, there is nothing to tie the individual sections together, nothing to shape the book into a coherent whole other than the "gee-whiz" attitude towards the lives of the artists and their accomplishments. The narrative is far too detailed for the general reader and/or television viewer but, absent an explanatory theme, cannot satisfy sophisticated museum goers or art history majors. In other words, for whom is this book intended?

To be sure, the treatment of some artists, both through the narrative and the exquisite illustrations, is breathtaking. The writing on Rothko is never less than revelatory and the book opens with a thunderclap of a chapter on Caravaggio. Schama saves even more evocative writing for the life and career of Gianlorenzo Bernini, the great sculptor and architect, who usually gets short shrift in painting-dominated general histories of art. This chapter made this reader want to visit Rome and hunt down each and every Bernini sculpture for a moment of personal meditation and poetry. But the writing is often marred through the use of hip colloquial chatter, there's that problem with tone again, including some contemporary phrases ("SuperJew") that are highly disrespectful to his own text (as well as the reader). You can get some idea of his jokiness from the chapter titles: "painting gets physical", "rough stuff in the halls of the rich" (on Rembrandt, strangely one of the weakest chapters), "painting up a storm" (for Turner, groan). I am sure that such intrusions would never have occurred without the attempt to "dumb down" the book because of its tie-in status; I am equally sure that Kenneth Clark would never have committed similar offenses. Despite the allure of its writing and its illustrations, "The Power of Art" is more New York Magazine than New Yorker.
13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Shaman 6 April 2007
By Christian Schlect - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Written with the same force as the works of art it so brilliantly describes---an author with a shaman's powers of interpretation.

This is a collection of keen observations on signal works by eight famed makers of great art, intertwined with an illuminating biographical statement on each artist. A book that once again reveals Professor Schama as an intellectual treasure of our society.

Highly recommended for any one interested in Western Civilization.

(Those enjoying the chapter on Van Gogh are encouraged to read The Yellow House by Gayford.)
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