I confess to knowing a little bit about art, i.e. not as much as Sister Wendy Beckett, but probably more than Prince William. I am, like a lot of people, casually fascinated by it, without necessarily being able to articulate my feelings about the power of a certain piece or why it moves me. However, I know what I like, and I like what I know.
Simon Schama's documentary series - which aired in 2006 in hour long programmes - looks at eight artists (seven painters, one sculptor - Bernini), who, in Schama's opinion introduced something new to the art world, or made a big splash. He focuses on one particular key work per artist, but discusses both their earlier and later pieces to demonstrate their progression. Presented in chronological order, his subjects are:
Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 - 1680)
Rembrandt (1606 - 1669)
Jacques-Louis David (1748 - 1825)
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 - 1851)
Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890)
Pablo Picasso (1881 - 1973)
Mark Rothko (1903 - 1970)
In each case he sets their chosen work in both a personal and historical context. For example, much of the focus on David is set against the backdrop of the French Revolution - the main featured painting of his being `The Death of Marat'. (Schama is also the author of `Citizens' - a monumental history of the period.)
Similarly, the key work chosen for Turner - `The Slave Ship' - is set in the days when major countries (USA, Spain) were still to abolish the heinous slave trade; while, for Picasso he chooses `Geurnica' (naturally) which symbolically represents the bombing of a small Spanish town by Italian and German air forces during the Spanish Civil War.
Personally, I consider that there are seven geniuses represented here, together with one baffling inclusion - Mark Rothko - whose major works consist of nothing more than large floating blocks of colour, which he daubed with a decorator's paintbrush. The title of his key work - 'Black on Maroon' - speaks volumes to me. Some of Rothko's canvasses look like they were completed in twenty minutes. Some of them look like they took even longer. The best I can say about him is he appears to have been marginally more talented than Jackson Pollock
But I'm not here to bash Rothko. Although I don't agree with his inclusion among the other true giants (but what do I know?), his life story is haunting and worth telling - and I have to hand it to him, the bloke did have his principles.
How much you'll enjoy the programmes depends on whether you like Schama's highly characteristic delivery. Often addressing the camera full on, with his marvellously mobile countenance, he can be florid, pretentious, overblown... but for me he's also completely riveting. He pitches the series perfectly: it's not academic, but it isn't dumbed-down either.
He can also be a revisionist. He decides, for example, that Van Gogh wasn't all that mad and frail when he painted the featured work `Wheatfield with Crows'. Received opinion would argue otherwise!
As well as Schama's talking head, and the huge library of images and footage used throughout the series, in each instance an actor is used to portray the featured artist. The performances are all excellent, but my favourite two come from Allan Corduner, who is totally spellbinding as the chain-smoking, boozing, melancholic Mark Rothko, and Andy Serkis as Vincent. Andy could have ended-up showboating and turning Van Gogh into a Serkis act, instead he plays the tortured genius with a touching sensitivity. This despite bearing no physical resemblance to him at all, handicapped as he is by a totally unconvincing dye job on his barnet.
Schama gets to visit the cities in which the artists worked, and the photography is often stunning. For example beautiful natural images of rolling clouds and crashing waves are used to accompany commentary on Turner's seascapes. Not particularly subtle, but still very effective.
This series is recommended not only to those who love art, but also to neophytes who enjoy the romance of a good story. None of these artists lived what you would call a conventional life: two of them committed suicide (Van Gogh, Rothko), one ended up on the run, accused of murder (Caravaggio), while another died a bankrupt after alienating the gentry he painted (Rembrandt).
Beautifully shot, and featuring some fantastic, specially commissioned incidental music - alongside the obligatory classical stuff - this is a visual and educational delight. It provides everything a documentary series should; high production values, erudition, entertainment, and pure theatre.