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4.5 out of 5 stars84
4.5 out of 5 stars
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on 12 December 2006
Once I heard Professor Schama was making "Simon Schama's Power of Art" series I snatched up the DVD and the accompanying book, having greatly enjoyed Schama's "A History of Britain" and his superb biography "Rembrandt's Eyes".

"Power of Art" is a look at eight remarkable artists with eight remarkable stories. Each artist receives a different approach, in terms of presentation and direction, which keeps things fresh. Sure, there are awkward moments in the series, such as having a Caravaggio with an accent from northern England (he doesn't even try to have an Italian accent!), or some ham acting elsewhere, but these are minor moments.

So much Picasso literature is merely breathless adulation, telling us little about the great man, but in the Picasso episode we hear that the last thirty years of his career were the "longest and saddest anti-climax" in art history. Schama is not afraid of the grand statement.

The Rothko and van Gogh episodes were particularly well done, in part due to the excellent actors (Andy Serkis as van Gogh and Allan Corduner as Rothko). Usually I don't like "re-enactments" of artists, but here they were so well done I had forgotten my prejudice. The Bernini episode was also a delightful surprise, as his sculptures came alive under the moving eye of the camera.

Schama is very likable and approachable, yet remains authoritative. I hope he will do more TV series and/or lectures on art. 5 Stars (the Rothko episode in particular is very special).
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on 18 December 2006
A remarkable and certainly, precise in adulation, series of programmes. The 'Turner' programme is the highlight for me with it's stirring challenges visually segued by superb haunting music - the music itself should be released as a CD in similiar mode to Sagan's "Cosmos" of the early 80s. Schama is honest, to the point, and non-melodramatic (unlike other presenters). The 'Rothko' programme is a revelation as this artist is forgotten outside the walls of the Tate Modern; and I enjoyed the contrast with the earlier rennaissance painters. But it is worthy of purchase for the 'Turner' programme alone - first shown on BBC2 and thank goodness not lost among the hideous television schedules that we have today. Well done all involved and well done Prof.Schama for holding our hands in the minefield that is Art History interpretation.
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on 2 January 2011
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:

Caravaggio (1571-1610)
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 however be a bit of 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. A bit obvious, 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 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.
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VINE VOICEon 6 April 2007
Schama is a wonderful story-teller and he captures and conveys the stories, both of the pictures and the artists. I agree (with a previous reviewer) that sometimes the role-playing can be a bit irritating but when they work, they do manage to portray a sort of mood-music to accompany the story as it's told. These programmes have a real gift at engaging those who are not initially inclined to get into such things. And the poignancy and pathos of the artists lives, and their consequent effects on their art, are never far from the surface. A great achievement and very watchable
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It's true that Simon Schama's view is fairly narrow and that the reconstructions can be a bit distracting but these are small points when compared with what this series has to offer.

The paintings selected are all fascinating and their history and their artist's life stories are delivered in a captivating and entertaining manner. The problem with replacing the reconstructions with various experts giving their opinion is that it becomes yet another 'arty' programme that will not have much appeal to those not generally interested in art.

The programme keeps up a rapid pace throughout and Schama is certainly passionate about his subject. Well filmed and paced this may be somewhat 'dummed down' but it should not be dismissed out of hand. If you're interested in art then you will likely do your own research but perhaps only into those paintings or styles that are of interest to you, here a wide variety of styles and times are included and may well open an interest in something or someone you had previously overlooked, ( I previously knew little of Carravagio ),.

There is much to enjoy in this series and Schama is a refreshing change from the usual monotone that accompanies so many art studies. If you haven't seen this I would recommend you give it a try.
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on 31 May 2011
The narrator, Mr. Schama, has strong opinions about the works he discusses, and gives a very interesting narrative.
I am sure never to forget the artists he focuses on, some of which I had only given a quick glance before.
It is easy to be excited by Mr. Schama's superlative, maybe sometimes over-the-top narrative and obvious love for
the subject. And I really appreciate his viewpoint, which is fresh and exciting to me. Take his discussion of Turner,
for instance; I wasn't aware of Turner's darker side at all, and had overlooked his best work.
But even if I have only watched half of the series so far, I am tiring of the episodes. Each episode has several
"grand finale" kind of statements, fine end-points, --but then keeps going. In the end, I find each episode a bit
too long, and repetitive. Of course, working off a few pieces of art, there will be some repeated views.
Maybe I just need to view the episodes with a few days in between, not one every night. The superlative grinds
you down after a while. And, finally, I am not sure I like the acted scenes; people running in empty corridors, etc.
I find that the scenes, especially when repeated many times, don't add to the drama.

All in all: fine, thought-provoking material, fresh views on artists I had come to ignore, but a bit long and repetitive.
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on 22 January 2008
Simon Schama's DVD set "The Power of Art" is an excellent intellectual try to make the connections between the art and the human perception of the world and with it, its influence on the world history. With it he tries to cope with the very important question, what art is for, and what purposes it fulfils except of being esthetical addition to our world. According to Schama the very best examples of politically influential artists are David, Goya and Picasso. Schama successfully shows the power of art in political troubled times, while according to him Goya and Picasso standed in the morally correct side of the fence, opposite to David whose paintings were part of the murderous machinery of the French revolution.
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on 11 December 2010
Why, why, why does a brilliant programme on art need music that has the same vulume as Simon Schama's narration. Back ground music should be back ground. At times the music was completely unnessary and silence would have had a greater effect.
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on 2 April 2007
I really enjoyed this series. At times Schama tries a bit too hard with quite a lot of modern slang that will quickly date and can become very irritating. I have to say though, that despite this, you do warm to him for the real passion he conveys for the art. I quite like the dramatisations of the artists themselves that helps you to remember them and makes you care about their art. Some of the acting isn't brilliant though. If you're a cultural junkie and want an accessible introduction to some important artists this is a good starting point. I'm told that Kenneth Clark's Civilisation is better though. It's on my list to watch next.
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on 3 June 2013
The artists and their works just can not overcome the presenter, producers and writers more bent upon demonstrating the prowess of the BBC cameras, the superiority of the professor, and the ignorance of the viewer than upon bringing to life their subject.

More time seems to be spent on glorious footage of nature than upon the works of the artists, and presenter Schama mouths sophistries and hogs the screen, head bobbing about like a stringless marionette as he overwhelms with his superior intellect and recants a bit about the artists who changed our thinking about art.

Dramatic but impenetrable closeups of individual works are constants, zooming in and out with little explanation of the significance of the view. Actors portray the artists and their retinues, sometimes with good effect, often not. We see lots of clouds and dramatic sunlit landscapes, ocean waves crashing on coastal pillars. But we are well aware that the BBC has the best cameramen on the planet for such shots.

Still, there are moments of revelation that make putting up with the weaknesses of presentation worth a viewing, especially with judicious use of the fast-forward button. Schama is knowledgeable and obviously passionate about his subject, and he crams a good deal of information into the three discs, but leaves the audience parched for comprehenaion.

The series would have benefited enormously from a strong producer and director who insisted that the flow of information be less erratic, the presenter's bobbing and weaving head less pervasive, and the range of works of the artists broader and more lucidly and representatively arranged. The entire body of work screams out for a good editor.

The price is reasonable, so worth a viewing. But not two. Be prepared for 90 seconds of unavoidable disclaimers and pap at the beginning of each disc.
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