Red and white is a favourite colour combination to me: not the blood and ivory as portrayed on the knife that killed Marat, but rather the sense that the red corrupts and stains the innocence of the white. They are also the colours of Schama's book cover, and of the associated TV series. Corrupted innocence is not Schama's subject - though it appears as an undertone in some of his narrative - but instead he seeks to spill the blood of art on the carpet of white naivety. Art has this power, don't you know.
In his introduction, Schama writes how his `Power of Art' "features eight of these moments of self-dramatization, when the artist, under extreme pressure, undertakes a work of supremely ambitious scope in which his own most essential beliefs are embodied. All of them are directly personal testimonies ... They are works that seek to change the world." Steady! This is therefore not just a programme of merely eight `great' paintings: there is a method in Schama's choice. But is it all mere hype? Well, some. (The quotation marks around the word `great' are a clue.)
I was never a great fan of Caravaggio, but Schama is certainly highly persuasive. Of Bernini, how could you not but admire his supreme skill. And Schama is right to say Rembrandt's subjects "don't pose; they live." For all three of these artists, Schama's is a tale of precociousness, a scaling of heights, followed by a fall and the chance for one last magnificent comeback. The tales of the later artists are different.
Of David - all "blood and sobbing" - Schama asks us to question the purpose of art in different times; "Can modern secular painting have the conversionary power of Christian masterpieces?" Of course, we need to get our minds into not only a pre-cinematic age but a pre-photographic one too here, a mindset where a painting really could result in "a sudden outbreak of wet hankies in the Salon." The same pertains for Turner, of course, one of my favourite artists, but there were no wet hankies when he showed his `Slave Ship'. And for Schama to describe it as "quite simply the greatest union of moral power and poetic vision that British art ever accomplished" is - in my view - absurd. To give him his due, Schama fears this statement might be viewed as hype and asks us to go to Boston to see it. (By the way, Schama is wrong to say it was the Chartists rioting in "1830 or thereabouts": it was Captain Swing.)
Schama's selling of the greatness of Van Gogh - "the pilgrim in search of heaven on earth" - is unconvincing. I am with the very man that Schama describes as being "averse to the confessional outpourings of the crucified ego, who believes that art should never primarily be about the artist, ... that the confrontational expressionism that van Gogh inaugurated was the worst turn that modern painting could have taken." But van Gogh's landscapes are a different matter, but when Schama dramatises the darkening of the artist's skies over his wheatfields in July 1890, I could not help thinking that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Schama fails to convince with Picasso either, despite trying his hardest to sell "the departure from resemblance". As for Rothko's "ectoplasmic shifty-shapes", a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen about the emperor's new clothes springs to mind. I may not like much of Schama's concept of artistic genius, but there's no doubting his perceptiveness. Take Rothko's subway series: "The real action is going on where the colours themselves seem to have a life of their own unplugged from what they're supposed to represent." Dead right. But when Schama also writes of Rothko's work, "The vertical bars that existed in dialogue with the horizontals become gradually edged out of the picture field, as if consumed by the horizontals or pressed beneath them into a sub-field of immanent light", then I can only desperately hanker after something by Piper, Nash, or Spencer.
For Schama to say that Rothko "had become the maker of paintings as powerful, complicated and breathtaking as anything by Rembrandt and Turner" - for this reviewer - is simply laughable. It's not that I don't `get' the philosophical underpinnings that Schama expresses so eloquently; rather it is just that Rothko answers negatively to that old chestnut: `Is it art?' No, his is a psycho-philosophy of colour. Indeed, Schama makes play of the artist's own demands over the "circumstances of eventual display" of his pictures: can they not stand alone as art? Instead, Rothko's work reminds me of Turner's own basic colour-washes: they are the support for the painting, not the painting itself.
I seem to have moved from a review of this book to a review of the artists. In a sense this crystallises the very success of Schama's `Power of Art'. It's difficult not to imitate Schama's own method of delivery, for he writes just as he talks. In this case imitation is definitely a form of flattery, for I have much time for Schama's style. Instead of lecturing us from above, he carries us along in a kindly comradely way, as if to say `But you knew that anyway, didn't you?' Schama has a facility and felicity with words, of course, and a quirky way of making us see things in a new light, sometimes in a radically new light: of Bernini's throne of St Peter in the Vatican, Schama sees "a holy lilo bobbing on a cushion of celestial helium." Schama brilliantly reduces the contemporary criticism of Turner's history paintings down to the aphorism, `Never mind the bodies, bring on the Grand Canal.'
The book is handsomely illustrated with the works of the artists involved. But the restrictions of the size of the printed page means you will need to get the DVD - or the Internet - to get up close. But the benefit of the printed word is that, "inevitably, and happily, the book offered space for reflection on works that couldn't be accommodated within the television hour." Best of all, of course, is to get both.
A "brief, selective, subjective and opinionated" list of books for further reading brings up the book's rear, together with a good index.