- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 16, 2007

How do you turn the stuffy subject of fine art into a television show with popular appeal? In 1969, British art historian Kenneth Clark succeeded by relating his personal views on painting and sculpture and explaining how the works reflected their times. His BBC series, simply called “Civilisation,” still holds up as an erudite yet accessible primer on Western European culture.

Now another Brit has stepped up to introduce Western art to the TV-watching public. Scholar and writer Simon Schama has teamed up with the BBC and New York public television to create an eight-part series called the “Power of Art.” Shown in Britain last fall, it debuts on PBS/WETA on Monday at 9 p.m. with back-to-back episodes devoted to van Gogh and Picasso. The remaining six installments, which run through July 30, are devoted to Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, David, Turner and Rothko.

This snappy, sometimes lurid series is no “Civilisation.” It is more like “Masterpiece Theatre” meets “E! True Hollywood Story.” Art history is presented as biopic, complete with actors re-enacting the angst of creation. The most famous is Andy Serkis (Gollum in “Lord of the Rings”) sporting a red wig as van Gogh. His loony rendition is no more convincing than Kirk Douglas’ portrayal in the 1956 movie “Lust for Life.” Crazily scribbling or sucking on a tube of yellow paint, Mr. Serkis leaves you laughing instead of sympathizing with the artist’s plight.

Why these eight artists? Mr. Schama never comes out with the reasons for his choices. French impressionists are left out entirely, dismissed in the van Gogh episode for “marinating the meat of human existence in the rinse of their luminescence.” Whew. Mark Rothko is chosen over the more significant Jackson Pollock, perhaps because Mr. Pollock was already well portrayed in Ed Harris’ 2000 film.

Mr. Schama, an art history professor at Columbia University, is entitled to his picks, but when he declares van Gogh’s 1890 “Wheat Field With Crows” is “the painting that begins modern art,” ignoring pioneering works made decades earlier, you start to wonder about his judgment.

The common thread among the selected artists seems to be a tragic biography worthy of a Lifetime drama. No contented Monet in his garden at Giverny. Each episode follows a narrative arc tracing the rise and fall of the artist. In a florid, Fleet Street style, Mr. Schama relates the suicides of van Gogh and Rothko, the murder committed by Caravaggio, the jealousy of Bernini, the womanizing of Picasso, the downfalls of Rembrandt, Turner and David.

The series reinforces the stereotype of the artist as a misunderstood, often disturbed genius isolated from his epoch. Art is troubled stuff, “the enemy of the routine, the mechanical and the humdrum.” Mr. Schama endorses creations that are “rough,” “deformed,” “carnal,” as opposed to decorous, refined and conventionally beautiful. “Eloquence doesn’t always come with a pretty face,” he says. His art history upholds the macho hero with dirty fingernails, a bad temper and a taste for loose women and booze.

Each episode follows a predictable formula, starting with a provocative question about a masterpiece to be singled out and analyzed. “What can art really do in the face of atrocity?” Mr. Schama asks about Picasso’s “Guernica.”

“What was it about this painting that brought down such a storm of abuse?” he wonders in front of Turner’s swirling scene of a slave ship.

Biography follows, delivered by Mr. Schama on location in a breezy, staccato style. “Icon breaker and icon maker,” he says of Picasso before dismissing him as hack with an ever-deepening tan.

Rembrandt is called “Mr. Clever Clogs” and a “shopaholic.” Creative juices are represented literally by the mixing of paints, dripping of water, rivulets of blood. Few influences are explained. A career’s worth of art flashes by quickly.

Then it’s on to explaining the finer points of a selected masterpiece. This is the best part of each show. Mr. Schama excels at analyzing composition and technique — whether it’s the sensuality of Bernini’s ecstatic saint or the mesmerizing draw of Rothko’s “force fields.” He even admits to being conflicted about certain works. “I’m not sure how I feel about this painting,” he says about David’s “Death of Marat” before dissecting the artist’s idealized portrayal of this French revolutionary who took baths to soothe his skin disease. (Too bad the production team wasn’t as careful with the actor playing David; his facial scar changes from the right to the left side of his mouth during the course of the show.)

Of the eight episodes, those devoted to Picasso, Rembrandt and David are the most satisfying in situating the artists within their eras. Naturally, because Mr. Schama is British, his fellow countryman Turner gets a fair shake in the explanation of his epic paintings, travels to Venice and friendship with a British abolitionist. Both the Bernini and Caravaggio installments are oversensationalized, relying too much on actors’ performances to relate the artists’ bad-boy behavior and sexual overtones of their work.

Surprisingly, given the creative buzz of New York’s 1950s art scene, the installment on Rothko is the dullest. It revolves around the artist’s “moral” dilemma of whether to accept a painting commission for Manhattan’s Four Seasons restaurant. In dwelling on a chain-smoking actor who swipes away at a big canvas, the episode makes a clumsy bid to recall the famous footage of Mr. Pollock spattering paint on glass. The segment is shot in black and white, presumably to hide the amateurish results.

As a personality, Mr. Schama can be irritatingly superficial in his quick-stop delivery. In the David episode, for example, he heralds the arrival of the Enlightenment by proclaiming: “Out went gold ormolu. In came modernity and the cult of nature.”

He also carries on as if he knew the artists in an effort to humanize them. In the Rothko episode, he identifies with the Russian-born painter, a “soup-educated, ungainly, sentimental Jew,” while he cuts up vegetables for his own soup, shown simmering on the stove.

Mr. Schama obviously is passionate about art and tries hard to convey its emotive qualities, but all the clever phrases, atmospheric photography and dramatic performances of his series don’t obscure his old-fashioned views. His stories of tragic heroes are a throwback to the days before scholars and museums embraced a more inclusive view of art history. Those who want a fuller picture should go back to Mr. Clark’s statelier, more satisfying “Civilisation.”



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