Everybody likes art. It’s one of those universal things, just as everybody likes music. It’s something that is cut into our DNA, for whatever evolutionary reason that may be; as children we began to draw as soon as our little hands could properly clasp and wield a crayon or a marker, and our wandering eyes gazed upon pictures and drawings long before they could discern words. We might disagree over which art we like, and which individuals are our favorite artists—we may even disagree over what constitutes art—but we all fundamentally like the same thing: we like to stare at the fruits of someone else’s imagination. My favorites may be Gustav Klimt and Mark Rothko; yours Leonardo Da Vinci, or Vincent Van Gogh, or Wassily Kandinsky. Whatever it may be, it is art, and that is what counts.
I like documentaries, though that’s kind of an empty statement, the kind of thing we all say—as I once heard a comedian (whose name I unfortunately can’t remember) note, saying you don’t like documentaries is tantamount to saying you’re a blockhead, so nobody ever makes that declaration. Art documentaries are among my favorite, because while I probably won’t ever see all the world’s great works in the flesh, I can at least view them up close through the camera. For coverage of art, the peak of documentary filmmaking is likely Simon Schama’s Power of Art, an unparalleled eight-part series produced jointly by the BBC and WNET Thirteen, the PBS affiliate in New York.
Power of Art lives on the strength of its presenter, Schama, a professor at Cambridge University who rose to prominence in the United Kingdom with his series A History of Britain. It is he that drives the entire production. Each episode is centered on a particular artist, and specifically on that artist’s key work (or, in the case of some, one of their key works). Schama does not only present and analyze the artwork; he also encapsulates what amounts to the artist’s entire life history within the hour-long program, and highlights some other notable works along the way. Matched with his voice-over are reenactments with actors. They are of a high standard, often abstract and shadowy (especially in the later episodes), and are certainly filmic in quality. (The BBC actually pooled together some recognized actors to play the main roles, including Andy Serkis as Van Gogh.) So while the series is about eight specific works, eight masterpieces, it’s really about eight different lives—the troubled Van Gogh, the debonair Picasso, the devout Bernini.
Schama understands the documentary format. A good presenter can make even the dullest subject matter seem lively and vital. In the wrong hands, art can be made incredibly bland and passé—how many times have we seen the Mona Lisa, or The Last Supper?—but this is never a problem here. The best way to convey detailed information is to package it within a narrative, which Schama does effectively. Presenting us with Rothko’s abstract, minimalist works, Schama uses Rothko’s struggles with popularity and commercial appeal as a way of informing the very art being examined. Similarly, we don’t just get a flat discussion on the paintings of Caravaggio; Schama variously describes Caravaggio’s chaotic life and his penchant for getting into brawls and spilling blood.
This clip is illustrative of the storytelling and cinematic approach taken with the entire series. Presenter Simon Schama tells an anecdote about Picasso’s run in with the Gestapo.
Telling a story is a simple but invaluable way of keeping factual discussions interesting. It would, after all, be easy just to post a bulleted list of what makes a given artwork significant or important, but few people would read such a dry transmission of information, and those that did certainly wouldn’t derive any pleasure from it. By dispersing that analysis as punctuation in an overarching story about the life of an artist, Schama not only makes the whole endeavor enjoyable and palatable, but also understandable. This is something that should not be overlooked. Most of us have never taken an art history class. Most of us have never mused upon a piece of art at anything other than a superficial level. We can certainly look at a work and have an emotional response, and describe what about it appeals (or doesn’t appeal) to us, but we probably won’t have any understanding of the history behind the work, and we’ll likely look over the work’s finer points.
Schama fills in those gaps for us, grabbing us by the hand and showing us precisely what to look for. He doesn’t tell us what to think, but he’s not afraid to tell us what he thinks. This way of stewarding us through each work is necessary. He has a context that we lack, and our ability to better appreciate a piece hinges on us absorbing what he seeks to convey. It’s this single point that I think is what makes him so successful as an orator: he manages to inject himself into the story in a way that doesn’t seem self-aggrandizing or supercilious, but that is clearly opinionated and driven. Part of it is in the way he carries himself; he stands tall in the frame, and he is sure of what he is saying. Beyond that, there’s a certain slyness in the way he talks—sometimes with a flat quarter-inch grin, sometimes muttering words under his breath, sometimes with a glare directly at us. His humor is dry, it stings, and it’s perfectly suited for the subject matter and the somber and dark tone the program often slips into.
As a topic of discussion, art would seem to be an easy topic to convey, certainly in film. It’s a visual medium, and the best pieces can capture our attention longer than any movie or television show could. People have stood before the Mona Lisa for hours. We don’t scrutinize anything like we do a painting or a sculpture. Nobody peers closely at each individual frame of a film, for instance. How hard can it be making a documentary out of something we’re already so attached to?
Evidently it’s not an easy feat. Schama makes it look effortless, but follow up his act with any other art documentary and you’ll find the drop-off to be steep. (I myself am watching another BBC series right now, The Private Life of a Masterpiece, and while in the abstract it’s a perfectly adequate series, it appears totally incompetent before Power of Art.) As good as an artwork may be, it loses something when delivered to us filtered through the camera lens. We can’t see the brushstrokes, and we don’t get the feeling, however false it is, that we are somehow standing beside the same creator that set his hands on the work. Schama balances out that loss with his passion. His goal is to describe the ‘power of art.’ To a certain extent, the power of art is self-evident; the ‘power,’ put plainly, is that it—a simple, still image—moves us. Schama talks, takes a step back, and lets the imagery flow over us. He does it better than anyone else. The Power of Art is, as mostly documentaries are, available in full on YouTube, thanks to various different uploaders.