Sunday, February 18, 2007

Book Review : The Power of Art by Simon Schama (BBC Books 2006)

Simon Schama is the finest writer and broadcaster on Art in the 21st Century, a true successor to Sir Kenneth Clark and Schama's hero, Robert Hughes. And whilst there are fine broadcasters on Art on British television such as Andrew Graham-Dixon, Tim Marlow and Waldemar Januscek, none has the ability to turn a phrase like Schama. He writes like an angel - witty, informative, never pretentious; he puts himself into a piece yet never overshadows the subject; and the choice of words... no-one else could describe the magic of a Rothko so well: -
"Instead of dense blocks of thick colour, his are diaphanous gauzes that drift together, closing and separating, hovering above or gliding beneath each other, building their numen, tremendously sexy."

This books describes eight artists whose work changed lives; whose compositions are living testimony to Art's enduring power. Schama describes how, after the Atocha railway station atrocity in 2003 when 192 people were killed, the people of Madrid made their way to Picasso's Guernica which hangs nearby. Whilst the painting was a response to the barbarity of Fascism, its evocation of a pointless waste of innocent human lives once again resonated as this time Spain faced up to a more insidious enemy within.

The Power of Art remains undimmed throughout the centuries. Caravaggio is an appropriate starting point. Whilst the early Renaissance produced some astonishing works, nothing quite twists the viscera like Caravaggio's full-on naturalism. Mad, bad and decidedly dangerous to know, he nevertheless brought art back to earth after the excesses of Mannerism. When Thomas puts his finger in the wound in Christ's side, "the truth being in the probing" as Schama puts it, you can feel the finger poking and pushing around the flesh as Thomas peers in, incredulously. You strain with the labourers as they try to raise Peter on his inverted cross whilst Peter himself stares at the nail in his hand, hurt and somehow uncomprehending. Schama takes as his keynote piece "The Beheading of John the Baptist" in St John's Cathedral in Valetta. To my mind its not his best, the flesh tones of the dead prophet not realistic, the executioner not convincing. But I haven't seen it for real, and Schama describes the power of seeing it in its proper context, and how his Malta sojourn fitted into Caravaggio's increasingly disturbed life.

But it doesn't take a genius to bring Caravaggio to life, or Rembrandt or Picasso. But the likes of Jaques-Louis David is more elusive. I think he underplays the location of the "Death of Marat", tucked away in the Musee des Beaux Arts in Brussels. The Musee has a fine collection amongst which this masterpiece is not out of place. Yet it is an iconic image, instantly recognisable worldwide. How it came to end up in Brussels, tied to the fortunes of the Artist as Revolutionary, is a fascinating story.

And that is what Simon Schama is about, whether writing or broadcasting about Art. He is a storyteller par excellence, whose facility with words and fine sense of balance brings alive the great works of the past and the painters who painted them. The BBC is fortunate to have secured the services of such a superlative broadcaster, so adept at cutting through the mystique of fine art, and this finely produced and handsomely illustrated accompaniment to the television series, in which Schama has more space to develop his storytelling, can only help this process of high quality popularisation without the slightest hint of dumbing down.

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