Simon Schama’s Power of Art

It’s been a while since we saw much of Simon Schama. His A History of Britain[1] was a superb example of how to do TV properly. Take one historian, wind him up and let him loose to talk about his subject in an entertaining and engaging way that makes historical events more alive than any number of plays, movies and the like could ever hope to. Keep the visuals simple: let your historian wander around the locations, sprinkle in a few reconstructions of the slightly vague variety and generally concentrate on the man doing the talking. This worked superbly over twenty-something hours of TV, and is well worth watching.

And now he’s back, and this time it’s personal. Well, Schama is a professor of Art History rather than history in general, so who better to talk about great artists? The focus is on artists who challenged conventions, who took art into new places and generally engaged with the viewer in dramatic ways. Each programme in the series will concentrate on a single artist – the first, shown on Friday was about Renaissance master Caravaggio. Schama began and ended the story with David with the head of Goliath, asking why the artist had used his own features for the face of the dead giant, and led us through the artist’s often violent and troubled life, which ultimately led to an answer to the question.

The format was much the same as for A History of Britain – Schama talking to camera in the places Caravaggio lived and worked, or where the paintings are on show, and doing his usual superb job of talking about and around his subject, with lots of camera time for the pictures and some of the dramatised reconstruction stuff, too.

Excellent stuff, and I’ll be watching the rest of the series to see how he handles the other artists he’s selected. The book of the series is out now, and the DVD is out in November.