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PBS goes museum-hopping with Schama

June 18, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

With Sister Wendy Beckett back to living quietly in her trailer and Robert Hughes having moved on to the subject of himself, it has fallen to Simon Schama to lead the art-appreciation class this summer. Running Mondays through the end of July on KCET (at 9 tonight and moving to 10 p.m. next week), "Simon Schama's Power of Art" has an extension-course snap to it, the kind of thing from which you'd expect to learn something interesting without being especially taxed or worrying about grades. It takes itself very seriously -- "power" is the operative word here -- but as its main subjects seem to be personal excess and aesthetic revolution, it is mostly rather fun.

No stranger to the documentary-blockbuster-plus-companion-book genre ("Rough Crossings," "A History of Britain"), current Columbia University history prof and erstwhile New Yorker art critic Schama focuses on eight works by eight artists -- two Dutch, one Spanish, one French, one English, one American, two Italians, spread across nearly four centuries -- that quicken his pulse. They tend to be late works -- more than one Schama calls a "comeback" piece -- which is helpful for the storytelling. (And the host is as much a storyteller as a scholar, which can sometimes make you question the scholarship.) Most jump out of their time and toward the future.

Schama offers a few complementary definitions of what makes great art great as the series goes along -- he likes it to jump off the wall and knock you around the head, basically. "This is, for me, what all great art has to do -- crash into our lazy routines" more or less sums it up. His prose can go right over the top, like a root beer poured too fast -- the Impressionists "marinating the meat of human existence in the rinse of their luminescence" (yum!) -- and his delivery can be comically arch at times, especially when it's tinged with disapproval. But much of what he has to say hits the mark -- David's "The Death of Marat" "makes ideas blaze in dry ice" -- with a poetry you don't hear much around these parts.

Though Schama cautions at one point against the "sentimental romantic version -- to read art from life," much of "Power of Art" does exactly that, sometimes effectively and sometimes just to advance some narrative point or pet theory. (Do the weeping women in "Guernica" really reflect the victims of Picasso's own tangled domestic life?)

The series is padded with fragmentary dramatic re-creations of the artists' lives -- and, occasionally, in a Pageant of Masters sort of way, their work -- that run from the ridiculous to the acceptable and include Andy "Gollum" Serkis as Vincent van Gogh. We are also treated to an actor playing Schama's own younger, long-haired 1970 self, as he bustles on into London's Tate Gallery to have his brain rearranged by Mark Rothko (a process represented by an unfortunate montage of 20th century bad news).

Schama doesn't fear hyperbole, sweeping generalizations or imagining the private thoughts of his subjects. (He pictures them not only speaking, but also "sneering.") And one may easily find exceptions to such claims as "This is what drives the very greatest art -- contempt for ingratiation." But it isn't necessary to agree with Schama to find him entertaining, and the name above the title of the current series allows him to be as opinionated as he likes -- this is "Simon Schama's Power of Art," not yours or mine or Christopher Knight's. Still, he does like to rhetorically bring the audience to his side through such chummy asides as "Don't you think?" and "It's always the same, isn't it?" Is it? I don't know. Is "Wheatfield With Crows" really the beginning of Modern art? If you want to look at it that way, sure.

But most important, the art looks great -- all that TV light shooting out at you, mimicking the way white primer reflects back through paint, making it shimmer and glow. Film is a great friend to painting and sculpture. The camera amplifies the little details you can't get close enough to see, unfreezes frozen moments, lets a story unfold. And Schama is a most helpful guide -- he loves this stuff, and you see why he does.

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