Saturday, January 06, 2007

Simon Schama - Power of Art

I just got this book out of the library and already the dust cover blurb and the introduction has got me hooked...:

"Great art has dreadful manners. The hushed reverence of the gallery can
fool you into believing masterpieces are polite things, visions that soothe,
charm and beguile, but actually they are thugs. Merciless and wily, the greatest
paintings grab you in a headlock, rough up your composure and then proceed in
short order to re-arrange your sense of reality..."

Schama closes in on intense make-or-break turning points in the lives
of eight great artists who, under extreme stress, created something
unprecedented, altering the course of art forever. Caravaggio, Bernini,
Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso and Rothko--each in his own resolute
way faced crisis with steadfast defiance. The masterpieces they created
challenged convention, shattered complacency, shifted awareness, and changed the
way we look at the world.

Most compelling of all, Power of Art traces the extraordinary evolution
of eight world-class works of art. Created in a bolt of illumination, such works
"tell us something about how the world is, how it is to be inside our skins,
that no more prosaic source of wisdom can deliver. And when they do that they
answer, irrefutably and majestically, the nagging question of every reluctant
art-conscript... 'OK, OK, but what's art really for?'"

I'll report later on whether the book lived up to its promise

(BTW I think Schama's Landscape & Memory is a book anyone who is involved with landscapes needs to read - fantastic. I'm going to write more about it later)


Colin [] said...

I'd be interested in further thoughts on either of these books. There are very mixed reviews on the web.

tim atherton said...

Colin - the Art book may have to wait - with two wee ones, goodness knows when I'll finish it. Hopefully I'll have something up about Landscape and Memory soonish though.

I think the main thing has to do with personality. It's a bit like John Berger. Their approach is rather idiosyncratic - soemtimes apparently haphazard - and not the usual art school or NY Times art critic stuff. As a result, people either like it or hate it, with not much middle ground (I'd add that "professioanl" art critics often give them bad reviews because both writers tend to undercut many of their assumptions and dogmas).

tim atherton said...

Oh - as well Colin, some people feel both books suffer from being tied into a TV series, though personally I didn't feel that with "Landscape..." (though it can help explain slight oddities in their structure). Mind you one of my all time best picks of books about photography; Berger's "Another Way of Telling" was also tied to a TV series. My feeling was the two very much complimented each other.

John Ellis said...

I've mentioned Schama's 'power of art' to Colin before. I was content with the TV series - a great use of television. The quotes you give sound like Schama talking during the programmes. For once the book would, I imagine, not live up to the moving pictures: not just just good camera work on the art pieces themselves but even where, when and how Schama walked to conduct his commentary. I'm sure the book is good but it will miss a dimension - Schama is a great performer; some people try and copy him and fail miserably.

Colin [] said...


I've just ordered the DVD of the 'power of art' series. I can't find any reference to the landscape book ever having book ever having been released on a disc.

tim atherton said...

Colin, yes - the Landscape series was on the BBC way back in 1995 - I'm not sure I've ever seen a disk from it (maybe there's an old VHS somewhere...?)