Power of Art

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Overview

"Great art has dreadful manners," Simon Schama observes wryly at the start of his epic and explosive exploration of the power, and whole point, of art. "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. . . ."

With the same disarming force, ...

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Overview

"Great art has dreadful manners," Simon Schama observes wryly at the start of his epic and explosive exploration of the power, and whole point, of art. "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. . . ."

With the same disarming force, The Power of Art propels us on an eye-opening, breathtaking odyssey, zooming in on eight extraordinary masterpieces, from Caravaggio's David and Goliath to Picasso's Guernica. Jolting us far from the comfort zone of the hushed art gallery, 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.

The embattled heroes—Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso and Rothko—each in his own resolute way, faced crisis with steadfast defiance, pitting passion and conviction against scorn and short-sightedness. The masterpieces they created challenged convention, shattered complacency, shifted awareness and changed the way we look at the world.

With vivid storytelling and powerfully evocative descriptive passages, Schama explores the dynamic personalities of the artists and the spirit of the times they lived through, capturing the flamboyant theatre of bourgeois life in Amsterdam, the passion and paranoia of Revolutionary Paris, and the carnage and pathos of Civil War Spain.

Most compelling of all, The Power of Art traces the extraordinary evolution of eight "eye-popping" 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?'"

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
"All art is subversive," Pablo Picasso once declared. In The Power of Art, cultural historian Simon Schama emphatically agrees. "Great art," he notes, "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 rearrange your sense of reality." This powerful, full-bodied book zeroes in on eight gifted artistic thugs (Bernini, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Rothko) and their convention-breaking creations.
Library Journal

Few writers have as good a command of language and culture as does Schama (art history & history, Columbia Univ.), who remains at the top of his game with this welcome return to art history. Like his earlier A History of Britainand Rough Crossings, this work accompanies a documentary BBC series. Schama zeroes in on the creation and psychohistoric context of a single, pivotal artwork by eight giants of Western art: Caravaggio, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Rembrandt, Jacques-Louis David, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Mark Rothko. Schama is an erudite storyteller, devoting equal time and attention to his well-chosen subjects. What's more, he has a winning writing style and is respectful of his readers' interests and intelligence while keeping the tales of these artists going in what in each case becomes high drama (e.g., he re-creates the story of Picasso's Guernicathrough a fascinating web of politics, violence, and smuggling). While lacking the sweeping scope of some of his earlier books--notably, the masterful Landscape and Memory--this is a bravura work that will appeal to art tyros and aficionados alike. Highly recommended.
—Douglas F. Smith

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061176104
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/7/2006
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 7.80 (w) x 9.80 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Simon Schama

Simon Schama is University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University in New York. His award-winning books include Scribble, Scribble, Scribble; The American Future: A History; National Book Critics Circle Award winner Rough Crossings; The Power of Art; The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age; Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution; Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations); Landscape and Memory; Rembrandt's Eyes; and the History of Britain trilogy. He has written and presented forty television documentary films for the BBC, PBS, and The History Channel, including the Emmy-winning Power of Art, on subjects that range from John Donne to Tolstoy.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 11, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    'The power of art is the power of unsettling surprise.'

    Simon Schama is a name as closely associated with art criticism as Alistair Cooke is with Masterpiece Theater: both have won acclaim for their erudite introductions to history and the 'march toward civilization' and both have entered the homes of many by means of television. And as with any television based program the content must be challenging if not confrontational in order to keep audiences returning for more.

    Simon Schama is not merely an art historian; he is also a social historian and an observer of human behavior through the centuries (with at times projections of predictions into the future). Fortunately his thoughts have been well translated to richly detailed and designed books - 'Rembrandt's Eyes', Landscape and Memory', The American future: a History', 'The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age' - and this excellent book THE POWER OF ART. Schama seems to delight in leading the reader into places unexpected, offering fascinating details of eight artists' lives and ending with a punch to the gut of how that artist stepped away form painting pleasing pictures to producing works that stop the viewer in the gallery or museum stroll and cause a Eureka moment. And he writes with the skill of a novelist, leading us to the climax by allowing us to gradually understand why each artist he elects to discuss struggled with personal and social and spiritual dilemmas that drove them to the point of making shattering works.

    Beginning with Caravaggio, Schama presents as interesting a life history of this artist as is found in most longer treatises, brewing the potion that resulted in the troubling painting of 'David and Goliath' - Caravaggio having the courage to present two self portraits, David is the artist as a youth and the beheaded Goliath is the artist at the time of the painting. He then proceeds to examine Bernini in much the same way, the climax of this spiritual artist's work being the very sensuous 'Ecstasy of St. Theresa' and the equally scandalous 'The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni'. Rembrandt is presented as a man of dignity and an exceptional portrait artist until the furor about 'The conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis ' and the more famous 'The Night Watch'. Jacques-Louis David is explored to the point of his famous 'A Marat', a work that for many was a marker for the French Revolution. Schama continues his 'history of art and civilization with similar examination of the masterworks of Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso and Rothko - painters known to all of us but whose inner motivations to create the climactic masterworks discussed here may not be as appreciated as after reading Schama's commentary.

    As with all of Simon Schama's books his power of writing, involving the reader in each period of history in which he pauses to open windows of understanding, is one of the reasons his approach to art and history works so well. This is a dynamic book, as interesting as a novel of historical base as any, and enhanced by excellent reproductions of art by some of the more fascinating artists of history.

    Grady Harp

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 31, 2012

    a must for artists and art lovers

    excellent-well written and informative. The images are breathtaking.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 24, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 30, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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