Simon Schama Presents Van Gogh and the Beginning of Modern Art

We like to think of Vin­cent van Gogh as the arche­typ­al tor­tured artist. While per­haps he fits the bill, there’s more to the sto­ry, and this episode of Pow­er of Art (above) takes pains to fill out the Dutch painter’s char­ac­ter. He did­n’t slice off his entire ear, we learn — just part of it. And while he did indeed enjoy his peaks of cre­ativ­i­ty between ago­niz­ing “spasms of crazi­ness,” he expe­ri­enced both as an “insa­tiable book­worm” fueled by a deep-seat­ed reli­gious dri­ve. All this infor­ma­tion comes from the mouth of his­to­ri­an Simon Schama, author of pop­u­lar books and host of tele­vi­sion pro­grams includ­ing Land­scape and Mem­o­ry, Rem­brandt’s Eyes, and this par­tic­u­lar video’s source, Pow­er of Art. The series enters the world of eight artists through eight paint­ings. Van Gogh’s 1890 Wheat­field with Crows, accord­ing to Schama, marks the start of mod­ern art.

Two per­son­al­i­ties take us through the sto­ry of paint­ing and painter: Schama and van Gogh him­self, por­trayed in dra­mat­ic scenes that come between sec­tions of Schama’s nar­ra­tion. The pro­gram does­n’t keep these two time frames strict­ly sep­a­rate: while we hear Schama describe van Gogh’s pecu­liar­ly ener­getic use of the brush, we also hear the brush itself, loud­ly and clear­ly, as we watch van Gogh wield it. (Pow­er of Art’s sound design shows an uncom­mon atten­tion to detail.) Lat­er, we see van Gogh lament the episodes of insan­i­ty that have him eat­ing dirt off the floor. Cut to Schama: “It’s worse, actu­al­ly.” A har­row­ing extend­ed shot fol­lows of the painter eat­ing his paint. Nev­er has tele­vi­sion taught art his­to­ry quite so dra­mat­i­cal­ly.

All episodes of The Pow­er of Art are avail­able on YouTube. It’s also avail­able in one tidy col­lec­tion on Ama­zon:

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Art His­to­ry Web Book

Robert Hugh­es, Famed Art Crit­ic, Demys­ti­fies Mod­ern Art: From Cézanne to Andy Warhol

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.