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.

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