Masterpieces for the Masses; Melodrama Overwhelms Simon Schama's 'Power of Art'

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Byline: Deborah K. Dietsch, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

How do you turn the stuffy subject of fine art into a television show with popular appeal? In 1969, British art historian Kenneth Clark succeeded by relating his personal views on painting and sculpture and explaining how the works reflected their times. His BBC series, simply called "Civilisation," still holds up as an erudite yet accessible primer on Western European culture.

Now another Brit has stepped up to introduce Western art to the TV-watching public. Scholar and writer Simon Schama has teamed up with the BBC and New York public television to create an eight-part series called the "Power of Art." Shown in Britain last fall, it debuts on PBS/WETA on Monday at 9 p.m. with back-to-back episodes devoted to van Gogh and Picasso. The remaining six installments, which run through July 30, are devoted to Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, David, Turner and Rothko.

This snappy, sometimes lurid series is no "Civilisation." It is more like "Masterpiece Theatre" meets "E! True Hollywood Story." Art history is presented as biopic, complete with actors re-enacting the angst of creation. The most famous is Andy Serkis (Gollum in "Lord of the Rings") sporting a red wig as van Gogh. His loony rendition is no more convincing than Kirk Douglas' portrayal in the 1956 movie "Lust for Life." Crazily scribbling or sucking on a tube of yellow paint, Mr. Serkis leaves you laughing instead of sympathizing with the artist's plight.

Why these eight artists? Mr. Schama never comes out with the reasons for his choices. French impressionists are left out entirely, dismissed in the van Gogh episode for "marinating the meat of human existence in the rinse of their luminescence." Whew. Mark Rothko is chosen over the more significant Jackson Pollock, perhaps because Mr. Pollock was already well portrayed in Ed Harris' 2000 film.

Mr. Schama, an art history professor at Columbia University, is entitled to his picks, but when he declares van Gogh's 1890 "Wheat Field With Crows" is "the painting that begins modern art," ignoring pioneering works made decades earlier, you start to wonder about his judgment.

The common thread among the selected artists seems to be a tragic biography worthy of a Lifetime drama. No contented Monet in his garden at Giverny. Each episode follows a narrative arc tracing the rise and fall of the artist. In a florid, Fleet Street style, Mr. Schama relates the suicides of van Gogh and Rothko, the murder committed by Caravaggio, the jealousy of Bernini, the womanizing of Picasso, the downfalls of Rembrandt, Turner and David.

The series reinforces the stereotype of the artist as a misunderstood, often disturbed genius isolated from his epoch. Art is troubled stuff, "the enemy of the routine, the mechanical and the humdrum." Mr. Schama endorses creations that are "rough," "deformed," "carnal," as opposed to decorous, refined and conventionally beautiful. "Eloquence doesn't always come with a pretty face," he says. His art history upholds the macho hero with dirty fingernails, a bad temper and a taste for loose women and booze.

Each episode follows a predictable formula, starting with a provocative question about a masterpiece to be singled out and analyzed. "What can art really do in the face of atrocity?" Mr. Schama asks about Picasso's "Guernica. …