Power of Art, by Simon Schama

Canvas knockouts
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The Independent Culture

In this book, packed with noisy enthusiasm, punchy arguments and verbal agility, there is a nice ironic touch. Simon Schama quotes Mark Rothko, an artist who enjoyed making rather grand and irrefutable statements: "Silence is so accurate." If this was a reprimand to those who use words with the same facility as Schama, it does not diminish the author's admiration for this artist. His Rothko chapter is brilliantly engaging. But then Rothko, it turns out, was far from being a Jewish Trappist. Schama gleefully discovers in him a type he recognises: "Loquacious, exuberant, hot-tempered, deeply immersed in literature and history."

Power of Art began as an idea for the current television series and spilled over into a book. The intention was to focus on eight artists, "heroic champions of the conversionary power of art". In practice, this has brought to our attention a hit list, entirely male and very familiar: Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso and Rothko. "Eight stories from the edge," claims the blurb, for, though these essays are in the Vasari mode - potted histories with a biographical emphasis - each hinges on a work made under severe stress.

As Schama acknowledges, book and series were an indivisible project. Hence the showiness, the chat, the soundbite phrases, which do the trick on screen but turn into evangelism on the page. The greatest paintings, we are warned, "grab you in a head lock, rough up your composure and then proceed... to rearrange your sense of reality". Physical metaphors for visual experience recur in this muscular prose: Caravaggio's big paintings "get in our face" and "rip away the protective distance conferred by high art"; the great breakthrough of the Renaissance is the depth "punched through the far side of the picture".

In many places Schama simply finds breezy ways of saying old things. He can also be irritatingly glib. But what cannot be denied is the intellectual energy coursing through this book. To his study of art and artists, Schama the historian brings a grasp of any subject that has both precision and breadth. An excessively gifted communicator, he knows how to sweep facts and argument into a powerful, fluent narrative. His knowledge of the French Revolution, and the complex factions that arose in its wake, are here used to bring out the full resonance of David's famous painting of Marat, murdered in his bath. Similarly, in his Rembrandt chapter, extensive familiarity with Dutch art lies behind the user-friendly title: "Rough Stuff in the Halls of the Rich".

In his chapter on Picasso, Schama lands, predictably enough, on Guernica as the crisis moment in Picasso's career. This great icon has received so much attention in recent years that it now has its own biography. What more could Schama offer than a résumé? It may be just that, but it is impressively acute, and likely to make a lasting impact on the reader. It also clearly demonstrates the title. For though painted in response to the bombing of a Basque town, it grew in the public mind into an international symbol of protest.

When in February 2003 the United Nations Security Council decided to hold a press conference about the likelihood of armed intervention in Iraq, someone noticed that hanging in the chosen location was a tapestry reproduction of Guernica, with its burning houses, screaming women and dead babies. It was hurriedly covered over with a sky-blue UN drape. Schama is not alone is seeing this as the ultimate backhanded compliment to the power of art.

Frances Spalding's 'Gwen Raverat' is published by Pimlico

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