A friend lent me his DVD set of "Simon Schama's Power of Art," and I'm making my way through the episodes. The Caravaggio episode is fantastic and captures all the intensity--and paradox--of this artist who produced such sublime religious pictures yet had such a turbulent personal life. (I love love LOVE Caravaggio's work.) One of Caravaggio's last paintings, "David with the Head of Goliath," serves as the framing piece for this episode, as Schama begins and ends with it. The Jacques-Louis David episode is also excellent, revolving around the painter's "Death of Marat." As Schama explains, the "Death of Marat," for all its beauty, was born of violence and David's allegiance to a faction of French Revolutionaries. I saw that painting in Brussels many years ago--even knowing the story behind it, it takes your breath away.
The van Gogh episode is good but not the best van Gogh documentary I've seen. Schama uses "Wheatfield with Crows" as the framing piece here. He mostly avoids the usual sensationalism and makes extremely important points about Vincent's populism--his desire to produce an art for the people--as well as his education ("insatiable bookworm," Schama calls him). He also stresses the careful deliberation that went into Vincent's work, contrary to the oft-image of the mad painter slapping paint on the canvas. Andy Serkis (aka Gollum from Lord of the Rings) plays van Gogh in small segments, reciting quotations from Vincent's letters to Theo. He doesn't look much like Vincent, so this distracted me, and I could have done without the shot of Serkis eating yellow paint (the most sensationalist bit in the episode--well, it could have been worse, he could have been hissing "Myyyyy preccccious"). The choice of quotes to present, however, is excellent and shows the complexity of Vincent's character: tender one moment, selfish the next, visionary the next. Worth seeing.