When it comes to teaching the arts through televison, all roads start with Leonard Bernstein.
His contributions to the great cultural show "Omnibus" in the 1950s and later his Young People's Concerts were brilliant. Without a whiff of condescension, he brought passion and intellect to decipher classical music for the general public as no one had done before or since. To many, his greatest role, above conductor and composer, was teacher.
If we lack a worthy musical successor to Bernstein, we have one in the visual arts. Bernstein's television progeny in this field is Simon Schama. His excellent eight-part series "Simon Schama's Power of Art " begins tonight on WGBH with looks at van Gogh and Picasso . There have been fine television hosts on art -- Kenneth Clark was wonderful in his dry way with "Civilisation" -- but there's no one like Schama to make it alive and immediate.
The series, which first aired on the BBC in the fall of 2006, is a co-production of Thirteen/WNET New York and the BBC. In it, Schama chooses seven painters and a sculptor, from Caravaggio to Rothko, to explain the torque of great art on society . (Also included are Bernini, Rembrandt, David, Turner, van Gogh, and Picasso. )
He uses a single work to anchor the segment on each man. For Bernini, it is his sublime sculpture "Ecstasy of St. Theresa." For Caravaggio, it is "David with the Head of Goliath." For David, "The Death of Marat," and for Rothko, the Seagram murals.
Schama, a boyish 62, has brought his analytical skills and wry observations to the general public before, notably in a leviathan 15-part BBC series on the history of Britain. His writing on art, playful and acute, appears frequently in The New Yorker. His "Citizens," about the French Revolution, is one of the best one-volume histories for general consumption ever written on anything.
What he does here, as he did in "Citizens," is to mix juicy anecdote with sweeping insight. Not content simply to explore a particular canvas or statue, Schama situates it in its time and then demonstrates how it violated the status quo. His mantra is this: "All great art has to do is crash into our lazy routines."
Van Gogh's " Wheatfield With Crows" did just that in helping to shape modern painting. "Guernica," Picasso's masterpiece about the German bombing of the Spanish village, was an unparalleled broadside against the fascism rising in Europe during the '30s, dubbed "a low dishonest decade" by Auden. The segment also traces the politicization of this unpolitical, self-centered icon, better known for the likes of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon."
Schama is a seductive television animal. His silky tones and Brit drawl wear well. He says perceptive things in a lingo that is hip and then drop-dead serious. He's sly and irreverent and, above all, a tremendous guide.
"Meet praying mantis woman" is how he describes one Picasso subject. "Bye-bye resemblance" is how he introduces Cubism. "Guernica" is "Cubism with a conscience." Caravaggio is "a homicide waiting to happen" and Bernini "Mr. Fabulous."
Schama gives great history along with analysis. The rich and fetid world of Rome in the early 17th century, for example, when cardinals vied to become patrons of the Next Hot Thing, throbs around Caravaggio and Bernini.
Bernini, the great sculptor, and Francesco Borromini, the great architect, competed for the limelight in a yeasty rivalry worthy of the big screen today. Along the way, Schama notes that Bernini's carvings are more carnal, more human, than classic sculpture, including the works of Michelangelo. Having dropped that huge statement, he abandons us. We needed a robust comparison of the two titans.
Quibbles aside, Schama is a grand fit for the middlebrow PBS audience who ache for programming that will, in his words, "crash into our lazy routines." This is one.
Sam Allis can be reached at email@example.com.