Simon Schama on the Unsettling 'Power of Art' We usually look at art in the hushed, reverential surroundings of museums and galleries — and that, argues writer and art historian Simon Schama, can fool us into believing that great works of art are polite. In fact, he says, they are thugs that force us to see the world in new ways.
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Simon Schama on the Unsettling 'Power of Art'

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Simon Schama on the Unsettling 'Power of Art'

Simon Schama on the Unsettling 'Power of Art'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We usually look at art in the hushed, reverential surroundings of museums and galleries, and that, writes art historian Simon Schama, can fool us into believing that great works of art are polite. In fact, he argues, they're thugs that force us to see the world in new ways, whose purpose isn't too soothe but unsettle.

In a new book that accompanies a series of BBC TV documentaries called "The Power of Art," Schama examines the life and work of eight of the greatest names in Western art history: Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, Jacques-Louis David, Turner, Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Mark Rothko. In particular, he examines how each created a transcendent masterpiece under enormous stress, and along the way he hopes to answer the question: What's art really for?

Later this hour, Max Mayfield joins us for an exit interview. He's been director of the National Hurricane Center for the past six years.

But first, the power of art. Can the work of great artists be separated from their lives, their politics, their moment in history? Is great art necessarily a challenge? What piece changed the way you look at the world? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. And the e-mail address is

Author Simon Schama is also professor of art history and history at Columbia University in New York City. He joins us today from the studios of the BBC broadcasting house in London. And Simon Schama, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Professor SIMON SCHAMA (Art Historian; Author, "The Power of Art"): Thank you, Neal. God, I love that fanfare. I've never had one, that's for sure. Do you do that every day?

CONAN: Every single day.

Prof. SCHAMA: God, you must be so grand. I know you're so grand.

CONAN: And every once in a while we work with an audience and it's followed by applause. It's hard to beat that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Now you start off your book with a statement: Great art has dreadful manners. What did you mean by that?

Prof. SCHAMA: Well, I mean that actually it's the power of surprise. I mean I think one of the things that art does is to make you look at the world afresh. That's to say it sort of shakes you out of routine. If art is really just an extension of a day at the water cooler, or at least a day at the office anyway, it's not quite doing its job. So whether or not - even if it's just an Andy Warhol that makes you actually look startlingly at a can of Campbell's tomato soup again, it is actually - you suddenly look at it not just simply as your lunch but as a kind of interesting design, it's doing its job.

At the other extreme, art can make you feel the human condition more intensely than you could ever possibly get from routine images: the newspaper, TV. When we were filming the film about Picasso, about Picasso's "Guernica," it was in -it was exactly a year after the Madrid railway station bombing, the al-Qaida bombing, so. And what was very striking to me was that down at the railway station where the bombing happened, there was a very good-hearted, well-intentioned and rather beautiful little video shrine of slides of the carnage, very upsetting.

But what the crowds in Berlin really wanted was to go and see "Guernica," go and see Picasso's great painting of war and catastrophe and terror and panic. And it was really a kind ant march of people from the railway station, walking the 200 yards to stand in front of that old, old painting all over again. And some of them actually weeping on that day, including me I have to say.

CONAN: You talk about the power of art. A lot of this book is about the power that art has had on you. There's another example you write in the chapter on Mark Rothko where...

Prof. SCHAMA: Right.

CONAN: go into a gallery and you see, you know, jaded, cynical New Yorkers literally knocked to the floor.

Prof. SCHAMA: Yes, that's true. It was - I think it was jaded, cynical Londoners, and there's nothing more...

CONAN: Oh, my apologies.

Prof. SCHAMA: ...jaded and cynical than...

CONAN: Well, hey, I won't get into an argument with you.

Prof. SCHAMA: No, that's fine. But you know, no, no...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SCHAMA: ...of course you can. Don't be shy. No, the reason it actually couldn't be New York is not just a piece of Prof. Schama being a pedant. But because actually what Mark Rothko wanted with these paintings, which he put in - tried to put in the Seagram Building's Four Season's restaurant, the swankiest restaurant in New York, he really, as I say in the chapter, wanted to make people lose their appetite.

These great, dark, crimson, glowing things at the moment of maximum consumer glitter in the 1950s in New York were meant to reconnect us with the furnace of human tragedy, and that meant something in the mid-1950s, people terrified of the Cold War, memories of Holocaust still fresh. But it had to be a wraparound experience. You had to be surrounded by these pulsing, throbbing paintings. Abstract paintings, in fact - just paint, just color, just lines - but wow, they can really, you know, hit you in the solar plexus.

I want to ask you, have you ever had a really serious physical reaction to a painting, so you kind of lost your breath and had to sit down?

CONAN: I have, and I have to say it was "Guernica," which hung for many years of course in New York so I could see it there.

Prof. SCHAMA: There you are.

CONAN: And it was astonishing to me. The first thing that really totally compelled me was the lack of color. That's what drew me...

Prof. SCHAMA: Yes, and isn't it extraordinary that - there are wonderful stories about that. Picasso actually saw - he saw a photograph, a famous photograph of Guernica burning at night in a French newspaper the day before May Day in 1937. And he thought for a minute, so that he knew, you know, otherwise very soon afterwards that it had been a night attack by the German Luftwaffe and the Italian planes on this Basque republican town. But it hadn't. It'd actually been a daytime attack.

CONAN: Daytime attack, yeah.

Prof. SCHAMA: Yes, and four o'clock in the afternoon.

CONAN: On a market day, yeah.

Prof. SCHAMA: He was so - yes, exactly, out of no - a place of no military value at all. It was a rehearsal the Germans were deliberately doing for the terror of civilian bombing and therefore...

CONAN: There's considerable argument about that, but go ahead.

Prof. SCHAMA: Really?

CONAN: Yes, indeed.

Prof. SCHAMA: Well, argue away.

CONAN: Argue away. Because there was a bridge nearby the Germans wanted to prevent some troops from retreating over. They were trying to bomb it, and as we've learned from subsequent military history, bombing bridges is a very tricky kind of thing. They were using bombers not particularly well-suited to the task and just hit...

Prof. SCHAMA: Oh, Neal, you don't really believe that.

CONAN: Yes, I do, because I've read the history of it. And in its way, it is both, you know, more - it is both less and more terrifying than what actually -you know, what actually happened is less and more terrifying than the great propaganda piece of "Guernica" portrays it as. It was not deliberate.

Prof. SCHAMA: (unintelligible)

CONAN: It was casual. It was as if the people didn't matter. Yes, there were German pilots who flew down and did machinegun some people. But in terms of the carnage that we would see later in just a few years, Guernica was a small thing. But of course a huge thing because of Picasso.

Prof. SCHAMA: I should think sort of 1,500 people really (unintelligible)...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SCHAMA: ...I don't know.

CONAN: Fewer than a hundred died, but go ahead.

Prof. SCHAMA: Fewer than a hundred?

CONAN: Fewer than a hundred.

Prof. SCHAMA: Well, all right. Let's not wrangle about the sources.

CONAN: I did a story on it, but go ahead.

Prof. SCHAMA: You did?

CONAN: Yes, I did.

Prof. SCHAMA: All right, fine. Well, then you're - I flunked the class then actually. That's not the story I learned. But it's still, you know, an extraordinary statement. We do know, don't we, that you know that the commander of the Condor battalion did write with - communicate with satisfaction...

CONAN: Yes, he did.

Prof. SCHAMA: ...the town was in ruins. So he was very happy to see, you know, a huge incineration of a civilian center.


Prof. SCHAMA: But the issue then for Picasso certainly was whether or not - how - what kind of visual language can you actually put together to communicate a catastrophe, really? And he chose the language pulled out from his own art history of cubism, which you'd think would be very erudite and inaccessible and obscure...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. SCHAMA: ...and not the kind language, not the sort of images to which people would immediately respond. But they - and in fact, actually, of course "Guernica" at the time was, when it was shown at the Paris International Fair, was thought - was indeed thought to be a difficult painting, a hard painting to get into. But as time went on, of course it - including that moment I spoke of in Madrid, it became an amazing emblem of panic and terror and pathos.

CONAN: And that he denied himself the use of the red of blood and fire.

Prof. SCHAMA: Right. It's amazing, isn't it?

CONAN: Yes, it's an amazing painting.

Prof. SCHAMA: Yeah, yeah.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners into the conversation. Our guest is Simon Schama. His new book is “The Power of Art.” And our number, if you'd like to join us, is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is And by the way, we're going to be talking about few pictures. If you'd like to get a chance to look at them, you can go to our Web site. There's links to them, and our Web site, of course,

And let's get - this is Mark(ph) on line. Mark is with us from Portland, Oregon.

MARK (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MARK: It's interesting. It's hard to know where to start when one thinks back on their early influence in art. I probably started as a child, watching my father's sketch and draw, because he was an art major here at the Portland Art Museum in the early 1950s. But more recently having my own success, recognized on big online Web sites related to science, where most people are accustomed going to these sites and seeing astronomy pictures taken with cameras.

But when I started putting art work up and got attention in my e-mail box from artists, scientists around the world, I was myself stunned that they found it unusual that there was a hand. I placed my hand in the drawing, making the drawing. Of course, I think it's been done by many over the years. Dali put himself in his paintings; Escher put his hands in his drawings.

CONAN: I guess that goes back to the caves at Lascaux. Yes.

MARK: I'm sorry.

CONAN: The caves of Lascaux, which were pictures of hands.

MARK: Yeah. I got thinking - I'm thinking early on and for a lot of my - I don't want to call them my non-artistic friends. But if we go back in history, I think the first early communication was not in written language. It was in pictures. And I myself as a child was stunned when I was doing what my friends thought was strange art in classrooms in my grade school years. And I noticed it caught the attention of friends, and everybody would either steal my drawings or ask me to make theirs during art class or trace mine.

I didn't quite understood this as a child. But when I found my self in parent's basement one day going through some old boxes and came up with some old Life magazines I'd - at the age of 13, I opened this Life magazine from the early 1940s. And there was this a strange art this guy was getting all this attention for. He was the artist alive at that time; it was Salvador Dali. As a 13 year old, I looked at these paintings and I thought this confirmed to me that it was OK for a child to do this weird art that I was doing, that I thought only children and I saw an adult doing it.

So, of course, this was a probably - I don't know - epiphany of that point. Not really knowing how to quantify at the time of my age, but I think that probably change me that point for life. Of course, there are many other artists, of course, influence us all.

CONAN: Did you consider, Simon Schama, Salvador Dali for this theory that you came up with?

Mr. SCHAMA: No. I mean it would have been, you know, Dali produces this extraordinary painting, which later was titled “Premonitions of Civil War.” And it's in its way every bit as dramatic and intense. Dali, in the end, of course signs up actually for the anti-republican side, actually, becomes a supporter of General Franco. So one possibility would have been to create more of a kind of dialogue between Picasso (unintelligible) in Paris, not in Spain, and Dali, who's kind of drawn patriotically to what he thinks of as the natural tragedy of Spain about to happen.

MARK: (Unintelligible) too, I think.

CONAN: Mark, thanks very much.

MARK: You're welcome.

CONAN: We're going to take a short break. Our guest is Simon Schama. His new book, “The Power of Art.”

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today about art, the needs for works of art and its ability to cause not only pressure but also pain, and shock, and to cause new ways of seeing.

Our guest is Simon Schama, professor of art history and history at Columbia University in New York. You can find links to the images of the art works we're discussing today at our Web site,

And we want to hear what you think. Can the work of great artists be separated from their lives, their politics, and their moment in history? Is great art necessarily a challenge? Our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is

And Simon Schama, we were talking just before the break about artists who put themselves in their work. And your first artist that you discussed in the book, Caravaggio, in the great work you discuss of his, puts himself in but not in a very heroic role.

Mr. SCHAMA: No. He represents himself as the severed head of the giant Goliath. And it's an extraordinary painting, it comes - it was painted not long before Caravaggio actually dies. And Caravaggio is himself a killer, a wanted murderer on the run who's desperate for atonement and is hoping for a pardon. There had been plenty of images before of artists who represented themselves as the good guy.

CONAN: Sure.

Prof. SCHAMA: Donatello and I think there was a (unintelligible) but it was extraordinary to actually represent yourself not just as the sort of decapitated giant, but in Christian tradition, Goliath - just as David - is thought of as a emblematic fore bearer of Christ. Goliath is thought of as a satanic figure, as a kind of embodiment of gross evil. But Caravaggio is not - he is indeed (unintelligible) to kill someone, but he'd be, you know, plenty of people are - nearly may have killed someone earlier in his life. But he's also someone who is devout, devout Christian and who is intent on making the most emotionally harrowing, physically direct Christian art there possibly can be.

There's another picture I talk about in the book which I saw at Malta, which honestly I would urge everybody - if nobody's been to Malta, it's worth going there. It's only an hour from Rome to go and see what I think is the greatest painting of the 17th century. And it's the only one Caravaggio signs, and he signs it in the blood of John the Baptist. It's the already dead body of John the Baptist having - who's about to have his head sawn off by an executioner who's botched the job initially.

And what is actually very - it's larger than life-size. It's nearly 18 feet wide and about 10 feet, I think, high, and it fills the end of a chapel. And Caravaggio is actually doing the painting. It's his get-out-of-jail-free pardon. If he does it, if he brings it off - which he does - he's about to be a Knight of St. John.

And what's astonishing is that all the figures we associate with the good things in art - beauty, wisdom, gravity - are all represented in a little semicircle of figures. But in this group, there are the hit man, the prison officer and so forth as the embodiments of horror and cruelty. So it's a painting that makes just the - it absolutely attacks you through the (unintelligible). It could be any prison yard of any gulag of any theater of cruelty over the centuries. So it's very, very affecting. And what makes it especially affecting is of course if you're going to make a painting about murder and atonement, who better to be able to project that than Caravaggio himself.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Mark, Mark calling us from Kalamazoo in Michigan.

MARK (Caller): Hey, I appreciated the contrast you made in the - between the solitude, the quiet, the reverence of the art museum and the intended shock value, if you will, of the art when it was created. We live in a culture where it takes a lot to shock us anymore.

Prof. SCHAMA: Exactly.

MARK: Even the most violent images in movies or in the news media don't stir our hearts anymore. And I'm wondering what the - is the challenge of good art - and you mentioned beauty, wisdom, and gravity - how does good art communicate in that way in a day when very little shocks us? And I'll take your comments offline.

CONAN: OK, Mark, thanks for the call.

Prof. SCHAMA: That's a wonder question, Mark. I mean that is indeed the challenge, and I don't pretend actually to have a kind of pat answer. I think it now has to be done indirectly. I don't think - I think that's one reason why Picasso a long time ago now, in 1937, did not choose to have naturalistic images of dead bodies, but choose to have an impaled cubist horse, for example.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. SCHAMA: He wanted to sort of get to the subconscious rather than the literal description. It's exactly the problem that we're bombarded by nightly news scenes of massacre, that every kid's videogame routinely has, you know, holes punched in people's faces.

So let me give you just an instance. But I think actually it's both the challenge for art. And people constantly ask me when is the great 9/11 work of art going to happen? I don't think you need to give whichever artists might be brave to attempt that a deadline to do it. But let me give you a kind of small example. There's a Palestinian British artist called Mona Hatoum working over here, some of whose work I think is absolutely magnificent and very upsetting. Some of which, as with all artists, isn't.

But I was astonished by it. There was an installation she had of a kind of iron bedstead surrounded - plus a kind of rack of lights with light bulbs going off every - on a kind of computer-delivered program - every few seconds or not. And I'm making it sound very banal, which I shouldn't do really. Because the effects obviously was to make one think of the torturous light bulb of people tied to bedsteads without doing it in a kind of crude and literal way.

CONAN: Yeah.

Prof. SCHAMA: It was a work of luminously upsetting associations, and that's where I think actually really great contemporary artists can go at it. Think what a painting can do, Neal. I mean I was standing in front of a huge painting by the German artist Anselm Kiefer, who I'm sure you know, who's a German artist who came to terms with the sort of dead-end in which he believed romantic imagery led Germany. So he uses paints and ash and sand and mud to talk about the exhaustion and terror of what happened to that tradition.

And this was an incredibly moving painting, because for the first time in Kiefer's work it blossoms with flowers, with pansies, in gorgeous colors of violet and salmon pink. It was very moving to see flowers literally arising from the mud. So the great contemporary artists can still find ways to use either new materials like Mona Hatoum or very old materials, just paints, like Kiefer, to speak to us through the age of the short attention span and the cyber world.

CONAN: Let me ask you also about one of the pieces that you feature in the book “The Power of Art,” and that is the Turner piece that you choose...

Prof. SCHAMA: Yeah.

CONAN: ...and a lot of us think of Turner - those, you know, the gorgeous skyscapes in London and the brilliant colors. This is a picture of a ship at sea in an approaching storm, yet what's happening in the distance is that human beings are being thrown overboard.

Prof. SCHAMA: Right. Yes, the full title is “Slave Ship: Slavers Throwing Slaves Overboard, Typhoon Coming On.” Turner is somebody who was, like Picasso too, was not a naturally political animal. These were people who lived for art. Turner flirted with reform politics in Britain, but at some point, like many of the people in Britain in that generation, he became absolutely committed to the abolition of slavery. Britain had abolished the slave trade...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. SCHAMA: ...we're actually, we all know out there, coming up for the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in both Great Britain and the United States. But Turner was part of a world which wanted to see - put finish to the disgusting institution itself. And the year he painted it, in 1840, was a year of a great international convention which was trying to promote exactly that end.

Now Turner also knew - what makes this very touching - he's an old man, he's accused of going mad. His painting is very free. He's under deep criticism from some, not all, journalists. And he wants to make a great oral epic. He wants to have this cursed ship roiling in bloodied waves with these bodies of Africans floating or sinking down, some with chains, some not, with extraordinary kind of strange (unintelligible), some of it fantastic and taken from the Middle Ages, moving towards these floundering bodies.

And in fact the painting was a catastrophic disaster in critical opinion. There was another slave painting that year, much less interesting to us now, by a Frenchman called Biar(ph), which was adopted by the convention as the anti-slavery painting of the day. But Turner banked everything on a poetic statement, and it's in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It's a surprisingly small painting. And it is utterly one of those paintings - you go into the room, and the painting just throws itself off the wall and sinks its teeth into you in the most extraordinary way still after all these years.

CONAN: There's so many of these paintings under enormous stress, under enormous pressure, yet they do not - they succeed artistically, they succeed historically, yet they don't necessarily succeed at their time. We have Turner's, as you say, not a success. We have Rembrandt who ends up...

Prof. SCHAMA: Right.

CONAN: suspect, having to cut up his painting to sell off bits of it because he's penniless at the time. And indeed then Mark Rothko commits suicide when he realizes that these great pieces of art are going to be, what, mere distractions at a great restaurant.

Prof. SCHAMA: Yes, exactly. You know, Rothko - there's a period of time - and this is sort of 10 years before and he became very, very depressed. But you're right in saying that his great ambition to surround diners with paintings that were so powerful that it would sort of stop them somehow arrest the triviality of the consumer life.

And he goes and has dinner with his wife in the Four Seasons and just sees people shoveling foie gras or lobster thermador, whatever. And he has a terrible moment of despair and rings up a friend - calls a friend on the phone - and says anybody who will pay that kind of money for that kind of food will not look at pictures of mine.

And to this day - and I asked his children, you know, who helped me in this work - I mean to this day we don't know whether that was a description or his own decision. That because people were irredeemably addicted to the gobbling life they were never going to be able to connect with his paintings. And he was terrified by the notion that these big glowing statements of his - tragic, as he always said - would just be so much wallpaper.

He said, what I do not want is for my paintings to be surrounded by invitations to parties. You know, mantelpiece pieces, even though, you know, he did sell them to people who were literally going to hang them probably over the mantelpiece.

CONAN: Yeah, you describe him sometimes sobbing as he had to part with these works.

Prof. SCHAMA: Yes. He said it's a very cruel - I mean it sounds childish, but it's so touching - he said it's a very cruel and unfeeling thing to send them into the world. So he's a great control freak about lighting conditions, about how - he wanted them hung very low on the walls so that they would literally be a replica of you and me. They'd be at our height. So we'd enter into this personal intimate communication with these pictures.

And I must say if you've ever - however, you know, the film and the chapter is in some sense a record of my initial skepticism when I - you know, when Rothko killed himself, I didn't want to know about the great patriarchs, you know, who'd done that, Jackson Pollock and so on. I was into, like a lot of my generation, Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol and the kind of those who bring us playtime and pleasure.

And I want to say, of course, I'm not against - I'm not so lofty and high and mighty nor simply puritan to suppose that art oughtn't be in the pleasure and beauty business. It absolutely should. It's just that the art that I think has the potential to change your life, the way you feel about your friends, the way you feel about the world, the way you feel about war, the way you feel about, you know, those we love, that's the art which plays for higher stakes.

CONAN: You also quote Mark Rothko - a great line - after seeing an exhibition of Turner's works.

Prof. SCHAMA: Yes. He said - it's wonderful - he said that guy Turner sure learned a lot from me, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: An amazing statement.

Prof. SCHAMA: Yes. The Mark Rothko joke book would not be very big, but that's a really good one.

CONAN: That's a good one.

Prof. SCHAMA: That's a very good one.

CONAN: Simon Schama is our guest. His new book is "The Power of Art." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. This is David, David calling us from Berkeley, California.

DAVID (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well. Thank you.

DAVID: I'm like a hardcore New Yorker. I've lived in New York for 10 years. I lived through 9/11. And I have to tell you one of the major, major moments in my life was walking into the Matisse retrospect and seeing a really large still life that is in Russia. And I burst into loud sobs, and it's overwhelming to me today to even think of it.

It altered my conceptualization and thinking and experience in the world. I mean the vitality of life is evident in this painting to me.

Prof. SCHAMA: That's very moving David. Yes. And you feel in retrospect that you did because actually Matisse is making a statement about the irrepressibility of life and nature, even, you know, when we're surrounded by ashes. As I'm sure he was. You know, he was very - when was the - do you remember when the painting was done, approximately?

DAVID: It's a Fauve work, probably the earlier - like 1905, something like that.

Prof. SCHAMA: Wow. Yeah.

DAVID: (Unintelligible) collection.

Prof. SCHAMA: He was sick, you know. His life was - we think of him quite rightly as someone who - well not exactly had to get lucky, but as someone who lived for the communication of pleasure, which he did really, and a sort of simple, natural instinct for sort of sensory bliss, I think it's fair to say.

But he was ill at the beginning of his life and he was very ill indeed at the end of his life. And it was when he was convalescing from one of those early illnesses that he was given a paint box, and then he was also introduced to a textile firm and people who made patterns of textiles.

And that affected him very much in the sense in which what had been sort of dismissed as mere decoration could connect with an almost sort of metaphysical experience. Because it sort of introduced you through color and shape and line into a different world, and a world that was the opposite of malady.

He actually very sweetly - there's a painter called Albert Marquet, who got ill - this is now at the other end of Matisse's life - and he actually went to Marquet - his widow said this - he went to his hospital bedside to surround it with paintings, his paintings.

Isn't that adorable? Because he believed that there was a certain kind of therapeutic radiance which would come out of the color. And, you know, he might be right. I would love him, if I'm poorly, to someone to come and surround my hospital bed with pictures.

CONAN: David, have you since gone back to see other paintings by Matisse? I think David has left us. Anyway, we thank him for his call. In any case, was there one piece, Simon Schama, that you as a young man or as a child that first moved you?

Prof. SCHAMA: There were a number, actually. And I have to say the one that really nailed me to the ground is not a political painting at all, and it wasn't particularly done under stress. It's Cezanne's - one of those great Cezanne landscapes of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire. And I think it was in the Courtauld Gallery. I was in the most boring job in the world, checking proofs of the Royal Institute of Chemistry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SCHAMA: Yeah, right. So - but the good thing was I had a very long lunch break and you could take your sandwiches. And no one went to the Courtauld Gallery in those days. And there were more or less no guards. So I was eating my cheese and tomato sandwich - cheese and tomato sandwich in front…

CONAN: Of course.

Prof. SCHAMA: Yes. And my eye was just actually taken hostage by this extraordinarily seductive way that Cezanne had. The eye necessarily moves, swoops into deep space and then you follow the line of the pine tree, which flutters against this parched, abate mountain. And before I knew it, I'd been there for, you know, 30, 35 minutes. And it was not just looking - it was looking at a kind of vision of earthly paradise. That did it for me.

CONAN: Simon Schama is our guest. We'll continue taking a couple of more calls with him after we come back from a short break. We'll also talk with a man responsible for tracking and predicting hurricanes for the United States these past six years. Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In just a few moments, we'll talk with Max Mayfield, an exit interview for the director of the National Hurricane Center. But let's continue our conversation with Simon Schama, whose new book is “The Power of Art.” He joins us from the studios at the BBC's broadcasting house in London.

And let's get Carlos on the line. Carlos calling us from Woodstock, Illinois.

CARLOS (Caller): Hi, yes. I would like to comment on the initial question - at least a couple of sections ago - the beginning of the interview about if it's possible to isolate the work of art from the political context of the artist. And, well, I just wanted to say what I think.

I really think that it is possible. What is not possible is obviously to isolate ourselves from our political context, which was the case of a painting that I - my favorite painting is Goya's “Saturn Devouring One of His Children.” And I got (unintelligible)…

Prof. SCHAMA: This is your favorite painting?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SCHAMA: It's a great masterpiece, but it's so scary.

CARLOS: Yeah, it is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CARLOS: But the point is I was a teenager when I saw it for the first time and I was reading (unintelligible) and the significance of time eating Gods(ph) and everything. And I didn't know who the artist was, and it took me a while to figure that out. And the power - I mean as you were explaining before - the painting literally impacted me I mean almost physically. And it was just an amazing experience. And it still is my favorite painting because of how shocking it is, actually. And I will take my comments off the air.

CONAN: OK, Carlos. Thanks very much.


Prof. SCHAMA: Well, Goya of course was somebody - I mean I actually agree with Carlos - there are plenty of artists who are completely apolitical and who make work that has absolutely nothing to do with their ideology.

But I think actually - certainly from, oh, the first descriptions we have of artists by Pliny, the Latin writer, and certainly through to Vasari, who writes about Michelangelo and his contemporaries, it was assumed that it didn't hurt you to know about the life and times of the artist in order to understand their intentions and the way they came to a particular vision of the world.

And that's rather the view I have. In Goya's case, Goya of course is deeply, deeply engaged in the horrors of war, his print series, and the politics of his times. He's a friend of reformers. At the time he does “Saturn Devouring His Children,” he's deaf and ill and stricken and knows that many of his liberal friends are about to be locked up and come under extreme duress from the government.

And the extraordinary thing about that particular painting that I'm sure a lot of the viewers know from illustrations or may have seen it, is that what is being eaten is actually not a child, it's a classical torso, probably a female torso. So what Goya is saying with this kind of monster with rolling eyes and slobbering jaw is that the most cherished ideals about artistic beauty are themselves being consumed by the horror of the times.

CONAN: You have taken a list of eight men - all men - and - reading a review of one of your books saying clearly you have chosen meat eaters over vegetarians.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SCHAMA: I didn't see that. That's very good. Yes, I suppose. I mean I did indeed want to make - I did want to make, particularly in the films, dramas of the creative moment. By the way, the films - shameless plug moment - will be on PBS, actually…

CONAN: Next year.

Prof. SCHAMA: …in the spring. Next year. Next year. That's right. Which is not to say that there is not a lot of ravishingly beautiful, satisfying vegetarianism out there in the world of art.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SCHAMA: There is. But I did want to take - because it's sort of a disreputable thing to do now. Artistry, it's very unfashionable. It's said, oh, well, it plays to the cliché of the tortured artist. And I know…

CONAN: In fact, you've been accused of being a romantic.

Prof. SCHAMA: Oh, I'll own up to that, Neal. I'll own up to that. A romantic with a small R. And those romantics have their absurd and obtuse fantasies and do things over the top. But there are some things, actually, about the relationship between personal conviction - the feverish, creative imagination and the world out there the romantics nailed absolutely rightly, I think. And I've chosen cases where I hope that's documented and gripping.

I do think, actually, in some moments - if you take, you know, those famous last weeks of Vincent van Gogh, for instance - there are some moments where the kind of breakthrough to a new kind of art work is as gripping as any other kind of thriller you could possibly read or experience.

And the other thing I would want to say is that now - precisely because of the interesting point of one your earlier listeners raised - because we are so bombarded with the kind of degraded, banal version of violence, we need the power of art more than ever. And I do wish we'd stop cutting funds for it in our schools.

CONAN: Simon Schama, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. SCHAMA: It's a pleasure.

CONAN: Simon Schama's new book is “The Power of Art.” As he mentioned, the documentary series will be broadcast by PBS in the spring. Simon Schama, professor of art history and history at Columbia University. He joined us today from the studios of BBC's broadcasting house in London. And again, if you'd like to look at the images of some of the paintings we've been talking about, you can go to our Web site at

And when we come back, Max Mayfield.

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