Simon Schama begins Civilisations with this premise: that it is in art - the play of the creative imagination - that humanity expresses its most essential self: the power to break the tyranny of the humdrum, the grind of everyday.
If David Olusoga's first film in Civilisations is about the art that followed and reflected early encounters between different cultures, his second explores the artistic reaction to imperialism in the 19th century. David shows the growing ambivalence with which artists reacted to the idea of progress - both intellectual and scientific - that underpinned the imperial mission and followed the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.
Simon Schama starts his meditation on colour and civilisation with the great Gothic cathedrals of Amiens and Chartres. He then moves to 16th-century Venice, where masterpieces such as Giovanni Bellini's San Zaccaria altarpiece and Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne contested the assumption that drawing would always be superior to colouring.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, distant and disparate cultures met, often for the first time. These encounters provoked wonder, awe, bafflement, and fear. And, as historian of empire David Olusoga shows, art was always on the frontline. Each cultural contact at this time left a mark on both sides - the magnificent Benin bronzes record the meeting of an ancient West African kingdom and Portuguese voyagers in a spirit of mutual respect and exchange.
Think Renaissance and you think Italy. But in the 15th and 16th centuries, the great Islamic empires experienced their own extraordinary cultural flowering. The two phenomena did not unfold in separate artistic universes; they were acutely conscious of, and in competition with, each other and mutually open to influences flowing both ways.
Professor Mary Beard broaches the controversial, sometimes dangerous, topic of religion and art. For millennia, art has inspired religion as much as religion has inspired art. Yet there are fundamental problems, which all religions share, in making god or gods visible in the human world. How, and at what cost, do you make the unseen, seen?
Simon Schama explores one of our deepest artistic urges: the depiction of nature. Simon discovers that landscape painting is seldom a straightforward description of observed nature, rather it is a projection of dreams and idylls, as well as of escapes and refuges from human turmoil, the elusive paradise on earth.
Mary Beard explores images of the human body in ancient art, from Mexico and Greece to Egypt and China. Mary seeks answers to fundamental questions at the heart of ideas about civilisations. Why have human beings always made art about themselves? What were these images for? And in what ways do some ancient conventions of representing the body still affect us now?
Simon Schama looks at the formative role art and the creative imagination have played in the forging of humanity itself. The film opens with Simon's passionate endorsement of the creative spirit in humanity and the way in which art can help to forge the civilised life.
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