Civilisations, Episode 7: Radiance

Civilisations Episode 7
Picture Shows: Bacchus and Ariadne (1522-3) by Titian – National Gallery, London. Image Credit: BBC/Nutopia.

In the latest episode of the arts documentary, Simon Schama looks at the subjects of light and colour.

He goes at Venice, where the artists there embraced colour much more than the rest of Italy, and helped to inspire works by Bellini and Titian. When the movement died out, the last great work was the ceiling of the Würzburg Residence in Bavaria where Tiepolo painted the world’s largest ceiling fresco, depicting Apollo lighting the then known continents of the world.

Schama then looks at India where colour has deep religious significance, especially in the festival of Holi, and then later goes to Spain and examines the stark contrast between the early and late work of Goya, who at first painted in wonderful colours, but after the country was invaded by Napoleon made horrifically scary dark pictures, reflecting the tragedy of what happened to his homeland.

This grim world was brought back to the light thanks to Japanese woodblock prints and the work of Hokusai, which would in turn inspire the impressionists like Monet and Van Gogh, and later Matisse, who cut-outs helped him get through the sadness he suffered caused by World War II and cancer, and eventually lead him to create a small but wonderfully designed Rosary Chapel.

This has certainly been my favourite episode of the series, mainly because of the subject matter. The bright colours that Schama discusses are obviously appealing, and some of the art he displays is astonishingly beautiful. Tiepolo’s ceiling is absolutely breathtaking, and Van Gogh’s Starry Night over the Rhône feels almost alive with its big brushstrokes. It is almost as if you can touch it.

Matisse’s chapel meanwhile may look simple, but the stained glass fills the place with yellow light and the pictures on the walls draw you in. Meanwhile Goya’s grim world was draws in the viewer, reminding you of what happens when things go badly wrong with the world around you.

Civilisations is on BBC Two at 21.00 and the entire series is on BBC iPlayer.