The finale to the BBC’s arts documentary series sees Simon Schama examining the role art has preserving civilisation today.
This is remarkable giving his starting point: Theresienstadt concentration camp, which symbolises the very opposite of civilisation, but still an art teacher named Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was able to inspire many children to create art, when most would not survive the horrors that would be in store for them.
Schama deals with the development of abstract art by Piet Mondrian, which in turn inspired Jackson Pollock and later the pop art movement. However, the real art stars in this episode are the people he interviews who are making art right now. These are Anselm Kiefer, who deals with the modern history of his native Germany to make sure his country doesn’t forget its past; similarly there is American Kara Walker, whose art deals with racism in her homeland.
Then there is Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who uses coloured gunpowder to make explosive art, including pieces he makes especially for the programme; and Israeli artist Michal Rovner, who makes animated art about migration and is currently making structures using stones taken from both Israeli and Arab homes.
This episode is certainly a rollercoaster of emotions. At the beginning we can clearly hear the anger in the Jewish Schama’s voice as he talks about the horrors of Theresienstadt, but out of this we progress to see that despite this terrible period in our recent past, there are still people out there capable of producing great art. This art is also so varied, whether it be starkly political like Walker’s, or exciting explosive like Guo-Qiang’s. His specially created artworks for the programme, using gunpowder to blow pictures onto canvas, are absolutely breathtaking.
While many people have said that this series has not lived to much, with even some critics on the BBC website giving it bad reviews, there are still some moments in Civilisations that give pause for thought. Even if you don’t know much about the history of art, there is still plenty to get your teeth into, and there will be something for everyone at some point.
Civilisations is on the BBC iPlayer.