Simon Schama Civilisations, episode 1

A disconcerting start, Schama talking about civilisation as collective memory while aerial images flash by of ancient public spaces in desert landscapes. Is it a version of that trick of modern cinema, a bit of the action before the film remembers to introduce itself? There’s a noticeable urgency in Schama’s voice and in a few seconds we see why.

Now come shocking images of a temple blown up with explosives and men taking sledgehammers to statues in a museum. Then the story of the guardian of the site at Palmyra who wouldn’t tell where the antiquities were hidden and details of his gruesome death. In rushed hindsight the disorienting plunge into the material at the beginning seems a brilliant stroke, and Palmyra will cast its shadow over all that follows: civilisation’s survival is precarious, and all civilisations come to an end. The episode at Palmyra can stand as an allegory or emblem of that.

Then we’re off looking for beginnings at the tip of Africa where our species first appeared, finding them in a small lump of iron-rich red ochre, on which is inscribed a repeating pattern from 70 thousand years ago, which Schama insists, against the archaeologists, is the first stirring of the impulse to make new forms that drives all art.

Then a brilliant link via red ochre to the cave at Altamira 7000 miles away in Spain where the same pigment is blown and painted onto walls to represent animals mythical to us but familiar to the first visitors to this place. We’ve been in the cave for a while marveling at more animals and imprints of human hands when we stumble on someone like one of the hired hermits in 18th century English gardens. He’s a scientist from the University of Huddersfield, weirdly illuminated by his computer screen and studying the cave’s echoes because he believes the paintings were originally accompanied by music. Now a brief concert of prehistoric music played on bull-roarers and hollow bird-bones.

Picasso is one of the modern artists who have praised their earliest predecessors, and Schama draws a thrilling parallel between Picasso’s bulls, almost a primitive obsession of his, and the drawings in the caves. This outlandish comparison is sprung on us through the evidence of our eyes—the resemblance between the two bulls is uncanny, and this sudden glimpse of the continuity of art creates something like religious awe.

Now we move to little objects, a lion man from Germany, a tiny woman’s head in bone (birth of the idea of beauty, Schama says, but that was already there among the animals), a scene of combat on almost microscopic scale on a gemstone found recently at a new excavation somewhere in Greece. This object is hard to see, hard to grasp the whole of, and all the more magical for this trick of slipping away.

I think it was at about this point that we begin to jump more promiscuously from culture to culture. The photography at Petra does a marvelous job of putting you there, showing crevasses from just above and deep inside, perfectly keyed to Schama’s words about the improbability of such elaborate culture in this place. He has great fun conjuring up the luxury resort built on the trade in expensive perfumes and attracting the different races of the region.

We also make a stop in China at a recently uncovered site which yields a forest of bronze heads of various sizes, grotesque and strangely compelling with their huge, wedge-shaped eyes. All in all, there is such a flood of impressions, such a trove of marvelous objects never seen before, that it would be impossible to give a coherent account without watching the whole pageant again. The effect is magical, magical and unencompassable, and ought to waken the most jaded palate and worn out eyes.

I was thrilled by my first viewing of this and hesitate to mention what didn’t seem exactly right to me. I was brought up on Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, which I am watching alongside the new Civilisations, a name I thought trendy until I got a taste of how gigantically wide the new vision is; that exhilarating scope justifies the ‘s’, also necessary in a practical way to keep the two series straight. In anticipation I imagined Schama following the new normal for presenters, crowding the objects they talk about, walking breathlessly along while reciting carefully crafted text, whispering when pretending to respect some creature nearby, waving their arms, talking about their excitement or how lucky we are to have gotten into this exclusive location. Worst of all, standing in front of the work we came to see.

It was a great relief to find Simon Schama behaving more like Kenneth Clark than current presenters, as someone in awe of what he is talking about, not in chummy familiarity with it. His gestures weren’t the exaggerated dumb-show you sometimes get and are probably just what he would do if he were lecturing. But in the presence of the things themselves, I don’t need for presenters to supply animated movement, distracting me from the painting or building. Mostly Schama was not getting in the way, except when he stood behind the glass case the lion-man was in, so that you saw the sculpture and the much larger man behind, like a reflection in a mirror. This work is not humanised by measuring it against a visitor; it is momentarily degraded.

The choice of unfamiliar sites instead of old standbys, Altamira instead of Lascaux, Calakmul instead of Palenque, is invigorating and wakes one up. The sense of cultural production as part the rest of life, workers in Chinese fields, old Mayans and present Mayans in the same territory, both anchors and widens our view. Is it fanciful to think that Civilisations has learned from BBC nature programmes?

The first programme bodes extremely well for the series, which can be as inspiring in its different way as its predecessor. And yet… will there continue to be such studied avoidance of the most wonderful sites of all? Lascaux is far richer than the others and one of its marvels, the ‘Chinese pony’ did seem to flit quickly across the screen. In the course of writing that sentence it occurred to me that Lascaux has been so ravaged by visitors’ breath that only a replica is now shown, and that Palenque or Tikal which I would put in place of Chalakmul, are over-visited already. Still, the very best that these cultures have done is what got us interested in them in the first place. Leaving that out runs the risk of removing the soul from the body.

Since then I’ve seen Schama’s second programme, where the sequence of examples is even more eccentric and reaches a nadir of dull Dutch ordinariness with Jan van Goyen, whom Schama apologises for and then dwells on. The episode is redeemed in the end by Ansel Adams, whose luminous photos of Yosemite can support the unexpected weight Schama loads them with, leaving us in his debt again.

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