“We didn’t belittle Western art”: Simon Schama responds to critics of Civilisations

"All we have done is offer the rich truth of the story of art," argues the historian and Civilisations presenter

Simon Schama, BBC Pictures, SL

We live in times when the politics of estrangement pays populist dividends. Drawbridges are being pulled up; fences and barriers raised; all in the name of defending native traditions from cross-border cultural invasions. It is an era of separations and differentiations. Make the case for connectedness and you risk being accused of being an apologist for globalisation.

Advertisement

The nine-part BBC series, Civilisations, was not conceived as pushback against cultural nationalism; its essential mission has been to bring to television some of the great masterpieces of art beyond the western tradition presented so unforgettably in Kenneth Clark’s original series half a century ago – Japanese woodblock colour prints, the Benin African bronze plaques, Indian Mughal miniatures and much more.

We didn’t conceive Civilisations as some sort of transnational manifesto, much less did we set out to belittle the independent glories of western art; indeed Civilisations is packed to bursting with the latter, including some masters like Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Goya whom Clark decided to omit.

But the self-conscious pluralisation of the title always implied something more than aesthetic globetrotting; an acknowledgement that more often than one might suppose, art history is the history of connectedness across cultures, even if in mutual competition or conflict. This isn’t always the case; Chinese classical landscapes and Mayan architecture and sculpture evolved in isolation. But it’s striking that at many decisive moments a push forward has occurred through the mutual engagement of western and non-western cultures.

Single-point perspective might not have happened without Euclid’s work on optics being recovered by Arab scholars and translators working in medieval Baghdad. And the cultural flow went in both directions. When a peace treaty was negotiated between the Republic of Venice and the Ottoman empire in 1479 the Turks expressly asked for a Venetian painter to come to Istanbul.  Venice obliged with Gentile Bellini and his portrait of Sultan Mehmet II (much damaged and restored) complete with Ottoman rug now hangs in the National Gallery.

Towards the end of his life Suleyman the Magnificent’s architect Mimar Sinan dictated memoirs in the course of which he made it clear that the Emperor Justinian’s Hagia Sophia – and its cautionary history of collapsing dome – was much on his mind when designing the great Friday mosque of the Suleymaniye. But at the same time that he was doing this, the elderly Michelangelo was similarly trying to create a St Peter’s Basilica that would also put the Hagia Sophia in the shade) and through the construction of the biggest dome in the world, make a triumphal statement of the supremacy of the Roman church.

There are countless more fruitful criss-crossings. In the seventeenth century the open-minded Mughal emperor Jehangir introduced motifs from the European art he had seen in engraved versions into the paintings of his own artists; so that cherubic angels flit through the skies around his portrait. Rembrandt would draw his own beautiful variations on the Mughal miniatures he had seen in Amsterdam. When artists like Monet and van Gogh set eyes on dazzlingly coloured woodblock prints by the likes of Hokusai, arrived in Paris in the 1880s, scales fell from their eyes and what they began to see was the light and forms of their own refreshed inventiveness. The same thing happened to Matisse in Tangier.

In Civilisations you will find this history of connectedness across cultures told afresh, because all we have done is offer the rich truth of the story of art. But if that should turn out to help build bridges of cultural understanding rather than demolish them, no-one I think will be the worse off.

Advertisement

The nine-part series Civilisations is available on BBC iPlayer