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From Cave To Canvas: The Rise Of Humanity Through Art. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired April 13, 2018 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Tonight, from the cave to the canvas, what history of art tells us about the rise of humankind, about

what makes us "us." My conversation with two eminent historians about their sweeping new series, "Civilizations".

Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.

In our age of political demonization, chemical weapons attacks, economic despair, it can be all too easy to lose sight of all the good that humanity

has achieved.

The long view of the tremendous path humankind has walked is the focus of a new series. It's called "Civilizations", a co-production of the BBC and

PBS. And it tells the story of progress through that uniquely human trait, art.


AMANPOUR: Among those telling this thrilling story, the historians Simon Schama and David Olusoga who take us on a truly compelling and beautiful

journey through millennia of human history, adding an S to the original and critically-claimed 1960 series called simple "Civilization".

Gentlemen, welcome to the program. This is just, as they say, magisterial. It is phenomenal in its sweep.

So, let me start by asking you, why the "S" at the end. The original was "Civilization". Let me just ask you first. Why the S?

DAVID OLUSOGA, HISTORIAN, WRITER AND CO-PRESENTER OF "CIVILIZATIONS": I think it's 50s year later. It would be unimaginable to focus on one part

of the world and try to tell a story on this scale in the early 21st century.

AMANPOUR: Simon, did you get a lot of pushback with people so reverent and reverential towards Kenneth Clark and that singular tome of brilliance that

they didn't want to see any change?

SIMON SCHAMA, HISTORIAN, WRITER AND CO-PRESENTER OF "CIVILIZATIONS": Well, old guys - I think there's this dreaded phrase Judeo-Christian. Speaking

as a Judeo makes no sense to me at all. It's an oxymoron. Actually, he either was messiah or he wasn't.

In some sense, culture has been so deeply politicized that if you say something as gentile - guess what, Renaissance perspective would not have

happened had not Arab scholars actually recovered Euclid's work on optics.

That immediately sounds, oh, they're actually promoting Islam against the Judeo-Christian tradition. We're not doing that. It's just a matter - or

rather, a wonderful matter of the historical truth.

So, of course, you tend to get fantastic sort of tirades because everybody is so embattled, everybody's looking inward, everybody is so neurotically

defensive about their own culture.

AMANPOUR: Is there a way in the way culture is looked at today than maybe 50 years ago? Is it more inward looking or outward looking today?

OLUSOGA: Well, from my point of view, I mean, I'm somebody who is a product of outward-looking expansionism, empire. I'm half-British, half


And to make sense of who I am, I've always been interested in those moments of contact. And the ideas are cultures are singular, most exciting places

are places that were in contact, that were - in their imagination, were looking to the outside world.

So, partly for me, these are some of the best stories. Some of the most interesting moments in history have been civilizations and cultures that

have been outward looking.

AMANPOUR: Homo sapiens started to evolve in Africa 200,000 years ago. Do you think that people will be surprised to know that Africa, particularly

southern Africa, South Africa as we know it today, was the first outpost of human creativity in terms of art?

SCHAMA: Well, only if they think that everything that is creatives, the birthplace was in Europe, or maybe in Asia, in which they've been asleep

for some time. Sorry, (INAUDIBLE).

But, no, that shouldn't be surprising because the crucial moment is when actually hominids because Neanderthals, we now are thinking, in Europe at

least might have making some of these extraordinary - what seem to be decorative designs as well. So, you're following the creativity.

[14:05:01] And that absolutely begins - it's been found at a place called Blombos Cave, a lump of red ochre. And this red ochre almost certainly was

used for decorative design. Possibly on the body. Possibly on the walls of caves.

AMANPOUR: And then, of course, this spread west and we have a lovely clip of you in one of the European caves in Spain.

SCHAMA: In Spain, yes.

AMANPOUR: Let's have a look.


SCHAMA (on-camera): When you think about this technique, your head just spins because they would have had to transpose them here. And yet, when

all that was done, they managed to preserve miraculously this animal vitality. This is truly one of the great marvels of a suddenly-expanded

human mind.

(voice-over): However it was caused, the cognitive revolution stirred early humanity from this creative slumber. And the images it produced

continue to humble even our greatest modern artists, including Pablo Picasso.

(on-camera): He would like to call himself a modern primitive. And in those images, glimmering images in the caves, he found he thought the

fountain head of everything that was truly creative about the artistic instinct.


AMANPOUR: I just love that. I mean, I love the fact that something so ancient was made so alive by one of the greatest 20th century painters.

SCHAMA: Well, it's very interesting that, at the end of the 19th century - David speaks so eloquently in his film about this - there's a sense among

some European artists that the European and western tradition was sort of exhausted, it was stale, it was repetitive.

Something else is lurking. It's almost akin to that moment, all those millennia ago in the caves.

AMANPOUR: David, you are part Nigerian. And one of the episodes you give us a guided tour around has the Benin Bronzes. Benin City is now part of


And you also talk about the advent, the first time Europeans came to Africa, which was in the 15th century, right? Portuguese. So, tell me

about - because everybody thinks they came to dominate, to conquer, but that wasn't the case in the beginning.

OLUSOGA: It wasn't. And I've always been interested in the story of empire before the dominance part. We rush to the heart of darkness, the

dark side of empire when Europeans have the technology and the power to dominate. Most of history, that's not the case.]

The contact Europeans have with Africa and Asia in the 15th, they encounter societies that are militarily about equal to where they are, that control

lands that can't be conquered, and so they have no choice, but to trade.

And in those moments of trade and encounter, one of the commodities is art. One of the commodities is how other people see the world, how they

represent the world, how they represent themselves and also how do they represent you as a new comer.

So, within the art of Benin, we see the Portuguese as depicted by Africans in the 15th and 16th century. We see empire from the other side of the


AMANPOUR: And then, we have a clip when you're actually back in Lisbon and there is this amazing painting that you walk us through. Let's just play

the clip and then we'll talk about it.


OLUSOGA: Incredibly, it's believed that one in ten Lisbon's population were Africans. The Africans in this painting are existing at every level

of the social strata. There's a criminal who is being arrested here. There are boatmen who are ferrying people across the river. There are the


These are water carriers. They are almost certainly placed, carrying waters on their heads back to the homes of their masters. But there were

white salves as well as black slaves in Lisbon in the 16th century.

But there's also figures like this. This is a black knight, a man of the Order of Santiago. On his horse with his sword and his cloak and all his


And it's a snapshot of a world that we had forgotten about. Lisbon at the center of the first age of globalization.


AMANPOUR: So, it's a beautiful painting, the King's Fountain. And it really, as you narrated there, I mean, who knew that they were white slaves

and blacks and all the sort of - it was all happening at the same time. Give us a sense of that moment of history.

OLUSOGA: Well, it's a wonderfully rare painting because most of the records of Lisbon, when Lisbon was the center of Europe's age of

exploration, were lost later in the 18th century.

So, what it speaks to is a moment when Africans and Europeans are in contact with each other where Europeans via Lisbon are in contact with

Asia, with, I think, Japan. And it's a moment when there has to be some sort of equanimity because nobody is capable of dominating anybody else.

So, you have the transfer of goods, transfer of people, you have representatives of royal families, representatives of the courts of royal

dynasties in Africa in Lisbon, alongside the slave people.

[14:10:18] You have a moment when empire doesn't look anything like the way it's going to look tragically in the 19th century.

AMANPOUR: And, I guess, what do you want to tell the viewer? What do you want to leave the viewers with with this series?

And I ask because you talk about Africa and the evolved state of art and the origins frankly of Homo sapiens, but people don't look at Africa like

that today. It's the dark, godforsaken continent, the same with one of the episodes you did on Indian art, Persian art.

Most people look at that part of the world as trailing the West in terms of its art, culture and civilization. What are you trying to say with this

kind of history?

SCHAMA: Well, there's much more connected than the great master narrative of most traditional artistries lead you to believe.

And I suppose, actually, one thing - not because it may be morally edifying, although I happen to think it is, in an age where we're so busy

building fences around ourselves, but because it simply happens to be true.

Michelangelo and Mimar Sinan, the architect of the great Suleymaniye Friday Mosque in Istanbul almost certainly knew what each other was doing because

they were doing the same thing.

They were trying to build a house of worship bigger and more spectacular than Hagia Sofia, what Byzantine Christianity had left behind. Over and

over again, you get these wonderful sidelong glances.

So, we're trying, I suppose, to provide a salutary corrective to the notion that civilization, means entirely our inheritance from Greece and Rome and

sails forward all the way through the 19th century to abstract expressionism in New York, wherever you look, even in modern art,

(INAUDIBLE), you find the extraordinary kind of fruitfulness of looking sideways.

AMANPOUR: Well, you just mentioned a great Japanese artist. Europe moving towards Japan, towards Asia, how did that sort of happen in terms of art?

SCHAMA: Well, it happened in two ways. Again, there is no doubt that there was - in the period David talks about, the kind of arrogant self-

possession of the ferocious kind of commercial empires of the 18th century -

OLUSOGA: It's not surprising that artists are the people who are the most global in their outlook because they are the most visually greedy people.

They are the people who needs to be magpie like and go around and pick up anything they can get from anywhere.

So, it's not a surprise Rembrandt is looking at (INAUDIBLE). It's not a surprise that (INAUDIBLE) is going to see the art that's being brought over

from the new world, from the Aztec civilization.

Artists are - by their nature, they are -

SCHAMA: We like to interpret art very broadly. That's to say, in the same period we're talking about Delft ware in Holland, a spectacular commercial

success, is Ming China's. Ming pottery in porcelain translated into a Dutch idiom.

AMANPOUR: What did surprise you most because you did the China, Japan episode? What surprised you most about that?

OLUSOGA: I was surprised by the extent to which art that we think of as being quintessentially of one culture and one civilization. When you drill

down to it, actually often has elements that represent that culture's outward view and global connections.

Portuguese faces in the art of Benin, Chinese crockery in the paintings of Vermeer. We think of these things as quintessentially African,

quintessentially Dutch when actually there is an element within their DNA which is about globalism.

SCHAMA: The two great moments in the career of Matisse, when he's been - when the (INAUDIBLE) slightly holding their noses at it for being -

AMANPOUR: Picasso and his friends.

SCHAMA: Picasso and his friends. Wonderful kind of complicated relationship with Picasso, but that is the case and Matisse certainly felt


He goes through the first great show of Islamic art in Munich in 1910 with Kandinsky. Kandinsky is there as well.

AMANPOUR: The great Russian artist?

SCHAMA: Yes. So, we couldn't actually - I wanted to do a sequence on that, but it was sort of life changing for him because this was the first

show of Islamic art which wasn't about harim fantasies, belly dancing and all the rest of that. It was very severely and austerely and in a

scholarly way presented.

[14:15:02] And then, Matisse, in 1912, goes to Tangier and he sees two things. He sees, first of all, that art is really about rugs and about

tiles and about decorations and about clothes and costume and it is anything but - it's anything but sort of life denied. It's just the

opposite. It has the kind of spontaneous life on the street really that he sees.

AMANPOUR: And then, just sort of scale back, many, many, many hundreds of years and you are in the Palmyra area. That's how it opens, the actual

first episode. And Palmyra in Syria, we know that ISIS just wreaked such havoc on the art there and in related areas around there.

Let's just play the clip and we will talk about that destruction of this kind of history and art.


SCHAMA: In 2015, the great Syrian trading city of Palmyra was attacked by ISIS. The world feared its treasures would be destroyed because ISIS had

already done in the ancient Iraqi city of Mosul.

Much of Palmyra's legacy of sentries, of Greek, of Romans, Persians, Arabs and Jews were reduced to rubble in a matter of hours.

Khalid al-Asaad, the retired local director of the museum, was 81 when ISIS seized the city. He refused to say where he had hidden the city's

treasures. For that crime, ISIS beheaded him in a Roman theater.

Lot of us spend our days talking about us and very many of us are prepared to lay down a life threat, but for Khalid al-Asaad, the stones and statues

and columns of Palmyra were more than simply an ensemble of antiquity. They were the expression of what the creative imagination could do to make

the city home.

We can spend a lot of time debating what civilization is or isn't, but when its opposite shows up, in all its brutality and cruelty and intolerance and

lust for destruction, we know what civilization is. We know it from the shock of its imminent loss as a mutilation on the body of our humanity.


AMANPOUR: I mean, that's so powerful and so poignant given the reality. And it was there, it was in Iraq, it was the Taliban who destroyed the

famous Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. How much has been lost today? How much of our civilizations under threat like that?

OLUSOGA: I think a culture is under threat from mono mania, OK. The deeply moving and tragic thing about Palmyra was, as the sequence says,

it's a kind of unforced meeting place of different kinds of culture, a Hellenistic culture, of Persian culture, of Parthian culture, all sorts of

things jumbled up and producing their own particular kind of synthesis.

And that precisely, also the fact that it was pre-Islamic, was why ISIS was determined to wipe it absolutely out of existence.

So, there are all sorts of ways in which you can kind of shot down the openness, which is the life blood, the oxygen of culture. You could do it

by censoring press. You can do it by dictating what art is correct for your culture or your country or your state or not.

And then, you kind of - you absolutely cut off the freedom of creativity. What's actually to be much more cheerful, Christiane, as you know, I

usually end up being - what is interesting, for example, in China, is actually how with all the apparatus of the state at its command, it can't

quite ever manage to do that.

I'm not saying, when you think about Stalin's purges of 1930s, thousands of artists and poets and writers can be simply wiped out and lost, disappear

into kind of howling void of prisons and mass executions, and yet I suppose it's part of our message, humanity has this almost involuntary instinct to

resist that, to kind of resurrect itself creatively. And as long as we recognize our own humanity, I don't think we'll ever stop.

AMANPOUR: So, let's talk about sort of the cradle of civilization as they call that area, very close to Palmyra, between the Tigris and Euphrates in

what is today Iraq. Tell us about - it was, what, 7000 years ago that the first towns and cities were made there. Describe how societies came to


[14:20:06] OLUSOGA: That's a very, very complicated question. I think what this series is trying to do is to not trace the thread of

civilization, but to show that it is being recorded in each case in art that is specific and yet interconnected.

What I was drawn to and why I think this series is important is for that point that Simon makes in the opening, is that that story of civilization

has to be told partly through art and that this stuff that is the record of us and that journey from the fertile crescent to here is fragile and it's

not always with us.

What I remember about watching that shocking film from Palmyra was feeling a sense of wound, a sense of loss. I've never been to Palmyra, but that

idea that things that have been preserved for millennia have been lost, that's almost physically painful.

And it is shocking. And as Simon says at the beginning, civilization, in this debate about what it is, it could become a part of the game and self-

indulgent part of the game that people with full stomachs play.

When you see it dynamite that you realize it's more important than that. It's not an indulgence. It's not a nice to have. It is central to who we


AMANPOUR: And I think that is what's so clear about this whole series that you can trace politics, religion, art, obviously, everything on the sort of

DNA of what art is. Art really gives you the roadmap, doesn't it?

OLUSOGA: It's not a separate part of history. Art is not there to illustrate history. And art history isn't a sealed subject. It bleeds out

into everything.

You couldn't tell the story of this city in 18th century without encountering (INAUDIBLE). It will be crazy to do so. You wouldn't. There

is so many moments. You could not understand the Dutch golden age without Rembrandt and Vermeer and you would be insane to attempt to do so. It's

not an additional nice to have extra. It is integral.

AMANPOUR: Talking about the Dutch golden age, the Netherlands, you profile a woman, a German naturalist, who because of the times was not allowed to

practice what she was good at. So, she had to go to the Netherlands. Let's just play that clip and talk about it.


OLUSOGA: In her native Germany, there's no way that Maria Sibylla would have been allowed to produce a book like this, in which she laid out all

her observations and her discoveries, in a prose, but also in her detailed meticulous watercolors.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But even in the free city of Amsterdam, there were restrictions on the way Maria Sibylla could paint.

OLUSOGA: There is a reason why these paintings are executed in watercolor rather than in the more polished medium of oil paint. And it's because -

and this is almost unbelievable today - the system of guilt that controled the artistic profession in Europe didn't allow women to paint in oils.


AMANPOUR: I mean, honestly, that is just gob smacking. Tell us a bit more about that.

OLUSOGA: Well, you asked me earlier, what surprised me. Well, that shocked me. I didn't actually know that.

AMANPOUR: The women couldn't paint in oils. What would happen to the world if women painted in oils?

OLUSOGA: It's hard to work out how society would have been brought down by allowing women to paint in oil paints, but of course it was about guilt or

about control or about access.

AMANPOUR: That sort of last line of what you just said there is really representative of the movement that we're going through today.

OLUSOGA: Well, her story -

AMANPOUR: The equal pay, the professional representation of women, I just think it's really interesting.

OLUSOGA: The story of Maria Sibylla Merian is really interesting. She goes to the freest place she can go, which is Amsterdam, but it doesn't

mean that she's free or equal by the standard that we'd expect today, but it is the best place she can be to be an artist and she is to an extent

welcomed into an intellectual and a creative world, which allows her to be an artist and a scientist in a way that was not possible in her native


AMANPOUR: And why not in Germany? Why were they so backwards?

OLUSOGA: Well, it's not saying that Germany was backwards. It's that Amsterdam was a special place where special freedoms, not complete

freedoms, but more doors were open than they were elsewhere.

And I think because of the existence of Amsterdam at that moment, we get to see the creativity that might not have been bequeathed to us had she has

not gone to that special city.

AMANPOUR: Why is this called the second moment of -

SCHAMA: Because there's something in it. It's that jump that either Neanderthals or Homo sapiens or both of them hominids make when something

happens to the restlessness of the hominid brain and it needs to do something other than simply possess territory or feed itself or clothe

itself and design happens and it happens circa 70,000 - maybe a little earlier from that.

AMANPOUR: You're a professor. You're a historian and a film maker. Is history of art taught enough to us, to the younger generation?

[14:25:05] OLUSOGA: Well, we just had a debate in Britain about whether history of art should be taught at the advanced level in schools. And that

subject had to be saved. There was talk of removing it.

I don't think a society that feels that that a subject that we can throw away is taking art seriously enough.

SCHAMA: Yes. I mean, there is this kind of crude, utilitarian (INAUDIBLE) which presupposes that all education should do is prepare you for a job.

Well, all of education, the leading forth - to go back to the etymology of the word is indeed about that, but your job is life, is what your job is.

And art history has everything in it. It's regarded by those who actually don't engage with it properly as (INAUDIBLE), it is looking at pretty

pictures. Well, guess what? It's not.

It has the structure of language. It can be about - if you want, there's a great field of neuroscience that is actually debating how we optically

respond to what art is.

It's involved in philosophy, poetry, literature, virtually every humane discipline you can think of is actually concentrated, compressed and

complicated in works of art, so that if you do get a good, solid, sound, deep education in an art history, then you're set for life in my view.

AMANPOUR: And on that note, Simon, David, thank you so much for joining us.

SCHAMA: Pleasure.

OLUSOGA: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And how wonderful to be immersed in the past as we try to navigate our future.

And that is it for our program tonight. Remember, you can always listen to our podcast and see us online at And, of course, you can

follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for watching. And goodbye from London.