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Watch Civilizations


Inspired by Kenneth Clark's ground-breaking BBC series from 1969, BBC Two's nine-part series Civilisations introduces a new generation to great masterworks of beauty and ingenuity. From the first marks on cave walls made forty thousand years ago, to the art of the present, Civilisations will offer the perspectives of three presenters, Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga, on humanity's desire to create.

They will travel far and wide across six continents to find answers to fundamental questions about human creativity. The series will examine what makes a civilisation. It will look at paintings, sculptures and architecture that have enriched, challenged and unsettled human beings across the world and reveal the artists who made them and the cultures that produced them.

Tuesday 8:00 PM on PBS
1 Season, 9 Episodes
March 1, 2018
Documentary & Biography
7.1/10
Cast: Liev Schreiber, Simon Schama
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Civilizations Full Episode Guide

  • Simon Schama begins Civilisations with this premise: that it is in art - the play of the creative imagination - that humanity expresses its most essential self: the power to break the tyranny of the humdrum, the grind of everyday.Art, then, makes life worth living; it is the great window into human potential. And societies become civilized to the extent that they take culture as seriously as the prosecution of power, or the accumulation of wealth. But in the century of total war and industrial slaughter was (and is) that enough?The cause of humanity went up in the smoke of the Nazi crematoria. Horror and terror brushed beauty aside and stamped on its pretensions. And in the modern world art has become increasingly commodified. Simon's last programme explores the fate of art in the machine and profit-driven world. It looks at the rise of art as a tradeable commodity and turns on one central question: should art create a realm separate from the modern world, a place where we can escape and pull the ladder up after us? Or should it plunge headlong into chaos and cacophony while transforming the way we see it and live in it?Using the works of both dead and contemporary artists of the 20th and 21st century Simon seeks answers to these profound questions.His conclusion is imbued with hope: despite all our travails, by engaging with the here-and-now art can still offer us an insight into the incomprehensibility of the world and a way to transcend its horrors with the enduring creativity of the human spirit.

  • In the 15th and 16th centuries distant and disparate cultures met, often for the first time.These encounters provoked wonder, awe, bafflement and fear. And, as historian of empire David Olusoga shows, art was always on the frontline. Each cultural contact at this time left a mark on both sides: the magnificent Benin bronzes record the meeting of an ancient West African kingdom and Portuguese voyagers in a spirit of mutual respect and exchange.By contrast we think Spain's conquest of Central America in the 16th century as decimating the Aztecs and eviscerating their culture. But David shows even in Mexico rare surviving Aztec artworks recall a more nuanced story.He travels to Japan to show how the Tokugawa Shogunate, after an initial embrace, became so wary of outside interference that they sought to cut ties with the outside world. But in their art, as in their trade, they could never truly isolate themselves from foreign influences. By contrast the Protestant Dutch Republic was itself an entirely new kind of creature: a market driven nation-state. It was a system that created new freedoms and opportunities as embodied in the world-infused art of Johannes Vermeer, or the watercolours of the naturalist and illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian.David ends with the transitional story of the British in India: at first the British were as open to foreign influence as the Dutch. But by the 1800s they became more aggressive and the era of encounters gave way to the era of muscular empire, one that was dismissive of India's arts and cultures.

  • Mary Beard broaches the controversial, sometimes dangerous, topic of religion and art.For millennia, art has inspired religion as much as religion has inspired art. Yet there are fundamental problems, which all religions share, in making God or gods visible in the human world. How, and at what cost, do you make the unseen, seen?Beneath all works of religious art there always lies conflict and risk. And the result is often iconoclasm - the destruction of works of art - which Mary believes can, paradoxically, lead on to new forms of creativity.Mary Beard visits sacred sites across the world to examine the contested boundaries between religion and art. She goes to the temple of Angkor Wat, the Tintoretto Crucifixion in Venice, Buddhist caves of Anjanta and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, as she seeks to break down the conventions that depict some religions as image-based and others as hostile to artistic representation. She shows how all faiths (and their artists) face the same fundamental problems of treading a careful line between glorifying God in images and blasphemy by daring to represent the divine.She ends at the Parthenon in Athens. This is a building that has been in turn a pagan temple, a Christian church and a Mosque. Now, as a monument to Western civilisation itself, and tourist's pilgrimage site, she ask us to wonder what we now worship.

  • Simon Schama examines one of our deepest artistic urges: the depiction of nature.Simon discovers that landscape painting is seldom a straightforward description of observed nature; rather it's a projection of dreams and idylls, as well as of escapes and refuges from human turmoil; the elusive paradise on earth. Simon begins in the 10th century, in Song dynasty China. The Song scrolls are never innocent of the values of that world: the landscapes depict immense mountains projecting imperial authority. But as that authority was threatened and overwhelmed, majestic mountains are represented in geological turmoil, writhing and heaving.Imagined paradises in Islamic and Western art are often responses to loss and absence. But paradise could be recovered in the country villas of the Renaissance. Simon goes to the miraculously beautiful Palladian house of Daniele Barbaro in the Veneto, with murals painted by Paolo Veronese to contemplate the world of the cultivated country gentleman.It was in the cooler climate of northern Europe that landscape came into its own as a distinctive type of art. Simon looks at the works of the Northern Renaissance in Germany and the Netherlands, where emerging states sought expression of identity through depiction of their natural worlds.Simon ends in America where the landscapes of America are as expansive as the landscapes of Holland were confined, but there too, in the numinous photography of Ansel Adams, a kind of earthly paradise is revealed and a sense of nationhood is expressed in the natural world.

  • Mary Beard looks at images of the human body in ancient art, seeking answers to fundamental questions at the heart of ideas about civilisations.Why have human beings always made art about themselves? What were these images for? And in what ways do some ancient conventions of representing the body still affect us now?In raising these questions Mary argues that the way we look at art can influence our ideas of what it is to be civilised. The colossal prehistoric Olmec heads in Mexico set the scene. In a culture with no written record, all we can do is puzzle about what these images were for, whom they represented, and why they were constructed.Mary Beard moves to other ancient cultures where more evidence has survived. She looks at images that are far more than art objects: from Egyptian statues to the terracotta warriors of ancient China, representations of the human form that actively participate in the social world, that teach men and women how to behave, that assert power and assuage loss.Mary explores what makes a 'realistic' image of the human form. She looks at the 'Greek Revolution', the extraordinary process in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, which saw the sculpture of the human body dramatically change from a series of static formulaic images to what we now take as living naturalism. Mary shows that reverence for Greek ideas of the human form influence the way we look to this day.

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