From 65,000-year-old paintings of animals found on the walls of a Spanish cave to Damien Hirst’s “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable," from ancient Chinese landscape scrolls and Mayan pyramids to Caravaggio’s paintings and a Bill Viola video, “Civilizations” spans the globe and the centuries looking at art and architecture.
But the PBS series, which premieres at 7 p.m. Tuesday on NET, isn’t another dull march through art history. Rather, it’s a wide ranging look at how art, in some fashion, creates civilization -- a thesis implied in the title of the first episode, “The Second Moment of Creation.”
Starting with the handprints and paintings of buffalo-like creatures on the cave walls, the episode looks at mankind's seemingly innate urge to create and record life’s experiences, taking it from the most ancient to the contemporary, pivotally around the world.
That international aspect -- the series was filmed on six continents (there’s not much art in Antarctica) -- sets it apart from its inspiration, the 1969 series “Civilization,” that looked only at European art.
In expanding the look worldwide, and incorporating the views of experts from around the globe, “Civilizations” is contemporary and, almost as valuable, exposes its American and English audiences to art and cultures they very well knew nothing about.
I watched the first six episodes near binge-style -- three per night, evidence of how much I liked them and how much I learned. And I was transfixed by parts of each. Among those elements, in no particular order:
* The discussion of the competition in the 1500s to build the world’s largest dome between the Suleymaniye mosque in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, with, of course, extensive views of the impressive structures.
* A look at how and why the Terracotta Army of China was created, contrasted with the multiple images throughout Egypt of Ramses II, centering on the famous Colossi of Ramses II (He ensured that his people would know he was in charge and a God).
* A trip through the ancient Buddhist paintings found in the dark of caves of Ajanta in India, intentionally created to appear in pieces, not a linear story and, in contrast the installation of Viola and his wife Kira Perov’s video “Martyrs” in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The tour of “Renaissances” (episode five set to air May 15) is fascinating, including, for example, the changes in the Islamic world, including India, with looks at European art, especially in Italy and the Netherlands.
There, the episode’s narration, via actor Liev Schreiber, hints at the dawning of the contemporary view of art -- that artists like Caravaggio and Rembrandt wanted to be known for their distinctive work that expressed something of themselves.
That distinction between art as it is now seen and the making of images, objects and even buildings of, to create a term, the “pre-art” era (which covers most of history) isn’t explicitly explored in the first two-thirds of the series.
Perhaps it will be in the final hour, “What is Art Good For,” that is scheduled to air July 3. Given the first six episodes, I’m sure that the finale will address its titular question in enlightening fashion.
By then, however, “Civilizations” will have already more than answered the query. Art has, in fact, built civilizations, not with brick and mortar or socio/political organization, but through unifying objects, imagery and cultural philosophy.