Published  01/07/2014

Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation

Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation

Tate Britain, London
20 May – 10 August 2014


“But the subtle and delicate insight of criticism, will it, too, continue to exist? Landscape into Art is the product of leisure, of travel, of disinterested perception. It is the outgrowth of a way of life which is vanishing. It is the product of connoisseurship, and the very word ‘connoisseurship’ has come to have an antique ring.”1

If connoisseurship was already thought to have an “antique ring” as early as 1950, this tendency would only increase, to the detriment of Kenneth Clark’s reputation. Beyond its subcategory of attribution, less tangible questions of judgment, taste and even background made connoisseurship as subject to caricature as Clark, whose style of criticism was doomed in this review as a fragile remnant of a dying world. In reality, Clark soon identified the “serious defect” of connoisseurship (in its strictest definition), namely the lack of consideration for historical context and, in particular, the importance of patronage.2 (Erwin Panofsky drolly defined the connoisseur as a laconic art historian and the art historian as a loquacious connoisseur). Clark soon became convinced of the genius of Aby Warburg’s long view of art that connected all cultural events and examined the environments that produced them. It seems Clark might also have been persuaded that an iconographic exploration of the literary origins of artworks might be an efficient way of enticing the English, more literarily than visually inclined, to look at pictures.3 On first hearing Warburg lecture, Clark later wrote in his autobiography, Another Part of the Wood, that his “interest in ‘connoisseurship’ became no more than a kind of habit” (and one that would presumably have been impossible not to pick up under the tutelage of Bernard Berenson). He considered parts of The Nude “entirely Warburgian” and Nicholas Penny wrote of Clark’s book that “into it one may feel that much of the best German writing on the history of art during the previous half-century has flowed”.4 In The Nude, Clark was prone to imaginative anachronisms: Botticelli and de Chirico; Cranach and Kirchner; Caravaggio and German expressionist cinema. He also showed he was not afraid to make up his own rules, on the idiosyncratic but transparently declared basis of his personal response: “In the history of art, as in all history, we accept or reject documentary evidence exactly as it suits us, that is to say, according to our feelings about the object referred to.” The influence of Warburg was neatly summarised in Clark’s definition of art: “Art is a long word which stretches from millinery to religion”, though in Civilisation,he suggested that the relationship between artworks and the societies that produced them was neither “simple” nor “predictable”.

In his collecting, too, Clark favoured anachronistic juxtapositions, given his dislike of historically coherent rooms. This pluralistic tendency is easily illustrated in the Tate exhibition. There is no coyness regarding Clark’s privileged, though certainly not aristocratic, origins, immediately conveyed in two childhood society portraits by John Lavery and Charles Sims. Substantial independent means and formative artistic encounters in childhood – including a viewing of Japanese art at the age of seven – gave Clark free rein in his collecting. More than a methodical collection of exalted names (though there are several), Clark’s “strange accumulation” was expansive in its display and variety of media: a placid Luca della Robbia set against the composure of Cézanne, Coptic textiles, Hadrianic marble, French ivories, a Tang Dynasty stone lion, a compellingly garish Urbino maiolica fountain group and Vanessa Bell’s uninviting ceramic plates, featuring famous women from history (an unexpected precursor of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party).

Clark’s arguably surprising interest in copies emerges in the presence of modernist copies of Old Masters, including Degas’ reproduction of a Cariani double portrait and Duncan Grant’s generally maligned version of a Zurbarán still life (Zurbarán’s original is also present, a monumentally delicate rendering of a cup and rose). There are also woodblock prints by Hiroshige, Hokusai and Utamaro, reminders of Clark’s early artistic epiphany. The childhood vision of Japanese works must have made a marked impression on Clark’s way of seeing images; co-curator John-Paul Stonard suggests that some of Clark’s most suggestive descriptions of European art drew on his memories of Asian art, Leonardo’s 1503 landscapes, for example, revealing a “Japanese fantasy and precision in the spacing of their accents”.5

Some “mistakes” are here, too, signs of Clark’s bouts of wishful thinking: the Previtali panels bought for the National Gallery attributed to Giorgione and, in his private collection, a putto, again hoped to be a Giorgione, and what turned out to be a follower of Michelangelo’s figure studies. It is remarkable that the Tate exhibition has elicited criticisms of Clark’s failures of judgment, whether through actual misattribution or the selection of “weak” examples of big name artists. Often derided as a connoisseur, in these instances Clark is judged exclusively according to the standards of connoisseurship and his perceived failures in that regard (in fact, only his Leonardo catalogue is universally considered impeccable in its attributions).

Rather, Clark’s distinctive, emotionally driven collecting is more wide-ranging in its ambitions and scope, with some unexpected and lesser-known revelations, such as Charles Catton’s 18th-century pub designs, considered by Clark a “marvellous monument of English art”. His initiatives to record the war and aspects of British life contributed to the production of some particularly notable works. Clark was actively involved in the selection of subject matter, somewhat in the manner of the Renaissance patrons he admired, though these were, of course, state projects. Some of the most remarkable results of this contemporary patronage were Graham Sutherland’s industrial and urban portraits: the hallucinatory tin mines, described by critic Roger Melville as “strange, elegiac studies”, and The City: A fallen lift shaft, a blitzed London wasteland beguilingly described by Sutherland as suggesting “a wounded tiger in a painting by Delacroix”. Other alluring wartime images are John Piper’s oneiric portraits of destruction in Coventry and Bath, Mary Kessell’s spectral studies of Belsen, and Barnett Freedman’s meticulously documentary yet fantastical interior of a submarine – deemed to give too much technological information for exhibition in 1943.

There is an almost total absence of abstraction in the exhibition, and Clark’s ultimate rejection of abstract art is often cited against him in the persistent equating of abstraction with modernism. His view that other aesthetic possibilities existed has, among other things, contributed to a facile but enduring portrayal of him as fusty and elitist. With this in mind, it’s interesting to discover the qualities Clark ascribed to Cubism (“self-consciousness”, “inbreeding”) and especially to collectors of modern art: “The clique of elaborate middle-aged persons are the chief supporters of abstract art.”6 Clark’s position suggests a contestation of abstract art precisely for its remoteness from human experience, its hermetic defence of art for art’s sake. Herbert Read’s response to Clark’s eventual distancing from abstraction was vituperative in the extreme. He wrote to Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth accusing “Sir Clark” of promoting an infantilised and reactionary “‘picture with a story’. Nice clean healthy nature, the Coldstream Guards forming fours behind their Fuhrer …”7

In addition to the war works on display, David Alan Mellor’s excellent catalogue chapter describes various site-specific projects initiated by Clark, such as the decoration of British restaurants and canteens with paintings and newly commissioned murals. Aimed to extend the reach of the National Gallery into sites of public life, these projects sought to refresh body and spirit, but at times had a more critical scope. In one such instance, Clark chose Kessell to produce murals of Judith and Holofernes at the old Westminster Hospital, a subject thought to allude to reports of the suffering of Jews in Europe.8

Clark presents a portfolio of personae: collector and patron, mondain and scholar (though he thought scholarship was “plodding”), administrator and educator. His singular qualities lie, perhaps above all, in aspects of his work that are trickier to present in a museum setting, giving the exhibition catalogue an essential role in providing a fuller portrait of the extent of his reach. In his guise as arts administrator, Clark’s management of the National Gallery emerges as one his most successful enterprises. His invigorating revamp is clearly visible in Humphrey Jennings’s documentary Listen to Britain(1942). The National Gallery montage shows an urbane Clark entertaining the Queen Mother at one of Myra Hess’s piano recitals (for all his apparent ease in royal company, the recent BBC Culture Show film on Clark suggests that his 1966 documentary Royal Palaces of Britain elicited a certain royal froideur on account of its insufficiently reverent appraisal of certain monarchs). Above all, Jennings’s film reveals an enticing glimpse of the hustle and bustle of Clark’s National Gallery, with service women milling around eating sandwiches, one casually – startlingly – leaning against Uccello’s Battle of San Romano: it was, of course, only a life-size photographic reproduction, as Clark had administered the evacuation of the gallery’s permanent collection. He also initiated a programme of war painting exhibitions and this time Clark was attacked by the right, including a faction of Academy artists, for undermining “traditional” values, a move Paul Nash likened to the Nazi repression of decadent art.9

Clark’s skill as a lecturer can only be imagined, but it is arguably his TV persona that has come to define him most emphatically. In fact, Clark’s public-spirited drive to impart knowledge and enjoyment of art to a broad audience, his “best for the most” outlook, was at one time perceived by many as “‘populist almost to the point of vulgarity”.10 He had been broadcasting for decades before making Civilisation and his early, and now little-known programmes for Britain’s first commercial stations, are an unexpected revelation of the Tate show. Clark claimed that these programmes had been more widely seen and were more influential in Great Britain than Civilisation, and a contemporary reviewer remarked on the “huge success” of these “talks about painting for ITV”.11 Clark was tentatively experimenting with ways of “putting abstract ideas into visual terms”, for him “the essence of television”.12

His 1958 series, Is Art Necessary?, was structured around intrepidly abstract questions such as “What is good taste?”, “Should every picture tell a story?” and “Can art be democratic?”. Clark suggested that an appreciation of art requires intellectual exertion, but that people should be encouraged to make the effort and gain autonomy in their understanding. Art should be for everyone but it could never be easy; it should be socially inclusive but intellectually demanding. An unexpected apparition in the series is a Brylcreemed John Berger, years later pitted as Clark’s antithesis, who co-presents an episode on Guernica in an accent very much like Clark’s. In a dramatic and illuminating diatribe, the art critic Peter Fuller, originally an avid disciple of Berger, later claimed that Berger had been “ethically and intellectually dishonest” to Clark in Ways of Seeing.13 In his polemical rehabilitation of Clark, Fuller maintained that Berger’s vilifying ripostes to Clark were invalidated by an actual reading of Clark’s texts.14

Ultimately, Clark concluded that the public wanted traditional biographies of individuals rather than exploring the ambitious questions he posed in these early programmes: “That’s what people like, isn’t it? A narrative …”15 Though excruciatingly stagey at times, they are nonetheless interesting failures and Clark’s communicative presence is hard to dispute. While his questions now seem like potential minefields, it’s  interesting to note that contemporary philosophical ventures such as The School of Life and the Institute of Art and Ideas now organise panel discussions around similar themes such as Is Beauty back?

Clark gradually grew into his presenting voice. In a programme from a later series of 1960, one glimpses his carefully judged – or perhaps genuinely intuitive – tactic of allying himself with a potentially uncomprehending viewer: “Picasso is incomprehensible even to me.” This instinctive realisation of the need to combine a reassuringly paternal (some would say paternalistic) confidence with a chummy uncertainty coalesced in his 13-part series Civilisation (1969). The programme, with its qualifying and often conveniently ignored subtitle “A personal view”, was not intended to be about art as such but, according to an interview with Clark, “a history of ideas as illustrated by art and music”. Clark looked not only at painting, sculpture and architecture, but also poetry, drama, engineering and humanitarian achievements, as much markers of civilisation as gothic cathedrals. The programmes focused on the achievements of individuals, but also on geography, landscape, religion and patronage, with star artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael portrayed as the creations of their papal patron. Clark was more ambivalent, less complacent about the progress of civilisation than is usually allowed. Poverty, plague, slavery, the dehumanising effects of the industrial revolution and nuclear power were all indicted, as were the Maxim gun and the computer (deemed by Clark a means by which an authoritarian regime could keep man in subjection). Marxism was at least referred to (with Clark disdainfully suggesting that a “pseudo-Marxist approach” might even be effective in the study of decorative arts). Context was considered, so that a Viking prow, he proposed, although an example of extraordinary artistry, would be less appreciated by a mother trying to settle in her hut; it was menacing to her civilisation.

But Clark still reiterated his conviction that a large audience wanted narratives centred on individual names: “I believe in the importance of individuals … the majority of the people share my taste for heroes.” This belief in individual genius was soon at odds with a certain academic rejection of such values, though attention to the ingenuity of individuals was not necessarily incompatible with a consideration of wider cultural history; Ernst Gombrich had, for example, expressed the importance of attending to individual achievement: “I hope and believe cultural history will make progress if it also fixes its attention firmly on the individual human being. Movements … are started by people.”16

For all the accusations of an overarching self-assurance, Clark was frank about his inability to define the title of his series. “People sometimes think that civilisation consists in fine sensibilities and good conversations and all that. These can be among the agreeable results of civilisation, but they are not what make a civilisation, and a society can have these amenities and yet be dead and rigid.” In fact, this torpid, cosseted version of civilisation that Clark refuted was one he would largely become associated with. In contrast, it was almost exactly these qualities that made a civilisation for arch modernist Clive Bell in his 1928 essay Civilization.17 It is Bell’s version that seems like a masterclass in rarefied exclusivity and trivial gentility: for him civilisation is based on “good manners”’, “good taste”, “conversation”, “sweetness and light”, a “dislike of vulgarity”, a “contempt for utilitarianism” (in contrast with Clark’s “best for the most” stance), all maintained by a “civilising elite” serviced by a slave underclass. (Virginia Woolf likened this version of civilisation to “a dinner party at 46 Gordon Square”, Bell’s Bloomsbury home.18)

Prodigiously successful, particularly in America, Civilisation nonetheless immediately polarised viewers, provoking adulation and derision. In his second memoir, The Other Half: A self-portrait, Clark unshyly considered the factions he had particularly irked: “The communication with simple people was one of the things about the programmes that particularly annoyed intellectuals of the left, who believed that they had a prescriptive right to speak to the working classes. Academics were furious at the simplification of their labours.” Clark’s often-quoted, and somewhat damaging, summary of his standpoint in the final episode (“I’m a stick in the mud”) was added at the behest of the producer, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to the ideological drives of a broad television audience (Clark himself described this speech as “nothing striking, nothing original”.) He seemed perplexed about the extent of the programme’s success, wondering why, if something was popular, people assumed there must be something wrong with it. Perhaps, he suggested, the series ensured bourgeois values? But if that was the case, how could its equal success in Poland and Romania be explained? In terms of Civilisation’s reception in other countries, it’s interesting that Japanese viewers, for example, apparently had no problem with the programme’s often-criticised European emphasis.19

It is also through an underexplored aspect of Clark that a more complete portrait emerges: his relationships with artists and writers. It is well known that he gave sustained support to various artists and, while Clark was considered guarded and remote, the feelings he elicited in others sometimes bordered on the rhapsodic. In the case of the painter and writer Adrian Stokes, this devotion transpired in publication as well as in private correspondence. In Art History and Criticism as Literature, an essay in his 1954 Moments of Vision, Clark had advocated a kind of art writing that served as an evocation and extension of the artwork and the viewer’s experience of it, rather than a detached critique. In this respect, it’s likely that Ruskin was an important model, not only for his notion of art as a means of social progress, but for his writing which, for Clark, attained “the point at which thought, feeling, and language are one, the point of incandescence which we call poetry”.20 For Stokes, Clark’s book on Piero della Francesca was nothing less than an expansion of the artist’s work: “The reader who loves Piero may well find that this magnificent, meticulous yet always vivid book [Piero della Francesca] serves as a kind of extension of Piero’s own achievement; that Sir Kenneth has, so to say, used for an interpretative standard the very excellence of his subject. From these pages … the permanence of our contact with Piero becomes secure.”21

Stokes would also write emotionally charged, flagrantly hyperbolic letters to Clark: “But you must see it is intolerable for me that there should be any chance that what is my reverence should be construed as indifference ... No one is more sure-footed than you as a writer ... You have set the standard for the treatment of any subject. As a writer I charge through the undergrowth.”22 Stokes raved about Clark’s “monumental lectures” and “host of imaginative asides”, while Landscape into Art was deemed “immensely rich yet apparently simple”, “a tour de force that amazes” and a “vivid, life-giving experience”.23 The novelist Julia Strachey also singled out this quality, writing to Clark of his “life-enhancing outlook on art”.24 David Jones, although more reticent, was no less admiring and presciently identified the characteristics that would ultimately work against Clark’s reputation: “You know, he’s done a lot more than all those Courtauld boys … I think he’s by far the most perceptive of writers on visual arts that this country has produced in recent times. But his is the kind of civilised sensibility that is less and less appreciated, as people, on the whole, are less knowledgeable with regard to whole areas of our inherited culture. No, ‘knowledgeable’ is probably not the word, but with less ‘background’ or something.”25

Clark’s perceived “civilised sensibility” and avowedly discriminating pronouncements increasingly became a cause for disparagement, although the alleged neutrality of contextual histories is increasingly disputed; now it’s more readily recognised that all accounts are value-laden.26 Perhaps, as the Grove Dictionary of Art suggests, “simple envy” may have led to fellow art historians not giving Clark the recognition he deserved. Overall, the polarity of opinion surrounding him points to the apparent difficulty of reconciling diverse ways of reading art. Perhaps the most outmoded aspect of Clark is his view of art as a conduit to “exalted happiness”, with intense feeling, “falling in love with a subject, a period, a style, an individual hero”, offering the most compelling and effective form of education. Judging by the rapturous reaction of much of Clark’s audience, his communicative élan ensured that his view of civilisation became for many, as he suggested the learning experience could, “part of one’s living tissue and one never forgets it”.27

1. Landscape into Art by Kenneth Clark, by J Walker, the Burlington Magazine, Vol 92, No 573 (December 1950), pages 357-358.
2. Stories of Art by Kenneth Clark, New York Review of Books, 24 November 1977.
3. Clark made this suggestion in a letter to Ernst Gombrich, cited in Looking for Civilisation by John-Paul Stonard. In: Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, edited by C Stephens and J-P Stonard, Tate Publishing, 2014, page 24.
4. Affability: Moments of Vision by Kenneth Clark, by N Penny, London Review of Books,October 1981.
5. Looking for Civilisation, by John-Paul Stonard. In: Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, edited by C Stephens and J-P Stonard, Tate Publishing, 2014, page 16.
6. Quoted in Patron and Collector by C Stephens. In: Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, edited by C Stephens and J-P Stonard, Tate Publishing, 2014, page 85.
7. Ibid, page 98
8. Second World War by David A Mellor. In: Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, edited by C Stephens and J-P Stonard, Tate Publishing, 2014, pages 109-11.
9. Ibid, pages 105-8.
10. Kenneth Clark: From National Gallery to national icon, by D Cannadine, National Gallery, 2002, page 6.
11. Television, the Spectator, 5 February 1960, page 22.
12. Quoted in Television by J Wyver. In: Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, edited by C Stephens and J-P Stonard, Tate Publishing, 2014, page 130.
13. Quoted in Visual Culture by Richard Howells and Joaquim Negreiros, Polity, 2012, page 93.
14. D Cohen, Seeing Moore: The case of two critics, Herbert Read and Peter Fuller, AICARC, Zurich, 1991, available online
15. Quoted in Television by J Wyver. In: Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, edited by C Stephens and J-P Stonard, Tate Publishing, 2014, page 129.
16. In Search of Cultural History by Ernst Gombrich, cited in Art History and its Methods by E Fernie, Phaidon, 2005.
17. Civilization, anessay by Clive Bell, Penguin, 1947, page 104.
18. Quoted in Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, edited by C Stephens and J-P Stonard, Tate Publishing, 2014, page 133.
19. Is Art History Globalizable? by Shigemi Inaga.In: Is Art History Global?, edited by J Elkins, Routledge, 2007.
20. Quoted in Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, edited by C Stephens and J-P Stonard, Tate Publishing, 2014, page 16.
21. Piero: A Masterpiece by Adrian Stokes, Spectator 183 (30 March 1951): pages 420-22.
22. Tate, Papers of Kenneth Clark archive, TGA 8812.1.2.6185.
23. Tate, TGA 8812.1.2.6190.
24. Tate, TGA 8812.1.2.6/00.
25. In Letters of David Jones and Kenneth Clark, by Thomas Dilworth, the Burlington Magazine, Vol 142, No 1165 (April 2000), pages 215-225.
26. This questioning of the pristine neutrality of descriptive history is not always well received. When asked to write an essay on ‘Art Criticism’ for the Grove Dictionary of Art, art historian James Elkins reviewed theories of criticism claiming that all statements are essentially judgments. According to these theories, wrote Elkins, the whole 34-volume Dictionary amounted to art criticism. The sentence was deleted by the Dictionary editors and not published. The State of art criticism (The art seminar), edited by J Elkins and M Newman, Taylor and Francis, 2005, page 130.
27. Another part of the wood: A self-portrait by Kenneth Clark, J Murray, 1974.

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