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Kenneth Clark: A return to Civilisation

Published 22 May 2014

The success of the art historian, particularly as a broadcaster, is more significant than ever, says Christopher Baker.

  • From the Summer 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Is the achievement of Kenneth Clark relevant today? Many would see him as a curiosity, an art-historical dinosaur, whose patrician manner and establishment credentials mean he has little to offer now. However, a rigorous assessment of his work and its impact, the subject of an exhibition at Tate Britain, suggests otherwise. Clark felt passionately that great art should be universally accessible, that judgments of quality can be made and excellence celebrated. He also conveyed his breadth of knowledge with an extraordinary eloquence that inspired millions. So perhaps we should consider him an innovator and exemplar against which subsequent public manifestations of art history can be measured.

    Clark embodied 19th-century ideals, particularly as expressed by his hero John Ruskin, who advocated the discipline of close observation and the importance of art to society and humanity. Clark conveyed these, however, through the most persuasive of 20th-century media: television. His BBC Two series ‘Civilisation’, which was one of the earliest colour documentaries, was broadcast in 1969. Its 13 hour-long episodes involved travelling tens of thousands of miles and were aired in 60 countries, and the related book became a best-seller in Britain and America. It remains in print. In view of all this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the BBC is commissioning a new version of the series.

    Clark was not a pundit emerging from nowhere and opportunistically harnessing new technology. His programmes were the distillation of half a lifetime of looking and thinking. He had published widely, producing a catalogue of the Leonardo drawings in the Royal Collection (1935), as well as highly readable surveys, such as Landscape into Art (1949) and The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (1956), which convey something of the natural cadence of his sparkling lectures. Clark also championed artist contemporaries, notably Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland. ‘Civilisation’ built on all of this and was a masterly demonstration of his ability to distil complex ideas with ease.

  • Kenneth Clark at his home in Saltwood Castle, Kent, in front of a painting by Renoir.

    Kenneth Clark at his home in Saltwood Castle, Kent, in front of a painting by Renoir.

    Original photography by Gerty Simon. Repro by Rod Tidnam. Tate photography

  • Somewhat to his surprise, it became a phenomenal success, leading to him being fêted, but also to many people being newly exposed to a canon of art, architecture, philosophy and music. Perhaps with an eye on posterity and knowing that outlooks would inevitably change, ‘Civilisation’ was always promoted as Clark’s personal view. It was certainly Eurocentric and traditional, and so some of its emphases sit uneasily with today’s global perspectives, but it was a document of its time. The new version will no doubt set out to be a corrective to this.

    The original was a statement of postwar confidence about the power of culture to inspire. As such it can be seen as a natural progression from other British initiatives of the 1940s and ’50s that were intended as beacons of access to civilising art and discourse, such as the development of the Arts Council, the Edinburgh Festival and the South Bank Centre.

    There has been, of course, since the late 1960s a great deal of exemplary arts broadcasting. But it seems today that the personalities of presenters are often forced between us and the subject under review, rarely does the camera dwell on a great work of art long enough for its qualities to be fully appreciated by the viewer, and narratives are wrapped up as ‘rediscoveries’, or the result of the work of ‘art detectives’. This is particularly the case with the visual arts; music and literature often fare better. Does this sound snobbish? If so, the snobbery is based on an unapologetic plea for a return of quality and ambition.

    Kenneth Clark is at Tate Britain, London, until 10 August 2014.