Kenneth Clark’s guided tour of European art is the greatest success of haute-vulgarisation since Malraux’s Voices of Silence. Malraux was possessive, prophetic—about the past as well as the future—and authoritarian (Randall Jarrell remarked that his motto was “Vici, vici, vici“). Clark is gracious, informal, and paternalistic. Where Malraux attempted to dominate, and even to manipulate, his readers, Clark seeks to persuade, to reassure, and to seduce them into an immediate sympathy with the works of art he displays.
The thirteen talks televised for the BBC were greeted warmly in England. Sir Kenneth’s life peerage followed hard upon the series, and he is now Lord Clark. The public acclaim in America has been perhaps even greater. Officially, we have done what we could, and the White House has ordered private showings. When the films were presented at the National Gallery in Washington and at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, many extra screenings had to be arranged daily. The Washington Square branch of NYU ran each talk five times; when I attended a program in the Loeb Student Center, the hall was almost completely filled by a relatively mature audience, with a handful of students. The satisfaction was evident and general.
“Writing for television is fundamentally different from writing a book,” Lord Clark warns us in his Introduction to the thirteen scripts. The published version, although in parts somewhat expanded, differs only slightly from the televised originals. Civilization aspires neither to the scholarship of Clark’s work on Leonardo nor to the intellectual distinction of his other works, of which the most satisfying is that brilliant, precocious book, The Gothic Revival. The scripts, however, have a new fluency and a new sense of confidence.
This confidence—a quality upon which Lord Clark lays considerable weight—is felt throughout, but most of all when the speaker stands before a particular work of art. At these moments, we can most clearly recognize his virtues, his popular appeal, and his limitations. Here is Lord Clark in Munich before Dürer’s portrait of Oswald Krell:
Oswald Krell is on the verge of hysteria. Those staring eyes, that look of self-conscious introspection, that uneasiness, marvelously conveyed by Dürer through the uneasiness of the planes in the modelling—how German it is; and what a nuisance it has been for the rest of the world.
The description works chiefly because of the anthropomorphism of space half-concealed in the phrase “the uneasiness of the planes in the modelling.” The pathetic fallacy is beautifully chosen to persuade us to look. Clark’s eye never appears to distort or to exaggerate and—rarest quality of all—he never concentrates upon the trivial or the peripheral. His visual observation is always significant.
The reading of the picture, however, is more doubtful. The intensity of the gaze in Dürer’s portraits is part of his pictorial and spiritual language, and to interpret this sign of inwardness as a naturalistic portrayal of near hysteria is facile and anachronistic. But if a work must be interpreted on its own terms,…
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