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TV Guide

Civilization

by Kenneth Clark
Harper & Row, 359 pp., $15.00

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, Clark’s strength lies in his knowledge that we can only respond to it on our terms, and that this response must at some point be direct and without the intervention of a historical context.

The series deals less imaginatively with architecture than with smaller works of art, but this is not a fault that we can lay at Clark’s door, as Rayner Banham did in an intelligent but mischievous article in New Society. Television camera technique, even that of the BBC, relies heavily upon the inspiration of commercials for its striking effects, and Clark’s team was most at ease with sculptured objects. When we sell real estate on television, the treatment of architecture will improve.

Although few inaccessible or unexpected works are shown, the survey of art is extensive, and music is included with a generosity that must have put a severe strain on the ingenuity of the television crew. Clark’s love of music is clearly as passionate and as authentic as his feeling for the visual arts.

Integrating music into the series of talks, however, remained an awkward problem. It was clearly necessary to presume a common development of the arts, and some relationship between them. Clark is too sophisticated to accept a naïve correspondence between the arts, and yet the television series was on too popular a level to deal with a subject which eludes definition. The makeshift solution receives an apology, and Clark writes, “I felt some scruples in comparing the music of Bach with a Baroque interior.” And well he might, for the interior that we looked at with the Passion According to St. Matthew in our ears was not ordinary Baroque, but Vierzehnheiligen, one of the glories of Bavarian Rococo. It is, of course, almost exactly contemporary with the Matthew Passion, but Bach’s music was already somewhat old-fashioned when it was written, and the decoration of Bavarian churches had a magnificent extravagance rare in Northern Germany. Bach makes many people—including Lord Clark and E.T.A. Hoffmann—think of Gothic architecture. Both Gothic vaulting and Baroque fugues were strongly attached in later times to a religious content, but that is not much help for a television program on the eighteenth century. The visual glamor of Bavarian Rococo understandably won the field.

Mozart is even worse off, as the visual arts in Germany and Austria from 1770 to 1790 are virtually ignored by art historians, and would have presumably even less interest for the general public. The Bavarian Rococo, therefore, must do for Mozart as well as for Bach, and Clark writes that the Amalienburg (built a half-century before Don Giovanni) “bridges the gap between Watteau and Mozart.” This is a gap, indeed, but I do not see why it ought to be bridged. Watteau was born seventy years before Mozart, and they have only recently been made a pair, replacing the equally cogent Mozart-and-Raphael so popular in the nineteenth century. Watteau and Mozart both produced works of an exquisite melancholy grace, and they go together almost as well as Beethoven and Michelangelo, or Bach and Cologne Cathedral.

A comparison of Mozart with Watteau does no harm, of course, although the older parallel with Raphael had the advantage of emphasizing the public nature of Mozart’s grace, and the large synthesis of the different stylistic elements of his time that his work represents. Clark, nevertheless, wishes to compare the Embarquement à Cythère with Così fan tutte. Did misgivings on this score betray him into the dotty sentence which opens his discussion: “Watteau came on the scene at an incredibly early date in the eighteenth century”? I have no difficulty believing Watteau’s dates, and reserve my incredulity for Clark’s conception of eighteenth-century style.

Mozart grew up with the exuberantly asymmetrical detail of the Rococo before his eyes in the Salzburg churches, but by the time he was twenty years old and writing his first masterpieces, this style had been repudiated for some years and European taste was generally more austere. Bach was already a mature composer before the first suggestions of the new French decorative forms reached Germany, and the backwaters in which he lived were never deeply affected by the new fashion. I do not wish to suggest a simple-mindedly chronological approach, but different aspects of the arts cannot be grouped together merely because they lie within the purely conventional confines of the 1700s.

Clark is too intelligent to be unaware of these problems, but at no point does he seriously illuminate them. It is difficult to blame him. How can one conceive of a television program on eighteenth-century art and music without Bach, Mozart, and Watteau, and who can resist the Bavarian pilgrimage churches? (Stupinigi might have done as well, but then Clark would not have been able to claim that there was nothing in the secular arts of the time to set beside the great religious creations.) That they do not blend very well is not something to deplore, and it is impossible to believe that a more complex approach would have had the immense success of Clark’s series.

Clark’s genius lies above all in his ability to cut away complexities without compunction and without regret. He is easily able to remove the difficulties that might lie between Romanesque sculpture and his viewers:

Apologists for the Cluniac style tell us that its decorations were subordinated to philosophic ideas…. But my general impression is that the invention which boiled over into sculpture and painting in the early twelfth century was self-delighting. As with the similar outburst of the Baroque, one can think up ingenious interpretations of the subjects, but the motive force behind them was simply irrepressible, irresponsible energy. The Romanesque carvers were like a school of dolphins.

Clark’s argument is intellectually more respectable than his tone makes it appear at first sight. Meyer Schapiro made a similar point many years ago in his essay, “On the Aesthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art,” but he never suggested, as Clark does, that the philosophic ideas were totally unrelated to the Romanesque delight in variety, or that the “ingenious interpretations” (to use Clark’s invidious phrase) did not also discover a motive force behind the outburst of creativity. Nevertheless, it is true that Romanesque sculpture and, indeed, much art, if not all, can be enjoyed and therefore to some extent appreciated and understood without any knowledge of its symbolism, its place in history, or its function. Clark’s sharp division between the aesthetic and the conceptual is what gives his presentation its immediacy and its effectiveness.

This divorce between the sensuous and the intellectual is evidently not assumed by Clark for purposes of these talks, but is part of his deepest convictions. It is the philosophy of his master Berenson, to whom he went at the age of nineteen. He does not believe in this method with the singleminded and obsessive fury of Berenson, but that is above all a matter of temperament. No contrast can be greater than between these two figures: Berenson, the immigrant Russian Jewish boy, whose family spoke only Yiddish at home, and who went to Harvard, made a fortune, and ended as a rich landowner in Tuscany; Clark, born into a family so wealthy that they had one servant whose sole duty was to iron the newspapers, raised (as he himself has written) in a sporting, philistine atmosphere, and becoming while still very young the most glamorous director the National Gallery in London has ever had. But Clark’s attitude to art derives directly from Berenson’s; he said in an interview that “in my present series of television programs a great deal comes from old B.B.”

I have written of a division between the aesthetic and the conceptual, although naturally no such complete separation is in fact possible. It would be better to speak of a shift of emphasis—from the language of art to the sensuous object itself, from the significance of the work to its immediately perceptible form, from our reading of a work of art to our response to it. However, in Berenson’s thought there was a sharp break between these two aspects. In 1896, in the Florentine Painters, he wrote:

It is only when we can take for granted the existence of the object painted that it can begin to give us pleasure that is genuinely artistic, as separated from the interest we feel in symbols.

A genuinely artistic pleasure appears to Berenson to have nothing to do with the symbolic aspect of a work of art, and in this Berenson means to include even the narrative content of painting, as well as its religious and philosophical significance. The sentence I have quoted condenses the two essential tenets of Berensonism, the reduction of aesthetic pleasure to the nonconceptual, and the insistence upon the reality, the solid objectivity of the world represented by art.

Berenson was the first great popularizer of art after Ruskin: only Malraux and Focillon have had, until Clark, a comparable influence (and Focillon must be placed into a different class altogether). Both Berenson and Clark have one great superiority over Malraux: neither of them offers a substitute for the work of art. Malraux’s photographs, however, replace the works themselves, and the concept of the “Imaginary Museum” is the myth of just this substitution. Berenson and Clark, on the contrary, insist on the primacy of the original object of art. Clark’s television series, like the famous early popular writings of Berenson, instill a love and appreciation of the work, a desire to see it in the original, to respond to it, and even to own it.

This conception of art as durable, beautifully made objects representing a world equally firm and real presupposes a society that is stable, élitist, reasonably if not overly hedonistic, and solidly based on property values. On the whole this is what Clark means by civilization, and he understandably insists on the confidence that is needed to sustain it. He is too humane and too liberal to accept these ideals without reservations. He emphasizes the narrow social basis of Renaissance art, and he is so dismayed by the authoritarianism of French classicism that he declares it to be not exportable—although he evidently forgets this when he praises the magnificent architectural complexes at Würzburg and Greenwich, both heavily influenced and even partly determined by French classical practice.

But Clark is dismayed and even outraged by works which attack his conception of art. He professes to be “completely baffled by what is taking place today.” A style which relies, as so much art of the twentieth century does, upon attacking the integrity of the object of art is difficult to understand in Berenson’s terms,1 and the deliberate blurring of the distinction between art and junk must be disquieting to a former museum director.

Clark reserves his special distaste for European painting immediately after 1520, which, he writes, “has recently and ominously come back into fashion under the catch-penny title of Mannerism.” This revival of interest is not so recent as all that since it goes back to the early 1920s, and it has played an important role in the development of the modern sensibility. It is interesting that twentieth-century study of Mannerism, which evidently disquiets Clark as much as the art itself, started with Dvorák’s presentation of the style as analogous to modern dissatisfaction with capitalist, materialist values, although no one would like to return to that simplified view today. Even Clark associates it with contemporary art: “When I want to cheer myself up about the state of painting today I think of the feeble, mannered, self-conscious repetitive painting that went on in Rome for about fifty years in the sixteenth century.”

Kenneth Clark recently devoted the H.R. Bickley Memorial Lecture2 to a full-scale onslaught upon this style which attacked “the belief in the decency and high destiny of man.” This extraordinary performance is perhaps most surprising in the sympathy and sensitivity with which the paintings of Pontormo, Rosso, and Beccafumi are treated, while their work is condemned almost in toto. Clark hates the style, but he understands it, and he is in no doubt about the assault upon his values that it embodies.

In self-defense, he attacks as “neurasthenic” any appearance in Italian art starting with Donatello of non-naturalistic representation and irrational space. Never has the relation of art to neurosis been more grossly handled. A loss of confidence in the values of society does not necessarily imply mental instability and the greatest works of Pontormo are more coherently understood as courageous acts than as a terrified refusal to face reality. The real failure of nerve is Lord Clark’s.

These are the limitations of Clark’s world, but they are admirably adapted to the needs of his television series. Contemporary art would be decidedly out of place there. Who would want to be introduced to a radically new kind of painting on television, and what possible impression could it make? Clark’s feeling for the integrity of the object of art and of the world it represents is also an advantage, as it places his public in a context they are familiar with and can understand easily.

Would a more subtle conception of the relation between art and ideas have had the popularity of Clark’s programs? It seems doubtful. The way Clark deals with Seurat’s Baignade reveals the difficulty. He mentions the factory chimneys in the background and the proletarian emblems and then adds:

…to classify the Baignade as a piece of social realism would be absurd. The point of the picture is not its subject, but the way in which it unites the monumental stillness of a Renaissance fresco with the vibrating light of the Impressionists. It’s the creation of an artist independent of social pressures.

It would appear as if Seurat’s interest in socialist thought were entirely irrelevant to his art, and as if the lower-class types going for a swim in the Seine were out of place in the monumental stillness and vibrating light unless one forgets about their proletarian status. But it is the stillness and the light that attract the average visitor at the National Gallery in London to this picture, and Clark has hit precisely on what would interest them. The complex interaction of Seurat’s thought with the monumentality and the vibrancy of this work would conceivably have much less appeal.

The weakest part of Civilization is the historical exposition. No doubt the history of ideas in such a series has to be elementary, and Clark has never been unreasonably afraid of a platitude. Some of the ideas, however, have been ironed out so flat that sense can only weakly raise its head (“The discovery of the individual was made in early fifteenth-century Florence. Nothing can alter that fact”). And at moments the lowering of the tone goes too far:

No doubt the ladies, when they were in need of a design for embroidery, used to say, “Let’s send for dear old Mr. Santi”—and when he came he brought with him his beautiful little son, Raffaelo.

It is a relief to turn from this to the elegance and eloquence of Clark on Vermeer, and on the

…almost mystical rapture in the perception of light. How else account for the joy that we feel when we look at the pewter jugs and white pots in Vermeer’s pictures? This is partly a matter of his own sensibility; but it could hardly have existed without that specifically Dutch delight in material objects that produced their school of still-life painters and often achieves what I can only call a spiritualization of matter.

Anyone who can write like that should be made to do so twenty-four hours a day; the history of ideas can be left to lesser men.

  1. 1

    The best account of the way the destruction of the artistic image is itself reabsorbed as an artistic form into contemporary style is in the recently published essays of Robert Klein, La Forme et l’intelligible, Paris, Editions Gallimard, 1970.

  2. 2

    A Failure of Nerve: Italian Painting 1520-1535, Oxford, 1967.

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