The Lost Voice of Art

Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation

an exhibition at Tate Britain, London, May 19–August 10, 2014.
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Chris Stephens and John-Paul Stonard
London: Tate Publishing, 160 pp., $40.00 (paper) (distributed in the US by Abrams)
Clark Family
Kenneth Clark, circa 1941

It is a rare event for an art museum to do a large and ambitious exhibition about a person who was not a visual artist. But then Kenneth Clark, the subject of such a show now at Tate Britain, was for some five decades a unique figure in the cultural life of his country. There have probably been few people in any country with so illustrious a record of analyzing, celebrating, and ministering to artworks and their creators.

Clark was essentially a writer, and his book-length studies and essays form a considerable and often scintillating whole. But his endeavors apart from his writing were remarkable in themselves, and at times the Clark who wrote and Clark the public figure can seem, for good and for ill, to be one and the same. Beginning in 1934, when he was thirty, and for the next eleven years, he was the director of London’s National Gallery. (He had already been the Keeper of the Department of Fine Art at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.) The youngest person to have been made the gallery’s head, he modernized it and, more famously, in the early days of World War II, shepherded its phenomenal collection to safety outside London, ultimately getting it to caves that were part of an abandoned slate quarry in North Wales. During the war, he helped to make the otherwise empty gallery, through lunchtime concerts and temporary exhibitions of all sorts, into practically the center of the city’s cultural life.

Meanwhile he was operating simultaneously as Surveyor of the King’s Pictures. It was a job he didn’t want but that, as he amusingly describes it, George V, on the first visit any reigning British monarch had made to the National Gallery, insisted that he take. Involved with filmmaking for the Ministry of Information during the war, Clark went on, after it, to be something of a television executive, all the while working as an arts administrator and ultimately serving as the chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain. He was a vigorous patron of artists, and he seems always to have been giving lectures. In different years he held the prestigious Slade Professorship at Oxford, and he presented significant lecture series at, among other places, Yale and Washington’s National Gallery.

Beginning in the late 1950s, he became a performer of sorts on British TV, where he would talk informally about, say, “What is good taste?” or spar with John Berger on Picasso, or introduce his TV audience to Chartres or palace gardens in Japan. His most spectacular television event was Civilisation, a thirteen-part series, from 1969, that charted developments in thinking, attitudes about society, and artistic accomplishment in Western Europe from the time of the fall of Rome on. Especially in the United States, where the book of the show sold over a million copies, it…

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