Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and “Civilisation”
Once the most celebrated art historian in the world, Kenneth Clark’s star began to fade in the 1980s when a new generation of scholars rejected the object-based scholarship he epitomized and began to study works of art using Marxist, feminist, and psychoanalytical theory. When Clark placed a painting or a building in its historical setting it was to understand more fully how and why it was made, and what it meant to those who first saw it.
Theory-based art history takes the opposite approach: broadly speaking, the scholar is interested in the work of art not as an end in itself but for what its making might tell us about the society that created it, particularly its attitudes toward subjects like race, gender, and social inequality. This kind of art history is taught in most universities on both sides of the Atlantic today. The scholarship Clark represented survives mainly in some museums and exhibition catalogs. Whereas his books were once required reading in undergraduate courses, many are now out of print. Civilization, the television show that introduced millions of people around the world to art history and lit the spark that led to the mass popularity museums and galleries enjoy today, is largely forgotten.
A few years ago, it looked as though Clark’s achievement was well on its way to being lost. Then, in 2014, a delightful exhibition at Tate Britain sparked new interest in him by telling the story of his life through hundreds of works of art selected from the thousands he compulsively collected and commissioned, either for his private collection or for public institutions. With paintings, works on paper, sculpture, and ceramics ranging from Bosch to Bloomsbury, Cézanne, Rodin, and Henry Moore, the exhibition was further enlivened by the inclusion of quite a few of the fakes, duds, copies, and misattributions Clark acquired. The result was an unexpected hit with the public at a time when dreary, incoherent exhibitions curated by theory-based art historians were attracting critical opprobrium and public indifference.
James Stourton’s magnificent biography tells the story of Clark’s life in all its complexity and contradiction. It also reminds us that in his time Clark himself developed an innovative method for studying works of art—one that struck a balance between the then-prevailing disciplines of connoisseurship on the one hand and iconography on the other. And just as the Tate Britain exhibition showed the misses as well as the hits, the story Stourton tells makes it clear that Clark’s apparently gilded career was marked by almost as many failures as successes. The time has come to look at the achievements of a man whose vision influenced the art-viewing habits of generations.
Born in 1903 in London, the only child of a colossally rich heir to a textile…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.