BogeArt Review: Kenneth Clark- Looking for Civilistation

Production shot of Kenneth Clark at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, for Civilisation 8 - The Light of Experience 1969

Production shot of Kenneth Clark at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, for Civilisation 8 – The Light of Experience 1969

Kenneth Clark broke the barriers of what an art historian could be. He tried to appeal to the masses in a way that no hArtstorian had done previously. He sought to spread an appreciation of art and aesthetics; and he succeeded in doing so throughout his career in a variety of ways.

The exhibition approaches his life and relationship with art in a chronological and compartmental way. It begins with a room dedicated to Kenneth Clark ‘the subject’, as his father was also an art lover and there are many portraits of the family. We trace his youth and when it was his love of art began to grow- his nanny took him to a Japanese print exhibition where ‘I was conscious for the first time in my life…that beauty is something timeless’. It was then he had a realisation of the ‘aesthetic experience’, of the ‘aesthetic sense that holds those other mental activities together’. Sometimes I feel that today the aesthetic and its importance can be neglected in art criticism.

The next room concerns Kenneth Clark ‘the collector’. Clark was head of the National Gallery at 30, and his goal was to modernise and democratise the gallery during his time there. He was responsible for the introduction of electric lighting and the photographic department- without which there would be no postcards. He made few noteworthy purchases for the galleries collection and did not identify as a collector personally either. Saying that there are a few gems in his personal collection which are displayed, namely some delicate drawings of gothic architecture by Ruskin. Kenneth Clark describes them perfectly: ‘they are some of the most beautiful records of architecture ever made, for Ruskin is able to combine knowledge and love, sensibility and precision in a way that is extremely rare’. I find myself admiring his eloquent and accurate commentary over the collection.

Have we started worshiping critical thinkers in the way we do artists? There are many articles on how art is a religion and we worship artists*, and here is the Tate Britain giving us the same platform to worship Clark that they normally give to artists: an exhibition. It’s not a small exhibition either. I had never been to an exhibition centred around an art historian, rather than an artist or theme, before this exhibition at the Tate Britain. If artists are the prophets of this religion then the art historians/critical thinkers are the saints.

The exhibition is big, perhaps a little too big, and my suggestion would be to dip in and out of the collections, there is too much material to spend time on every piece. It gets more exciting when the focus shifts to Kenneth Clark ‘the patron’. Clark took on a rather renaissance approach to the role of the patron; he financed art not just for the love it but also to support art and artists. Like the renaissance patrons he is playing a part in art history. There is a lot of Henry Moore and Stanley Spencer in this part of the show, as they are two acclaimed artists whose careers owe a lot to Clark. They have some wonderful Henry Moore prints and drawings. What looking at these works with Clark in mind does do is give the pieces some context. In the Tate Britain there are many famous Henry Moore sculptures, and in these early prints and drawings we can see the beginnings of a great artistic career. With this exhibition we can look at the works through Clark’s eyes, being by young exciting artists trying to carve their careers, not quite in the same stuffy museum context one normally sees Moore’s and Spencer’s works. Kenneth Clark became an important figure for the Neo-Romantics.

The exhibition also addresses Kenneth Clark’s role during WW2. He was head of the National Gallery when the collection had to be evacuated to caves in the depths of wales in order to protect them from bombings. He was the brains behind the gallery’s program to show one of its masterpieces every month to the public. Whilst the chosen masterpieces would be temporarily at risk, it was important for morale that the British public had the opportunity to be reminded of man-made beauty and achievements at a time when they were acutely aware of the destruction humans were capable of.

The exhibition concludes by addressing the project Kenneth Clark is perhaps most famed for; the 13 part television show ‘Civilisation’. Clark felt that one had to move with the times, especially when it came to making art available to the public, and found television a new and exciting way to appeal to the masses. He created and presented the first popular, large scale, art history based series. The response was mammoth. It was released in 1969, when western civilisation had recently felt threatened by the anti-establishment violent student protests of 1968, and fans of the program felt it had re-affirmed and reclaimed the positive achievements of ‘civilisation’. It was there to reassure the public at a time when ones cultural identity was being challenged. It was extremely well received by Kenneth Clark’s peers and the general public. At a private screening of ‘Civilistaion’ that Clark attended, he was so overwhelmed by the cheers and applause that he hid in the loo for 15 minutes and just wept.

A fascinating retrospective on a fascinating man. The one thing that really endeared me was the fact that above all Kenneth Clark comes across as an art lover. Like us wondering about the exhibition, he is a fan. He wanted to make art more approachable and this exhibition makes him more approachable.

Isabella Bornholt; BogeArt


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