British art historian Kenneth Clark lived through much of the tumult the 20th century had to offer. He was born in London in 1903 and died just before his eightieth birthday, a span that took him from the Edwardian era to the Margaret Thatcher era. Clark experienced both World Wars, the collapse of the British Empire, the 1960s uprisings, and just before he died, the musical duo Wham! Clark weathered this whole story, it should be noted, with the help of a not inconsiderable fortune. The money came from a family business, the Clark Thread Company of Paisley, which was founded in the 18th century. Clark used this heritage to become a great aesthete.
His aesthetic life began in earnest with a trip to Italy during a summer vacation from university in Oxford in 1925. In Italy, Clark met Bernard Berenson, the legendary scholar of the Italian Renaissance. Berenson took an immediate liking to Clark and offered the student a job helping prepare a new edition of his book “Drawings of the Florentine Painters.” soon after, and thanks in part to his relationship with berenson, clark, at just twenty-eight years old, was appointed custodian (that is, director) of fine art at oxford’s venerable ashmolean museum. two years later, he became director of the national gallery. Clark was then asked by George V to take over as Overseer of the King’s Paintings. Clark refused, at first, so the king went to see him personally, as recounted by James Stourton in his new biography, “Kenneth Clark: Life, Art, and Civilization.” The King persuaded Clark to take the job, and in the years that followed, Clark held other high-level positions that he believed would help advance the cause of art in his country. he helped save the british art collection from nazi bombing by loading the art onto trucks and driving those trucks to caves in the welsh mountains. He wrote influential books, such as “The Gothic Revival” and “The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form.” Most famously, he recorded dozens of television art shows.
no one surprised more than clark himself who would end up leaving his biggest mark as a television personality. he did not own a television. many who knew him found him to be, as Stourton notes, a “great mandarin” and “rich dandy”, not the type one would expect to charm millions through mass entertainment. But Clark recognized early on that the new medium of television was going to play an important role in shaping and shaping the minds of those who watched it, and this mattered very much to him. he even was, for a brief period in the mid-fifties, the chairman of britain’s independent television authority. That job was unsatisfying for Clark in many ways, but he raised an important question in his mind: how to merge his erudite tastes in art and culture with the reach and power of broadcast television? in some respects, it remains a quixotic project. And yet Clark managed to pull it off, in ways that still seem surprising and even a bit mysterious.
in 1966 david attenborough, the controller of the recently launched bbc2, invited clark to lunch and asked him to consider hosting a show for the new station. At lunch, Stourton writes, Clark “was chewing his smoked salmon rather listlessly when Attenborough used the word ‘civilization’.” the dark ages up to 1914 could be made dramatically and visually interesting.” as stourton says, clark “felt what used to be known in devotional books as ‘a call.'”
In hindsight, however, Attenborough’s idea seems ridiculous. who in the late sixties would be interested in what a stuffy old man and self-proclaimed “sticky” had to say about the greatness of Western civilization? for many at the time, civilization was not something to glorify, but rather the core of the problem. Graffiti written on the streets of Paris during the May 68 riots read: “In a society that has abolished all adventures, the only adventure left is to abolish society.”
Clark had his own doubts about the show, worrying that “the shows are more of a potted world history thing.” But the show was in production by the end of 1967. The thirteen-episode series was broadcast by the BBC in 1969 (it premiered in the US, on PBS, a year later). most of the people involved in the project realized early on, sometimes to their own surprise, that they had something special on their hands. Clark projected an easygoing authority as a host; viewers from all walks of life found themselves unexpectedly charmed by the tweed-suited man with bad teeth and an upper-class accent. scholars and academics had their understandable quibbles, but to the general public the series was something of a revelation. Art museum exhibits in England and the United States reported an increase in visitors after each episode.
It’s not easy to discern exactly why the series elicited such a passionate response. Stourton notes that the English poet, and at some point t.v. Personality: John Betjeman proclaimed: “‘Civilisation_’_ is the best TV I’ve ever seen.” and that is, I think, a reasonable reaction. But it’s certainly not because of Clark’s deep insights into the nature of civilization. “what is civilization?” Clark wonders in the opening minutes of the first episode. “I don’t know,” he replies. later in the series, he states that civilization has something to do with “energy”, commenting, “vigor, energy, vitality: all civilizations, or civilizing epochs, have had a weight of energy behind them.” An objection immediately comes to mind: aren’t the enemies of civilization also an energetic bunch?
The works of art and architecture that Clark chooses to illustrate his idea of civilization, from Notre-Dame Cathedral to paintings by Raphael and Courbet, don’t show a special shine either: they amount to the same old stuff you’d find in any half decent art history class. And Clark is outrageously committed to the “great man” approach to history and to the concept of genius. “Above all, I believe in the god-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible,” he says. those geniuses he mentions are, unsurprisingly, almost all white and male. In her review of Stourton’s biography for The Guardian, classicist Mary Beard writes of “civilization,” “hardly any women got a visit, and when they very occasionally did, it was not as creative artists or even patrons, but as hostesses, seductresses, virgin maries, or something called the ‘feminine principle.’”
You’re right. But Beard, who watched the series at age fourteen, admits that the show is not only “visually stunning” but showed her, and many others, “that there was something about art and architecture that was worth watching.” It’s worth talking and arguing.” .” Most surprisingly, Beard describes seeing Clark, “standing on the barbaric headlands of the north”, saying that “our” civilization had survived the collapse of the Roman Empire “by the skin of our teeth”. she recalls, “I winced a little when she repeated that phrase, ‘by the skin of our teeth.'”
the word “tingles” gets it right. There’s a tingling sensation as Clark visits Assisi and tells the story of the life of Saint Francis, as the camera pans slowly over Giotto’s frescoes. And there he is again at the end of Episode 6, “Protest and Communication,” when Clark finishes his thoughts on Shakespeare and then steps out of the way of the camera to allow Ian Richardson and Patrick Stewart to perform a scene from “Hamlet.” The same tingle tends to arise when, in every episode of the series, Clark steps out of frame and allows long, lingering shots of art and architecture, often set to period music, to take center stage.
_“_civilisation” is a show that succeeds despite its underlying ideas, not because of them. Clark’s great virtue is his restraint: he sets the stage; he elevates the mood; then he, or rather one of the show’s three directors, lets the camera look calmly at whatever he’s been talking about. this is the use of television as a contemplative tool, something that is rarely attempted and, when done well, still remarkable.
really, the ecstasy the series evokes has little to do specifically with europe. A study of Bangladeshi, Ethiopian, or Peruvian art and architecture might achieve similar aesthetic ends. And Clark is an indispensable guide not so much because of what she knows, though she has a depth of knowledge, but because of her unabashed enthusiasm for the art that she shows us. according to stourton, clark astounded “the crew during the filming of one of the first episodes when she carried the medieval cross of lothar to the altar of aachen cathedral and burst into tears.” she broke down with emotion on many other occasions during the filming of the series. This penchant for crying is reflected in the final product, in a good way: Clark’s underlying emotion, his obvious feeling that the great art we’re shown matters, gives the series a rare and subtle power. to see some of the best sections of “civilization” is to be seduced and fall in love.
clark was pleased by the immense success of “civilization”. he too often felt overwhelmed. In 1969, he was in Washington, D.C., at the National Gallery, as part of a promotional tour for the exhibition. Being escorted through the crowd was, Clark recalled, “the most terrifying experience of my life. all the galleries were packed with people who stood up and roared at me, waving their hands and reaching out to me. It’s quite a long walk, and about halfway through, I burst into tears from the sheer pressure of emotion.” he had become, without exactly meaning to, an international celebrity. he would continue to write about art and produce television shows, mostly “in the beginning”, about ancient Egypt, but he spent the rest of his life in the shadow of “civilization”.
he entertained himself in the castle he owned on the outskirts of london. he wrote a moving essay titled “the artist ages”. when he died, in the spring of 1983, eulogies poured in from around the world. although clark did many things in his life, stourton is right to put the title of his most famous tv show in the subtitle of his biography. Kenneth Clark, more than anything else, will be remembered as the man who made the best TV he ever saw.