Lord K, once more

9th August 2014

The Tate Britain exhibition Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation closes tomorrow, Sunday 10 August. I remain thrilled to have contributed to this by curating the television extracts and writing a catalogue essay about the television programmes that Clark made for ATV between 1958 and 1966. To mark the end of this fascinating – and beautiful – display (curated by Chris Stephens and John-Paul Stonard) about a profoundly influential figure in twentieth century culture I am republishing an expanded version of a blog post that rounds up reactions to the show.

The May issue of the Burlington Magazine has a richly interesting editorial by Richard Shone which is an excellent place to begin:

In Britain, Clark and Ernst Gombrich are the two most celebrated names in twentieth-century art history. If Gombrich had by far the superior intellect and influential reach, Clark was the great purveyor of appreciation, the master of the illuminating dart, almost excessively readable in his suggestive synthesis of art and human motivation. He can perfectly balance sweep and detail. He has been easy to pillory for the more patrician and worldly aspects of his character; his hostility to contemporary art in the post-War period, frequently expressed in Civilisation, is now of little importance. He remains fresh and provocative, manicuring or even overturning received opinions and ideas in such a way that he makes readers feel more original and thoughtful than they might be. In this respect alone, he does not date.

News reports about the Tate show include:
• Kenneth Clark – Tate Britain examines Civilisation presenter’s legacy: Mark Brown for the Guardian, 19 May 2014.
• Tate unearths trove of Kenneth Clark documentaries: Nick Clark for The Independent, 19 May 2014.

Features:
• Kenneth Clark or arrogant snob or saviour of art?: penning probably the best piece of writing prompted by the show to date, James Hall writes for the Guardian.
• To the rescue of civilisation man: James Hall again, a little shorter and for Tate Etc.:

Above all, Clark was a brilliant weaver of words, the best since Ruskin and Walter Pater, whom he greatly admired. Today, when most art historians write like lawyers and accountants, his deeply pondered eloquence is needed more than ever.

• Kenneth Clark – a civilized man?: a thoughtful biographical essay by Rachel Cooke for The Observer.
• Why the BBC will never match Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation?: Martin Gayford writes for The Spectator.
• Civilisation – the passions and prejudices of Kenneth Clark: Ben Luke for the Evening Standard.
• Kenneth Clark – the last historian in pursuit of beauty: an article for The Conversation by Jonathan Conlin, author of the BFI TV Classics volume on Civilisation.
• Kenneth Clark and the Death of Painting: a scholarly piece by Martin Hammer from Tate Papers about Clark’s public spat in 1935 with Herbert Read about modern art.
• Affability: an oldie but goodie, from the 19 November 1981 issue of London Review of Books, Director of the National Gallery Nicholas Penny reviews Clark’s book Moments of Vision.
and…
• Kenneth Clark (2): a brief blog post from Charles Saumarez Smith, Chief Executive at the Royal Academy of Arts, in which he recalls eating ginger biscuits at the Barbican with K’s second wife, Nolwen. Kenneth Clark (1) is an equally brief – and rather less revealing – response to the exhibition.
Art films: Gillian Darley for London Review of Books remembers selling tickets for a big-screen presentation of Civilisation

Reviews:
• Kenneth Clark – Looking for Civilisation, review – ‘makes Clark fallible but more likeable’: 4* from Richard Dorment, Telegraph:

When Clark talks about a building of the early Renaissance, he knows it inside out and tells you so (‘when I first came here twenty years ago …’) On screen, he may only speak about an artwork for a few minutes, but instinctively audiences know that behind his words lie a lifetime’s knowledge, a lifetime’s experience, a lifetime’s understanding. That, among other things, is exactly what this exhibition reveals.

• Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, Tate Britain: Jackie Wullschlager for Financial Times:

[A]s patron, bureaucrat, collector, [Clark] scant long-term influence on contemporary art-making. This makes an exhibition an injudicious homage: above all Clark was a writer, who lives most vividly in art histories – The NudeThe Romantic RebellionMoments of Vision – unrivalled since Ruskin for lucidity, erudition, moral conviction.

• Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation review – ‘A destructive waste of time’: 2* from Jonathan Jones,Guardian:

[T]his is not just a waste of time – it is destructive. The curators do not seem true Clark fans. Their cold portrayal of him as a man in his time actually damages the vitality of Clark for our time. We need more than ever to be reminded of what is great about great art. Clark championed the serious without a shred of apology, with a sublime witty confidence. Yet this exhibition makes him look like a prehistoric old fart, an establishment bore.

Er… no – but then Jonathan Jones is never one to let a thoughtful response get in the way of a good bit of sh*t-stirring.

• Review of Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation: Matthew Wilson for Aesthetica blog:

The exhibition suffers from a simple but fundamental problem: quality. Being a warts-and-all survey, there is a high volume of frankly poor work including some of the art that Clark had acquired for himself or the nation after having attributed them wrongly. But the exhibition also lacked a strong, continuous line of argument: we are presented with Clark’s career as collector, patron and populariser of culture – but none of these threads came to conclusions.

• Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation at Tate Britain: a short review by Tabish Khan at The Londonist:

There’s no doubting Clark’s contribution to British art and there are some great works on display, but the nostalgic tone of this exhibition may struggle to engage younger viewers who have grown up with no knowledge of who Kenneth Clark is.

• He gave us Moore – and more: should you have a online subscription to the Sunday Times, you can read Waldemar Januszczak’s review – the rest of us must make do with the first para (if I can beg or steal a copy, I’ll post a little more):

Upon hearing that Tate Britain was devoting an exhibition to Kenneth Clark, two big questions sprang to mind. The first was: why? Clark was a museum director, an art writer, a government go-to man and a TV presenter. He was not an artist. What qualifies him for an artistic examination at Tate Britain? The second question leapt off the shoulders of the first. What was Tate Britain actually going to show us? Would we get Clark’s writings in vitrines? His TV programmes on monitors? To be honest, reader, the pulse did not race at the prospect. However, as soon as you walk in, all the doubts are challenged…

Review – Kenneth Clark at Tate Britain: Peter Crack for Apollo:

The wider public may not warm to this rather niche exhibition. The eclectic display and lack of major ‘masterpieces’ may well drive the crowds elsewhere. But those who venture in will be rewarded with an absorbing portrait of a man who profoundly shaped the British art establishment as we know it.

A civilising force: ‘L.L.B.’ for The Economist:

It becomes easy to imagine Clark himself happily pottering around this exhibition, not least because a majority of the 270 works in the show were his. The prettily coloured walls and the uneven quality of the works recreate the “peculiar beauty” of what he deemed “one of the most perfect of all English works of art, the great house”. Clark emerges as a benign, generous host, and a discreet guide to his own civilisation, lovingly preserved in carefully gathered treasures.

The patron saint of patrons: this too is behind a paywall, but you can read the opening of Clare Griffiths’ review article for the TLS.

The lost voice of art: one more that you need a subscription to read, but here is the opening of Sanford Schwartz’s feature for the New York Review of Books:

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.

Kenneth Clark – Looking for Civilisation, Tate Britain: in one of the most thoughtful responses to the show, Fisun Guner writes for theartsdesk.com:

Where the exhibition really takes off is towards the end – especially in the two rooms largely devoted to Sutherland and John Piper, their depictions of the Blitz being among the strongest wartime images of British soil, though Piper’s work is undoubtedly more picturesque; while among the most darkly seductive of Sutherland’s paintings is his depiction of a foundry, an image of dark, satanic millery if every there was one, yet possessing majestic beauty too. Notably, there are no Bacons, an artist whose nihilism naturally sat uneasily with Clark’s romantic, essentially humanistic vision. See this exhibition – stay awhile among the television monitors in the penultimate gallery and you’ll leave on a high. 

Kenneth Clark – Looking for Civilisation: for Studio International Angeria Rigamonti di Cutò contributes a richly interesting piece (and she likes the ATV extracts very much):

Clark’s skill as a lecturer can only be imagined, but it is arguably his TV persona that has come to define him most emphatically. In fact, Clark’s public-spirited drive to impart knowledge and enjoyment of art to a broad audience, his “best for the most” outlook, was at one time perceived by many as “‘populist almost to the point of vulgarity”. He had been broadcasting for decades before making Civilisation and his early, and now little-known programmes for Britain’s first commercial stations, are an unexpected revelation of the Tate show. Clark claimed that these programmes had been more widely seen and were more influential in Great Britain than Civilisation, and a contemporary reviewer remarked on the “huge success” of these “talks about painting for ITV”. Clark was tentatively experimenting with ways of “putting abstract ideas into visual terms”, for him “the essence of television”.

Highbrow taste, mass appeal: Bruce Cole for The Wall Street Journal:

The director and curators of the Tate Britain are to be congratulated for working to restore the importance of Kenneth Clark through an excellent exhibition and catalog, both titled Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation. Beautifully installed in six rooms with more than 200 objects from Old Master to modern, most drawn from Clark’s own collection, the exhibition traces Clark’s life and chronicles his important role in British culture as patron, collector, art historian and broadcaster.

And finally here is the man himself, from the end of Episode 13 of Civilisation – the Henry Moore sculpture that appears right at the end of the clip is displayed in the final room of the Tate Britain exhibition:

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