Review: ‘Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation’

July 22, 2014

Kenneth Clark’s ‘Looking for Civilisation’ exhibition is at the Tate Britain until August 20th. Our very own Christopher Masters went to have a look around recently. This is what he had to say…

A personal view of the exhibition at Tate Britain

Tate_Britain_frontKenneth Clark famously nailed his colours to the mast in his television series Civilisation. ‘I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology.’ Despite his claim that these beliefs ‘have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time’, almost half a century later most of us would not dispute these assertions. Yet many would have difficulties with accepting his final statement: ‘Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible.’ Genius is out of fashion, even if God is staging a comeback.

The current exhibition at Tate Britain, ‘Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation’, is a visual record of Clark’s career as a collector, connoisseur and arbiter of taste. It includes the tapestry and Baroque sculpture in front of which Cecil Beaton memorably photographed Clark ‘at home’ in 1955. Home was Saltwood Castle, and the display offers a glimpse of a private aesthetic world that seems even more remote than Clark’s admiration of ‘God-given genius’. We are plainly still attracted to the idea of great creators, as the success of blockbuster shows demonstrates, and Clark’s evaluation of civilisation provided more human context than do most of these exhibitions and the equivalent books and television.

It is Clark’s homage to the patrician house that is more problematic, even for a nation that stops for Downton Abbey. Speaking about his collection in Saltwood, Clark decried the modern home as ‘a prefabricated cell with bare walls, plastic furniture and filing cabinets for government forms’. In comparison, Saltwood was the last stand of good taste and individuality. As someone who owns a filing cabinet, I find Clark’s disdain for the contemporary house a tad alienating. Although he did so much to spread his passion for culture, Clark clearly loathed the age of the common man. How unfortunate that he didn’t live in the age of the Antiques Roadshow! Would he have been reassured by the quirky enthusiasm of modern collectors or might their lack of connoisseurship have appalled his finely developed eye?

Lord Clark was himself an arbiter of artistic quality, albeit one who, like Homer, nodded. Famously, as Director of the National Gallery, he misattributed paintings by the middle-ranking Andrea Previtali to the undoubted genius Giorgione. He also acquired for the Gallery such masterpieces as John Constable’s full-size oil sketch of Hadleigh Castle (now permanently at the Tate). Clark’s own collection was a curate’s egg, in which pictures by the now neglected Victor Pasmore vied with distinguished Cézannes. Perhaps his most admirable patronage was made on behalf of the public during World War II, when he commissioned art from Paul Nash, Henry Moore and John Piper. Nash’s great image of the Battle of Britain is a remarkable swirl of pirouetting aircraft and vapour trails. It epitomizes the power of art to transform the darker aspects of life into things of light and beauty.

Clark would no doubt have regarded this as a moral as well as aesthetic achievement. Yet do we still have faith in the value of such acts of transcendence? Should art and experience be more closely aligned? These are two of the questions raised by this stimulating and unusual show. Needless to say, they are particularly pertinent to those of us in education, especially if we are teachers of the humanities.