Highbrow Taste, Mass Appeal

Published July 2, 2014

Wall Street Journal


How daring! Tate Britain has devoted a large exhibition to someone who was not an artist—the first time it’s done so. Equally surprising, the subject is a figure now mainly known for a television show.

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.

The show carefully and judiciously reminds us who he was, why he was so important to 20th-century England, and why he deserves to be remembered. They are brave to do so because to many of their peers in the museum and academic worlds, there can hardly be anyone more out of fashion.

Clark (1903-1983) was born to privilege. His Scottish ancestors invented a cotton thread to replace the silk embargoed by the Napoleonic wars and then built a fortune through the Coats & Clark brand. Clark’s father was an art collector and patron; two charming paintings he commissioned of Clark as a boy are in the exhibition. As a 12th-birthday present, the elder Clark gave his son an album of Japanese prints and encouraged his precocious aestheticism.

After Oxford, Clark visited Bernard Berenson, then the leading authority on Italian Renaissance art, in Florence. Berenson immediately asked the 23-year-old Clark for help on a new edition of his catalog of Italian drawings, an offer Clark called “the most golden egg that the world of art had to offer, and I would be a goose to refuse it.” He didn’t.

Three years later, with Berenson’s influence, Clark received an offer to catalog the great collection of Leonardo da Vinci drawings at Windsor Castle, a task Clark performed with outstanding accuracy and insight.

At age 30 he was asked to head London’s National Gallery, and just months later he was appointed Surveyor of the King’s Pictures. He and his wife, Jane, were lionized by London society and had important political, cultural and even royal friends; the show includes a stunning portrait of the glamorous Jane by Man Ray.

But there was more to his life than this social whirl. Clark, for the remainder of his life, worked unceasingly to promote art and artists and to make both understandable to a wide public.

Despite his burdensome administrative tasks, he managed to write many books, all of them consequential. He soon moved away from the narrow connoisseurship of Berenson, toward a much broader view that sought to illustrate how works of art convey ideas and emotion through their formal structure. Covering a variety of topics from the nude to the landscape to the aged artist to his own life, each of Clark’s books is written with learning, grace and wit, and all can be read with pleasure and profit by anyone with an interest in art or culture. How different from the jargon-filled, highly specialized works of so many of today’s art historians.

Clark also was a collector of note. The Tate exhibition includes sculptures and drawings—many once owned by him. His tastes were wide-ranging; he bought what he liked, and what he liked was extraordinarily good. The objects on display prove this: a Hiroshige woodblock print, a Hadrianic marble relief, a Tang-dynasty lion, a glazed terra cotta by Luca della Robbia, a fresco fragment attributed to Giorgione, a Rembrandt etching. But it is the works from the late-19th century onward that are most revealing of Clark’s personality.

“Abstract art,” he wrote, “in anything like a pure form, has the fatal defect of purity. Without a pinch of earth the artist soon contracts spiritual beri-beri and dies of exhaustion.” And, except for an abstract wood relief by Ben Nicholson, all the works from Clark’s collection do have that “pinch of earth,” that connection with landscape, atmosphere and humanity that he so prized. Displayed are paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Georges Seurat (the Tate’s own painting of a rocky cliff towering above the sea is particularly fine) and, above all, a stunning assembly of work by Paul Cézanne; Clark owned six oils and dozens of drawings by the artist.

Clark commissioned art and decorative objects for his home. On display is an amusing dinner service that he ordered from Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. Influenced by the Italian majolica that Clark collected, each plate bears the portrait of a famous woman. He befriended contemporary English artists, paid them salaries and helped with their mortgages. Graham Bell, William Coldstream and Victor Pasmore, all represented in the exhibit, were Clark’s beneficiaries, as was Henry Moore, whose “Recumbent Figure” (1938) was acquired by the Tate with Clark’s help. The section on his role as promoter, buyer and tastemaker who helped shape British art in the 1930s and ’40s is a highlight of the exhibition.

During World War II, Clark used his position as chairman of the War Artists Advisory Committee to keep as many artists as possible out of the war so that they could record its events for posterity; this meant their work had to appeal to a popular taste that excluded pure abstraction. The show includes one of Moore’s famous “Shelter Drawings” and Paul Nash’s spectacular “The Battle of Britain” (1941), illustrating a deadly skyscape over London filled with the swirling vapor trails of dogfights, ranks of bombers and a plane plunging to earth.

A TV pioneer, Clark had moderated a cultural quiz show for the BBC as early as 1939. In 1954 he became chairman of the Independent Television Authority and wrote and narrated a series of well-received programs dealing with the fundamentals of art, all aimed at the general public.

So Clark was no novice when he agreed in 1966 to write and host the BBC’s “Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark.” In 13 episodes he illustrated his thoughts on European civilization, from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, in a series of on-location appearances. Familiar, genial and never condescending, he became an immediate hit and “Civilisation,” through its use of innovative technology, music and brilliant photography, still serves as a model of cultural programming.

Among the postmodern culturati, Clark has been ridiculed as an upper-class snob (although his entire career proves just the opposite) and mocked for espousing highly unfashionable ideas about truth, artistic genius, greatness—above all, for the peculiar idea that beauty is an important attribute of art. And in an era of multiculturalism his concept of Western Europe as a great civilization has been belittled.

In the turmoil of the late ’60s, when “Civilisation” aired, Clark rightly worried about the future of the values he held dearly. At the end of the final episode, he reads W.B. Yeats’s apocalyptic “The Second Coming,” and warns the viewer, “One may be optimistic, but one can’t exactly be joyful at the prospect before us.”

That may be so, but we can be joyful that Tate Britain has given us this splendid exhibition and optimistic that it will restore the importance of Kenneth Clark.

Mr. Cole, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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