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I Should Believe the Buildings

Post #1697 • May 21, 2014, 12:31 PM

James Hall on Kenneth Clark.

Of [Nikolaus Pevsner, Ernst Gombrich, and Kenneth Clark], Clark's reputation is most in need of rescue. Two people bear most responsibility for his eclipse: John Berger and Clark's son Alan. Berger's brilliant TV series and book Ways of Seeing (1972) threw down a lethal Marxist-feminist gauntlet to Clark's Olympian worldview. Clark is the only art historian to be named, and he is cited and ticked-off twice over. His description of Gainsborough's portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews on their country estate in Landscape into Art (1949) as "enchanting" and "Rousseauist" is denounced: "They are not a couple in Nature as Rousseau imagined nature. They are landowners and their proprietary attitude towards what surrounds them is visible in their stance and their expressions." Berger well knew that Clark, thanks to substantial inherited wealth (the family fortune came from Paisley cotton), had lived since 1955 in Saltwood Castle in Kent surrounded by a moat and a large art collection that included old masters and impressionists. ...

Civilisation, a product of his seventh decade, hasn't worn so well, despite its director Michael Gill's high production values. It is marred by slack windbaggery and loose connections, but Clark's keen awareness of the fragility of cultures – whether of the Vikings, Franks or Nazis – commands respect: "At some time in the ninth century one could have looked down the Seine and seen the prow of a Viking ship coming up the river. Looked at today in the British Museum it is a powerful work of art; but to the mother of a family trying to settle down in her little hut, it would have seemed less agreeable – as menacing to her civilisation as the periscope of a nuclear submarine." He wouldn't have approved of the British Museum's current exhibition, Viking, in which the mass-murdering slave-traders are reinvented as entrepreneurial free-traders. His views on housing seem positively prescient: "If I had to say which was telling the truth about society, a speech by a minister of housing or the actual buildings put up in his time, I should believe the buildings." Despite his hostility to Marxism – especially when applied to art – the sections on the slave trade, the industrial revolution and poverty remain powerful and moving indictments. Perhaps the most shocking thing about Civilisation is the state of Clark's teeth.

Hat tip to Artsjournal.

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