Review of Kenneth Clark, Looking for Civilisation, Tate Britain

Is art history more prone to faddishness and vicious ad hominem attacks than other academic disciplines? The story of Lord Kenneth Clark’s waxing and waning reputation proves how debates involving aesthetics and cultural history (where the stakes are comparatively low) produce the bitterest attacks, and secondly how intellectual reputation is dictated more by fashion than reason. Art history’s love/hate mind-set can swiftly make yesterday’s whipping boy today’s poster boy.

When I was at university at the turn of the millenium, Kenneth Clark represented the epitome of an outmoded, patrician approach to the subject where connoisseurship prevailed and the perspective was not only overwhelmingly white, masculine and European, but also handed down from above. The “New Art History” which emerged in the 1970s had redressed this outmoded interpretative mode and set Clark firmly on the wrong side of history. Even Clark’s demeanor looked hopelessly retrograde to students of art history in the last quarter of the century: his clipped annunciation and finely tailored suits spoke of a decaying, hidebound English establishment.

In the past 10 years or so the tide has turned and Tate Britain’s exhibition the most thorough and high profile attempt to resuscitate Clark’s reputation. It is organised in a roughly chronological sequence, with rooms taken over by themes reflecting Clark’s life and work – his supremely privileged upbringing and career as Director of the National Gallery, his collecting, patronage, writing and broadcasting.

John Piper’s Seaton Delaval from 1941 encapsulates some of the messages of the exhibition. Clark had arranged for Piper to paint a series depicting Windsor Castle, and this work was created in preparation. The subject matter clearly demonstrates the influence of Clark – a grand but desolate English Baroque stately home, evoking the fragility of the national heritage in the face of modernity and the threat of Nazi occupation. The 1969 TV series Civilisation – which was Clark’s most successful attempt to popularize art history – sprung from his anxiety that culture was in a state of permanent threat unless actively promoted.

As Director of the National Gallery during World War II he oversaw the removal of the collection to the safety of Welsh mines, and instigated monthly exhibitions in London. He also established the War Artists Advisory Committee to employ the artists to whom he had previously given financial support: Henry Moore, Victor Passmore and Graham Sutherland among others. Clark’s passion was for English Neo-Romanticism. He abhorred the edgier European avant-garde movements like Surrealism, and he publicly distanced himself from abstract art – prejudices that would ultimately undermine his credibility as an important twentieth century patron. Piper’s earthy tones and subdued lighting recall Samuel Palmer, except that here the monolithic edifice squats before its environment, dominating the composition and denying our access to arcadia.

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. Clark was a magpie-like collector of art, and as a result the assemblage of disparate periods and styles of painting and sculpture did not resolve itself into a logical display.

The Cézanne drawings and the Graham Sutherland paintings are stunning and may just about justify the cost of a ticket to this exhibition. But I couldn’t help thinking that a television series about his life would be a more appropriate way of reviving and celebrating the unfairly maligned Clark.

Kenneth Clark, Looking for Civilisation, until 10 August, Tate Britain, London.

Matthew Wilson

1. Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, Paul Nash, Battle of Britain 1941, courtesy of Tate.