Kenneth Clark: making art inspirational

Kenneth Clark: making art inspirational

Imagine this: the Soundings Theatre at Te Papa is staging a lunchtime event. It seats just over 300, but the only problem is that 24,000 people want to be there. This was the scary scenario confronting the National Gallery, Washington, when it screened the first episode of the pioneering television art documentary series Civilisation: A Personal View in 1969. Its stellar success naturally owed much to the art itself, and much to its outstanding production values, but a third crucial element in its appeal was ‘the personal view’ of its writer and presenter, Kenneth Clark (1903–1983). For several years Clark enjoyed A-list celebrity status: surely a ‘first’ for an art historian and museum professional, and almost certainly the last such instance.  

Kenneth Clark in front of Renoir’s La Baigneuse Blonde, c.1933
Kenneth Clark in front of Renoir’s La Baigneuse Blonde, c.1933
Private collection (Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation
20 May – 10 August 2014 Tate Britain)

Clark paid a certain price for this. For many years, with the ascendancy of feminism, post-structuralism and postcolonialism in the academic world, he was deeply unfashionable. Civilisation was first ridiculed and then ignored in art history teaching. Clark was vulnerable as the epitome of an elderly – and eventually dead – white male: posh, privileged, patrician and, to his critics, pompous and patronising. He is at his weakest outside his Eurocentric cultural zone. In his book accompanying the series, Clark devoted just two paragraphs to the impact of South Pacific cultures on Europe, and stated: ‘the very fragility of those Arcadian societies – the speed and completeness with which they collapsed on the peaceful appearance of a few British sailors followed by a handful of missionaries – shows that they were not civilisations in the sense of that word which I have been using’.

Although Civilisation may not be Clark’s best piece of art history (for this, I recommend Leonardo da Vinci and The Nude), it was nonetheless terrific television. It raised consciousness throughout the English-speaking world about the centrality of art, not least in New Zealand in the early 1970s, when art history was only just emerging as an independent subject at high school and university. Architectural historian and curator Peter Shaw recalls how ‘for those of us without a university art education, which meant most people, Civilisation was just what we were waiting for. [Clark] was inspirational, the right man and the right time. This was art for everybody – there was no exclusivity at all’. In this historic clip, Clark expounds his values:

Yes, Kenneth Clark changed hearts, minds and indeed lives. His voluminous fan mail included nine letters from people contemplating suicide; watching Civilisation made them think again. There is talk of a remake, but I doubt whether any one person could create anything like this impact or even credibly front the entire series. Clark was an outstanding generalist who knew his stuff, whether it was Charlemagne’s Chapel or Paul Cézanne’s Bathers. Our ever more specialised education and professions don’t make people like that any more.

Bust of Charlemagne, c. 1350, Aachen Cathedral Treasury (Wikimedia Commons)
Bust of Charlemagne, c. 1350, Aachen Cathedral Treasury (Wikimedia Commons)

Clark enjoyed another great moment: his role in World War Two. To dub him the ‘Churchill of the art world’ is by no means absurd. Clark’s notion of civilisation is persuasive when he asserts its importance in the face of barbarian and particularly totalitarian evil, and he practised what he preached. James Stourton, Kenneth Clark’s commissioned biographer, describes how, as director of the National Gallery, London, Clark ‘tried to put art into battle the same way that Churchill used the English language. He believed you had to ask: what are we fighting for? The art could be used [to boost] morale, to tell the story of the Britain we were trying to preserve. He made the National Gallery almost the emotional centre of resistance to Hitler, and for the first time in its history, it became popular’. He did so by keeping the gallery open, even during the Blitz, with an energetic programme of exhibitions, daily concerts and a ‘Picture of the Month’, taken specially out of storage.

John Piper Coventry Cathedral 1940 © Crown Copyright, Manchester City Galleries
John Piper Coventry Cathedral 1940 © Crown Copyright, Manchester City Galleries
(Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation 20 May – 10 August 2014 Tate Britain)

Earlier in his term, Clark introduced electric lighting, so visitors could come on winter afternoons, and he extended weekend opening hours. Behind the scenes, he beefed up conservation, and wrote guidebooks to get people Looking at Pictures – which was the title of one of them. From being ‘irrelevant to most people’, when he was appointed in 1933, the National Gallery had become ‘a centre for national culture’ ten years later, as Tate Britain curator Chris Stephens puts it. Today we take this populism and more for granted at our ‘national gallery’, Te Papa, but the wider museum world needs to acknowledge Clark’s pioneering role more generously.

Did Kenneth Clark connect with Australasia? Peter Shaw explains how he did so through television. On a visit to Australia in 1949, he paced the floor of a then little-known painter saying ‘This is IT’, instructing him ‘to think of nothing but painting & painting’. The artist concerned was Sidney Nolan, and the rest is history. He was also a warm admirer of Frances Hodgkins, believing her to be one of the finest painters in Britain. Her outstanding modernist still life, Pumpkins and Pimenti (1935; Fletcher Trust Collection), was originally in Clark’s private collection, and hung over the drawing-room fireplace in his residence, Saltwood Castle. Clark was in charge of the Penguin Modern Painters series, and significantly the first monograph that he commissioned was on Hodgkins. It was partly through his admiration of her that New Zealand has subsequently repatriated so many of Hodgkins’s works.

Frances Hodgkins Pumpkins and Pimenti, 1935 (Fletcher Trust Collection, Auckland)
Frances Hodgkins Pumpkins and Pimenti, 1935 (Fletcher Trust Collection, Auckland)

Another, subtler, area of Clark’s influence was in the collecting sphere of our public art galleries where, in the early to mid 1970s, Civilisation was almost a subtext. This certainly applied to the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch, which acquired anything from a Greek vase to a French Rococo Venus and Adonis to cover the cultural and chronological sweep. The National Art Gallery, forerunner of Te Papa, was more restrained, but there is one fascinating meeting point in its collection and Clark’s private one: Eve, by Auguste Rodin (1881). This powerful and eloquent sculpture is currently exhibited at ‘Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation’ at Tate Britain, an overdue re-evaluation of a remarkable art historian, patron, collector, writer, educator and celebrity.

Auguste Rodin Eve 1881.  Private Collection
Auguste Rodin Eve 1881. Private Collection
Photo: Marcus Leith & Andrew Dunkley/Tate Photography
(Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation 20 May – 10 August 2014
Tate Britain)
Auguste Rodin, Eve, 1881.  Te Papa
Auguste Rodin, Eve, 1881. Te Papa


  1. Fair enough. I quess Herbert R. did thump the table a little too heavily but then it cant have been easy being an anarchist and all. After he was made a Sir I understand he was in anarchy with the other anarchists who dis-owned him. Yes modernism was his thing and he really GOT IT. To this day I still don’t think many ‘Art’ New Zealanders really understood cubism….so re-reading Read wouldnt hurt them. Thanks for tip on Clarks writing. Appreciated.

  2. Enjoyed reading this. If Clark was around today I have no doubt he would still have celebrity status. Watching that clip of him was quite riveting. His other worldliness (old school manner) and authoritative bearing would create a cult following. Also he was a wonderful ‘old stage’. His door exit at the end of the series was quite hilarious. However of recent times Matthew Collings who also made a series called “Civilization’ could possibly challenge the mantle of ‘famous’ art historian (perhaps more art critic). For me Clark’s contemporary rival , Herbert Read, was a far more significant art historical commentator. Interestingly he suffered a similar fate in terms of the new social oder of “Post Irrationalism” by being dismissed later in life for being out of touch . His writing is still incredibly clear, succinct and most of the time highly informative. By the way Kenneth Clark may have made a mistake on Sidney Nolan. That Oz guy could be pretty darn ropey lest we forget. Or is that part of his genius? Still fair due to Clark he definitely made an impact on the Western World as you rightly point out.

    1. You make some good points about Read. He was more intellectual, maybe than Clark, and more of a theorist and educator. He was also more anti-establishment; being ten years older and having experienced the horrors of WW1 was crucial here. Read was more fiercely committed to the modernist project, whereas Clark saw Cézanne and Moore in terms of continuity with the classical past. Where Clark wins is in the beauty of his writing, whereas Read looks rather too earnest and even dreary.

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