Monday, July 7, 2014

The Kenneth Clark Exhibit @ Tate Britain

From Brian Cole in The 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. . . .

Why would Kenneth Clark be out of fashion? Cole explains:

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.

More about the Tate Britain exhibit here

This exhibit has certainly brought Sir Kenneth Clark much media attention, as reviews and profiles were published when it opened in May. Of course, he has never really gone away, because of the popularity of that Civilisation series, as this profile from The Guardian attests:

Even now, says James Stourton [Clark's authorized biographer], thousands of DVDs of the series are still sold every year: "It has never died. It's like being on a magic carpet. It's an amazing grand tour. Today, the presentation gets in the way a bit. He's wearing funny clothes, and has a funny voice. You have to get beyond the Burberry coats and the manner and listen to the words." Clark was by now beginning to fall out of sympathy with the art world; painting, he thought, had not been in such a bad state since the death of Giotto. But, no matter. Amazingly, it was for these films that he would be remembered, his passion for art and all its possibilities somehow having transmitted itself to a rapt nation. The clipped vowels and the awkward body language didn't bother the public (even in 1969 he would have sounded stiff, for this, after all, was the year Monty Python made their TV debut) because, as Stourton puts it, "he owned his material". At the Tate show, visitors will be able to see this ownership for themselves thanks to several carefully positioned screens – and some will doubtless ponder if any presenter now, relying as he or she inevitably will on a team of researchers, will ever be able to match its undoubted authority.

What Stourton describes as distractions now I find essential to the series. It was "A Personal View" so the person, Sir Kenneth Clark had to be himself--he did not have to look like a television personality; he had to have ideas and views to present. I like the static camera and the slow pans from Clark to the background and the great close ups of the artwork, so steady and patient--the camera is giving me a chance to see what Clark sees, to learn how to look at the art, see the beauty, and appreciate the civilization that created it.

The BBC is going to "remake" the series with another art critic who will have his or her own "Personal View"--I doubt the critic would dare have such a "conservative" view of civilization or even to concentrate on western civilization. It will have to be multi-cultural and the pace will have to be fast, with quick cuts and angles. The presenter will have to be photogenic with perfect teeth (Sir Kenneth's are horrible, one can tell). I can't imagine a remake of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation: A Personal View that could replace it in my library of books, DVDs, or memories. As Clark says at the end of the series, I may be hopeful about the new version, but not joyous.

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