Tag Archives: BBC Civilisations

On Watching Clark’s ‘Civilisation’

Clark outdoes Rex Harrison as Professor ‘iggins.  He rolls and rounds his r’s as if they’re chunky pieces of wood that must be honed into spheres.  He manages to have four distinct syllables in ‘naturally’.  Each word quickly takes its place on the stage of his sentence and takes a bow.

Like his sentences, his body is unhurried and he takes his time to prop or fold himself into position no matter where he is; at the foot of David, on a mountainside, on a rock beside a river that flows by a Roman aqueduct, or wandering a country lane in sight of Urbino.

Clark is unhurried in mind and body.  There are longeurs where he does not speak, where the visuals and music are allowed time and we time to pause.  And when he does speak it is to offer a lifetime’s distilled thinking, the essence leavened with his personal insight, connecting at the right time the nature of the subject he is addressing with the lived life.

Yet unhurried, he covers so much ground under elegant and resonant titles that show a deeply organised approach to his massive subject: Romance and Reality, Man: The Measure of All Things, The Hero as Artist, Protest and Communication, Grandeur and Obedience, etc.

Clark wistfully admires the men of the twelfth century, all those pious cathedral building kings, those erudite churchmen, those anonymous stonemasons full of reverence and craft.  He admires them because they laid the foundation of modern European civilisation and did so with energy and confidence.  We are, even if we know it or not, still in their debt.

Clark wanders around renaissance Italy recounting the ferocious conniving of popes and princes, and the equally ferocious will of its artists, like the volcanic creative force of Michelangelo, the sword-wielding-book-loving Duke of Urbino, and the standalone and out of time genius of da Vinci with his demonic curiosity and boundless genious in all things.  But you sense too that he would be rather afraid to have lived amongst them.

In The Light of Experience, you find yourself eventually in territory that he ill-favours.  Under the protection of the subtitle ‘a personal view’, Clark lets you know what he thinks of the preoccupation with money and the beginnings of industrialisation.  After admiring one of the finest rooms ever built, he points to an untidy dirty smudge of buildings lurking behind the spacious grandeur of Greenwich naval hospital.  If his pronunciation of capitalism is odd (ca’pit’ilism) you grasp clearly that a preoccupation with making money as a supreme societal endeavour rankles, even as he admits that some extra cash is a necessity of art.  The problem is that an excess of money, no less than an excess of state power, is incompatible with an art or architecture to which the individual can relate.  He points to Versailles and the neo-classicism of 17th century Paris. Hard to fault him.

No disguising his delight in the period of his supreme episode so far, The Smile of Reason.  Here is a time of men and women (pointing to the tactful ladies of the French salon who nurtured civilisation in conversation) in which Clark would have happily lived. Their preoccupations and inspirations are close to his own. No surprise because Clark wears the smile of reason throughout the series.

Next he turns to The Worship of Nature and one of Britain’s few genuine contributions to Europe, the English garden, an insult he throws off with so light a touch you hardly notice it.

Eamonn

 

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The BBC’s Battle of Civilisations: Simon Schama takes on Kenneth Clark

I am an admirer of Simon Schama.  He is one of those commentators whose fluent writing and mode of expression conveys depth with ease, not surprising in so accomplished and erudite an historian.  His social media commentary is sharply hostile to nonsense and the dangers he sees around him today.  His presence in front of a camera is impishly charming and in front of a work of art or historical significance is filled with wonder that is both boyish and wise. He grapples with the Holocaust as a great moral indignation that yet remains unknowable, its evil ineffable. In another age, he would be regarded as one of the great humanists.

Kenneth Clark likewise comes across as a both learned and gentle.  His toffily clipped sentences and rolling r’s segment and condense his insights into how Western civilization came about.  I’ve been watching, if you haven’t guessed already, the first couple of episodes of his ground breaking and sensationally popular 1969 documentary series Civilisation, courtesy of YouTube.  He covers the period I’ve been reading and blogging about recently, the transition from the Dark Age of Vikings to the early Middle Ages of the Nomans and Capetians.  Clark pinpoints the difference as that between wandering and permanence, as crystalline and all-encompassing an explanation as you’re likely to find anywhere.  I’ve been fascinated by how formative the 12th century was to so much that was foundational to Europe; attitudes, religion, laws, government, nation states, culture, even science.  As he concludes in episode two, Clark himself believed that it was this century that imparted the impetus to the development of Western Europe in subsequent centuries.

The connection between Schama and Clark? Schama, alongside Mary Beard and David Olusoga, is hosting a new BBC series called Civilizations, to be broadcast between March and April.  In his FT column last weekend, he does pose the question what they can add to Clark’s achievement.  The hint is in the added ‘s’: “And of course the answer is the rest of the world.”  He assures us that the intention is not to replace the Judaeo-Christian with the ‘citizen of nowhere’ but to find the truth in the fruitful connection.  To be fair Clark looked for that too, seeing the rise of Marian devotion as an inspiration from the Byzantine church, for example.  And he pointed to the statues of Chartres Cathedral as being inspired by the draperies on Roman statues that the sculptor must have seen, possible in southern France.  Yet it clear that Schama and his colleagues are taking on much more, squeezing into a mere nine episodes man’s civilisation across the globe from the Stone Age “to last week”, as he put it: Clark, he says, had thirteen just for the West.

Such differences notwithstanding, we’re in for something of a show down.  In the meantime, I’m going to sit back in the company of Clark before getting the popcorn and watching Schama.  Great stuff!

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