Tag Archives: Kenneth Clark

Finishing Clark’s ‘Civilisation’ (1969)

Just in time, because the BBC’s new Civilisations starts this evening.

There is a definite uptick in the tempo of Clark’s last three episodes.  Clark is at his most philosophical, most engaged, and indeed most anxious.  He is progressively more urgent, as if saying ‘pay attention’, this is the period which is no longer history but which defines us.  We are still living, he says, with the consequences of the Romantic Movement.  And so right he is: without the Romantic Movement, neither Trump nor Brexit would have been possible, not the ethno-nationalist movements that prefigure both.

The Worship of Nature and The Fallacies of Hope are titles that reveal Clark’s anxieties from the outset.  He can see where all this freedom and sentiment is heading.  After recounting the evolution of the French Revolution into the Terror, he looks out a window of the Sorbonne and we see footage of students gently mustering for a protest.  Do they know what they want, he wonders.  Be careful what you ask for: There are montages of street violence in 1848 and 1968 in various European cities.  Dramatically, Clark walks from a perfectly proportioned 18th century room to a portico and a stormy vista of a sea at night.  Great forces are being released in Europe and revolution, fear, and war follow.

It’s not that Clark exactly blames Jean Jacques Rousseau for his fateful reverie in nature and the consequences that followed.  In fact he greatly admires Beethoven, Byron, Gericault, Rodin, and Balsac for their unflinching genius.  He does though see Rousseau’s moment of oblivious immersion in nature as a catalyst, igniting pre-existing inclinations and a series of consequences that Clark reckons as fateful and possibly dire.  Clark holds that the loss of religious belief in the minds of intelligent seventeenth century men had to be replaced by something.  That something was nature, a belief that somehow nature offered both the sublime and personal truth.

It was in cities that man was corrupted by inequalities and greed said Rousseau, seeming or deigning to forget that cities are the cradle of civilisation.  Rousseau elevated the noble savage as the supremely virtuous man.  Clark enjoys invoking the blistering distain of Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade, and Ben Johnson for this tosh.  The supposed Elysian societies of the South Pacific collapsed quickly under the mere presence of European man, Clark notes.  These could not be, he said, civilisations in the way in which he had been using the word. Yet powerful tosh it was.

The Romantic Movement drew its power from the personal freedom it offered.  Europe was a constrained, illiberal, and hierarchical society in the eighteenth century.  It suppressed emotion under straitened social mores.  Reason itself, with its symmetry, proportions, and continuities, was confining. When an intellectual movement in the form of the Romantic Movement offered its benediction to releasing emotion, the constraints were off.  Sentiment itself was valid, what you felt was the real truth.  In comparison, truth arrived at by reason and logic was spurious and artificial.

Here is the real problem with the Romantic Movement; it served as the essential precursor to romantic nationalism and ethno-nationalism.   The Romantic Movement fused with a search for identity as European nation states moved from monarchy to democracy.  In an age of nation states, national economies, mass transport, mass population centres, mass media, and mass mobilisations for war, a unifying identity was a necessity.  National identity had to invent itself.

What did it mean to be Scottish, German, or Irish? This search with its focus on ethno-nationalism sent sober men in search of the ancient past.  They found Ossian’s fabulous ancient epic poem Fingal which was likened to Homer and inspired some of the world’s most powerful men, from Jefferson to Napoleon.  Napoleon, notes Clark, carried an illustrated copy on all his campaigns.

Yet the ‘discovery’ was a fake, a fabrication by an enterprising Scotsman who borrowed heavily from Irish mythology.  (MacPherson even invented a new name – Fiona – as part of his elaborate construction.)

Clark’s final episode is called Heroic Materialism.  He doesn’t mean it as a compliment. True the nineteenth century invented humanitarianism as well as gigantic engineering.  It introduced a revolutionary new instinct called kindness.  Yet technology and weapons of mass destructions are the tools of despots. He passes over the world wars fleetingly and, oddly, doesn’t refer to the Holocaust.  That rankled a tad and I wondered why the omission – I remember vividly Jacob Bronowski’s stunning visit to Auschwitz in his series The Ascent of Man.  Let’s move on.

In prefacing a confession of his values as the series concludes, Clark calls himself, with a little pride, a ‘stick-in-the-mud’.   I couldn’t really fault his values. He is heartened by the young students he sees around him and thinks that despite nearly destroying ourselves twice in one century, we will survive.  Yet Clark cannot see materialism, no matter how heroic, as a good enough end in itself.

In his final and compelling summing up, he quotes Yeats (“who was more like a man of genius than any man I’ve ever known”); The Second Coming in fact, the bit about the best lacking all conviction/ the worst are full of passionate intensity.   “The moral and intellectual failure of Marxism has left us with no alternative to heroic materialism” he concludes.  We can be optimistic but hardly joyous at this prospect, he concludes.  Has anything happened in the intervening fifty years since the broadcast to invalidate this lapidary judgement and its two inspirations?  I don’t think so.

Does Civilisation (1969) stand up?  No question in my mind, with the caveat that it is western civilisation (a description Clark uses suggesting that he knew that this was really his topic). Clark is a master of his brief and declaratory about his values.  And, despite witily dismissing predictions, Clark managed one that has stood the test of time.  How will Civilisations (2018) compare?  Let’s see.



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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.



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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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