Kenneth Clark: arrogant snob or saviour of art?

Famed for the TV series Civilisation, Clark has long been accused of patrician arrogance. But he was also a brilliant wordsmith whose books changed the game, argues James Hall

Italians call the great 14th‑century authors Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio i tre coronati – the three crowned laureates. In Britain, during the middle third of the 20th century, art history had its own tre coronati in the formidable shapes of Nikolaus Pevsner, Ernst Gombrich and Kenneth Clark. What made them stand out from their contemporaries both here and abroad was not just their extraordinary erudition and prolific output, but an eloquence and popularising skill that made them public figures. They became the subjects of biographies, and many of their books remain in print. Pevsner, as the author of the landmark Buildings of Britain series, could be found in countless car glove compartments; Gombrich wrote the bestselling art book of all time, The Story of Art; and Clark was the maker of a number of pioneering TV series that were broadcast internationally, the most famous being Civilisation (1969).

Of the three, Clark's reputation is most in need of rescue. Two people bear most responsibility for his eclipse: John Berger and Clark's son Alan. Berger's brilliant TV series and book Ways of Seeing (1972) threw down a lethal Marxist-feminist gauntlet to Clark's Olympian worldview. Clark is the only art historian to be named, and he is cited and ticked-off twice over. His description of Gainsborough's portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews on their country estate in Landscape into Art (1949) as "enchanting" and "Rousseauist" is denounced: "They are not a couple in Nature as Rousseau imagined nature. They are landowners and their proprietary attitude towards what surrounds them is visible in their stance and their expressions." Berger well knew that Clark, thanks to substantial inherited wealth (the family fortune came from Paisley cotton), had lived since 1955 in Saltwood Castle in Kent surrounded by a moat and a large art collection that included old masters and impressionists.

Berger also took to task The Nude: a study of ideal art (1956), Clark's longest and most intellectually ambitious book: "Kenneth Clark maintains that to be naked is simply to be without clothes, whereas the nude is a form of art." While Berger concedes that the nude "is always conventionalised", he insists it "also relates to lived sexuality". The female nude is subservient to the male "spectator-owner … men act and women appear". Civilisation ended with Clark in his study at Saltwood fondling a Henry Moore reclining nude (he also owned Renoir's Blond Bather).

John Piper, Coventry Cathedral, 1940
John Piper's Coventry Cathedral, 1940. Courtesy of Manchester City Galleries Photograph: Manchester City Galleries

If it has become hard not to consider Clark through Berger-tinted spectacles, it is even harder not to blot out the "lived sexuality" of his son – the Thatcher-adoring, boozy sexual predator Alan Clark MP, whose sybaritic diaries outsold his father's art books, and who was proud to be Lord Clark of Civilisation's barbaric antithesis (this roguish persona was also a rebellion against Clark senior's diffidence and emotional aloofness). When, in 1997, Alan Clark offloaded to the National Gallery his father's serenely austere Zurbaran still-life, A Cup of Water and a Rose (c1630), my admiration for Clark senior's discernment (and envy of his deep pockets) was disturbed by a stray thought – did Clark junior get rid of it because its sobriety irked him?

In many ways, Kenneth Clark became a victim of his meteoric success, though what shouldn't be discounted was his patrician arrogance, which many found infuriating. Having gone to Oxford to read history in 1922, he entered the artistic circles around Charlie Bell, keeper of the Ashmolean, and immersed himself in the museum's superb collection of old master drawings. Bell was a pioneering aficionado of Victorian architecture, and he proposed the subject of Clark's first book, The Gothic Revival (1928), published when he was only 25. Despite lambasting "these monsters, these unsightly wrecks stranded upon the mud flat of Victorian taste", Clark also admired certain neogothic buildings and thus became a catalyst for the re‑evaluation of Victorian architecture. He succeeded Bell at the Ashmolean in 1931, and, having been groomed by the connoisseur Bernard Berenson and Bloomsbury art critic Roger Fry, became, at 29, the youngest ever director of the National Gallery two years later. During the war, he was a heroic figure because of his patronage of British artists and especially the displays and concerts at the National Gallery; after the war he became chair of the Arts Council and the Independent Television Authority (a commercial regulator) – as well as a prolific author, globe-trotting lecturer and consummate TV presenter. Of his museum director successors, only Neil MacGregor – the second youngest director of the National Gallery and now in charge at the British Museum – has the same proselytising zeal and public profile.

John Constable's sketch for <em>Hadleigh Castle</em>, c1828-29.
John Constable's sketch for Hadleigh Castle, c1828-29. Courtesy of the Tate, London Photograph: Tate, London

Books such as Landscape into Art and The Nude are now gleefully derided, but in their day they were ground-breaking surveys that mapped and synthesised vast fields for the first time. The Nude singlehandedly revived interest in antique sculpture and its influence on western art and culture after a century of Ruskin-induced neglect. The subsequent vogue for Grand Tour studies, and Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny's standard survey Taste and the Antique (1981), are inconceivable without it (in an otherwise positive review, Gombrich criticised Haskell and Penny for failing to mention The Nude). Now there are shelfloads of books about nudity in art, all using The Nude as springboard and whipping boy, and nudity has been a key component of recent art.

Civilisation, a product of his seventh decade, hasn't worn so well, despite its director Michael Gill's high production values. It is marred by slack windbaggery and loose connections, but Clark's keen awareness of the fragility of cultures – whether of the Vikings, Franks or Nazis – commands respect: "At some time in the ninth century one could have looked down the Seine and seen the prow of a Viking ship coming up the river. Looked at today in the British Museum it is a powerful work of art; but to the mother of a family trying to settle down in her little hut, it would have seemed less agreeable – as menacing to her civilisation as the periscope of a nuclear submarine." He wouldn't have approved of the British Museum's current exhibition, Viking, in which the mass-murdering slave-traders are reinvented as entrepreneurial free-traders. His views on housing seem positively prescient: "If I had to say which was telling the truth about society, a speech by a minister of housing or the actual buildings put up in his time, I should believe the buildings." Despite his hostility to Marxism – especially when applied to art – the sections on the slave trade, the industrial revolution and poverty remain powerful and moving indictments. Perhaps the most shocking thing about Civilisation is the state of Clark's teeth.

Kenneth Clark in front of Renoir’s <em>La Baigneuse Blonde</em>, c1933.
Kenneth Clark in front of Renoir’s La Baigneuse Blonde, c1933. Photograph: Marcus Leith

Clark's critics have lamented his Eurocentrism; his patronage of neo-romantic Nash, Piper, Sutherland and Moore (but not Bacon); and his dislike of purist abstraction (Ben Nicholson's reliefs, which he nonetheless collected, were less "cosmic symbols" than "tasteful pieces of decoration"). But the condescension of posterity is disproportionate, and not just because "it is only an auctioneer who can equally and impartially admire all schools of art" (Oscar Wilde). In retrospect, Clark was right about purism: it was a cul-de‑sac, however magnificent at times. Mondrian's road to abstraction is thrilling; once he gets there, his art becomes drily academic and repetitious. In 1935, Clark published a pessimistic essay in the Listener entitled "The Future of Painting", in which he argued that a viable new style "can only arise out of a new interest in subject matter … We need a new myth in which the symbols are inherently pictorial." Jackson Pollock is a case in point – he yearned to infuse abstract art with profound content and, by the time of his premature death, had returned to semi-figuration. In post-1960s art and theory, impurism – conscious and unconscious subject matter – is all the rage.

One of Clark's most radical and least remarked innovations was his obsession with details. While director of the National Gallery, he produced the first ever "details" book, which is still in print: One Hundred Details from Pictures in the National Gallery (1938). Although it looks like an amusing potboiler, it is his most influential book. Clark wanted to encourage viewers to look more attentively at artworks, and to see images in a fresh way. He juxtaposed details from pictures by different artists, often from different periods, inviting his readers to compare and contrast. His interest in details was fostered by his knowledge of the sleuthing techniques of psychoanalysis.

The impact of Clark's book was immediate. In December 1938, WH Auden wrote his celebrated poem "Musée des Beaux Arts" while staying in Brussels. He must surely have had One Hundred Details on his desk or in his mind's eye. The poem is a perfect amplification of Clark's thesis: it explores the important entities sometimes located in the margins or background of artworks, and human obliviousness to great events. One can go through Auden's poem footnoting the relevant details in Clark's book:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

Auguste Rodin's Eve, 1881
Auguste Rodin's Eve, 1881. Photograph: Marcus Leith Photograph: Marcus Leith

Auden's poem concludes with a meditation on Bruegel's idyllic landscape in which a tiny Icarus crash-lands into the sea: "how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster".

Clark ends with a detail of the tiny crucifix that is hidden in the midst of a charming animal-filled landscape in Pisanello's Vision of Saint Eustace (c1438-42). There is no commentary: he lets the tragic, easy-to-overlook image speak for itself.

Paradoxically, Berger exploited details in Ways of Seeing and today's art historians are intoxicated by them – none more so than social art historian TJ Clark (no relation), whose short book The Sight of Death (2006) features 70 delirious details of two paintings by Poussin. The fascinating exhibition currently at the National Gallery, Building the Picture, could almost be dedicated to the former director, for it focuses on the architecture in the background of Renaissance paintings. The curator, Amanda Lillie, explains how the spotlight is on what is usually considered a minor detail: "Buildings in paintings have too often been viewed as background or as space fillers that play a passive or at best supporting role, propping up the figures that carry the main message of the picture. By looking afresh at buildings within paintings, treating them as active protagonists, it becomes clear that they performed a series of crucial roles." She exhibits a Beccafumi whose fantastic architecture was zoomed in on by Clark.

Above all, perhaps, Clark was a brilliant wordsmith, the most seductive writer on art since Ruskin and Pater, whom he greatly admired. Today, when most art historians write as joylessly as lawyers and accountants, such verve is sorely needed. His writing is seen at its probing and evocative best in his classic 1939 book on Leonardo, which remains the best introduction to his art (the reprint has an excellent preface by Martin Kemp). Clark had established himself as the world's leading Leonardo scholar in 1935, when his great three-volume catalogue of the Leonardo drawings in the Royal Collection was published.

His influential interpretation of Leonardo's grotesque heads is a tour de force: rather than a frivolous hobby, as was often assumed, they were made central by Clark to Leonardo's art and life. Clark was always fascinated by polarities, especially between the ugly and the ideal, and this underpinned his notorious distinction between the naked and the nude. He inherited this preoccupation from late 19th-century decadent writers, and from Freud. In Oxford in the 1920s, he alternated between studying the "unsightly wrecks" of neogothic architecture, and the Ashmolean's sumptuous sketches by Raphael and Michelangelo. See-sawing from the monstrous to the supremely beautiful was the art historical equivalent of Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, where's Dorian's ageless beauty contrasts with his disintegrating portrait.

But Leonardo was the greatest single embodiment of these polarities. Having noted that he loved drawing freaks, Clark observed: "Mixed with his motive of curiosity lay others, more profound: the motives that led men to carve gargoyles on the gothic cathedrals. Gargoyles were the complement to saints; Leonardo's caricatures were complementary to his untiring search for ideal beauty. And gargoyles were the expression of all the passions, the animal forces, the Caliban gruntings and groanings that are left in human nature when the divine has been poured away." Clark's son Alan would take it on himself to embody the "Caliban gruntings and groanings", leaving the divine roles to his father.

Clark further believed that Leonardo's grotesque man with "nut‑cracker nose and chin" was the counterpart to "the epicene youth", and these types can be found scarcely modified at all stages of Leonardo's career: "These are, in fact, the two hieroglyphs of Leonardo's unconscious mind, the two images his hand created when his attention was wandering, and as such they have an importance for us which the frequent poverty of their execution should not disguise. Virile and effeminate, they symbolise the two sides of Leonardo's nature … Even in his most conscious creations, even in the Last Supper, they remain, as it were, the armature round which his types are created".

Perhaps it's now time for the Caliban critical gruntings to give way to a fairer assessment.

• James Hall is  the author of The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History (Thames & Hudson).

James Hall

The GuardianTramp

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