Arts Everyday Living: Monday at the Museum–A Guide to the Art of Civilisation



Another innovative exhibition is currently showing in London (see also: Making Colour at the British National Gallery, June 23 blog).  Instead of displaying the works of an artist or period of art, this time Tate Britain is honoring the career of art historian, collector, and public figure, Kenneth Clark (1903-1983).  As director of the National Gallery from 1933-1945, he was instrumental in transforming the typical museum from what was once an elite institution to the public art spaces that are so popular today.  For more details, click:

Kenneth Clark:  Looking for Civiisation

However, I’m going to focus on Clark’s monumental contribution, Civilisation, a 13 part BBC series that made the then 60-something scholar into an overnight TV celebrity in 1969.  No matter what one’s age or education or background, Clark’s 80,000 mile guided tour through the cultural landscape of Europe actually offers  a mini-course in art history. His approach has had its critics, but both the TV production and accompanying volume, Civilisation: A Personal View,  provide an outline of Western art, from the Dark Ages into the 20th century.

So here are a few excerpts by Clark from the book version. It is available on Amazon along with the series DVD.


In the first installment, Clark stands on the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris and imagines the Seine in the Dark Ages, when the Vikings sailed their ships up the river.  Western civilization was on the brink of collapse; but the monks on the remote island of Iona helped saved it, through their intricately designed manuscripts of the Four Gospels such as the Book of Kells.

We look at them for 10 seconds, then we pass on to something else that we can interpret or read.  But imagine if we couldn’t read and had nothing else to look at for weeks at a time.  Then these pages would have an almost hypnotic effect.  The last work of art to be produced at Iona was, perhaps, the Book of Kells.  But before it was finished, the Abbot of Iona was forced to flee to Ireland.  The sea had become more menacing then the land.  The Norsemen were on the move.*



The Gothic era of the Middle Ages was the birthplace of chivalry in the West, celebrated in literature, music, and painting.  In the early 1400s, the Limbourg Brothers were commissioned by French ruler, the Duke of Berry, to depict  the gracious interaction of the gentlemen and ladies of his court In April, part of a beautifully preserved Les Tres Riches Heures.

The lady of a castle must have had a peculiar position with so many unoccupied young men who couldn’t spend all their time hunting, and who of course never did a stroke of what we call work; and when the lord was away for a year or two, the lady was left in charge.  She took on his functions and received the kind of homage that was accepted in a feudal society; and the wandering knight who visited her did so with the mixture of deference and hope that one gets in the troubadour poems.*


Limbourg Brothers, Les Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry, c. 1412-1416, illumination on vellum, Musee Conde, Chantilly, France


Clark devotes almost an entire episode to the three giants of the High Renaissance—Michelangelo, Raphael, and of course, Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo was the most relentlessly curious man in history.  Everything he saw made him ask why and how.  Why does one find sea-shells in the mountains?  How do they build locks in Flanders?  How does a bird fly?  What accounts for cracks in walls?  What is the origin of the wind and clouds?  How does one stream of water deflect another? Find out; write it down; if you can see it, draw it.  Copy it out.  Ask the same question again and again and again……*


Leonardo da Vinci, Self-Portrait (presumed), c. 1512, red chalk on paper, Bibiloteca Reale, Turin, Italy


With the coming of the Reformation and the formation of Protestantism in the 16th century, the Catholic Church utilized the arts to reconnect to its remaining worshippers.  Caravaggio a leading figure of what is now called the Baroque style, moved the masses with works like the Taking of Christ.  According to Clark, the electric-like light that spotlights Jesus and Judas, is similar to the effects of the modern movie.

For all these reasons the art we call Baroque was a popular art.  The art of the Renaissance had appealed through intellectual means — geometry, perspective, knowledge of antiquity — to a small group of humanists.  The Baroque appealed through the emotions to the widest possible audience.  The subjects were obscure, thought out by some theologian: the means of communication were popular, and even remind one of the films.  Caravaggio, the earliest and on the whole, the greatest Italian painter of the period, experimented with the kind of lighting fashionable in highbrow films of the 1920s, and thereby gained a new dramatic impact.*


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Taking of Christ, 1602, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin


18th century Rococo art, usually associated with the privileged world of royalty, revolved around the elegance and charm of women.  Clark considered Flemish painter Antoine Watteau, the perfect interpreter of femininity.

Watteau, who was a consumptive, discovered something in himself that had hardly ever been seen in art before: a feeling of the transitoriness and, thus, the seriousness of pleasure.  He had brilliant gifts – he could draw with the style and precision of a Renaissance artist – and used his skill to record his rapture at the sight of beautiful girls.  What dreams of beauty they are! How happy all these exquisite people should be.* 


Antoine Watteau,Study of a Woman’s Head, c. 1710s, white, black, and red chalk on light brown paper, Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia


By the 1800s, British painter John Constable and his artistic contemporaries were searching the countryside not only for landscape subjects but also for the meaning of life itself.

As Clark notes:

“I have seen him,” said Leslie, Constable’s biographer, “admire a fine tree with an ecstasy like that with which he could catch up a beautiful child in his arms.”  Constable never had the least doubt that nature meant the visible world of tree, flower, river, field and sky, exactly as they presented themselves to the senses; and he seems to have arrived instinctively at Wordsworth’s conviction that by dwelling with absolute truth on natural objects he would reveal something of the moral grandeur of the universe.*


John Constable, Wooded Landscape, c. 1802, oil on canvas, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada





*The above quotes are from Civilisation by Kenneth Clark, Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, 1969.

Other books by Kenneth Clark: Leonardo da Vinci, The Romantic Rebellion, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, Rembrandt, among others.  You can consult Amazon; prices vary.

The above images are used solely for educational purposes.


And bring the works of artists, from Vermeer to Monet to O’Keeffe into your life with Through an Artists Eyes: Learning to Live Creatively!




, , ,