Naming the Graces

Charles Hope

  • The Art of Humanism by Kenneth Clark
    Murray, 198 pp, £12.50, October 1983, ISBN 0 7195 4077 1
  • The Eloquence of Symbols: Studies in Humanist Art by Edgar Wind, edited by Jaynie Anderson
    Oxford, 135 pp, £25.00, January 1984, ISBN 0 19 817341 5

In the last forty years Kenneth Clark did more than anyone else to create an interest in the art of Renaissance Italy, but Edgar Wind had a much greater influence on the way in which this art has been studied. Both men were outstanding lecturers and gifted writers, and both, in very different ways, were influenced by the work of Aby Warburg. Both, too, were particularly drawn to the early Renaissance in Florence and to the High Renaissance in Rome, to those masterpieces, in fact, which occupy the central place in the English and American canon of great art. But there the resemblance ends. Whereas Clark was a populariser who wore his learning lightly, Wind was exactly the opposite. His best-known work, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, was an attempt to relate the ideas of Neoplatonism to Renaissance paintings and sculptures; and his main contention was that such works could only be fully appreciated by someone deeply versed in this unusually abstruse and now unfamiliar philosophical system. Clark appeals to those who like their art easy, Wind to those who want it difficult.

A major factor in Clark’s success was that he wrote about works of art which his readers knew to be outstanding even if they could not always say why. This is particularly evident in his famous television series Civilisation. The title gives the impression that he was providing a survey of Western art, but this was by no means the case, as he himself admitted. The works he chose to talk about were carefully selected, and the omissions are extraordinary. Not merely did he say next to nothing about Spain: he tended to avoid works that were overtly emotional, sensual or even unfamiliar. Thus the mythologies of Titian and Rubens were not mentioned, nor the Mannerist art of Italy and Northern Europe, while even Grünewald was confined to a walk-on part, in a discussion of Holbein, with the comment: ‘Now I suppose everyone would prefer Grünewald’s Isenheim altar, where the sense of tragedy makes the very word civilisation falter on our lips.’

Although Clark can be criticised for keeping within the parochial bounds of English taste, we must be grateful that he chose to concentrate on the masterpieces which he most admired. No one since Ruskin has written so well in English about works of art, or has been so uninhibited in expressing his emotional responses or in making sweeping generalisations. But Clark was not only unusually sensitive: he was also very knowledgeable. His early work on the Leonardo drawings at Windsor more than established his credentials as a scholar; and all his best books, above all the monographs on Leonardo da Vinci and Piero della Francesca, were based on wide and intelligent reading.

The Art of Humanism is again concerned with the 15th century, but it is certainly not of the quality of these earlier publications. It consists of five lectures composed over a period of 40 years. Although the earliest, on Alberti’s treatise on painting, retains a certain interest, even if it is seriously out of date, the others, on Donatello, Uccello, Mantegna and Botticelli, are altogether less significant; and the discussion of Donatello, in particular, is marred by the fact that one crucial work, the St John in Venice, is misdated by 15 years. Even John Walker, in his preface, is hard put to find anything very remarkable in the text. The best he can do is to claim that ‘Italian 15th-century art needs an apologist like Kenneth Clark,’ as if no one visited Florence any more, and to tell us that after reading the book, ‘improbable as it is for one who hates and fears Communism as I do, [I am now eager] to cross into East Germany to see the originals of Botticelli’s illustrations to Dante. I can give the author no higher praise.’

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