Art Films

Gillian Darley

After graduation I’d planned to be a documentary film researcher but instead found myself working, miserably and often late into the evening, as a ticket seller and chair stacker at the Art Film Cinema, a proto pop-up in a basement hall just off Leicester Square. It fell to me to fend off the dirty mac brigade, who had a different idea of what ‘art films’ were: certainly not a succession of worthy shorts, mostly Arts Council funded, on art and artists; and not the main attraction, either – a big screen presentation of Kenneth Clark’s epic TV series Civilisation.

Then as now, Sir Kenneth Clark, the only son of a staggeringly rich cotton thread manufacturer, so patrician in manner, didn’t remotely suggest a populariser whose sympathies lay with the Beveridge Report and the Attlee government. But Kate Misrahi’s quietly revealing film (on BBC2 at 7 o'clock tomorrow evening) shows us a man with a mission – to bring art to the broadest possible audience – and it was his commitment to television that gave him his credentials.

At the outbreak of war he was head of the Crown Film Unit, a division of the Ministry of Information (under Lord Reith), and created, and chaired, the War Artists' Advisory Committee. He had also, since 1933, been Director of the National Gallery. He opportunistically brought all the threads together. A concert at the gallery featured in Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister's Listen to Britain (1942), produced by the CFU. Jill Craigie's Out of Chaos (1944) celebrated the work of the WAAC through artists (Piper, Sutherland and Moore in particular) who, in Clark's opinion, showed people what war felt like. Noticeably, there were no commissions for the cool abstractions of Ben Nicholson or Barbara Hepworth, any more than Clark would mention Malevich or Rothko, Max Ernst or Jackson Pollock in Civilisation. He’d already positioned himself against Herbert Read in the 1930s, admitting he had no time for surrealism or abstraction.

As the first chairman of the Independent Television Authority (a seemingly sudden leap into the uncharted waters of commercial television) he worked closely, and fruitfully, with Lew Grade. In 1958 Clark presented a series of films entitled Is Art Necessary?, in each of which he wrestled awkwardly, in an excruciatingly wooden, studio-based format, with questions of good and bad taste, the elements of beauty (oddly demonstrated through analysing the physiques of dogs and horses) and whether contemporary art should tell a story. In a memorable encounter, Clark discusses the meaning of Picasso's Guernica with John Berger.

Something happened between that disastrous start and 1960, when Clark took viewers round the the Tate’s Picasso exhibition. Now he talks frankly, confesses his own difficulties with aspects of Picasso’s work. His relaxed honesty made the programme compelling. The director, Michael Reddington, had been an actor and encouraged Clark to perform, rather than lecture, giving him the confidence to expostulate and to move around as he spoke to the viewers, as if talking one to one.

Civilisation, commissioned by David Attenborough as a fanfare for colour on his channel, BBC2, was the zenith of Clark’s television career: a record-breaking two years in the making, covering 80,000 miles and costing £130,000. Once again, Clark was, in Jean Seaton’s words, putting ‘culture at the heart of the national struggle for survival'. By exquisite mistiming, Clark and his crew found themselves filming in Paris in May 1968. What he witnessed shocked him hugely. For all the failure of Marxism, he said, it could not be assuaged by ‘heroic materialism’ – which left him pondering the resulting lack of confidence, cynicism and repudiated value systems. In his script notes for Civilisation, he’d written – extraordinarily – that economics and political ideals (especially Marxism) would have no place in the films. Three years later, John Berger and Michael Dibb’s four-part series, Ways of Seeing, added feminism to radicalism and in its terms of reference signalled a major shift. Intelligent debate was now being sparked by television – thanks in no small part to Clark.