Moments of Vision 
by Kenneth Clark.
Murray, 191 pp., £9.50, October 1981, 0 7195 3860 2
Show More
Show More

Something, as Clark himself has acknowledged, is wrong with Civilisation: with the television series and the book which made him a household name. It is not that it contains a number of gross oversimplifications, of which the most astonishing is the observation that Leonardo thought of women ‘solely as reproductive mechanisms’. Nor is it that there is also an occasional failure of the historical imagination: the women on the Romanesque font of Winchester Cathedral certainly do look ugly and nasty to us, but this is not evidence that ‘women were thought of as squat, bad-tempered viragos’. That, however, is a parenthetical lapse and far less grave than the anachronistic and sentimental idea, entertained by the supposedly tough-minded John Berger in his television series, that Frans Hals intended his late group portraits to expose the true horror of bourgeois society.

Civilisation certainly extends our sympathies; it may deepen our understanding of European history; but it avoids challenging contemporary complacency – it is too affable. It encourages admiration more often than criticism (which is certainly not the case with Berger’s sermons): but in doing so it fails to convey how alien much of our civilisation is to us. Genuinely at ease with the classics on our shelves and with the old masters in our museums, Clark can convince us that they really are our ‘inheritance’. Eventually he permits himself to be presented as an embodiment of his subject. At the request of his producer he ends with a creed. ‘I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time,’ he declares, and then follow the bland, indeed, as he admits, banal words: ‘I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction,’ and so on. Since then, he has inflicted a good deal of additional damage to his reputation, not least by the fragmentary reflections which he supplied last year to an anthology of pictures entitled Feminine Beauty. Moments of Vision should do something to repair the damage. It also makes quite clear that television encouraged a tendency that already existed in his work.

Moments of Vision consists ‘chiefly’ of ‘scripts of lectures’ and you eventually discover, on the page before the index, that one of these was delivered in 1954, another in 1962, and others in 1970, 1972 and 1977. One of the five pieces for which the publishers do not supply a date appeared in more elaborate form in Encounter in 1963. There are clues in some of the others which suggest that they were composed anywhere between five and twenty years ago. The book is not illustrated, but this is not to be regretted because the observations on literature – on the flexibility of Gibbon’s style, or on the possible unconscious associations of snapdragons for Cardinal Newman, for example – are sharper and more particular than are those on the visual arts. Some of the pieces are brilliant. Others are quite unworthy. The editing leaves much to be desired.

‘The Work of Bernard Berenson’ adds to some of the comic anecdotes which have already appeared in Clark’s autobiography a judicious assessment of Berenson’s achievement. But it seems to consist of two similar essays which have got muddled up: a number of points are made twice and a description of how ‘one could almost see’ the connoisseur’s ‘frail little body reacting physically to the tactile values or the space composition of the works before him’ is repeated word for word a dozen pages later. It is even more disturbing to find whole chunks of ‘The Blot and the Diagram’ reappearing almost unchanged in ‘Art and Society’

To the latter lecture Clark refers in his Preface. Left to himself, he claims, he would never have had the ‘effrontery’ to write on such a subject. But Ruskin’s influence may be felt in almost all Clark’s writings – and, incidentally, the service that he has performed in persuading people to reread Ruskin far outweighs the disservice of proposing, as he did in his anthology Ruskin Today, that this should be done in bits and pieces. The example of Ruskin obviously encouraged Clark to think about the subject of this lecture. In the course of it he regards his own reputation with a distaste which reminds one of the elderly Ruskin reviewing the enormous success of his own early writing on art: ‘We must not be bamboozled by the claim that more people listen to “good” music or visit picture galleries; nor even by the fact that a few of us have tricked the unsuspecting viewer into looking at old pictures on television.’ And yet, despite other dark passages, he concludes as usual with a cheering, if not a cheerful note. Clark is, in fact, as reluctant as Ruskin was keen to make his audience feel thoroughly uncomfortable.

‘Here in The Blot and the Diagram’, written at least five years before Civilisation, Clark reviews those ‘events in the history of art’ which he considers ‘go far beyond the interaction of styles and which evidently reflect a change in the whole condition of the human spirit’. ‘Such an event took place towards the end of the fifth century, when the Hellenistic-Roman style gradually became what we call Byzantine; and again in the early 13th century, when the Gothic Cathedrals shot up out of the ground.’ The colloquial hyperbole is designed to help his audience feel comfortable at this altitude. The more educated amongst them may also take it as a reassuring wink – of course he could qualify these generalisations in a reputable academic manner. What follows is more worrying: ‘In each case the historian might produce a series of examples to prove that the change was inevitable. But actually it was nothing of the sort; it was wholly unpredictable and was part of a complete spiritual revolution.’ The effect of this is to suggest that it is pointless to try to explain changes in the way people think, dream and feel (for I suppose that is what a ‘condition of the human spirit’ amounts to). Moreover the point is not properly argued: much that was unpredictable is in retrospect acknowledged to have been inevitable.

What happened to art in the late fifth century, and why, were among the problems which most preoccupied Bernard Berenson when Clark came to stay with him at I Tatti in the 1920s. Clark, however, was there to help with the revision of The Drawings of the Florentine Painters and the Lists. The ‘game of saying who painted what was being played all round me and seemed to me to be the only game worth playing’, Clark wrote in his autobiography. And yet no enthusiasm is communicated by his account of the absurdity of the game as it was then played by its greatest exponent, with all those curling photographs pasted down by Mrs Berenson and continuously being misplaced by ‘staring virgins’. It must certainly have soon become as clear to Clark as it was to Berenson that the revision of the famous lists was not as exhilarating as their original compilation, for, as he puts it here in ‘The Work of Bernard Berenson’, ‘instead of being a sharp weapon used to assault an inert mass of tradition’, they themselves now constituted the inert mass. Berenson was already bitterly regretting that he had abandoned, for the game, or rather the ‘science’ (and the business), of attribution, his early interest in ‘philosophic criticism and appreciation’ and he seems to have urged Clark not to make the same mistake. Thus we may detect Berenson’s influence, not only in Clark’s early and admirable scholarly work on Leonardo’s drawings in the Thirties, but in the fact that he abandoned such work and came to disparage it – likening it, in a radio interview, to knitting. Berenson’s influence becomes clearer when Clark has proved his independence and entertained less mixed feelings towards his mentor.

The Nude, published in 1956, is not only Clark’s best book, but one of the finest books on the visual arts written in English. Into it one may feel that much of the best German writing on the history of art during the previous half-century has flowed. No one who had not studied Wölfflin could have made the startling comparison between the torso of the Apollo of Piombino and Perrault’s facade of the Louvre. And when Clark traces the transmigration of forms, the way that the poses of nereids on Roman sarcophagi, for example, were ‘resolved into plastic ideas so simple that a modest artisan could use them almost as easily as if he were carrying an alphabet’ and thus turned up in decorative art all over, and even beyond, the Western world, we may think of Riegl tracing the evolution of plant ornament of the same period. The account of the reinfusion of feeling into the poses of ancient art during the Renaissance owes much to Warburg. But the most pervasive influence is that of Berenson, to whom the book is dedicated. Some of it was written at I Tatti, and when Clark looked again at antique sculpture in Rome it was in Berenson’s company.

One limitation, very striking to the modern reader of Berenson, which Clark, despite his love of Rembrandt, seems never to have transcended is his underestimation of narrative in painting. Berenson called this ‘illustration’, which suggested a subordination to literature; others called it ‘anecdote’, which sounded trivial. Clark has not gone as far as Roger Fry, who considered that the superior way of looking at Raphael’s Transfiguration was to forget that it represented anything, so that one could engage more easily in the ‘pure contemplation of the spatial relations of plastic volumes’. He has never written about representational art as if it was entirely abstract. But he does seem to consider that narrative is of secondary importance even in such a painting. In the lecture on ‘Provincialism’ in this volume, Hogarth’s ‘lively and circumstantial manner of telling stories’ is described as a means of ‘escape’ from the central tradition of European painting: ‘When there is a story to tell, the pressure of style can be relaxed.’ Clark concedes that Giotto and Raphael ‘tell stories’. He should concede that it was for this that they were chiefly praised by their contemporaries, and all their admirers until the close of the last century. Nor was the attention to narrative less important for Titian, Rubens or Poussin than it was for Hogarth. It might, moreover, be argued that it was precisely when there was a story to tell that the ‘pressure of style’ was least relaxed.

When the young Berenson disparaged ‘illustration’, he was certainly influenced by the priorities of contemporary artists, whether or not he was as familiar as Clark proposes with the achievements of Degas and Cézanne. A huge rift soon developed between most of the great connoisseurs of old master painting and the lovers of modern art, but in The Nude and Landscape into Art Clark, although studying art forms which had, to put it mildly, a dubious future, wrote with confidence and under standing of the work of major living artists. However, in Civilisation he confesses himself ‘baffled’ by ‘what is taking place today’ and he makes hardly any mention of 20th-century art. Once or twice in Moments of Vision he ponders the improbability of a revival of representational art in his lifetime. Such a revival has, in fact, been in full swing for several years now. There is even a strong renewal of interest in the nude, although it must occur to anyone who reads Clark’s book on the subject that modern nudes need something to do.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences