Kenneth Clark – the last art historian in pursuit of beauty

John Constable, Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’, c.1828–9. Tate

There is currently something of a Kenneth Clark renaissance, with an exhibition devoted to him just opened at Tate Britain, and a new Civilisation planned by the BBC. If there is anything to be gained from going back to Clark’s vision of how art patronage should work, it is surely his stress on the societal value of art.

In 1939, Clark wrote:

No new style will grow out of a preoccupation with art for its own sake. It can only arise from a new interest in subject matter. We need a new myth in which the symbols are inherently pictorial.

However, he was characteristically pessimistic about whether this was possible. In the Renaissance great artists had had great patrons to supply them with “subject matter”. Art was a joint-venture of artist and society. But the would-be princes at the time of writing were incapable of providing this, while corporate sponsorship had yet to find its feet.

Kenneth Clark in front of Renoir’s La Baigneuse Blonde, c.1933. Tate

It wasn’t just society that had failed. The 18th-century Romantic rebellion had seen artists declare independence of society. Their pursuit of art for art’s sake had reached a dead end in abstraction, an abstraction that could only ever appeal to a self-regarding clique.

As steward of British 20th-century art as well as of Clark’s archive, it is fitting that Tate Britain took on such a project. The exhibition investigates how Clark sought to revive patronage in both a personal and public capacity by bringing together works from his collection, and by artists that he championed, as well as looking at his time as a broadcaster.

The idea of patronage both public and private is a neglected, if not downright unpopular subject for an exhibition or, indeed, any kind of public airing. Museums as well as Clark’s successors on the small screen are happy to celebrate artist-renegades and toy with concepts such as celebrity, but are deeply uncomfortable about art as a shared visual language, as something about “us” rather than “him” or “her”. So the exhibition’s focus is interesting.

Meanwhile patronage itself is, well, patronising. If the visual arts are made of individuals making political statements, as we seem to believe today, then patronage is prostitution, an abuse of the fact that some happen to have more money than others.

The idea that patronage might be anything more than this is profoundly strange to us. When someone raised in vast country houses reminds us that “there is no wealth but life” (as Ruskin put it – and he wasn’t short of a few bob, either), and that art is a necessary part of being human, the normal reply is “well, that’s easy for you to say”. Few of us were fortunate enough to receive a series of Hokusai woodcuts on our 12th birthday, or have the wealth to acquire the Renaissance maiolica, Cézanne drawings and other works that fill a large gallery at Tate.

But Clark’s message was far from easy to say. It required finding a middle way between two very different “ways of seeing” that tugged at him, one identified with the art historian Bernard Berenson, the other with the critic Roger Fry.

Andrea Previtali, Scenes from Tebaldeo’s Eclogues, 1505. The National Gallery

Two ways of seeing

The connoisseurship and antiquarian attributionism of Berenson aimed to distinguish different artists’ “hands”. The ultimate humiliation was to have ones attributions challenged.

The exhibition features a set of four allegorical panel paintings by Previtali which Clark purchased for the National Gallery in 1937 as works by the much more highly-regarded Giorgione. It is difficult to appreciate just how much Schadenfreude Clark’s colleagues derived from this “mistake”. But today the appeal and value of these paintings seems obvious. While the art historian struggles to identify whichever obscure poet inspired these works, the rest of us can indulge our own imaginations. We can make our own myths.

Growing tired of playing this obscure parlour game in Berenson’s villa outside Florence, Clark found a rival siren in Fry, who threatened to lure Clark onto the rocks of abstraction and intellectual obscurantism: art criticism as the search for “significant form”. Although Clark adopted Fry’s language, there was a sense in which he was miming the words. As former Tate director D.S. MacColl put it in a letter to Clark,

This excessive shyness about your later gods tells of a rather uneasy conscience about them. What’s wrong with you is that you have become a super-intellectual pervert, like Fry, who was practically tone-and-colour blind, and made up for deficiency in senses by extravagance in cerebration round and about and high above pictures. You have become perversely persuaded that what you know to be very bad, must be very good. I chanced the other day upon your article on Renoir in a back number of the Burlington, and you described quite plainly how shocking bad a lot of his pictures are, but wound up by transcendentally accepting them as super-good.

Clark went further than accepting Renoirs as “super-good”; he bought Renoir’s Baigneuse Blonde, a blooming, ripe nude which is, sadly, not included in the Tate show.

Renoir, La Baigneuse Blonde.

Interrogating art

While there is no accounting for taste, Clark was the last art historian to seek to account for beauty, truth and, of course, civilisation. His 1955 ATV series Is Art Necessary? began with a shared aesthetic reaction – to a dog, rather than a work of art. Why, Clark asked, did passers-by who saw this dog consider him to be beautiful, and what compelled them both to express it and to see it as entirely self-evident – as beyond challenge as the remark that the dog had four legs? The series went down well with a broad public, one broader (numerically and, one suspects, demographically as well) than that reached by Civilisation in 1969.

Clark’s reluctance to follow his stable of artists into abstraction is often seen as further evidence of a “conservative” if not “aristocratic” streak, a desire not to frighten Lavery’s horses. But in fact it represented a rejection of “art for art’s sake” in favour of a set of visual symbols that Britons of all classes might recognise and celebrate in the way they did Clark’s dog.

Tate Britain’s exploration of his career allows us to appreciate his interrogation of art itself, appreciate something bigger than the individualistic way we seem to view art now.

The BBC recently announced plans to commission a new Civilisation. Can Tony Hall channel his inner Medici? Will we end up with a series about art, or another exercise in showing that this or that artist was as “shocking” and “challenging” as today’s YBAs?

Can he commission a series which will explore art itself, as an expression of what it means to be beautiful, creative, alive?

It’s hard to say.

Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation is at Tate Britain until August 10.