Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Looking for Civilisation, Discovering Clark

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Looking for Civilisation, Discovering Clark

Article excerpt

Looking for Civilisation, Discovering Clark Review of: 'Kenneth Clark - Looking for Civilisation', An Exhibition at Tate Britain, 20 May - 10 August 2014

As the push for blockbuster shows and record-breaking audiences exerts ever greater pressure upon the London art world I must admit that I had certain misgivings as to what an exhibition like this could hope to achieve. There was no promise of high-profile masterpieces, of an innovative spin in juxtaposing familiar works in a new light, or of a revolutionary subtext armed with 'sound bites' appropriate for the digital cultural age in which we live. In fact the exhibition has been rather dismissively described as the latest in a recent run of niche exhibitions held at Tate Britain addressing a narrow 'intellectual' elite which fail to deliver.1 Yet such a view is really quite mean-spirited and counter-productive. The modern high- profile art gallery is required to be all things to all people: catering to the full spectrum of audiences, from the art expert to the general public, including diverse social groups, and offering a variety of formats for their shows. Responding to this remit art galleries may provide exhibitions with mass appeal, or a tranche of speciality shows, or both. Art historians and those interested in the discipline of art history equally deserve attention as audience members, and the recent Kenneth Clark - Looking for Civilisation was a welcome departure from the tried and tested approaches of the past in doing so. In a modest and unpretentious way, this exhibition attempted a refreshingly innovative, if understated, strategy which aimed at capturing and synthesizing the holistic nature of what it meant to be an art historian in the twentieth century. I pause before deploying 'modern era' because whilst many of Clark's innovative activities are visible in the current skill set of art historians (scholarly publications, curatorial practice, press interventions, etc.), new developments in terms of blogging, tweeting, and virtual curating have further extended the métier of the art historian in its physical extent if not truly in its intellectual scope.

Art historians as exhibition subjects

Some may believe it an overstatement that Kenneth Clark - Looking for Civilisation was ground-breaking but it must be remembered that the choice of an art historian as historical subject matter for an exhibition is rare. However a recent example of this was afforded by the special display on Antiquity Unleashed: Aby Warburg, Dürer and Mantegna which took place at the Courtauld Institute Gallery (17 October 2013 to 12 January 2014) and now serves to demonstrate aptly its contrasting ambitions to those of the Clark exhibition. Antiquity Unleashed reconstructed the visual materials from the Hamburger Kunsthalle collection employed by Warburg in his 1905 lecture to an audience of around 300 people. Many thousands presumably saw the modern display, enlarging the impact of this art historical artefact in its recreation.2 Yet recreating a specific art historical 'moment' or 'happening' represents a much more modest ambition, further qualified within its Courtauld Gallery context, for it was an adjunct display to the main feature exhibition of The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure (running for the same period) which it accompanied.

This 'partial view' format is perhaps the natural medium for exhibitions connected to art historians. It is more manageable and conforms to the periodic research interests of the art historian in his or her carousel of research (in response to topicality, the chain reaction of ideas, etc.). The Warburg recreation thus posthumously reproduced the 'live' effects of art historical speculation (albeit in an ossified form through the restaging) which might be seen in other 'art historical' displays of the past, for example, Sir Ernst Gombrich's contribution (display, lecture/video and book) on Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art at the National Gallery, London (1995). …

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