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A personal view.

Tate Britain's forthcoming exhibition on Kenneth Clark offers a chance to think about how the biographies of art historians might percolate into their work. Is art history a type of self-portraiture?

According to its catalogue, Tate Britain's upcoming exhibition "Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation' (20 May-10 August) will present "a boldly comprehensive portrait' of the art historian, broadcaster and patron. That description, "portrait', calls specific objects to mind: Graham Sutherland's 1963-64 painting of Clark (1903-83) in profile, or Cecil Beaton's 1955 photograph of him in front of a 17th-century marble Virgin and Child, looking over a draft he seems to have pulled from his pocket.

Clark portrayed himself directly at least twice. At school, he made a beguilingly odd chalk drawing of himself aged 15 (Fig. 1); later in life, he wrote two volumes of memoirs subtitled A Self-Portrait. But it is Beaton's image, which captures him holding a written text in front of a work of art, that best suggests how his writing thrived on the productively porous line between criticism and the critic's own life. That line that has interested many art historians in recent decades, for all their differences of perspective: from John Berger to T.J. Clark, Svedana Alpers and Jonathan Brown.

One of Kenneth Clark's great unfinished projects was a book on the 15th-century Italian polymath Leon Battista Alberti, whose Della Pittura set the proverb "every painter paints himself on its path to cliche by suggesting that Narcissus was the first, archetypal painter. Clark would also have known the reformulation "every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter'; though he thought its author, Oscar Wilde, had merely vulgarised his intellectual influences. Clark, whose "Art History and Criticism as Literature' (1954) channels Baudelaire's rejection of the distinction between criticism and creativity, was nevertheless a belated Aesthete, keen to claim Wilde's influences--particularly Walter Pater and John Ruskin--as his own. Like all "remarkable styles', he thought, Pater's "echoes a music that was playing in his head, and might without extravagance be called the rhythm of his whole personality. The first words of his 1969 television series Civilisation: A Personal View are "Ruskin said ... 20 years earlier, he had written an introduction to Ruskin's autobiography, Praeterita, concluding that: "The civilised man of taste may claim that his preferences are entirely personal, and that he has neither the right nor the desire to force them on others. But no windows are opened, no horizons enlarged, no spirits set free by this wise indifference.'

Thus Civilisation's cunning disclaimer: A Personal View. In the catalogue of "Looking for Civilisation', John-Paul Stonard suggests Jacob Burckhardt's original subtitle for The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy (Die Kulturder Renaissance in Italien; 1860), "eines blossen versuches', was an inspiration for Clark's; it translates roughly as "a mere attempt'. Both are indebted to the rhetorical modesty of the original "attempts' of the Renaissance, Montaigne's humanistic, aristocratically detached Essais (1570-92). Clark's version of the tower to which Montaigne retired to write--as the cameras show us in Civilisation--was either his own country pile of Saltwood Castle in Kent, or the back seat of his parked Bentley, where he was also wont to write. Montaigne's single-minded commitment "to tell the truth', Clark explains in the book that accompanied Civilisation (Fig. 2), had led him to invent the essay: "a truth that depended on the testimony of the only person he could examine without shame or scruple, himself. In the past, self-examination had been painful and penitential. To Montaigne, it was a pleasure, and he says: "No pleasure hath any savour unless I can communicate it.'" Indeed, that motto could be pasted above the door of Tate's "Looking for Civilisation' exhibition, as an apt introduction to a display of works that were either owned, commissioned, or written about by Clark.

For the literary critic Philippe Lejeune, the way Montaigne diffused his own personality throughout his essays had "no connection with, as we define it, autobiography; there is no continuous narrative nor any systematic history of the personality. [It is] Self-portrait rather than autobiography'. Implying an external object or objects which can be referred to for authority, and suggesting, rather than spelling out interiority, it seems a useful model for thinking about art criticism; especially if it lets the writer make a virtue of his or her subjectivity.

But subjectivity was already under critical scrutiny by the time Civilisation was produced. In 1967, John Berger had claimed in "No More Portraits' that the possibility of fixing an individual's appearance "from a single viewpoint in one place' was dead, and with it, the entire Western tradition of portraiture exactly the kind of "advanced' thought which Civilisation warned its viewers was putting everything they were about to see under threat.

The reasons were political: where Civilisation was built around the assumption that "almost everything of value which has happened in the world has been due to individuals', Berger was closer to Karl Marx's sense that though these individuals make their own history, they do so "under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past'. In 1972, Berger collaborated with the filmmaker Mike Dibb and others on Ways of Seeing, a TV series that challenged the unabashed subjectivity of Clark's Personal View in execution and argument. In its first scene, Berger riffs on the arbitrariness of portraiture: plunging a Stanley knife into a reproduction of Botticelli's Venus and Mars, he slices out the head of Venus in portrait format, recasting the goddess as an unknown blonde. In the final scene, he reminds the viewer that "You receive images and meanings which are arranged. I hope you will consider what I arrange. But be sceptical of it.'

Doesn't criticial self-portraiture--or whatever you want to call the critic's knowing subjectivity--diminish our appreciation of art, as much as an excessive interest in artists' biographies might be said to? The latter has been a fertile subject for art-historical debate in the decades since Civilisation and Ways of Seeing--perhaps nowhere more so than in the field of Picasso studies. In the wake of MoMA's 1980 Picasso retrospective, Rosalind Krauss's The Originality of the Avant-Garde (1985) noted the critical rise of "the autobiographical Picasso'; a facile tendency to explain away the artist's astonishingly frequent changes in style by reference to his relationships. Krauss described this tendency to read Picasso's work through his lovers--Olga, Marie-Therese, Dora, Francoise, Jacqueline--as an avoidance of "all that is transpersonal in history--style, social and economic context, archive, structure'. It was, she memorably claimed, an "art-history as a history of the proper name', which, "prone to parody or not', was "upheld by many respected scholars'. Last year, T. J. Clark's Picasso and Truth, which acknowledges Krauss's "brave' intervention, took further aim at Picasso criticism's perceived over-reliance on the artist's biography: "our culture fights so hard to trivialise--to make biographical--what he shows us.'

It is interesting, then, that T.J. Clark's The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (2006; Fig. 4), was such a self-reflexive work about looking at art--and one that indicates the persistence of the idea of the "personal view'. Constructed as a diary, it records the experience of returning repeatedly to Nicolas Poussin's Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake and Landscape with a Calm, over a period in the year 2000 during which they hung together at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. This is autobiographical writing, but not uncomplicatedly so.

Take how it dwells on hindsight, and how that can affect the art historian's viewpoint. [T. J.] Clark remembers how he and John Barrell had stood on the steps of the National Gallery in 1968, asking each other if they found themselves storming the gallery, which painting would have to "go the way of all flesh'. Clark chose Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake; at a historical moment at which a new society felt possible, the work seemed to suggest that "fear and hopelessness are part of the natural order of things'. But for the older writer, the painting now seems "partly an allegory of revolution, and what the running man is recoiling from (and looking back at) is the implications of his own extremism.' For Clark, then, looking at Man Killed by a Snake--and his earlier self's attitude towards it serves as an ideal backdrop for a self-portrait of a critic wrestling with what it means to render paint into language. In asking the essential question "how does our understanding of an image change over time', Clark was also asking how that "we' changes over time.

However we view it, "Looking for Civilisation' will be an unusual exhibition to mount in Tate Britain's Linbury Galleries: a biographical account of a man who stopped making art at university. Shortly before it opens, Jonathan Brown will publish In the Shadow of Velazquez: A Life in Art History (Fig. 5), a venerable art historian's "model for understanding how art history is shaped by life experiences' which reaches back to his early encounters with Golden Age painting in Francoera Spain. Around the same time, the archive that John Berger donated to the British Library in 2009 will open to readers. Berger has always refrained from writing outright memoir, declaring that all that interests him about his own life are "the common moments. The moments [which] will join countless others lived by people I do not personally know'. Nevertheless, giving his archive to a library in the city of his birth appealed to him as a way of opening up the stories of those who had written to him, and because "the company of the past' which the reader could step in to. Refusing to sell it to the highest bidder, he reiterated the political committment that has underpinned the life the archive represents.

And only last year, the American art historian Svetlana Alpers descibed her essay-memoir Roof Life a "self-portrait, or perhaps several self-portraits', declaring that "I don't think that lives need to be constructed in the form of a story'. Discussing the cityscape suggested by her title, Alpers tellingly thought back to the Essais, wondering if French writers have associated writing with retreating to towers "ever since Montaigne in his library'.

But why all this concern with critical self-portraiture now? Perhaps these writers have reached points in their career at which they can get away with it, having lived through several reimaginings of the relationship of the individual to the collective, and arrived, via postmodernism, back at Montaigne. Or perhaps it's just me, seeing what I was looking for.

Tom Overton has recently been responsible for cataloguing John Berger's archive in the British Library, London.

"Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation' is at Tate Britain from 20 May until 10 August. For more, go to
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Title Annotation:FEATURE: LIVES OF THE ART HISTORIANS; Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation
Author:Overton, Tom
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2014
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