Kenneth McKenzie Clark, Baron Clark, OM, CH, KCB, FBA was a British author, museum director, broadcaster, and one of the best-known art historians of his generation. In 1969, he achieved an international popular presence as the writer, producer, and presenter of the BBC Television series, Civilisation.
I started watching this and then bought the book. This is sumptuous. It was made in 1969 by the BBC to encourage people to buy colour television sets, I believe. As an introduction to the arts it is quite conservative. But it gives an interesting overview of the history of art and some notion of the main periods. What he calls civilisation covers a remarkably slight and slender portion of human civilisation, you know, apart from the occasional bridge, it really seems to amount to art. Nothing wrong with this, but civilisation does seem to be somewhat more. Also, this is very much the civilisation of Western Europe after the dark ages. This probably could have done with a better name.
There is a lovely episode in the middle that focuses on music – mostly Bach – while panning across Baroque architecture. After a while it all gets to be too much and you can’t really take it in anymore, but you do get the impression that if there was a God he really would be pretty impressed with that period all-round.
After the churches and palaces and lavish paintings and public squares with marble god-knows-what, the final episode pans drearily across the New York skyline prior to the World Trade Centre being built, but still amongst endlessly the same skyscrapers. It is a strikingly sad scene. He mumbles something about opulence amongst squalor, but what really strikes you is how horribly dull the buildings are. We are richer than ever before, and yet after 12 episodes of architecture that would make you weep, paintings that cannot but leave you dazed and spinning, it is hard to look at ‘the best of the modern world’ and not think, “Is this really the best we can do?”
I guess painting church ceilings for twenty-years wasn’t really efficient – and we all know how terribly important it is to be efficient.
I think this could well have been better if it was purely a history of art and therefore sought to present that history by explaining more of what the artists where seeking to do and why. For example, what where the technological and scientific prerequisites that made point perspective painting possible? How did such painting change the way we saw space? What is the relationship between symbolic representation and naturalistic representation and to what extent are these contradictory? How did the invention of oil paints or access to various pigments affect what and how things were painted? How did the black-death impact on the history art and literature – beyond say Petrarch and Laura?
Let me give you a better example. I’m reading his The Nude at the moment – or rather, I was reading it and have been distracted with other things. In it he says that architecture – particularly Classical architecture – is premised on the same proportions as the human body. The columns are the legs, the ceiling is the shoulders. But, as much as I like this idea, he never explains it in a way I can really understand. And he says the same is true of Gothic architecture, but this left me even more confused. I think I would need a diagram – I think I would need numbers. Anyway, I certainly need more – he tantalizes, where he should explain. I would love to see a program that really did relate the arts – music, painting, sculpture, crafts and so on – from each period showing the common features of each art form and the striking differences. You know, in something like the way Foucault does with economics, biology and linguistics in The Order of Things. That is, a history of art that expresses what the artists were seeking to say, and seeking to show in their art. A history of art as if it was done by that other BBC presenter of personal views – James Burke – with his Connections or The Day the Universe Changed - perhaps my two all-time favourite documentaries.
But this was meant as a very expensive chocolate box, or jewellery box and it is certainly that – like I said, it is sumptuous. I wonder why we don’t make more documentaries like this anymore? Are people really not interested?
I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room
I must admit immediately that I have never read nor even laid eyes on this book. I’m sure it’s lovely. This review is, rather, about the television series, which I’d wager is twice as lovely.
Civilisation is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. Kenneth Clark takes his viewer from the Dark Ages, through romanesque, gothic, the Renaissance, the Reformation, baroque, rococo, neoclassicism, impressionism, through the industrial revolution and the two World Wars, all the way up to when the program was made in the late 1960s. This is a remarkable amount of ground to cover for a show with 13 episodes, each 50 minutes long.
Not only chronologically, but in subject matter, this documentary casts a wide net. Although the show’s primary emphasis is on architecture and art, Clark also dips into literature, poetry, music, engineering, politics, and wider social problems like inequality, poverty, oppression, and war. Of course, for lack of time Clark cannot delve too deeply into any one of these subjects; but because the presentation is so skillful and economical, and the selection of material so tasteful, the viewer is nevertheless satisfied at the end of every episode.
The documentary generally shifts between shots of Clark facing the camera, talking to the viewer, and extended, panoramic shots of churches, monuments, paintings, drawings, sculptures, and mountains, while beautiful music plays in the background. Clark himself chose the musical accompaniments to these visuals, and they are uniformly splendid (and this is one reason why I recommend the documentary over the book). More than perhaps anything I’ve seen on a screen, this series is rich, lavish, sumptuous. As the camera pans over the altarpiece of a church, while Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion plays in the background, it’s so lush and gorgeous that it almost gives you a stomach ache.
Aside from these visuals and music, the main attraction of the series is Clark himself. He comes across as refined, cosmopolitan—almost a freak of erudition. But for all that, he is charming and witty, if ultimately a bit cold. One of the strongest impressions I got was that Clark was a man from another time. He looks out of place as he walks through the modern streets, crowded with cars and buzzing with urban life. He has many misgivings about the modern world: he is anti-Marxist, anti-modern art, and certainly didn’t understand the student protests and hippie culture flourishing at the time. In his own words, he was a “stick in the mud,” and I think felt alienated from his time because of his intense appreciation, even worship, of Western art.
This brings me to some of this program’s shortcomings. Most of these are due to the time in which it was made. This is most apparent in the first episode, “The Skin of Our Teeth,” wherein he argues that civilization almost disappeared during the Dark Ages, and comes close to crediting Charlemagne as the savior of all subsequent culture. This requires that he completely discredit both Byzantine and Muslim culture (not to mention Chinese), both of which were doing just fine. He repeats the tired stereotype about Byzantium being a fossilized culture and treats the Muslims as simple destroyers. Later on in the series, he has some uncharitable things to say about the Germans, which I think was a product of growing up during the World War.
A more serious flaw might be that the series bites off more than it can chew. The questions Clark poses to answer are vast. What is civilization? What makes it thrive? What makes it fall apart? Deep questions, but his answers are by comparison shallow. Civilization requires confidence in the future; they cannot be built on fear. Civilization requires rebirth, the constant search for new styles and ideas; but it also requires continuity and tradition, a respect for the past. Civilization is pushed forward by men of genius (and in this series, they’re all men), who enlarge our faculties with their godlike creative powers; men like Michelangelo, Dante, Beethoven, men who are timeless and yet who forever alter the face of culture.
These are interesting answers, but they seem rather superficial to me. They describe, rather than explain, civilization. But of course, this is a documentary, not a monograph. And although Clark asks and tries to answer many questions, I think his primary goal was simply to inspire a sense of the worth, the preciousness, the grandeur of the accomplishments of European civilization. He wants to remind his viewers that our culture is fragile, and that we owe to it not only beautiful paintings and poetry, but also our very ability to see and appreciate the beauty in certain ways, to think about ideas in a certain light, to live not only a happy but a full and rich life.
Maybe this seems pinched and old-fashioned nowadays. Still, I can’t help thinking of all the times that a friend, a fellow student, or even a teacher has made a blanket statement about “Western culture,” “Enlightenment ideas,” “scientific materialism,” or some such thing, while seeming to understand none of it. (I've probably done this myself, too.) I’ve been in classes—serious, graduate-level classes—where, amid condemnations of “Western” ideas and gratuitous namedropping of Western philosophers, I realized that I was the only person there, professor included, who actually read some of these authors. I’m not making this up.
I suppose this is just a callow intellectual fashion, and it will eventually pass away. And I also suppose that this might be slightly preferable to the idiotic self-glorification of “European man” that prevailed in earlier times. At present, however, this program is a wonderful corrective to our bad habits of thought. It’s an education, a social critique, and a joy. I hope you get a chance to watch it.
This is an excellent, beautifully illustrated book based on the fascinating BBC television series that was broadcast in the first half of 1969. If it is still in print or available as an antiquarian book, I can recommend it highly to anyone who likes post-Roman empire European history, art, or any well-written non-fiction literature.
This book is 50 years old, and only the paper version of a BBC-TV-series. As a young man I saw this series and was very impressed by the erudition of Clark and his strong views. So many years later, these views obviously are very outdated; the narrow Western focus today would be completely out of the question; moreover, Clark did not venture into the twentieth century art, though we do have the impression that he has a not so flattering opinion about it. Some of his remarks, we would be ashamed of today (about the urge of Germans for hysteria, for example).
But still, it remains quite impressive to get all the different art genres in one comprehensive overview. Moreover, it was nice to see how Clark approaches the concept of "civilization" very cautiously and does not give a simple definition. Finally, I want to repeat his closing lines, a creed that still stands and that I endorse completely: "I believe order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven't changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must try to learn from history" Amen!
Определено не бих седнал да пиша пространно и задълбочено за толкова позната книга – в едно или друго издание (или под лесната тв форма) “Цивилизацията” на Кенет Кларк присъства наоколо от достатъчно дълго време, има иконичен статус и преди епохата на инернет е била сред най-добрите начини човек да се плъзне по повърхността на западноевропейското и малко от американското изкуство. Поредното ѝ издание на български е факт с качествена хартия, стотици илюстрации и твърда корица, точно както си е редно. Разбира се, стилът и някои от заключенията на Кларк звучат поостарели, но сърцевината на тази книга е непокътната, защото тя и спира преди век – самият автор не смее да погледне своето време с очите, с които гледа миналото. Както повечето интелектуалци, така и той лелее по отминали епохи и съзира само недостатъците на времето си.
This weekend I have indulged myself with a visit to Hatchard's Piccadilly, London's oldest bookstore. For those who haven't been there yet - I strongly recommend you do next time you are in the city! It is a fabulous place. A bookstore as the bookstores were meant to be. Full of charm, treasures to be found and quirky intelligent staff. Perhaps it is not where one goes bargain-hunting, but their selection is superb. Most of the new releases available 'signed by the author' and they are also offering a marvellous selection of the first editions...
It turned out that Hatchard's just released a limited hardback edition of 'Civilization' by Sir Kenneth Clark. It is hailed as best non-fiction book in the store's 220-year history. Well, this was an easy decision on an early Xmas gift to self.
I think this is a wonderful way for physical stores to differentiate and stay relevant under stress of online competition. Win customers through the unique experience and their intrinsic character.
About two-thirds of the way through, Clark makes a statement that to me sums up the whole point of the narrative: "[A]lthough one may use works of art to illustrate the history of civilization, one must not pretend that social conditions produce works of art or inevitably influence their form." This is exactly what Clark does: the progress of art is discussed in parallel with the progress in civilization, of which art is simultaneously herald, inspirator, and mirror. At times I feel that Clark does what he claims not to do- he shows how art arises out of social conditions. This is particularly evident in the chapter on the early ages of Western civilization, the 11th to 13th centuries. Perhaps he should not be faulted for doing so, as there is little else left to us as chronicle of the thought of those times.
Overall Clark is a well-read, opinionated, witty (and sometimes naughty) narrator. One cannot help but admire and yearn to espouse his personal belief that civilization cannot have moved forward as it has but for the essential contributions made by persons of genius ("heroes" as he calls them) who are not products of but miracles of society.
I close the last page with an overarching concept of Western civilization and notes for future reading and deeper studies. I recommend this book as an excellent nonfiction "gateway" read for those who mainly read fiction.
Ограмотих се доста относно различните стилове и течения в изкуството и архитектурата на Западна Европа за последните 1500 години, както и причините и обстоятелствата около възникването им, и вече мога да правя много по-фини разграничения от: скулптура, картина, гравюра :) Разказът е едно плавно пътуване във времето, а увлекателността на изказа ми напомни много за начина, по който разказва Карл Сейгън. Явно ще се гледа и едноименната телевизионна поредица на Кенет Кларк.
God, if this were newer...Here's an incredible survey of what happened in art, philosophy, and (most importantly) architecture from ~1000-1915. It's not entirely optimistic, but looks up enough. Paths, rights, and wrongs don't much play into it. We're creating piles of architecture, sweet paintings, effortless sculpture--or we're graceful in proportion, famed in ideas, moderate in wealth, and subtle in human appreciation. If there's a pattern, it's cyclical, short, and ecstatic. Some of the best pieces give the age of the spirit, others directly contradict (or, better, ignore the impulse to comment on the political, social hum). Small recommendations to the restless Germans (esp. Rococo), much to be said for the delicacies of the Italian Renaissance, and the natural wonders of Rousseau and the Romantics. I couldn't possibly summarize. There's so very much out there, have we the confidence to match it?
Watched the series produced from this book more times than I can remember. It is narrated by the author and mesmerizing. Need to get the book (which has been on my shelf for a number of years) down and read it!
I picked this up at a thrift shop because I didn't see the BBC series back in the late sixties. I was always attracted to the image of Charlemagne on the cover. This being a series of essays rather than a linear history of art and civilization, Clark leads us through the development of Western Europe through some interesting generalizations: that craft (text illumination, decoration, reliquaries) led to art and architecture during the middle ages; that the age of reason eventually led to a "Worship of Nature"; that the Industrial Age had the potential to be as destructive to civilization as the Huns. He trashed the Protestant Reformation so roundly (I believe he refers to innate Teutonic ferocity) that Francis Schaeffer felt the need to film "How Shall We Then Live?" as a counterargument.
Since this was not a comprehensive art history text, Clark featured specific artists. I appreciated the fact he featured Riemenschneider, Holbein, Bernini, and Watteau (who never seem to get their just recognition - especially in a world where the books about artists like Holbein are insanely outnumbered by books about any of the Impressionists). Two comments about the illustrations: First off, thank God for google images. Some art should never ever be shown as a fragment. Courbet's "Funeral at Ornan" is a case in point. Secondly, I've always felt that captions for artwork should include date and location in addition to artist and title. How hard is that?
I rate this book very high brow and definitely redolent of tweed and fine leather.
This book is a fitting companion to the excellent videos of the same name. Kenneth Clark was one of those delightful english gentlemen with an impeccable education, and who use english properly and to whom it is a pleasure to listen, and to watch (other than for seing his english dentistry). It traces the precarious survival of christian civilization in the last thousand or so years, through the accomplishments of that time that--unlike history--cannot easily lie: its Art; its Books; and its Architecture; all, thanks to the value seen in those things by the Christian Church, one of the few sources of wealth at that time. It is a cornucopia of pleasure in every way, bringing those delights before us that we would otherwise never see, or even know about.
A splendid walk through the museum of Western civilisation, covering primarily its architecture and its paintings since the Dark Ages, but also touching on music and literature, with a highly educated and worldly tour guide. Kenneth Clark holds up art as a mirror to Western society, a reflection of its concerns, ideas and most intense feelings. Although the author is careful to note that art does not necessarily imitate life (perhaps, the opposite is true), his narrative draws clear links from great works of art to the social conditions of their creators -- take, for instance, Michelangelo's David and Renaissance's utmost faith in human greatness or Byron's poetry and the disillusioned Europe following the fall of the Bastille.
What makes the book enthralling is that it is unapologetically individualistic and unashamedly opinionated. Kenneth Clark does not shy away from praising one artist above the rest, from labelling certain individuals and their thought as mediocre, from interpreting historical movements and relating them to successes and failures of post-WWII society. You may not agree with the author's views, but you will not be reading a dry encyclopedia. At its heart, the book promotes the great man theory (and indeed, the book is almost exclusively about great white men) of history and of art: great historical events and great works of art occur due to a handful of singular, extraordinarily gifted individuals who, though born of, transcend their society and their time. To live in a civilised society is to allow such individuals to foster and realise their talents. Is that so? Well, whether right or wrong, it does not detract from the book. To read Civilisation is to indulge in one thoughtful man's perspective on the history of the Western world, as told by its great art.
This is an erudite but accessible survey of over a thousands years of art, as Kenneth Clark asks the question, how can we sum up a civilisation? It's witty and beautiful, and I've heard it said elsewhere, that Clark does not speak down to you, but rather speaks to an equal, attempting to learn something from the tremendous order and feeling within the legacy our ancestor's have left behind. This book will make you feel like pondering deep thoughts while walking through nature, or perhaps dusting off your complete works of Shakespeare while following a baroque playlist on Spotify.
Verbatim of classic TV series where Kenneth Clark discussed civilization of Western Europe from collapse of Roman Europe to recent times. I am not familiar with original TV program so for me this was the first introduction with Clark and I loved it,his way with words is very classy and he surely and swiftly moves from one subject to another,in fact there were so many interesting side-stories that I started to note everything down for future research,absolutely loved his style and often would re-read certain pages because this was educational and stylish at the same time. Sure,we can read between the lines and understand these opinions come from elderly gentleman of certain background (for example,women are not mentioned at all) but once this was understood,reader have lot to enjoy in here.
Every chapter covers some important innovation,be it in architecture,music,art or simply in change of thinking - Clark mentions Dante,Holbein,Mozart and Voltaire illustrating his stories with funny little anecdotes (H.G.Wells wouldn't dare to drive a car in France,because the temptation to run over a priest would be too strong for him) and there are literary thousands of informations that reader can treasure and savour later.
Some are dead-set against edition without illustrations,well I happened to buy the only available here and it was paperback with not a single illustration and wouldn't you know,it did not made any difference (except that is probably lighter to carry around on my travels than hardback,illustrated version) for me as I love READING,not just looking at pictures. I can read about any subject and find the illustration myself if I want to,we have internet now so everything is available. It reminds me of Alice's question of what's the point of book without pictures,well I am life-long passionate reader and for me the language and the style of the writer is more important than pictures. This is beautiful,little book that covers centuries of innovations and I absolutely love it.
From Aurelius to Aristotle and from Michelangelo to Byron, the presenter Kenneth Clark had an exquisite taste that any man would die for. If I can travel back in time, I would definitely want his company all day long and listen to his observations and findings of Classical Antiquity and the Renaissance. And yes, I love his tweeds!
Although both the book dates back to 1969, I enjoyed the reading very much. To be honest, I read the book and watched the related DVD-series simultaneously. The DVD offers the opportunity to see also the buildings, pieces of art, paintings to which Sir Kenneth Clark refers. The book covers a history of civilisation covering more than a millenium of European history. Focus is rather on the Low Countries, Italy, Germany, France and the Isles. Little or no attention to Spain and Eastern/ Middle Europe. Although the book is almost 50 years old, it still holds a relevant truth: civilisations fall when they get bored and fearful. The last few decades, decadence and oikophobia (the fear for itself, a word used by the philosopher Roger Scruton) rule over Europe. Yes, oikophobia rather than the politically correct and liberal fetish called xenophobia. Every reader should agree on the concluding comments of Sir Kenneth Clark, that order and gentleness are to be preferred over chaos and violence and one should believe in something greater than human life, call it Nature or God. It is naive to be optimist because Popper requires us to be so, but it would be the greatest failure of our and the next generations to jeopardize this rich European civilisation by being bored or fearful. To quote world's best novel Lord of the Rings: "I bid to stand, men of the West!"
I'm not familiar with the related TV show, but this book is nothing like a television production. It is an interesting and subjective look at how art, architecture and literature shaped Western civilisation. I'm sure Clark would have added other parts of the world as well, but he himself admits int he book that he doesn't know enough about other civilisations to make such comments (though he does tip his hat to those civilisations when he can).
The book starts at around the middle of the first century, when the Roman Empire collapsed, and traces the rise and fall and rise of civilisation through its art and construction. Many artists, poets and architects pass through the pages, as well as a handful of scientists and philosophers. Clark doesn't explain every detail, so someone not at all familiar with the people or events in the book might become confused. But if you're skimmed the various histories of art and philosophy around Europe and the Mediterranean, this is a fun and insightful read.
I particularly enjoy how Clark unpacks the early centuries - the so-called dark ages - and how he treats the transitions between rationalism, romanticism and modernism. Even though this was written half a century ago, it contains insight and warnings that are still very relevant to our world today.
Although this book went in a different direction from what I expected, I still found it thought-provoking and worthwhile to read. Clark seeks to give the reader his take on the development of European society of the last thousand years through the movements in its architecture and art. He starts with the collapsed of the Roman Empire and follows the different artistic movements that arose during the “barbarian” invasions as they morphed from imitating the Roman style to developing their own. He similarly follows the architectural development of the Europe of the Middle Ages and works hard to dispel the myth of monotone stagnation that has pervaded the art of the period. In this vein he follows the evolution of the architecture, music, painting and sculpture up to the end of WWII and in each period he tries to show how the artistic movements followed the philosophical inclination of the times. Although Clark descends into condescension of the artistic achievements of the other parts of the world and is rather grandiose in its claims of describing “civilization”, the reader that understands this book for what it is, an artistic history of Europe (and a succinct and good one at that), will find it quite worthwhile to read.
Civilisation, based upon a TV series of the same name, is a detailed exploration of the history of Western art and philosophy by historian Kenneth Clark. Clark takes the reader on a journey through European history, illustrating the zeitgeist of each epoch through the most representative pieces of architecture, paintings, sculptures, and literature. For the most part his commentary is very interesting, but one difficulty I had is that as somebody who has a very limited understanding of the world of art in general, I did not recognise the majority of the pieces of art that were mentioned. As such, I'd have found it far more valuable to watch the series, or at least to have had some photos for reference. For this reason, those with a more developed understanding of art history will probably appreciate the book more. Nonetheless, it was stlil a very interesting read. Clark admits that much of his commentary is largely subjective and he necessarily has to omit various important pieces of art in order to keep to the ~300 page limit, but it's obvious to the reader (or at least to this one) that Clark is an authority on the topic and his opinion should be respected. 6/10
Kenneth Clark was an historian of art who wrote and narrated the first color BBC documentary, Civilisation, and produced a lavishly illustrated book along the same lines. The film was shown at Grinnell College during my freshman year. Thereafter I picked up the book.
Both book and documentary are not so much histories of art as they are histories of (primarily western) civilization earmarked to great and illustrative works of art.
Grinnell College is not the place to go if one enjoys the spendors of nature. It is surrounded by corn, alfalfa and soy fields. Grinnell is not the place to go it one enjoys the night life and distractions of cities. The town itself is small with virtually no night life. Grinnell is a good place to study because there is little else to do there. Our work, however, was punctuated every weekend by films presented in the Alumni Recitation Hall, films of generally of high quality, films like Clark's Civilisation.
I first saw this series when it was released by the BBC to Public Television over thirty years ago, and would beg my local station, WHYY, to keep running it until their money ran out. Why? Quite simply, to my mind, it is the most superior series ever seen on television, public or not. Lord Clark was not only brilliant, witty and engaging, but he was a teacher and, surprisingly, a most charming television presence. He has become my lifetime companion, and if this series ever comes out on DVD, I will buy it again. Also, were it not for this groundbreaking series, we would never have seen its many imitators - The Ascent of Man, America, Cosmos, Life on Earth, The Living Planet. Need I go on? Do not wait for this video to become unavailable. For anyone with a need to know about the visual arts, history, music and how they all should share space in our lives, let this program be your companion as well.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
As the updated series is currently on TV, this is a good time to read the book that accompanied Kenneth Clarke’s original documentary ‘Civilisation’ back in 1969. I watched it several years ago and loved it. The book is essentially Clarke’s narrative stripped of all the luscious visuals and music. It’s interesting to compare Clarke’s version with this year’s modern updating. Clarke’s was essentially a chronological wander through the history of Western art & architecture. The programmes of Schama, Beard & Olusoga are thematic lectures with a global reach. That being said there is much to like in Clarke’s version - it’s certainly a very good starting point for anyone interested in art history. It’s also surprisingly prophetic. He ends the series & the book by quoting Yeats “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”. That could describe 2018, and frankly doesn’t it feel as if civilisation as we know it is in grave danger?