Features Published 23 May 2014

The Critic and the Collector

Kirsten Tambling visits the new Kenneth Clark exhibition at Tate Britain.
Kirsten Tambling

John Constable’s Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’

Visitors to last month’s Ruin Lust at Tate Britain will see a familiar face at Kenneth Clark. Constable’s ‘Sketch for “Hadleigh Castle”’ formed part of Ruin Lust’s opening triptych, illustrating British artists’ responses to the ‘ruin’ across generations, and in dialogue with a British tradition.

Kenneth Clark acquired it for the nation in the 1930s. He considered Constable one of the greatest British artists, partly because of his interest in what Clark considered a crucial British subject: the weather. As a Constable-Clark touchstone, the Sketch for “Hadleigh Castle” now hangs in Room 2 of Kenneth Clark. Its function here is similar to the role it played in Ruin Lust. It explores a history of British art, and specifically how that history was constructed. Fitting, for a newly revamped Tate Britain.

The question of where artworks have been – whether they were displayed, like the Constable, in earlier exhibitions or hung on illustrious private walls – is becoming increasingly common in the exhibition world. Recently, artists’ collections have been explored in exhibitions at the Ashmolean, the RA and Bath’s Holburne. The National Gallery’s Strange Beauty considered its own collecting history and the art critics and collectors – like Clark – who shaped it. Kenneth Clark at Tate is the latest on the list to engage with these questions, and it focuses primarily on Clark’s own collection, which included several works formerly in older collections still, such as those of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Clark’s idol John Ruskin.

There are plenty of strikes against ‘Lord Clark of Civilisation’ before you even enter the gallery. His books are peppered with ridiculous one-liners, such as his speculation about whether or not the printing press was a positive step and his discussion of Rubens’ ‘fat girls’. He wrote a book on ‘Feminine Beauty’. Born into inherited wealth and privilege, today for many Kenneth Clark represents the apex of privileged, white, patrician art historical conservatism. However, he remains a crucial figure in the development of twentieth-century art history He was Director of the National Gallery from the age of 30 until 1945, though the achievement for which he is probably best remembered today is surely his epic television series Civilisation. The first TV programme to tackle art history, Civilisation remains a key point in the development of televised documentaries and art’s popularisation for wider audiences.

But as this exhibition shows, Clark had a more decisive influence in areas few may realise he actively worked in. Believing there was a ‘crisis of patronage’ in contemporary Britain, he initiated a programme of support for and regular purchases from his favourite British artists of the day: Victor Pasmore, William Coldstream, John Piper, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland. Today, these artists are widely considered to be what British art ‘was’ during the 1930s and 40s: Piper and Sutherland, like Constable, were well represented in last month’s Ruin Lust, and there are some more splendid examples here.

But they represented Clark’s vision of what British art should be: representational, interested in nature (and the weather), and, another key ‘British’ concept for Clark, ‘poetic’. He considered surrealism and abstract art self-indulgent and navel-gazing. Subtitled ‘Looking for Civilisation’, this exhibition links the task of his television programme with Clark’s life, work and collecting. This includes several rooms of those key British artists, but also a number of beautiful earlier Renaissance, antique and Impressionist paintings, drawings and objets d’art.

In part, exhibitions’ interest in collections is an interest in re-evaluating an artwork’s ownership history, or ‘provenance’. A key art historical tool for making attributions, provenance was integral for art historians of Clark’s generation, but perhaps now its associations, like Clark’s, are considered troublingly elitist and old-fashioned. Its perceived lack of interest to the public can be seen in the point that Tate doesn’t display its paintings’ provenance publicly on its website, though this information is crucial for scholarly catalogues. Exhibitions such as Kenneth Clark at Tate Britain therefore offer a slightly different angle on provenance for the public by showcasing the hidden narrative of art history as something shaped by people with money and influence – and personalities, like Clark’s. So, though it may not be to everyone’s taste, Kenneth Clark is important viewing from a gallery posing some challenging questions.

Kenneth Clark – Looking for Civilisation is at Tate Britain, London, from 20th May – 10th August 2014

Kirsten Tambling on the Ruin Lust exhibition.

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Kirsten Tambling

Kirsten has worked at the Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum, The National Gallery and Dr. Johnson’s House and studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She’s also a zine self-publisher and impulsive project schemer.

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