Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Civilisation: A Personal View

Civilisation: A Personal View
© 1959 Sir Kenneth Clark
359 pages

We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion -- poetry, beauty,  romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. (John Keating, Dead Poet's Society

In the mid-20th century, in the wake of a war that destroyed much of Europe and created a new tension between the capitalist West and the collectivist East that threatened to put paid to the rest of the world, Sir Kenneth Clark wondered: we are facing a new dark age?  Having posed the question, he returned to study the aftermath of the last dark age, Europe after the collapse of western Rome in hopes that it might offer an answer. Civilisations, he writes, compose political histories of themselves -- but it is the unofficial histories, the evidence they leave behind them, that really speaks. So to study the revival of Europe, to ascertain whether the 20th century west has again lost its vigor, Clark studies the book of art. Civilisation: A Personal View is a sweeping history of western art, primarily visual with a musical interlude.  A political history reveals the ambitions of its author, or patron; but the arts sweep across the human spectrum.  Lavishly illustrated with scores of full-page color photographs, most of the subjects Clark addresses are glorious sights that strike Awe into the heart of the viewer. They are churches, town palaces, sweeping vistas -- but there are the humbly but artfully-built homes, and the scenes of humbler life, too.  Although Clark comments on the evolving technical aspects of art -- the growing skillfulness at depicting man through the middle ages, for instance, from rudimentary figures with helpful "Image of a Man" labels, to the stunning life-like portraiture of the Renaissance -- he is more concerned with the spiritual import of the art. This means more than scenes of religious devotion; Clark believes that civilizations perish because they are exhausted, as though they were tired of being living things. Great art -- art that looks toward the future, that is intended as a lasting monument -- is one sign of life. For Clark, truth, beauty, and goodness are intermingled, though great monuments are not in themselves evidence of moral greatness.  After a lingering look at Byzantine glory, Clark addresses mostly north-western Europe: Britain, France, and Germany.  There is no discounting the book's richly satisfying content, however, for want of geographic range.

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