Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark (1969) * * *

CIVILISATION: A PERSONAL VIEW BY KENNETH CLARK is a 13 episode TV series that chronicles human progress through the centuries. Regarded as one of the finest TV productions ever made, this pretentious highbrow documentary is presented by Kenneth Clark (1903 - 1983), who also wrote an accompanying book. Clark traveled around the world to illustrate the series with breathtakingly beautiful art treasures. The series was produced by the BBC and aired in 1969 on BBC Two. Both the television material and the accompanying book were written by art historian Clark who narrates CIVILISATION.

The series took three years to produce, with filming in over 100 locations across 13 countries. Hailed as a masterpiece when it was first transmitted in 1969, Clark earned a peerage on the strength of the series and became Lord Clark. More pompous, pretentious bullshit. From the fall of the Roman Empire to the Industrial Revolution and beyond, Clark's compelling narrative is accompanied by colour photography of Europe's greatest landmarks. This "history of ideas as illustrated by art and music" remains the benchmark for the numerous programs it inspired. For Clark art is pure, untouched by the corruption of politics and materialism. CIVILISATION is not really a TV show, but a lecture series that presents statements about civilization itself.

Lone Wolf worked as a projectionist at the University of Toronto and showed the entire series countless times for 4 consecutive years. Probably nobody has seen it more times on the big screen than me, and my memory of the series is the art work, Clark's annoying patrician rhetoric, and his astonishing snaggle-toothed mouth. Surely more than anyone he has has given England its reputation as "the land of bad teeth". Yes, it is a great show, but frankly it appeals primarily to snobs who imagine they have infinitely superior taste compared to the "great unwashed". In glorious color, each episode is 50 minutes long, with a total runtime of 670 minutes.

The episodes are as follows:

1) "The Skin of our Teeth" In the first episode Clark admits that he can't define "civilization". He begins with a quote from Ruskin that validates the view that civilization can only be truly understood by studying art. Clark implies civilization is about to be overrun by barbarians, so he offers to start the journey with a look at the last total collapse of reason and culture: when the barbarians destroyed the glory of Rome, then swept through Europe to threaten all the great accomplishments of good Christians. Fortunately, Charlemagne, "the first great man to emerge from the darkness," saved us all. Clark travels from Byzantine Ravenna to the Celtic Hebrides, from the Norway of the Vikings to Charlemagne's chapel at Aachen, telling his story of the Dark Ages--the six centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire.

2) "The Great Thaw" In the second episode Clark tells about the struggle to overcome the "Dark Age" during which nothing happened in the world (meaning Europe). Watch our "leap forward" from ignorance to artistic enlightenment, embodied by cathedrals--big, heavily decorated cathedrals. The sudden reawakening of European civilization in the twelfth century is traced from its first manifestations in the Abbey of Cluny to its high point, the building of the Chartres cathedral.

3) "Romance and Reality" Beginning at a castle in the Loire, then travelling through the hills of Tuscany and Umbria to the cathedral baptistry at Pisa, he examines both the aspirations and achievements of the later Middle Ages in France and Italy. The parade of heroic figures keeps coming. Religion is represented by St. Francis of Assisi and the arts are advanced by Giotto and Dante. Clark follows the development of "the gothic imagination." Now that the courtly love tradition begins to enter art, Clark also finally starts talking about women, at least as embodiments of abstract ideas like Chastity and Nature. He seems to find placing women at the center of things somewhat absurd and courtly love poetry "unreadable". Even Dante, who paid so much honor to his Beatrice, is a little suspect in Clark's eyes.

4) "Man--the Measure of all Things" After devoting some time to females, he is back talking about men. Even better, artistic men. Clark takes a look at the Renaissance, where, in his effort to say something new about a picked-over subject, his sense of humor really comes to the fore. Visiting Florence, Clark claims European thought gained a new impetus from its rediscovery of its classical past. He also visits the palaces at Urbino and Mantua, other centers of Renaissance civilization.

5) "The Hero as Artist" Listing great Renaissance figures, Clark takes us back to 16th century Papal Rome noting the convergence of Christianity and antiquity. He discusses the heavyweight contenders in his survey of art history: Michelangelo, Raphael, and da Vinci--as well as the courtyards of the Vatican, the rooms decorated for the Pope by Raphael, and the Sistine Chapel.

6) "Protest and Communication" Clark takes us back to the Reformation. That is to the Germany of Albrecht Duerer and Martin Luther, the world of the humanitarians Erasmus, Montaigne, and Shakespeare. Clark finally focuses on a group of thinkers known more for their words who reshaped written language and reflected the radical intellectual shift of their age. Still, we spend more time looking at pictures of them than learning the details of their ideas or listening to their words. We do get to see some Shakespeare performed by Ian Richardson and Patrick Stewart.

7) "Grandeur and Obedience" In the Rome of Michelangelo and Bernini, Clark tells of the Catholic Church's fight against the Protestant north, the Counter-Reformation and the Church's new splendor symbolized by the glory of St. Peter’s. The Counter-Reformation provided the Catholic Church an opportunity to produce more opulent art. Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Bernini rose to the task, and their work led to the Baroque.

8) "The Light of Experience" Here Clark tells of new worlds in space and in a drop of water that the telescope and microscope revealed, and the new realism in the Dutch paintings which took the observation of human character to a higher stage of development. The power of the Church gives way to the power of Reason, epitomized by thinkers like Descartes and realistic painters of the rising middle class like Rembrandt and Vermeer. Plus the rise of trading empires like Holland.

9) "The Pursuit of Happiness" Clark talks of the harmonious flow and complex symmetries of the works of Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart--and the reflection of these in the Rococo churches and palaces of Bavaria. Although every episode is backed by period music, this is also the first time that Clark calls attention to the connection between architectural harmony and the structure of music, particular as this is the age of Bach and Mozart.

10) "The Smile of Reason" Clark discusses the Age of Enlightenment tracing it from the polite conversations in the elegant Parisian salons of eighteenth-century, through the subsequent revolutionary politics to the great European palaces of Blenheim and Versailles, then finally to Jefferson’s Monticello. Seen through the windows of Versailles and Monticello and the words of Voltaire and Jefferson, science, wit, and intellect were prized above all. Once again we see more about the places where people like Voltaire wrote than actually hear any of the words of Voltaire that changed thought in Europe.

11) "The Worship of Nature" Belief in the divinity of nature, Clark argues, usurped Christianity’s position as the chief creative force in Western civilization and ushered in the Romantic movement. Here Clark visits Tintern Abbey, the Alps, and there discusses the landscapes of Turner and Constable. Romanticism reigns. From Rousseau's view of "natural man" to the paintings of Constable and Turner, with a detour to quote the Marquis de Sade, we see how nature inspired a generation.

12) "The Fallacies of Hope" Clark argues that the French Revolution led to the dictatorship of Napoleon and the dreary bureaucracies of the nineteenth century, and traces the disillusionment of the Romantic artists from Beethoven's music, Byron's poetry, Delacroix's paintings to Rodin's sculpture. The reason of the Enlightenment reaches its apotheosis in the impulsive utopian visions of Napoleon, Beethoven, and Byron. As Wordsworth said, "to be young was very heaven." But soon the revolutions would give way to disillusion and cynicism.

13) "Heroic Materialism" Clark concludes the series with his discussion of materialism and humanitarianism of the past century. This takes us from the industrial landscape of nineteenth century England to the skyscrapers of twentieth century New York. The achievements of the engineers and scientists--such as Brunel and Rutherford--having been matched by the great reformers like Wilberforce and Shaftsbury. There is nothing about Twentieth Century art in this series. Clark does not even pretend to understand or respect anything after 1900, but he has plenty to say about the end of the Nineteenth Century which led to the grim modern era that seems to mark the end of civilization for him. However, he does see hope in a history of humanitarianism, "the great achievement of the Nineteenth Century."

Lord Kenneth Clark's CIVILISATION is a revolutionary series despite the conservatism of its message. As a presenter he is dignified, patronizing, pompous, pretentious, and extremely opinionated about western art and culture. He is quite proud to admit that he is "a stick in the mud" who believes in old fashioned values. And don't forget his snaggled teeth. They really are enough to make you not watch his magnificent contribution to western culture. The four DVD set includes a specially written 36-page illustrated booklet of viewing notes. DVD extras include Sir David Attenborough remembering the making of CIVILISATION and a photo gallery of behind-the-scenes stills. But you really must watch it on the big screen to appreciate the great art work. On a small TV screen you'll only see vague muddy art and your eyes will inevitably focus on Clark's bad teeth. It's ironic that CIVILISATION was made for TV, yet the art it depicts can only be appreciated on the big screen. Edwin Astley composed much of the incidental music. Michael Gill directed 7 episodes, Peter Montagnon directed 5, and Ann Turner directed 3.

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