Wednesday02 September 2015

Building a Library 47: Civilsation: A Personal View, by Kenneth Clark

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Civilisation: A Personal View
By Kenneth Clark,
1969 Released on four DVDs

Robert Harbison picks 50 books that should feature in any architectural library.

This isn’t a book, though it is true that it consisted of carefully framed texts before any images had been chosen to go with them. The result is particularly fascinating for its way of solving the old problem of how to illustrate a work about visual art.

The ideal readers of many architectural books are people who only need to hear the names of buildings for images of them to flash into their heads. So when Kenneth Clark was offered the chance to make these 13 films covering Western art and architecture from late antiquity to the present, a dream that many writers must have had came true. Every viewer could now be equipped with the flood of images that rushed through the head of the author.

Thus it was a democratising project; it made every viewer into Kenneth Clark. But it did much more. I wonder if anyone had ever before seen the flying buttresses of Chartres in the ecstatic way we get them here, or details of stained glass which irradiate the screen as they never can for someone stuck on the ground.

Clark has some arresting theories, for example that St Francis applied ideas derived from courtly love to the spiritual life, or that a monastic library in Florence was the Cavendish Laboratory of its day. He never lets go of his unfashionable quest to define civilisation and keeps making further additions to that discussion. But I value him most for his reticence: he trusts the works to speak.

The best sequences are detailed inspections of individual works after Clark has made a suggestive comment but then goes silent. I won’t soon forget the victims of the Deluge on the Sistine ceiling, or the side walls of the Pazzi Chapel, the first in beautiful, muted tones before cleaning, the second crisper than ever.





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