26 July 2016 | 10 °C

Kenneth Clark: Looking For Civilisation At Tate Britain

Kenneth Clark: Looking For Civilisation At Tate Britain

Kenneth Clark had a significant impact on British art during the 20th century, he was an art historian, a former director of the National Gallery and his television series Civilisation brought art to people on both sides of the Atlantic. This exhibition explores his impact on the British art scene, and rather than directly focusing on the man himself it narrates his influence through paintings by artists he championed and works from his own collection.

It's an impressive selection including sketches by Da Vinci, a statue of Eve by Rodin and many impressive Impressionist works by the likes of Renoir, Cezanne and Seurat. But as with any collection, it's a reflection of the collector's tastes, and this is reflected in the art on display including many works by Graham Sutherland whose quality is patchy, and John Piper whose bright and loose city paintings are some of the highlights of the show. This means the exhibition's narrative is much more open and less coherent than can normally be found in a historic record.

Clark was a fan of representational art and Henry Moore's sculptures are as abstract as he would venture; this feels quaint as you would be hard pressed to find a modern day collector who isn't a fan of conceptual art. Even the clips from his television series Civilisation have not dated well and have a supercilious feel to them.

There's no doubting Clark's contribution to British art and there are some great works on display, but the nostalgic tone of this exhibition may struggle to engage younger viewers who have grown up with no knowledge of who Kenneth Clark is.

Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation is on at Tate Britain until 10 August. Tickets are £10 for adults, £8.60 for concessions. Also still on at the Tate Britain is the fantastic installation by Phyllida Barlow.

Tabish Khan

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James Guppy

I watched Civillisation on DVD a couple of months ago and greatly enjoyed it - he is obviously an expert and since most of the rest of us are not, I don't think there is any need to find him supercilious.


Civilisation now dominates how people think of Clark and, yes, to modern audiences, particularly perhaps younger viewers, the style will seem outdated. But that is where I think this exhibition comes into its own, because it is not really about Civilisation (this is tacked on at the end), but instead the many things Clark did before his big TV moment. Once we are reminded of these, he suddenly becomes much more relevant, even to those who were born after he died.