Monday, 26 May 2014

Kenneth Clark - Looking for Civilisation at Tate Britain

A new exhibition based around the collection of Kenneth Clark has just opened at Tate Britain. Kenneth Clark is famous as a former director of the National Gallery during World Ward Two, for commissioning lots of art and for taking art to the masses through his TV series 'Civilisation' in 1969. I was a bit too young at the time to have good memories of the series but I remember him sauntering through empty galleries expounding on good art.

This exhibition is, basically, a collection of his stuff and stuff he commissioned, so here are lots of paintings, some from the renaissance but mainly from the 20th Century, statues, ceramics, a couple of painted screens and even a carpet by Duncan Grant. It's quite a big exhibition and the final room is a collection of small video screens with headphones so you can watch him on telly. In that respect it was enjoyable and unexpected since you have no idea what might be in the next room.

The first room contained two portraits of Kenneth as a young boy, instantly betraying his privileged upbringing and access to art and artists from a young age. The paintings are nice enough but nothing special. After some Japanese prints and some small renaissance paintings (including a lovely drawing of a naked man by Leonardo) I found the first thing that grabbed my attention - a small painting by Samuel Palmer that seemed to glow from within.

Palmer was a disciple of William Blake and pops up in exhibitions every now and then, either his drawings, prints or paintings and they are always a delight. As a commentator on the arts Clark, of course, had his own views on artists and art movements and these are sometimes included with the signing beside the art works. For this painting the comment is that Blake was a natural mystic who saw the mystical around him in everyday situations but Palmer internalised his mysticism. Fair enough, I suppose, I just like his art.

Another room was dedicated to early 20th Century art that he collected and two of the highlights for me were self portraits by Vanessa Bell and by Duncan Grant. Clark was a friend to the Bloomsbury people, especially Vanessa, and the caption beside the self-portrait noted that, when asked to do something he was unsure about he wondered 'What would Vanessa do?'. The self-portrait was painted in 1958 when Vanessa was in her late-60s and a few years before her death but it's lovely to look her in the eyes and wonder at her life and those around her. The colours are a lot richer than in this reproduction.

I think this room, with paintings by Vanessa, Duncan and Stanley Spencer ('White Lilacs') was the last one I actually enjoyed. Not that there wasn't a lot of good art to come, but I feel I appreciated it rather than enjoyed. I'm a sucker for colour, after all, and that became increasing sombre and bleak as the exhibition headed into the war years.

As head of the National Gallery and influential within government at the time, Clark commissioned artists to capture the changes in the country brought on by the war and commissioned war artists like Henry Moore. There are eight of Moore's drawings of people sheltering in tube tunnels from the Blitz, all deeply drawn with harsh strokes depicting human survival and misery. Moore is generally thought of in the context of monumental and primitive statues but I've admired his drawings for many years, since seeing a documentary on TV years ago, and would love to see a proper exhibition of his drawings.

There is a wall of paintings (in watercolour, I think) of scenes of a passing British landscape, changed forever due to war, and others of bombed buildings and the destroyed Coventry Cathedral. These are important works but I didn't enjoy the pain and savagery they portrayed. The brightest painting in these rooms was a large painting by Paul Nash of the Battle of Britain showing smoke trails of the aeroplanes as they fought and died to protect the nondescript land below.

Then there are the post-war paintings, most noticeably a few small paintings by Mary Kessell, an artist I've never come across before but would like to see more of her work. She painted scenes of Belsen and refugees in the years after the war. Her paintings are bleak and washed out, hinting at hunched shapes through mists and poor lighting, shapes hinting at human bodies. Painful to see but worth looking at and experiencing. I wonder why I've never heard of her before? The things she must have seen back then and dared to interpret and paint.

It's quite a large exhibition in the downstairs space at Tate Britain and is well worth seeing. I was surprised at how relatively few people were there on a Sunday afternoon and put it down to the exhibition having only just opened. There is a lot of art to see so take your time. There's probably something to appeal to everyone and, like the Samuel Palmer I liked, you never know what you might find. I was surprised to see an unheard-of-before Seurat painting almost vibrating with his pointillist stylings and range of colours in the smallest details. Go and see the exhibition and enjoy!

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