On Saturday I visited Tate Britain to see two exhibitions which were due to end shortly. In fact, one of them, Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, has now ended – the last day was Sunday. I was originally in two minds whether to go to see this, but I’m really glad I did.
Kenneth Clark is not someone I had ever heard of before this exhibition, but it seems that he made a significant contribution to the study and appreciation of art during the 20th century. Born into a wealthy family, he used his fortune to collect art and to assist struggling artists. He had wide-ranging tastes: in contemporary terms he had particular preference for the Bloomsbury Group and artists such as Henry Moore, Graham Bell and Victor Passmore. Clark believed that the lack of patronage in the art world was causing artists to be removed from “real life”, and he sought to rectify this.
Clark had no formal art training, and while he produced some excellent books about art, including a fine study of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings, he also made several mistakes, including quite a number of misattributions. Aged thirty, he became director of the National Gallery – one of his first acts was to install electric lights, so that viewers could actually see the artworks when there was not enough natural light. During the Second World War he ensured the safety of the artworks by evacuating them to Wales.
Towards the end of his life Kenneth Clark presented the groundbreaking series Civilisation, which proved a landmark arts documentary in the 1960s. I left the exhibition with a great deal of admiration for this man who was clearly so passionate about art.