A visual tribute

Not so long ago, I re-watched "Civilisation," a fantastic series which originally aired on the BBC in 1969. I discovered this program five years ago, on VHS in Kim's Video in New York. Most of the tapes I rented from there were rarities, avant-garde films with a radical edge. By contrast, "Civilisation" was retro-history, an art scholar offering his old-fashioned views on Western civilization. This was initially part of the charm, in a hip-to-be-square kind of way; what could seem stodgy has in fact gone so far out of fashion that it feels fresh once again. Yet there was more to it than that - and soon I was hooked. Later I discovered my grandmother owned the book that went with the show, I "borrowed" it, read it cover to cover, and still have it on my shelf. Kenneth Clark is a charming host, particularly for American viewers, to whom his Britishisms (polished pronunciation, slight stiffness in delivery, and, let's face it, really, really awful teeth) are novel. He's also a tad awkward onscreen, often gripping his elbows and squinting, occasionally pausing and clearing his throat mid-sentences as if he's camera-shy.

Yet he is incredibly erudite and, what's more, utterly un-pretentious - remarkable given his approach. The show is billed as "A Personal View" and Clark makes no bones about the subtitle. Even narrowing the focus to Western Europe, whole countries are absent (Russia and Spain barely register). Because television is an audio-visual medium, music, painting, and sculpture are privileged - an occasional poem is read out loud but there are no prose excerpts and philosophy is hardly mentioned (with a few exceptions, in which case the thinkers are dealt with more as representatives of a zeitgeist than formulators of systems). The twentieth century is alluded to through shots of airplanes and computers, but no modern art is shown. Elsewhere Clark tells us, evidently serious despite the tongue-in-cheek reference to criticism, "I've spent my life in trying to learn about art, and I am completely baffled by what is taking place today. I sometimes like what I see, but when I read modern critics I realise that my preferences are merely accidental." This is a slight disappointment; even with its limited scope, the series would have felt near-complete had it devoted even just five or so minutes to the whole of twentieth-century art. Instead we get one peek at a Pollack painting (in an earlier episode, where he's connected to J.M.W. Turner) plus the bemused, wordless fondling of an abstract sculpture before Clark exits the film at the conclusion.

What the show lacks in comprehensiveness it more than makes up for in individuality. It surveys about a thousand years of art and manages to touch on most major movements and artists, but "Civilisation" feels neither rushed nor generic. Partly this is due to Clark's unifying presence and pointed perspective, partly it's due to the impeccable craftsmanship of the production. This is another aspect of the series which grew on me; initially, its old-fashioned style provided a retro charm but upon further viewings I realized that the show was far more accomplished as a documentary series than television today can provide. It varies its scope and style depending upon the material, imaginatively utilizes different locations, techniques, and approaches (while maintaining an overall cohesiveness), and most importantly, it takes its time. We are allowed to drink in the artworks, the music, the locations; even Clark's brisk and often tightly-packed monologues are given enough room to sink in (though it may take several viewings to catch everything).

In short, the series is worth purchasing, or renting if you can find it (the DVD is currently unavailable on Netflix for some reason). As Allan Fish said beneath his  eloquent tribute, Clark and his documentary will "make you want to look at the stars." But for now, look at these pictures...

The pictures follow the jump. First, a video to give you a sense of the film's flavor:


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