on 16 May 2011
I originally bought this series on DVD as an exercise in nostalgia. A couple of radio critics had said the programmes were dated and you couldn't get away with Clark's patrician style of lecturing today.
Maybe... But listen to what he's saying. Look at what he's showing us. Within a few minutes I was sitting bolt upright in my chair. This was no exercise in nostalgia. What Clark was saying was more relevant today than when this series was first broadcast in 1969. Then the West was menaced by Communism. Now it's menaced by militant Islam - just as it was in the past Clark points out. What seemed like quaint references to the religious foundations of Western civilisation in the atheistic 1960s now have a new relevance. They show what we're fighting for. The series helps define where we came from and where we're going. It's a classic and like all classics speaks beyond its time. Critics of Western civilisation, especially those who want to destroy it, should view the programmes as well. They'd learn a lot and might become more civilised.
Now Kenneth Clark's "Civilisation" has been remastered and released on Blu-ray and it keeps getting better and better.
Critics may quibble about the occasional scratch on the film, or a slight wobble here and there. But overall the series looks sumptuous in Blu-ray. In fact, it looks better than most people would have seen it when first shown in 1969! Or for that matter any time since on TV. I first saw these programmes on a small screen in black and white. The loss was enormous. By making the series in colour and on 35mm the production team locked up an enormous amount of detail in the film - storing up treasures for the future. Only then would the technology become available so we could view the programmes in all their glory. Now - for the first time - with HD and Blu-ray can we appreciate what is there.
The series was originally broadcast in a 4:3 format - before widescreen TV came in - and that's retained for this Blu-ray edition. No trimming, so we see the entire image. This means black margins on either side of a modern screen, but that's better than losing valuable parts of the carefully composed images. The colours are gorgeous and you can see every detail in the works of art. Clark now seems to come into the room. I noticed facial expressions - sometimes a twinkle in the eye - that I never noticed before. These make him more human and his mandarin style more acceptable.
Of course, not everyone will agree with everything Kenneth Clark says. How could they? You would have to be a clone of Kenneth Clark to do that. But so what? The series has sweep and stimulates ideas. If you're one of those people who has dismissed these programmes out of hand - even laughed at them - think again. This series was groundbreaking when it first came out. It was enormously ambitious and pioneered many techniques we now take for granted. From it flowed a huge number of documentaries that have graced our screens ever since. Kenneth Clark was a highly intelligent and knowledgeable. Only a fool would reject him out of hand. Many of the things he said are relevant today and have more resonance now than when he first uttered them.
The series was commissioned by David Attenborough who was head of the BBC's new TV network, BBC Two. In the booklet that accompanies this boxed set Attenborough explains how the series was conceived. As a boy he had subscribed to a partwork called "An Outline of History" edited by H.G. Wells. 'I remember how excited I had been that a great writer had decided to tackle a major slab of knowledge about which I knew little and was going to give me an outline of it,' he says. 'Once I had absorbed what he had to say I believed I would be able to slot historical events into position.'
So Attenborough decided to commission a documentary similar to Well's partwork. 'Television was a visual medium,' he says. 'Why not survey the beautiful and influential works of art created by European artists in the last two thousand years and examine them accompanied by the loveliest music composed at the time they were created?'
But the series was more ambitious than that. It was more than a gorgeous slide-show. It was a 'history of ideas as illustrated by art and music.' Attenborough, therefore, invited one of the foremost art historians of the time, Kenneth Clark, to write and present the programmes.
Don't get hung up on the title. There are endless ways we can interpret civilisation. The BBC considered many titles including "One Thousand Years: Reflections on Art and Western Civilisation." This gets nearer to what the programmes are about, but was too ponderous. Clark said it would have been easy in the 18th century. Then you could have entitled the series: "Speculations on the Nature of Civilisation as illustrated by the Changing Phases of Civilised Life in Western Europe from the Dark Ages to the Present Day." But this was impracticable so they settled on what we have now.
There were 13 programmes - each 50 minutes long. They were concerned only with Western Europe. 'Obviously,' said Clark, 'I could not include the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome, because to have done so would have meant another ten programmes, at least; and the same was true of China, Persia, India and the world of Islam. Heaven knows, I had taken on enough ... Should I have then dropped the word "Civilisation"? I didn't want to, because the word had triggered me off, and remained a kind of stimulus; and I didn't suppose that anyone would be so obtuse as to think that I had forgotten about the great civilisations of the pre-Christian era and the East.'
Alas, there were! You can still find critics who rubbish the series because Clark failed to tell the whole history of mankind in 13 programmes. They miss the point. This is an outline of Western civilisation - one man's view of 'the new developments of the European mind,' as Clark put it. And he has many interesting things to say about it. The programmes are 'filled with great works of genius, in architecture, sculpture and painting, in philosophy, poetry and music, in science and engineering,' he said. 'There they are; you can't dismiss them. And they are only a fraction of what Western man has achieved in the last thousand years...'
Clark discussed the problems of making "Civilisation" in the Foreword to his book on the series. He points out that television is a different medium from print. You can go into intricate arguments on the written page, deal with abstract thought, add footnotes and qualifications and really spread yourself. With television time is limited. Every subject must be simplified. 'Only a few outstanding buildings or works of art can be used as evidence,' he said. 'Only a few great men can be named...Generalisations are inevitable...'
But television can do things that are impossible in print. 'I am convinced,' he writes, 'that a combination of words and music, colour and movement can extend human experience in a way that words alone cannot do. For this reason I believe in television as a medium, and was prepared to give up two years writing to see that could be done with it.'
And in his autobiography Clark wrote:- 'When I set about the programmes I had in mind Wagner's ambition to make opera into a gesamtkunstwerk - a total work of art - text, spectacle and sound all united.'
Yes, the series was that ambitious and a gigantic experiment. At that time no-one had attempted anything as challenging with so much filmed on location. "Civilisation" raised the standards of television. The medium was more than a Punch and Judy show. It could deal with serious subjects and communicate with a vast audience many of whom, at that time, lacked the opportunities to find out about the arts. The series may creak a little now - Clark himself thought it would be out of date in two or three years - but what is remarkable is how well it stands up to modern viewing. It's an exaggeration to say "Civilisation" is ground zero: intelligent television starts here. There were other intelligent programmes on TV at that time, but nothing on this scale. "Civilisation" is part of our heritage - essential viewing. Like a splendid wine it improves with age.
When first screened the series had enormous impact and changed people's lives. Clark received letters of praise from UK cabinet ministers (including a future prime minister) and three cardinals. People on the point of suicide changed their minds and carried on living. A student - as you can read in another review - changed his university course to art and Clark was mobbed like a film star when he came to the United States.
Inevitably there were critics. Satirists sniped. So did jealous intellectuals. Why hadn't they been chosen to present the series instead of Clark? Some were so wide of the mark you wonder how anyone could take them seriously. Still, you can have a good laugh at their absurdity. Marxists - remember them? - hated the series. Others claimed Clark's 'message was fundamentally positive and optimistic.' All Clark discussed, they asserted, was the steady march of progress of Western civilisation - a civilisation superior to all others. He did no such thing. The programmes contain scepticism and many doubts. Episode 12 is called 'The Fallacies of Hope.'
Unbelievably, a university lecturer complained about Clark's 'sophisticated vocabulary.' You needed a dictionary, she argued, to follow what Clark said although he translates foreign expressions and explains technical terms when he uses them. She objected to 'slow-moving and staid camera movements, fetishized close-ups, loving pans of great works of art, and dulcet tones of chamber music.' They conveyed, she said, 'an aura of serious contemplation.'
How, for heaven's sake, are you expected to examine great works of art - works of genius? Just a quick glance and move on laughing hysterically? As for music - there's a wide variety carefully chosen. Besides chamber music there's plainchant, symphonies, great choral works, opera, Monteverdi's Vespers, Josquin, William Walton, Stravinsky and a great deal more. Nearly all of it was written within 20 years of the object shown on the screen. So the music complements what we're watching. Is two minutes too long to listen to a church organ on which Bach and Mozart played? If you've got the attention span of that lecturer it is.
Those who adopt such a childish attitude will get little out of this series. The programmes are more subtle than critics claim and require an intelligent engagement on the part of the audience.
Writing in his autobiography in 1977 Clark said:- 'My approach to history was unconsciously different from that now in favour in universities, which sees all historical change as a result of economic and communal pressure. I believe in the importance of individuals, and am a natural hero-worshipper. Each programme had its hero - Charlemagne, the Abbot Suger, Alberti, Erasmus, Luther and Montaigne, Mozart, Voltaire, Jefferson, Rousseau, Wordsworth, and finally Brunel.'
Actually there were many more - Leonardo, Michelangelo, Turner - I could go on! One programme he pointed out was called "The Hero as Artist" ... 'The majority of people,' Clark contended, 'share my taste for heroes, whether football stars or pops singers, and so were glad of an historical survey that emphasised outstanding individuals rather than economic trends.'
And he did something else that was unfashionable. He dared to admire figurative art - images of living things - people, animals, plants - and the world around us. At a time when influential critics and museum directors were claiming abstract art was the only legitimate form of expression and attacking artists who dared paint a portrait, still life, or landscape, Clark defended this kind of art. The critics were blighting creative artists, he argued. In an essay published in 1981 Clark attacked what he called 'iconophobia' - the hatred of realistic images by those who argued it was wrong to depict natural objects and wanted them suppressed.
'When I was in New York a few years ago,' he wrote, 'not only were three of the chief public galleries - the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney - almost exclusively devoted to non-representational art, but in the Metropolitan Museum, which was instituted for a very different purpose, the whole main floor had been emptied - Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Tiepolo, Degas, Cezanne - all banished, and in their places hung pictures that contained no image of anything on earth or in the waters.'
Influential critics had turned their back of works of genius and were encouraging everyone else to do the same. Such philistinism was doing enormous damage. Artists, said Clark, who failed to conform to this contemporary rejection of representational images had 'no hope of winning a competition or being chosen for an international exhibition unless they conform to it. A painter whose work I have long admired cannot get a teaching job at even the most humble provincial Art school because his work is naturalistic.'
Clark, however, was never hostile to modern art - just its excesses and the claim that only one kind of art deserved respect. "Civilisation" is a triumph of catholicity. Clark appreciated an extraordinary wide range of art. As one critic observed at the time:- 'Again and again he compels us to look at art and to see it afresh.'
The programmes not only deal with ideas; they're a celebration of beauty. Which are my favourite moments? Well, there's a shock at the beginning as Clark sits on a river bank in France in the sunlight near the Pont du Gard. However complex and solid civilisation seems, he tells us, indicating the enormous Roman aqueduct in the background, 'it is actually quite fragile. It can be destroyed.'
The programmes on the Renaissance are particularly satisfying. He thinks the palace of Urbino 'one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture in the world,' and the pictures prove it.
Monteverdi's Vespers sound as the camera swings round the mighty facade of Michelangelo's Vatican. The dome is much admired, but the design was modified by Della Porta after Michelangelo's death. 'Well,' says Clark with a shrug, 'we can go on admiring it, and think rather more of Della Porta.'
Then there's that marvellous moment at the beginning of the final programme when a helicopter - camera on board - sweeps up New York's East River. Diving beneath the Brooklyn Bridge - and accompanied by Walton's First Symphony - it heads towards the skyscrapers on Manhattan Island. New York, Clark informs us, 'took almost the same time to reach its present condition as it did to complete the Gothic cathedrals.' There is, however, a difference. One was built to the glory of God, the other to mammon. New York may looks like a celestial city from a distance. 'Come closer and it's not so good.'
Clark's favourite moment came at the end of the programme Grandeur and Obedience. He wanted to finish with the words:- 'I wonder if any thought that has helped forward the human spirit has been conceived or written down in an enormous room.' So they set up the camera at the end of a vast corridor in the Vatican. 'We had no need of lighting, as evening sunshine was pouring in through the windows,' he wrote. 'I walked away from the camera the whole length of the corridor and, still visible, disappeared through a door.' The camera pulled away at the same time, tracking back and back and back - the corridor stretching, it seemed, for ever into infinity ... 'In some ways it is the most effective shot in the whole series,' Clark thought.
Having said that, film is a difficult medium to work in. Every movie I've ever watched - including the great classics of Hollywood and Art cinema - has blemishes. There's always something one would like to change - some improvements that could be made. But in the end these are unimportant. The virtues far outweigh the faults. And that is true of "Civilisation". It was a huge pioneering effort and much longer than any feature film - 640 minutes. There was no way it could be perfect and satisfy everybody. The programmes are there to open minds and stimulate debate. Critics who thought they were smart and witty when they dismissed the series as "Trivialisation" missed the point. And none ever produced anything as good for television.
I could go on, but must stop somewhere. If you are intrigued by the programmes I recommend Jonathan Conlin's book on the making and reaction to the series. As you might expect it's called "Civilisation" and published in the BFI TV Classics series of books. You won't agree with everything Conlin says, but it's an intelligent analysis.
As for those who still snipe at the series I issue a challenge - produce something that's better than Kenneth Clark's "Civilisation." Go on - do it.
In the meantime, I recommend the series is included on every school and college art course and elsewhere in the curriculum. The programmes talk up to their audience, not down, and will make them think. Each episode is divided into chapters 7 or 8 minutes long. Even if teachers don't want to show their students whole episodes they could show extracts and stimulate interest that way. If educators are too myopic to show "Civilisation" then students can now buy the series on Blu-ray, or DVD, and watch it at home. They'll gain a wider appreciation of art and civilisation and be one-up on the class. And who knows - the series might change your life...
PS: Is too much to hope that Kenneth Clark's TV documentary "The Royal Palaces of Britain" will soon become available on Blu-ray and DVD? The film, which was produced jointly by the BBC and ITV, was a precursor to 'Civilisation' and a luxurious production. It was made in colour on 35mm stock and broadcast on Christmas day in 1966. The programme had music specially composed by Sir Arthur Bliss.