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Kenneth Clark and the Vision of Criticism

ISSUE:  Summer 1983
Moments of Vision & Other Essays. By Kenneth Clark. Harper & Row. $13.50.

Kenneth Clark, who died in May, had gathered together eleven essays and lectures before his death. They range over a wide variety of topics from provincialism to the concept of universal man. The author of numerous, distinguished monographs and general studies in art history and best known to a wide audience for his television series and books, Civilisation and The Romantic Rebellion, Clark is generally concerned in Moments of Vision with the relation of art and its appreciation to modern society. Although several of these essays indicate his discomfort with 20th-century art, “so hermetic, so removed from the average man’s experience, as to be incomprehensible, even to a semiprofessional like myself,” Clark is nevertheless superb describing the aesthetics of those great artists of the past who deeply engage his own imagination.

The subject of one of his finest monographs, Leonardo da Vinci appears throughout the pages of this book, notably in the title essay—an appreciation of the “flashes of magical perception” in painting and poetry—in which Clark vividly evokes the central motive and energy of his art:

Leonardo da Vinci looked at swirling water with the same half-hypnotised intensity that Coleridge looked at the shrouded moon. His many drawings of cascades and currents, although done, as his notes tell us, with a practical intention, are certainly the record of heightened perception. But we can see from his studies of grasses and of plaited hair that their vital interlacings were all part of the pattern of his being and that the intensity with which he gazes at whirlpools was the result, rather than the cause of this pattern.

What one admires in Clark’s writing is the illumination that he brings to moments of pictorial vision, intensifying our own sense of these heightened perceptions. Clark is equally skillful conjuring up the “central truth of experience” in Diirer’s art:

He was brought up in a family and society of craftsmen; his earliest vivid memories must have been of strong, disciplined hands wielding a graver or knobbly hands grasping an adze; and all his life he saw humanity through the deeds of its hands, whether carving or arguing or praying.

No less than an insight into Dürer’s art is this Clark’s own “eloge de la main.”

Such writing is of a piece with Clark’s finest prose. In his classic monograph, Piero della Francesca— unabashedly “a guide to the appreciation of Piero’s art”—Clark demonstrated his rare gifts as a “writer on the visual arts,” bringing to his description or “re-creation” of Piero’s haunting Resurrection of Christ an incisiveness of historical understanding, combined with a critical language richly suggestive of the fresco’s singular powers:

But before Piero’s risen Christ we are suddenly conscious of values for which no rational statement is adequate; we are struck with a feeling of awe, older and less reasonable than that inspired by the Blessed Angelico. This country god, who rises in the grey light while human beings are still asleep, has been worshipped ever since man first knew that seed is not dead in the winter earth, but will force its way upwards through an iron crust. Later He will become a god of rejoicing, but His first emergence is painful and involuntary. He seems to be part of the dream which lies so heavily on the sleeping soldiers, and has Himself the doomed and distant gaze of a somnambulist.

Clark’s writing exemplifies what he himself calls “Art History and Criticism as Literature,” in the central essay of Moments of Vision. Invented by Vasari, elaborated upon by Bellori, Winckelmann, Diderot, and Reynolds, and refined in the 19th century by Baudelaire and Fromentin, by Hazlitt, Ruskin, and Pater, this fine art of writing about art has fallen into disrepute. Such prose is often scorned as “appreciationism,” condescended to as “amiable amateurness,” or even rejected altogether as “poetry” or mere “rhapsody”—despite the fact that its eloquence and insight have enriched our experience and understanding of some of the greatest works by Michelangelo and Tintoretto, Carracci and Rubens, Chardin and Delacroix. The art of writing creatively about art is thus, itself, no longer encouraged, and in its stead the monographs and articles of our day, notwithstanding their sophistication of methods, accumulation of facts, and solution of problems, are written in a prose that rarely engages the reader’s imagination, intensifying his experience of art.

In the case of Clark’s description of Piero’s fresco, the “great tradition” of art criticism is not only present but very much alive. His metaphorical suggestion that Christ is the subject of the soldier’s dream is almost certainly an inventive variation on Ruskin’s evocation in Fors Clavigera of Carpaccio’s St. Ursula who dreams of the angel “bringing her the branch of palm.” The comparison of Piero’s rustic Christ to a primitive “country god” recalls the theme of Heine’s exile of the pagan gods woven into and through Pater’s book The Renaissance; but, above all, Clark’s sense of “the solemnity, the importance of the moment” in Piero’s image depends on Berenson’s fundamental appreciation of Piero’s art, especially of the “manliest and most robust” Christ rising “in the grey watered light of the morning, by the spreading cypresses and plane trees.” Unlike those writers who suppose that they can “explain” the meaning of a work of art by mere reference to the proper texts, iconographical or theoretical, to the facts of historical context, Clark realizes that we can only hint at the mysterious powers of art and that a poetical language is the best means of such evocation. Clark does not follow his literary forbears slavishly but uses words vividly to suggest the wondrous sensation of rebirth so awesomely rendered by Piero, and the slow, careful cadences of his own prose embody some of the gravity and grandeur in Piero’s great fresco.

Creative writing of the kind that Clark practices cannot be easily condemned for “an absence of intellectual control.” His own studies are rooted in the methods of modern scholarship, including the sophisticated means of the Warburgian tradition; and, as Clark asserts, the writings of Ruskin, Baudelaire, Fromentin, and Pater are grounded in “hard thought.” Clark insists that responses of the great critics “are related to a central core of philosophy,” citing the sophistication of Pater’s philosophy of criticism, which was generally ignored after T. S. Eliot’s campaign against “impressionism” but which is once again accorded the respect it deserves by students of literature. Asserting that “the history and criticism of art must go beyond the facts,” Clark is not saying that the historian or critic should “ignore or distort them”; rather he is observing that the writer’s descriptions should “become evocations of the artist’s attitudes to the nature of aesthetic experience.” Although he distinguishes between the “description” and the “analysis” of art, Clark recognizes that “in practice the two are almost inseparable from each other.” It is the rare analytical writer, he notes, who transmits “a real aesthetic pleasure”; Heinrich Wolfflin was such a writer. “To analyze a work of art,” he continues, “is to destroy precisely what gives it value, its unity.” His point of view can be seen as an implicit challenge to the highly analytical and schematizing tendencies of much contemporary writing in which the indissoluble unity of form and content in art is sundered and never restored.

As Clark observes, Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, published in the middle of the 16th century, is “the earliest sustained piece of art history.” It is also the foundation of art criticism. Though a classic of Italian Renaissance literature, Vasari’s vast and highly influential work, which has penetrated more than a little into modern criticism, fiction, and poetry, is rarely studied in this country as literature. Art historians use it extensively as an historical source, but one cannot say with confidence that its values are much appreciated or understood. It has sometimes been claimed that Vasari invented the notion of “artistic personality,” according to which the artist’s style reflects his personality. Well, not exactly. As Clark observes, “Vasari never attempts what might be called a psychological interpretation of the artist’s personalities.” His Lives are filled with anecdotes, based on legend and fact, employed as an indirect means of rendering the qualities of the artist’s work. His accounts of Filippo Lippi, escaping from Cosimo de’ Medici’s palace in pursuit of pleasures of the flesh or of Fra Angelico offering a prayer before taking up his brush are not of use as the record of historical fact, but they do serve to intensify our sense of the spirited fleshiness and energies in Lippi’s art and of the intense visionary piety in Angelico’s paintings. Vasari’s infamous account of the murderous Andrea del Castagno is an embellishment of legend, but this fiction magnifies our sense of the brute strength, aggressiveness, and urgency in his paintings. In like manner, his assertion that Raphael was breast-fed and cared for most lovingly by his mother amplifies our sense of maternal tenderness at the core of his art. Metaphor, as Clark suggests, is one of the principal devices of the critic, and Vasari’s metaphorical gallery of literary portraits as a form of art criticism is still perhaps the richest single work in the history of such writing.

An entire essay of Clark’s book is dedicated to Walter Pater, about whom, he says, “very little has been written.” In fact, a huge literature on this great critic exists, although it is true that Clark, himself, is one of the very few art historians to examine Pater’s accomplishment. It is therefore not so widely known as it should be just how deeply Pater’s understanding of Delia Robbia, Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Giorgione has been absorbed in the professional study of art history. After over a century of iconographical research, seeking to unpuzzle the exact meanings of Venetian pastoral art, scholars still echo Pater’s sense of Giorgionesque paintings as genre in which we behold “little groups of real men and women, amid congruous furniture or landscape—morsels of actual life, conversation or music or play, but refined upon or idealized, till they come to seem like glimpses of life from afar.” If Clark’s own sense of pictorial vision owes much to Wordsworth, it is no less indebted to Pater’s sense of the Giorgionesque, in which the more self-conscious modern or romantic ideal of the pastoral echoes that of the Renaissance:

And so, from music, the school of Giorgione passes often to the play which is like music; to those masques in which men avowedly do but play at real life, like children “dressing up,” disguised in the strange old Italian dresses, parti-coloured, or fantastic with embroidery and furs, of which the master was so curious a designer, and which, above all, the spotless white linen at wrist and throat, he painted so dexterously.

Clark observes that “no one today will take the trouble to extract the meaning which lies buried somewhere in his [Pater’s] paragraphs.” Yet looking closely at Pater’s poetry, we can see that, as Vasari’s heir, he justly remarks on Venetian “colorito,” on the dexterity of the painter’s touch, or “destrezza” as the Italian critic would have said. Making apt analogy between Venetian pastoral themes and Renaissance masques, themselves a version of the pastoral, Pater, like Burckhardt before him and Huizinga afterward, points to the ludic character of Renaissance culture. Furthermore, the languor of his prose transcribes the very effect of voluptuousness in such Giorgionesque idylls. We may find that Pater’s appreciation of Venetian pastoral art, though based on an understanding of both Renaissance art theory and iconology, is nonetheless too “romantic.” But it should not be forgotten that the romance of Venetian art, its very imagery and tone, also nourished Keats, and that when Pater wrote in the shadow of Keats’ vision about the woman in the Fête Champetre “ listening to the cool sound of water as it falls, blent with the music of the pipes,” he was following the romantic poet back to their shared romantic roots in the Renaissance itself. As Clark so shrewdly and justly observes, Pater’s essay on the school of Giorgione also prefigures the criticism of modern art, presenting, as it does, “the theoretical justifications of abstract art.” Rereading this essay, we are struck by its pervasive references to “pure perception” and the “abstract,” by the emphasis on “those pure aesthetic sensations which Roger Fry propounded so persuasively.”

Clark also remarks upon Pater’s influence on the “theories and modes of perception” of Bernard Berenson, who is also one of the principal subjects of his book. Much has been made in recent years of Berenson’s hostility to modernist art, but, as Clark observes, when the young Berenson wrote his important early books of the 1890’s, he interpreted Italian painting through “the two decisive figures in late 19th-century landscape painting,” Monet and Cézanne. Clark speaks of Berenson’s books on the Florentines and the Central Italians as “masterpieces,” observing, however, that his North Italian Painters of 1907 “sometimes has the weary and distracted tone of an afterthought.” Yet building on Pater’s assessment of Giorgionesque colouring, Berenson suggests here that in the art of the Veronese painters, we first observe the “almost complete emancipation of colour from the control of plastic form and line,” the invention of a “mode of visualizing” that “still reigns in the world of painting.” Berenson’s sense of color is not only determined by Impressionism and Post-Impressionism but could also almost depend on the art of Matisse, which he defended in a 1908 issue of the Nation. The “purely pictorial” art defined by Berenson has had a prominent place in the art and criticism of our own century; and when Clement Greenberg wrote half a century later, in Art and Culture, on the “exclusively two-dimensional, optical, and altogether untactile definitions of experience” in modernist art, he was still speaking decidedly in the idiom of Berenson’s book on the North Italians.

The tradition of Pater and Berenson that Clark upholds is now under attack, often criticized by a younger generation of art historians for its “formalism” and élitist “aestheticism.” Yes, the greatest critics and historians of art have always been deeply engaged in what Clark calls “applied aesthetics,” seeking to define those “powers or forces,” as Pater would have said, that account for the intensity of our responses to art. Professional art historians will continue to analyze in fine detail the elaborate symbolic configurations and theoretical bases of art, the reflections in it of social, political, and economic reality; but it is the tradition of “art history and criticism as literature,” exemplified by Clark, that will more fundamentally call us back to the question of why we care about art in the first place. The noble legacy of Kenneth Clark can best be summed up in his reminder that the first concern of the writer on the visual arts “is a direct visual experience which he must put into words as vividly, as if it were an impression of nature.”


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