Looking at Pictures with Sir Kenneth Clark

November is almost over and I finally have time to review an excellent book recommended by a friend – Looking at Pictures by Sir Kenneth Clark. This volume was published a few years before his famous documentary series, Civilisation (1969), and contains sixteen short essays on paintings by the great masters.

The author offers studies of sacred and profane works. Yet it is interesting that the writings of a modern (as opposed to post-modern) art historian should be weighted so heavily in favor of religious paintings: Titian’s The Entombment, Rogier van der Weyden’s The Descent from the Cross, Raphael’s The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, El Greco’s The Espolio, Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Virgin with St. Anne and Botticelli’s Nativity. That a disproportionate number of masterpieces in the Western canon should treat of religious themes is not surprising. For centuries Christian belief formed the core of our  cultural outlook. There is also the impressive physical and metaphysical drama at work in these paintings, providing room for an infinite variety of interpretations.

Much could be said on this subject, and Clark says it wonderfully well. Take for example his comments on Titian, an artist at once practical and shrewd in his business dealings, yet totally convinced of the realities of the miraculous. Clark remarks on the Venetian painter’s “confidence in the physical world… combined with an ardent, orthodox faith in Christianity.” In another passage his discussion of Titian touches on broader aesthetic philosophy:

The power to touch popular emotions, so often disgustingly abused, demands from a great artist some special human qualities. What is it that Handel and Beethoven, Rembrandt and Breughel, have in common and that other artists of almost equal genius seem to lack?

Mere technical genius is not enough. One only has to compare Boticelli’s etherealized depiction of the Birth of Venus with Bouguereau’s version, which is more realistic in detail yet entirely sentimentalized. As British cultural philosopher Roger Scruton explains in a recent book, “the body of Boticelli’s Venus is subservient to the face.” By contrast, Bouguereau depicts the female as a blatant “sex-object.” We have, says Scruton, moved from the higher form of Platonic eros – where the soul in a sense shapes the artistic anatomy and “invites us to transcend our appetites” – to mere eroticism. It is thus one step away from the pinups and pornography of the twentieth century.

My cross-referencing of Scruton is not entirely tangential. I feel that Clark would have concurred with the philosopher’s assessment in Culture Counts (Brief Encounters, 2007):

It is less common today than it once was to criticize works of art as obscene. But we all understand what the criticism means. Obscenity is involved whenever the human body is placed in front of the human person, so as to eclipse the soul. This happens in the graphic display of sexual activity, and also in the graphic scenes of violence in which the body, as it were, takes over.

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