The life of Kenneth Clark: high-power gossip, low-power biography

Kenneth Clark: A Biography, by Meryle Secrest. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 310 pp. Illustrated. $18.95. We all have heard of infant prodigies who compose sonatas, solve advanced algebraic equations, or write verse drama. What might we make of a boy whose favorite pastime, when not poring over art books, was rehanging the pictures in his parents' home, the better to display their beauties? From the example of young Kenneth Clark, we might well conclude that art criticism is as basic an impulse as drawing, singing, or writing.

The phenomenal success of Clark's television series ``Civilisation'' was such that people the world over recognized his face. His poignant, beautifully expressed view of the glory and fragility of civilization, the persistence and the precariousness of mankind's noblest aspirations and achievements touched a vast and diverse audience.

Although he offered a blend of appreciation and melancholy that was far from simple optimism, nine would-be suicides wrote to tell him that his program had given them a reason to go on living.

Born in 1903 into a wealthy family (an ancestor had invented the cotton spool, giving us Clark's Cotton Thread), Kenneth Clark was an only child with an extraordinary sensitivity to visual impressions. Although he had plans to become an artist, the career he eventually embarked upon was, if not a more difficult, then certainly a more unusual one.

The discipline of art history as we know it was virtually nonexistent in Britain at the time, so Clark studied history at Oxford. His parents hoped he would become a diplomat. His father, however, had always encouraged his interest in art, and young Kenneth had begun collecting paintings in his teens. By the time he went to Oxford, he struck his contemporaries as dauntingly ``civilised.''

On a visit to Italy, he was asked by Bernard Berenson, the leading expert on Italian art, to assist him in updating his book ``Drawings of the Florentine Painters.'' The die was cast. Nine years later, at the astonishingly early age of 30, Kenneth Clark was made director of Britain's National Gallery. He and his wife, Jane, a strikingly attractive, unusual-looking woman, were soon traveling in the smartest social circles.

His biographer, Meryle Secrest, who previously tackled the life of his mentor in ``Being Bernard Berenson,'' seems personally piqued by Kenneth and Jane's popularity. ``The Clarks,'' she informs us, in tones more suited to an envious schoolgirl than a biographer, ``were too grand for their own good.''

Although she dutifully records Kenneth's accomplishments and even manages to gush with fitting enthusiasm about his talents, Secrest is far more interested in exposing the flaws beneath what she considers the Clarks' veneer. For the period when World War II forced snobbish Jane to live in the country with the children, Secrest provides a detailed portrait of a desperate woman turning into an alcoholic nuisance. Kenneth, apparently, did not deal with his wife's problems to his biographer's satisfaction. Instead, he engaged in a series of close friendships with women, including several love affairs, the most enduring of which was with the artist Mary Kessell. So out of sympathy is Secrest with her subject that she castigates him equally for hurting Jane by having the affair and for hurting Mary by breaking it off!

The Clarks' domestic difficulties, while certainly a far cry from the idyllic picture Clark paints of his marriage in his autobiographies, are scarcely as remarkable as Secrest seems to imagine. But Secrest devotes more space to dwelling on Jane's oddities and Kenneth's idiosyncracies than to discussing his art criticism.

Interestingly enough, Clark considered himself first and foremost a writer. Connoisseurship, cataloging, the tedious details of curatorship did not really appeal to him. Similarly, while he respected the scholarly Germanic approach to art history, he felt it was important to go beyond mere pedantry to grasp the essence of art. One of his main concerns was to implement Roger Fry's crusade to awaken the visually deprived British public to the joys of visual experience.

Clark's more than 20 books demonstrate his flair for communicating both abstract ideas and visual impressions. What writing meant to him can be seen from his description in ``The Other Half'' (the second volume of his autobiography) of working on what he regarded as his best book, ``The Nude,'' written in 1951:

``I remember that after writing the passage on Rubens I began to tremble, and had to leave my hotel bedroom and walk along the sea front. I make no claim to be an inspired writer but I know what inspiration feels like, which makes it easier for me, as a critic, to recognise it in others.''

His own protestations notwithstanding, Clark was an inspired writer and -- in the broadest sense -- an inspiring teacher. Secrest attempts to ``explain'' his feeling for art as the only outlet this solitary, inhibited child could find for his emotions. It is true that Clark shunned emotional confrontations and distrusted the effects of prolonged introspection. But saying this sheds little light on his ability to feel and articulate the excitement of art.

It is, if we are to credit Pauline Kael's film criticism, considered something of a gift to be able to transmit the ``excitement'' of violence and vulgarity: life's simple horrors. To be able to transmit, as Kenneth Clark did, the more profound excitement of beauty and subtlety is a greater gift by far. With all his faults and all his gifts, he deserves a better biography than this badly written (even poorly illustrated) m'elange of high-power gossip and low-power psychoanalysis.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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