Tate Britain’s new exhibition Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation is an idiosyncratic biographical study of English charm, its potency and flaws.

By the age of 12, Kenneth Clark had begun acquiring Hokusai prints, and had sat twice for his portrait: to John Lavery, for a Little Lord Fauntleroy likeness in frothy white, and to Charles Sims, who posed the child pulling a toy sailing boat on a river on the eve of the first world war.

These hang in an opening gallery alongside emblems of Victoriana – “The Otter”, by Edwin Landseer, Queen Victoria’s favourite painter – and the fin de siècle: Aubrey Beardsley drawings, a Japanese ink and gold screen, “Winter Landscape”. All belonged to the young Clark or his father, and represent the fusty Edwardian milieu in which he grew up: “the perfect origin for an aesthete”, says co-curator John-Paul Stonard.

Precocious and pampered, Clark progressed to Oxford in the 1920s, fell under the influence of Roger Fry – his conduit to Bloomsbury – then worked for Bernard Berenson in Italy. His catalogue of Windsor Castle’s Leonardo holdings established his scholarly reputation; his distinction between a pair of red chalk drawings of a nude man here, the original shaded left to right, the copy shaded “the wrong way” (Leonardo was left-handed), demonstrates his acute eye.

But he was already more than an art historian. His wife Jane was a London hostess and muse to fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli while Clark was now commissioning portraits by Cecil Beaton, Man Ray and Gerty Simon, who posed him against a beloved purchase, Renoir’s “La Baigneuse Blonde”, as an exquisite dandy. Passing through Paris, Clark’s connections were enough for him to be offered a portfolio of Cézanne’s watercolours by the artist’s son.

At 30, in 1933, Clark became the youngest director of the National Gallery, and for several decades was the most powerful man in British art. His principles were democratic: in the 1930s he opened the National Gallery on FA Cup days to encourage out-of-town visitors, and introduced electric lighting, allowing evening viewings. In the 1940s he sustained wartime morale with Myra Hess’s lunchtime piano concerts: recordings enliven this show. His 1969 BBC television programme Civilisation was a landmark in arts broadcasting; screened at Washington’s National Gallery of Art in a theatre seating 300, it attracted queues of 24,000.

Clark reckoned, nonetheless, that art was “incurably aristocratic”. Coursing through Tate’s exhibition is the very English paradox that a revolution in how high culture was delivered to mass audiences was achieved by such a patrician figure.

Tate’s largest gallery is a period piece reconstructing Clark’s collection amassed during the 1930s economic slump and arranged in his Hampstead mansion to emphasise plurality: Cézanne’s “Bathers” next to Luca della Robbia’s white-glazed majolica “Christ Before Pilate”; a Quattrocento fresco of a putto gathering fruit, which Clark acquired hopefully but wrongly as a Giorgione, alongside Degas’ “Two Heads of Men”, copied from a Venetian Renaissance portrait. Decorative arts – French ivory, German silver, Coptic textiles – hold their place with English genre drawings, 1920s ballet designs, a youthful Seurat, “The Forest at Pontaubert”.

There are lovely things here but this is an indigestible display, weighted by academic concerns – Clark’s obsession with copies yields such ghastly results as Duncan Grant’s clumsy still life “After Zurbarán” and David Jones’s “Petra im Rosenhag”, a travesty of Stefan Lochner’s 1450 “Madonna”. Subsequent sections on Clark’s patronage are worse: lifeless Bloomsbury, heavy Henry Moore, overstretched neo-romanticism from Graham Sutherland and John Piper. There is a solitary Lucian Freud still life; no Francis Bacon; the only abstraction a well-mannered Ben Nicholson. How could a scholar so brilliant at interpreting the past have been thus stumped by his contemporaries?

Looking for civilisation after the second world war, Clark returned to visions of English Arcadia, trying to defend it against the fragmenting forces of international modernism. Cubism, he thought, had created “a period of self-consciousness, inbreeding and exhaustion”; modern art was a dead end.

Clark was wrong – and as patron, bureaucrat, collector, had scant long-term influence on contemporary art-making. This makes an exhibition an injudicious homage: above all Clark was a writer, who lives most vividly in art histories – The Nude, The Romantic Rebellion, Moments of Vision – unrivalled since Ruskin for lucidity, erudition, moral conviction.

“As an old-fashioned individualist I believe that all the science and bureaucracy in the world, all the atom bombs and concentration camps, will not entirely destroy the human spirit. And the spirit will always succeed in giving itself a visible shape,” is his conclusion to his 1949 book Landscape into Art. This display, which evokes conservative mid-20th-century taste to us, represented to him individual expression, possibilities of genius, cultural continuity.

The strangest thing about this exhibition is its venue. It follows Tate Britain’s conceptual failures Art under Attack and Ruin Lust, a Turner Prize shortlist of dismally theoretical insider artists, and Phyllida Barlow’s inane cardboard-box assault on the Duveen Galleries. Clark’s “rearguard action” is not a solution to any of this but the show’s nostalgia and paradoxes suggest, at least, that this problematic museum is looking anew at what civilisation might be.

‘Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation’, Tate Britain, London, to August 10, tate.org.uk

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