Summary: Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation Part 9 – Art under 17th century French authoritarianism and the German pursuit of happiness
The 9th episode of art historian Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series Civilisation he ventures east East. In episode 8, he blazed through the Golden Century of Dutch painting, political thinking and scientific endeavour, to end in England. Now, for the first time, much unlike in Episode 6, he has some unqualified praise for the Germans.
There is a passing reference to France and its set of competing ideals. As this ties into a larger discussion over the past few episodes, it is worth pointing this out and providing some more details. France, Clark argues, by 1700 had been dominating Europe for more than sixty years. Its “rigidly centralised, authoritarian government” had produced a classic style: French Classicism. It represents, to Clark, at the same time one of the summits of European civilisation (le grand siècle – the grand century) and an ideal which Clark says is
“not an ideal that appeals to me, but an ideal nonetheless – grandeur achieved through the authoritarian state.“
Although it produced “sublime dramatists” (Corneille and Racine), a “great and noble painter” (Poussin), and “magnificent architecture” as well, it lacks something Clark deems present in Baroque: a warmth of feeling. The logic of state authoritarianism imposed on all aspects, including and above all the arts, a “certain inhumanity.”
“It was the work not of craftsmen, but of wonderfully gifted civil servants. As long as it reflects this grand comprehensive system, it is done with superb conviction. (…) [However,] French Classicism was eminently not exportable.“
Instead, what Northern Europe needed, was the high Baroque of Rome, and thus it spread, much like centuries earlier the Gothic style had spread.
While France was characterised by the ‘heroic’, the larger than life, exemplified by its worship of the ‘Sun King‘, Clark describes the German countries (really those countries were German was spoken) as a multiplicity: regions and towns and abbeys. North European versions of Urbino. Instead of by civil servants, the creators of German Baroque were families of craftsmen. They stood in the long
“craftsmen tradition of the Germanic north, a tradition serving a social order that was absolutely the reverse of the centralised bureaucracy of France.“
As a consequence, the architecture discussed are not palaces, so much as local pilgrimage churches. But more importantly than architecture, is music. For music, the same is true, however, and the greatest composer Clark discusses, Johann Sebastian Bach, is a scion of just such “a family of local musical craftsmen,” whose children would continue the tradition.
The so-called Rococo style in architecture developed from Baroque by these craftsmen is characterised by melodious flow, complex symmetry, decorative invention (check it out). In its musical form also by a deep appeal to the emotions. Clark mentions how it was criticised as shallow and corrupt, because Rococo was intended to give pleasure;
“well, the founders of the American Constitution, who were far from frivolous, thought fit to mention the pursuit of happiness as a proper aim for mankind, and if ever this aim has been given visible form it is in Rococo architecture – the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of love.“
The musical form which exemplifies the development of Rococo music, is opera. Of the four composers Clark mentions especially (Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart), all but Bach wrote operas. It is with Mozart’s sublime Don Giovanni that Clark ends this episode. It is in discussing Don Giovanni Clark concludes what makes opera such an irrational, but because of that humane, necessary form of art:
“‘What is too silly to be said may be sung’- well, yes; but what is too subtle to be said, or too deeply felt, or too revealing or too mysterious – these things can also be sung and only be sung. (…) opera provides a real extension of the human faculties.“
One point of contention: Don Giovanni is no hero-villain. He is a villain, like Shakespeare’s Richard III, and his refusal to repent does not make him any more heroic than his list of conquests. When he is dragged straight into hell itself for it, the punishment fits the crimes.