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Part 8 of art historian Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series Civilisation starts with Clark setting the scene. The low lands of the Netherlands, the spires and churches of the town lost in a sea of meadows, cut by canals. The overarching, all-encompassing sky, larger there than anywhere else in the world. The grey, towering clouds above the small, huddled Holland towns. Discussing Berckheyde‘s painting of the Great Market and church, Clark walks onto the stage, explaining:

we feel that we could walk into that picture. Nothing strange in that; but like so many things we take for granted, it goes back to a revolutionary change in thought.

The Grote Markt and Sint-Bavokerk, Haarlem, in 1696, by Gerrit Adriaenszoon Berckheyde

In Clark’s narrative, because of he concentrates more on Southern Europe, France and especially Italy, this Dutch development is rather sudden. Recall that in Part 6, Clark complained about the visual arts suffering because of the Reformation. He was talking mostly about sculpture. Though it is perhaps true that sculpting in stone did not reach the, unmentioned, heights attained during the Valois dukes of Burgundy, and that Protestant churches did not commission any, monumental works of art were still produced. Different art. Different in nature, different in style and scale. But as Clark shows, rather convincingly so, beautiful nonetheless.

Clark capped off Episode 7 with a discussion of exploitation. Well, the type of exploitation he complains about didn’t take place in the Dutch Republic. Of course, there was exploitation, but it wasn’t done in the same way, and at least in the 17th century, not on the same scale. Almost of necessity, the politics – not so much the economy – of a small, bourgeois oligarchy such as the Dutch Republic produced a different, less ostentatious art. Although it was in no way democratic.

Clark explains that he is in Holland because he thinks the Dutch Republic is the first country to profit from a civilisational shift:

the revolution that replaced Divine Authority by experience, experiment and observation.

His characterisation of this revolution as the changing of the question ‘is it God’s will?’ into ‘does it work?’ or even ‘does it pay?’, is at least easy to remember. Clark cautions against too much optimism, citing the cases of the brothers Koerbagh, and Spinoza. He concludes, however, by calling:

the spirit of Holland in the early seventeenth century was remarkably tolerant;

a chronology which fits better with his overarching point and discussion of Descartes, than with history. The Dutch Republic actually saw its most serious religious dispute in 1617/18, which almost lead to civil war, only avoided by the exile or execution of prominent politicians and political thinkers.

Clark discusses the great Dutch painters: Hals, Vermeer, with special mention for Saenredam and above all Rembrandt. But his discussion is superficial. No mention of the cultural context, the art circles where scientists, historians, philosophers, poets and painters met and responded to each others’ work. His use of light as a way to connect the world of art with the world of science is certainly a nice one. But one feels Clark is like a horse, rushing to stable, eager to begin talking about England, the Royal Academy, to declare that

the leadership of intellectual life passed from Holland to England.

Clark ends the episode by remarking on the tendency to have European civilisation begin with the ‘invention’ of reason, especially in the 19th century. Clark points out the negatives, which he describes as

a new form of barbarism. (…) Every civilisation seems to have its nemesis, not only because the first bright impulses become tarnished by greed and laziness, but because of unpredictables (…). The greedy became greedier, the ignorant lost touch with traditional skills, and the light of experience narrowed its beam (…).

This article is part of a series. Click this link for the next article. Or this link to the first in the series.