ON FEBRUARY 23rd 1969 Kenneth Clark, a British art historian and museum director, told the nation’s television viewers that he could not define civilisation. “But”, he said, standing in front of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, “I think I can recognise it when I see it.” Clark’s haughty didacticism typified the BBC’s 13-part series outlining the history of Western art and architecture from the Dark Ages onwards. In Britain the programme helped launch the colour-TV set. There was much to be admired, even if his fogeyish views led the newly ennobled presenter to be mocked as ‘Lord Clark of “Civilisation”.’
One of his enthusiastic viewers was Tony Hall, then 17 years old. When he was appointed as the BBC’s director-general in 2013, Lord Hall, as he had by then become, announced his aim to update that formative series. “Civilisations” will be broadcast in Britain from March 1st. The additional “S” is dropped onto the end of the title in the opening credits in a telling, self-referential irony. (A tweaked version, narrated by Liev Schreiber, will air on PBS in America from April 17th.)
The remake is even more ambitious than the original. Three years in the making and filmed in 31 countries, it features patient camera work and sweeping drone footage, which allows the viewer to properly appreciate the objects being discussed. It uses multiple voices to make connections across the world.
Simon Schama, Mary Beard (pictured) and David Olusoga, historians with assorted specialities, each present their own episodes. Among other themes they focus on how the nude became the hallmark of Western art, the meaning of colour and the significance of colonial encounters from Mexico to Mali. What different cultures drew from each other, through conflict or assimilation, is a key aspect of their analysis.
They explain how Japanese woodblock prints became all the rage in Paris in the 1860s; how, when Mimar Sinan built the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, he applied many of the same principles Michelangelo used in designing the dome of St Peter’s basilica in Rome; and how Portuguese traders brought back people and animals, which is why so many Africans appear in an anonymous painting of Lisbon from the 1570s called “View of a Square with the King’s Fountain”. If you learn anything from “Civilisations”, it is that influence and authority are messier than they once appeared.
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