Looking at Pictures – Kenneth Clark

It was through thinking about how to analyse pictures that I came across this book by Kenneth Clarke. This is not Kenneth Harry Clarke, the conservative MP, but Kenneth McKenzie Clark, the art critic who came to public prominence with the BBC series “Civilisation” in 1969. By this time, this book had been nine years since first publication.

In the introduction, Clark describes his way of looking at pictures, whilst acknowledging that it might not be the only way “No doubt there are many ways of looking at pictures, none of which can be called the right way.”

He follows this with some pithy, but profound advice:

“I believe that one can learn to interrogate a picture in such a way as to intensify and prolong the pleasure it gives one.”

“Looking at picture requires active participation, and, in the early stages, a certain amount of discipline”

“First I see the picture as a whole, and long before I can recognise the subject, I am conscious of a general impression, which depends on the relationship of tone and area, shape and colour…”

“…followed by a period of inspection in which I look from one part to another…and naturally I become aware of what the painter has intended to represent…”

“…quite soon my critical faculties begin to operate, and I find myself looking for some dominating motive, or root idea, from which the picture derives its overall effect.”

“In the middle of this exercise my senses will probably begin to tire, and if I am to go on looking responsively I must fortify myself with some nips of information.”

There follows a collection of essays that first appeared in the Sunday times describing, in Clark’s own style, 16 major works of art. The paintings covered include Titian – The Entombment, Raphael – The Miraculous Draught of Fishes and Turner – The Snowstorm.

Each description follows Clark’s pattern of analysis described in the introduction: leading from and initial impression into more detailed perception, punctuated by forays into the background of the artist and the picture. Clark’s knowledge is immense and he uses this to place the picture into a context, so he explains how the picture means so much more than what it is portraying.

Kenneth Clark has an easy going, easily-read style that makes this book a delight. There is nothing pompous or stuffy about his descriptions; instead they are very warm and genuine. This is a reminder that any critical analysis of a work of art should be honest and as much a reflection of the critic as it is of the artist.

So what do I get from reading the book:
1. an overall impression, leading into closer scrutiny is a good start,
2. to understand the picture at a deeper level it is necessary to know something of the artist and the context in which it is produced,
3. I might not know the context of someone else’s picture but a bit of research will help,
4. Be prepared to commit time and effort to the process, go away and come back refreshed if necessary,
5. stay honest and be prepared to say what the picture is saying to me.

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