KENNETH CLARK: A Biography by Meryle Secrest


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A dreary, petty account of the life of British art historian, administrator, and popularizer Kenneth Clark (1903-1983)--impoverished alongside the first volume of Clark's memoirs, Another Part of the Wood (1974), unfortunate as regards the ""secrets"" Clark omitted from The Other Half (1977). Secrest, a biographer of Bernard Berenson, had Clark's encouragement in this project, she writes; she had access to his papers and to his family and other intimates, including several of the women he was involved with. But she has not had permission to quote him--a matter of some importance since Secrest sets out to show that Clark, though aware of his frailties, was more troubled than he knew by his father's alcoholism and his mother's cheerless Quakerism: ""To be tormented by unfulfilled emotional needs is intolerable unless one can somehow stop them by placing an emotional moat between oneself and others. . . Art was his single secret emotional outlet."" Yet Clark's precocious aestheticism was anything but a secret: Secrest herself tells of the child-critic, though not of his father's hope that he'd be an artist-stressing instead his mother's greater expectations, one of many ways her text isn't to be trusted. (Clark is said to have taken to Maurice Bowra at Oxford because Bowra was irreverent about Clark senior--whereas Clark, calling Bowra the ""greatest influence"" on his life, cites that as only one factor, and not the foremost.) Regarding Clark's career--as half-hearted Berenson protÉgÉ (1926-28), cataloguer of the King's Leonardo drawings (1929-31), director of the National Gallery (1934-45), chairman of the Arts Council (1955-60) and of the new Independent Television Authority (1954-57), lecturer, writer, and TV personality--Secrest details his mistakes and setbacks, and dispenses vaporous praise. (Her knowledge of art is thin--viz, the identification of poster-and book-artist and painter William Nicholson, 1872-1949, as a ""Victorian woodcut artist."") What chiefly suffers, though, is Clark's personal life--and wife Jane. E.g., ""For every friend they made in those halcyon years of the 'Great Clark Boom,' as he termed it, they were making an equal number of enemies. . . As at Oxford, acquaintances received the impression that Jane was putting on an act."" To compress a dismal, endlessly elaborated story, she became a shrew, a viciously destructive mother, a drug addict and then an alcoholic, while he embarked on numerous open affairs--though who did what to whom, Secrest has no idea. Tacky and pretentious.

Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 1984
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston