The Ideal Museum: Art Historian Kenneth Clark on the Formation of Western Institutions, in 1954

The following article first appeared in the January 1954 issue of ARTnews under the headline “The Ideal Museum.”

The public art gallery is a relatively recent creation—scarcely one of them is older than two lifetimes—and it has grown up through a series of accidents, without much clear thought of its purpose, or, rather, of its conflicting purposes. This does no1 discredit it, for many of the most valuable human creations. from the British Constitution to the Italian opera, have been accidental, illogical and full of contradictions. But it does suggest that the function of museums of art is bound up with the historical process by which they took their present form.

Under what circumstances were works of art first brought together for public enjoyment? The answer is that in the two complete, consistent epochs on which European civilization is based—those of fifth-century Greece and thirteenth-century France-works of art were first brought together as objects or accessories of worship. The first great displays of painting and sculpture in ancient Greece took place in temples, and were made in honor of the Gods. The first collections of works of art of all kinds—which we could call museums—were the treasuries of temples, such as that of the Oracle of Delphi. This is equally true of the Middle Ages. It was in the great cathedrals that men became conscious of the power of works of art to quicken their spirits, and give dignity and order to their lives. And it was in the treasuries of great churches, like the Abbey of St. Denis that works of the legendary past or of distant countries were collected as examples of fine craftsmanship and divine inspiration.

In both these examples, works of art were brought together as illustrations of a living faith. It was only when these epochs were drawing to a close, and losing their creative confidence that the collection of works of art became an end in itself, and passed from religious institutions to individual connoisseurs. Indeed it was the Romans, who could produce practically no art of.their own, who fir.st became collectors on a large scale. The Emperor Nero, type of the millionaire collector who believes himself to be an artist manqué developed, if he did not begin, the practice of taking works of art out of their settings in temples and putting them in a private gallery.

This sounds sacrilegious and probably was a bad idea; but time makes us accept anything. Four very important objects from Nero’s collection still exist—the bronze horses of St. Mark’s; and although their position, stuck up on the gallery of that strange holy junk shop, must be reckoned, by any standards, very peculiar, there would no doubt be the same cry of sacrilege if they were taken down today as there was when the Emperor Nero took them from a temple at Corinth. The fact is that works of art are like wealth; they move about from one part of the world to another, and at first it seems very shocking; but after they have been in possession of one place or person for long enough, the situation becomes respectable, and people are scandalized when they are moved again .. It was the sovereigns of small states of fifteenth-century Italy who, following the example of Roman Antiquity, created the first art galleries of the modern world. And here one must number the difference between those who wished to live surrounded by works of art and those who wished to have a gallery. The former chose almost entirely contemporary work, usually commissioned on purpose for the site. But from the first a gallery implied a collection of venerated works of the past, the word itself meaning that part of a house which one walks through, but does not live in. The objects it contains are on display and are chosen for their rarity or their arresting qualities. Such were the first great collections—the gallery of the Palace at Mantua, the gallery of the Dukes of Tuscany in Florence, known as the Uffizi. These were primarily collections of antiques, but already by the date of Castiglione’s Courtier, one or two painters had become so famous that they were considered on a level with the artists of antiquity; and so the works of Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Giorgione and a few others were transferred from their original places—the decoration of a living room or a church—and put into galleries. Thus at the beginning of their history galleries took on a character which they have retained until the present day. They were fundamentally artificial—pictures were not painted for them, but put in them when they had become sufficiently famous. This meant that they represented a standard of taste-a taste based on the assumption that almost everything done in Classical Antiquity was beautiful. It also meant that they involved a certain amount of snobbishness. From the first, powerful collectors began to look for rare treasures, and to buy names rather than works. Still we must admit that the great collections of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were the finest ever formed. Indeed the seventeenth century collections remained the basis of the galleries of Europe—galleries such as Dresden, Munich and Vienna—until 1946. If Charles I’s collection had not been broken up and sold by Oliver Cromwell, the English National Gallery would have been incomparably the finest in the world.

For the most part these princely collectors bought what they liked. They were not much disturbed by public opinion, and critics could be kept in order. When they wished for advice they consulted the most eminent artists available. The Dukes of Mantua took their advice from Mantegna; Charles I consulted Rubens and Van Dyck, Rubens also advised the King of Spain and Velasquez went to Italy to buy for Philip IV. The director of the greatest private collection of the late seventeenth century, that of the Archduke Leopold, which formed the basis of the Vienna Gallery, was the painter Teniers, who made sensitive miniature copies of every picture to serve as a catalogue. Nowadays it is often said that artists are uncertain guides in the purchase of old masters, and I am afraid that this has become true. The reason is that in the seventeenth century it was not thought necessary to be original. Contemporary art was founded directly on the art of the past. The artist had to do the same thing as his master, and, if possible, do it better. He therefore had to make a profound study of the painting which preceded him, its ideas, its pictorial science and its technique. And, since painting was supposed to be closely connected with literature, he had to be what is called a man of culture. All of which fitted him to advise on the formation of a great gallery; and does not apply to the majority of artists since about 1860.

The splendor of the great princely collections was, as I have said, inseparable from an element of snobbishness. Like everything connected with princes and millionaires, they were sometimes no more than a buttress to vanity, and so they became swollen and sycophantic. An agreeable illustration of this is Zoffany’s picture of the Tribuna in the Uffizi, the Grand Duke of Tuscany’s collection. Unlike the seventeenth-century Flemish paintings of gallery interiors, which are quasi-fantastic, this is a record of fact—except that some extra objects have been brought in from the other side of the room to complete the picture. We know from old photographs that up to about 1870 practically all galleries were as full as this—although not as full of good pictures. It was a sort of jungle of good taste in which only the fittest survived; and this crowd of objets d’art, jostling each other like eager courtiers, set a premium on a certain type of effectiveness. A picture needed great carrying power and finish to compete in such surroundings. A delicate or sensitive object would not show.

Snobbishness implies the acceptance of false values; and in post-Renaissance collecting these were provided by the fragments of antique sculpture which were discovered in ever increasing quantities during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The illusion that these were masterpieces of art lasted three hundred years and reached its climax in the late eighteenth century, just when the conception of the public art gallery was taking shape. At that date, excavation, restoration and fabrication of antiques for the English market was practically the only Italian industry to be run at a profit. The results could be seen in the galleries of many English country houses up to the last war, when they became the targets of billeted soldiery. When we consider that these antiques (if old at all) were poor journeymen’s copies in marble done at third hand from Greek bronzes, and subsequently rubbed down and restored, we may realize how heavily the precedent of the first Renaissance collectors continued to weigh on those of the eighteenth century. And we may reflect that collectors of old masters in the last fifty years surrounded themselves with objects quite as dubious, as thoroughly restored and as lacking in inspiration as the antique collectors of the eighteenth century.

It was at this date, too, that the removal of works of art from their proper contexts went to the most extreme lengths; and once more Zoffany provides an example in his picture of the famous Towneley collection of marbles. Charles Towneley was the typical man of taste of the eighteenth century, and this picture shows the extent to which taste is a word of changing color, for anything further from the modem concept of “good taste” than this jumble of fragments and cornices it would be hard to imagine. Even so, this type of dilettante collection had one advantage over the haphazard accumulations of modern galleries. It did reflect the consciousness of a complete ideal world, where every shape was the product of a single system of thought; and the haphazard presentation, indefensible as it is by logical and archaeological standards, has a feeling of personal affection which we may find more sympathetic than the antiquarianism and frigid good taste of the most up-to-date public galleries.

When, just over one hundred years ago, modern public galleries were established, they at first accepted the standards and imitated the form of the old princely collections. But as time went on they changed their character, and this change was by no means always an improvement. They began to lose that air of certainty and consistency which was such an enjoyable feature of collections like that of Dresden—and is still to be found in the Prado. It is sometimes said that this was due to the interference of Boards of Trustees, but on the whole the good gallery directors have had their Boards well in hand, and the reason for a change of character is rather more subtle. It arises, I think, from an unconscious uncertainty of aim, which was increased when scholars took the place of artists as gallery directors. The scholar was inevitably influenced by the encyclopaedic tendencies of the time. He did not always feel confident enough to buy a picture because it was beautiful, but he did feel confident (sometimes over-confident) about it as a historical document. If he could state categorically that it was the work of a rare artist not hitherto represented in the gallery he felt on solid ground. Considering what gallery directors have suffered from the press and from malicious amateurs, this defensive attitude was understandable enough. Moreover, we must remember the basic difficulty of reconciling the public purchase of works of art with the democratic system. Why should public money be spent on giving to a small minority of citizens a pleasure which is both momentary and inexplicable. The various answers have not been very convincing. In England there was an unformulated feeling that the contents of the Art Gallery were a form of material wealth. This is shown by the fact that up to the war the state was prepared to spend money on the purchase of pictures, but not on the promotion of music, which, after it had taken effect, left no material residuum. People who wrote letters to The Times about the Nation’s Treasures are usually thinking along those lines, and almost every week the director of the National Gallery is asked what the collection is worth. A more respectable form of justification, and one which seems to prevail in the United States, is connected with the word education. But the relationship of works of art with the concept of education remains vague. No doubt that in a large sense of the word the appreciation of art is educative. It gives us a fuller understanding of the human spirit; it greatly enlarges our capacity for life: and this, I suppose, is what education sets out to do. But these benefits are achieved by the enjoyment of the works of art themselves, not by information and classification. Often it has seemed as if the educative virtue of works of art consisted in knowing about them, not in experiencing them directly. This is surely an error, a sort of decadence in which the means has become the end, and, like the churches of a religion in which belief in God has died out and only the niceties of ritual remained, our art galleries might easily be swept away in a moment of spiritual revival.

There are, however, several reasons why the modern gallery cannot easily free itself from this pedagogical structure. For one thing, its aims have, in many recent examples, become confused with those of a museum. This was originally an almost antithetical concept. It was Aristotelian, whereas the gallery was Platonic. It dealt with facts, whereas the gallery dealt with essences and ideas. The early museums, based on their collections of natural history, botany and geology, contained human artifacts only if they gave information about remote and peculiar ways of life. Whereas galleries were confined to the concentric world of Classical culture, the first “museums,” like those of Tradescant and Hans Sloane, were eccentric, and chiefly concerned with what we today would call ethnology. When such collections became fused with art galleries it was inevitable that some of their encyclopaedic, documentary character spread, and works of art began to be treated like mineralogical specimens.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, a third ingredient was added to the museum-art gallery: the exhibition of applied art. It had become apparent that traditional craftsmanship was dying out, and collections were formed to show the types of skill with which various materials had been treated in the past. One of the greatest museums in the world, the Victoria and Albert, came into existence in this way, and until the war the exhibits were arranged under the materials in which they were executed. Here, once more, we recognize how insecure is the position of the democratic-materialist state which sets out to patronize art, for the Victoria and Albert Museum was supported on the theory that it would raise the standard of industrial art, and thus increase exports, a theory which could scarcely convince the most optimistic, but which was considered a more effective way of asking Parliament for money than to say that the objects were collected because they were beautiful. But whatever its ostensible intention, the result was that works of art were displayed to give information rather than to produce a state of mind.

In all these ways the first reason which led men to collect works of art was overlayed and confused; and yet a great museum-gallery, like the Metropolitan, cannot escape from its complex heredity any more than can a human being or a nation. The sanctity of the old temple treasury, the classical values of the Renaissance, the snobbery, the pedantry, the ethnological curiosity-we may discover them all, and we may ask how it is possible to unite so many conflicting claims in the same institution. The answer is that this artificial creation must be treated as a work of art and should command the same faculties which are involved in the writing of an opera or the building of a cathedral. The first of these may be called creative confidence. The basis of any gallery, as of any work of art, is selection, and the selection which forms a fresh unity cannot be achieved by science or by rule. The gallery director who attempts to be scientific is under the same kind of misconception as the historian who believes himself to be impartial. Like it or not, he must select, and unless he selects in accordance with some conviction the result will be mere chaos. As a matter of fact, learning, like everything else, is subject to the Zeitgeist, and those who believe themselves to be pure scholars flutter in the winds of fashion far more helplessly than the artist or the poet. The difficulty for the modern museum director is that his creative confidence must extend over such a wide field. In the days when he was confined to Classical culture and its derivatives he had, so to say, a book of the rules to which he could turn when in doubt; but since we have decided that many of the heathen idols and curios of the museum must now be transferred to the art gallery the old laws no longer hold good. What can take their place? Simply the capacity to recognize which works of the human hand have been made with love, have achieved an independent unity and are the reflection of an idea. This capacity is given in some small degree to almost everyone-that is why we have public galleries-but in the high degree necessary for creation it is as unusual as any other creative faculty. Almost everyone can beat time, but good conductors are so rare that the half dozen in existence spend their lives in airplanes. And this analogy with the conductor reminds us that the gallery director must not only select, but must unite and co-ordinate. He must not only know what the works of art are saying to him, but what they are saying to one another. Famous works of art do not always get on well together any more than famous people do: the exhibition of masterpieces of the Metropolitan, which preceded its glorious re-opening, produced one of the finest swearing matches I have witnessed. On the other hand, someone with a delicate ear who can catch almost inaudible whispers of affection or assent, can produce fresh associations which have the quality of works of art. If Paul Klee had been allowed to take what he liked from any museum in Germany and arrange it according to his fancy, the result would have been one of the most beautiful museums in the world. But it would perhaps have been too idiosyncratic for permanence. Lethaby’s famous statement that “a great building must not be one man thick, but many men thick,” applies to a great gallery. Like a language, a political constitution or a Gothic cathedral, it is enriched by fortunate accidents. And it may be that my conception of the museum as a work of art is possible only when a collection is small. Just as a small community can be held together by personal relationships and a few traditions whereas a large one requires an ever increasing burden of elaborate laws, so the large gallery requires a more rigid and definable framework to support it. Almost inevitably this framework becomes historical, for no other classification is as easy to operate and to explain. Works of art are, indeed, the most fascinating of historical documents, but they are also misleading, because, as Blake said, “Genius is always above the age.” If we were honestly to collect works of art as historical documents we should have to confine ourselves to the second-rate. Marxist art-historians support their conclusions by the work of journeyman painters like Pacino da Bonaguida and find Giotto or Masaccio merely inconvenient. But in fact the only reason for bringing together works of art in a public place is that for which they were brought together first, that they produce in us a kind of exalted happiness. For a moment there is a clearing in the jungle; we pass on refreshed, with our capacity for life increased and with some memory of the sky.

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