22nd November 2007
In ascending order, Kenneth Clark, later Lord Clark (1902-1983) is famous for being the Director of the National Gallery between 1932 and 1945, for producing the BBC’s groundbreaking television series Civilisation, as author of the definitive work on the nude in art, The Nude, and as father of the sometime representative in Parliament for Kensington & Chelsea, serial womaniser and diarist, the late Kenneth Clark MP.
Clark the younger was for a time a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government. He famously fucked a judge’s wife and his two daughters at the same time and wrote it up in his diary, referring to them as “the coven”. He tells of a time when he was on a train traveling from London down to his family home at Saltwood in Kent.
“…a plump young lady came into my compartment at Waterloo. She was not wearing a bra, and her delightful globes bounced prominently, but happily, under a rope knitted jersey, as the new coach/old chassis train joggled its way over the many points and junctions.
“I gave her a huge grin, couldn’t help it. After a bit I moved over and sat beside her. She was adorable. Am I crazy? Death wish? Above us in the luggage rack the Red Box gleamed like a beacon. She works as a shop assistant in Folkestone.”
[A red box, for the benefit of my overseas readers, is a box the size of a large briefcase, coloured bright red, in which government ministers receive and carry around documents of State. One of the things that I learned from following the Phil Spector trial (possibly the only thing of lasting value) is that in the USA a briefcase is called a valise.]
Inherited genes being what they are, it is possible see the man behind the many sensual passages in The Nude through the pages of the son’s diary. When Lord Clark came to describe the contrapposto pose, which he calls “dehanchement”, the phrases that he used were “vivid symbol of desire” and “swing of the hips” - the latter being the meaning in French. On the other hand an aging woman in a Durer bathhouse is dismissed as “the fat monster on the right” and on a poor Roman copy of another of Praxiteles’s Venus’s (the so called Venus of Arles now in the Louvre) he comments that “if she were placed on the staircase of an old-fashioned hotel we should not give her a second glance.”
It is because he writes so beautifully and because he shamelessly admits that the “turn on” factor is an important part of the art landscape that Clark has been given the accolade of “of blessed memory” in my own inadequate writing. He would not have earned it for his sojourn at the National Gallery because during his time there he did the equivalent of “going Hollywood”. It must surely have been contrary to his gut instinct to hang on to all the boring religious art and Grand Tour rubbish instead of selling it off and getting some good erotic pictures in their stead.
The opening paragraph of The Nude has been committed to memory by generations of students of art and art history. It distinguishes between the naked and the nude. The former, says Clark, implying embarrassment for most people, the later, in educated usage at least, no uncomfortable overtone. The projected image is not a “huddled and defenceless body” but a “balanced, prosperous and confident body.”
The sites on the Internet on which the word de’hanchement (sometimes spelled dehanchement) is used in an artistic or in any other context are few in number other than those in the French language. In fact, I have been able to discover only two for “dehanchement” in the sense in which Lord Clark used it. One of these, curiously, is the web site of a former art professor, name of Stephen Dubov, serving a thirty year sentence without parole for possessing a sizeable stash of cocaine. He spends his time in the Federal penitentiary making modern sculptures that are well received by the world outside. He has done his own version of the The Three Graces and in a well researched background note (here) he uses both “dehanchement” and “contrapposto”. It is not clear from the context whether he sees a difference between the two poses.
The second site is a recent posting by someone who is gleeful at having discovered so unusual a word. I know the feeling. You will find it here.
There is another phrase used by the blessed Clark in The Nude that has stuck in my mind. When he singles out the Limburgh Brother’s Fall of Eve (c.1410) as marking the nude’s return to the world of art’s favour as the Renaissance gets under way he says that Eve is “naked as a shrimp.” I googled the phrase back in November 2003 and came up with what I call a “constructive Googlewhack” (see here in the Glossary) there being no sightings for the phrase. By contrast “naked as a jaybird” gets an entry in slang dictionaries, my favourite definition being “bare-assed”. “Naked as a shrimp” is still to this day a constructive Googlewhack. When I googled it just now I came up with one hit - which was my posting of yesterday trailing this present piece! (The jaybird phrase apparently originates with the little featherless jaybird chicks that fall out of the nest.)
If we look carefully at the bare-assed Eve (or, if you prefer, Eve in all her shrimpiness) you will see that the Limburgh boys had not thought it desirable to bring back from the classic era the dehanchement pose. They may have reasoned that, as the book they were illustrating was to assist their patron the Duc de Berry in his private devotions, too much swinging of the ass would be counter productive.
Lord Clark sets out his stall within the first few pages of The Nude. On page 1 there is a reproduction of Valasquez’s Rokeby Venus, pride of the National Gallery which he once directed. It is, incidentally, an example of horizontal dehanchement and as Ian Tovey and I demonstrated here it retains its allure when re-arranged vertically. On page 5 of The Nude the illustration is Courbet’s La Source which, to the average bottom, is as a 12 meter yacht to a dingy. On page 6 comes a photograph by Oscar Rejlander taken in 1857 of a lady with a bottom with the lines, say, of a classic Riva power boat. At this point in the book there is the passage which I am about to quote and which, if I could parade it across the top of this web site as a permanent banner, I would.
“The human body, as a nucleus, is rich in associations, and when it is turned into art these associations are not entirely lost. For this reason it seldom achieves the concentrated asthetic shock of animal ornament [referring to images of an animal biting its own tail found in antiquity] but it can be made expressive of a far wider and more civilizing experience. It is ourselves, and arouses memories of all the things we wish to do with ourselves; and first of all we wish to perpetuate ourselves.
“This is an aspect of the subject so obvious that I need hardly dwell on it; and yet some wise men have tried to close their eyes to it. ‘If the nude’ says Professor Alexander ‘is so treated that it raises in the spectator ideas or desires appropriate to the material subject, it is false art, and bad morals.’ This high-minded theory is contrary to experience. In the mixture of memories and sensations aroused by the nudes of Rubens or Renoir are many which are ‘appropriate to the material subject’. And since the words of a famous philosopher are often quoted, it is necessary to labour the obvious and say that no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even although it be only the faintest shadow – and if it does not do so, it is bad art and false morals.”
You will see now why, for me, Kenneth Clark, whether commoner or Peer, will always be of blessed memory.