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Mary Beard and David Olu­soga’s Civil­i­sa­tions. Chris­tos Tsi­olkas’s On Pa­trick White.

Viv Al­ber­tine’s To Throw Away Un­opened.

I de­bated over whether to ad­dress th­ese books’ ge­n­e­sis at the out­set, or to treat them on their own terms. Does it un­der­sell them to point out that they started out as el­e­ments of a larger whole? But don’t their cov­ers and for­mat sig­nal a link, and their con­tents – gor­geously il­lus­trated es­says – seem, even at a flick­through, to be cu­ri­ously episodic? Here’s why.

His­to­ri­ans Mary Beard and David Olu­soga each con­trib­uted two episodes to BBCTV’s nine-part art-his­tory se­ries, Civil­i­sa­tions, a 2018 up­dat­ing of Ken­neth Clark’s land­mark se­ries, Civil­i­sa­tion, first broad­cast in 1969.

The new se­ries has al­ready screened in Bri­tain and the United States, but hasn’t yet reached Aus­tralia. And, although Si­mon Schama is the se­ries’ main pre­sen­ter, his five episodes have not been made into a book. For us, then, th­ese two have to stand on their own.

The episodes of Civil­i­sa­tions cor­re­spond­ing with the es­says in th­ese books are meant to be self-con­tained, a point un­der­scored by their writer-pre­sen­ters call­ing them “films”. Yet the se­ries pro­gresses from pre­his­tory to the present, so that

Beard’s episodes (the sec­ond and fourth) and Olu­soga’s (sixth and eighth) fo­cus on dis­con­tin­u­ous pas­sages of art his­tory. As you’d ex­pect from award-win­ning his­to­ri­ans – of the an­cient world and colo­nial­ism, re­spec­tively – they de­liver far more than chrono­log­i­cal re­count­ings.

The Civil­i­sa­tions se­ries was con­ceived, in part, as a cor­rec­tive to the ap­par­ent nar­row­ness of the pa­tri­cian Clark’s world view. His Civil­i­sa­tion fo­cused ex­clu­sively on West­ern Europe and, though he blithely sup­posed that no one “could be so ob­tuse as to think I had for­got­ten about the great civil­i­sa­tions of the pre-Chris­tian era and the east”, that’s ex­actly what many did think and have done ever since. With the ad­di­tion of an -s, a global scope, and a ros­ter of pre­sen­ters flavoured fe­male, black and Jew­ish, the new se­ries aimed to re­dress its pre­de­ces­sor’s short­com­ings.

It wasn’t the first to do so. More rad­i­cal was John Berger’s Ways of See­ing, aired on the BBC in 1972 as a swift ri­poste to Civil­i­sa­tion. By ex­pos­ing the ide­olo­gies im­plicit in West­ern art and cul­ture, Berger’s cri­tique posited see­ing as a po­lit­i­cal act. Mary Beard’s es­says here are proof of Berger’s en­dur­ing in­flu­ence. Again and again – and not just in her es­say, “How Do We Look” – Beard re­minds the reader that much de­pends on who is look­ing, on when and where, and even how we choose to look.

In “How Do We Look” Beard sur­veys de­pic­tions of the hu­man body in an­cient art. That neatly mir­rored ti­tle leads to a con­sid­er­a­tion not just of the chang­ing ways in which such im­ages have been viewed by au­di­ences over time, but of how their mak­ers, and even their sub­jects, in­tended they should look and be seen. Beard is alert to the val­ues – and yes, ide­olo­gies – with which each image is lay­ered, as­crib­ing power or its lack. Some of her read­ings are nec­es­sar­ily spec­u­la­tive, as in the case of gi­gan­tic carved heads from pre­his­toric Mex­ico. Oth­ers are borne out by sur­viv­ing records or even by im­ages cre­ated in re­sponse to ear­lier ones. Cof­fin por­traits and mam­moth stat­u­ary from Egypt, China’s ter­ra­cotta “war­riors”, Greek sculp­tures that mark the birth of nat­u­ral­ism – in every in­stance, Beard demon­strates a gift for the telling de­tail that bridges cul­tures and mil­len­nia.

The same goes for her sec­ond es­say, “The Eye of Faith”, which looks at the in­ter­play be­tween re­li­gion and art. Artis­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the divine can be con­tro­ver­sial, even for­bid­den. How, then, to make the un­seen seen? Beard ex­plores, among other things, how cre­ativ­ity can emerge from icon­o­clasm, as well as vice versa. The art she presents in this es­say spans pre­his­tory to the 17th cen­tury, but again she makes us look at the art’s shift­ing mean­ings over time, right up to the present day. Over the long his­tory of the Ajanta caves of west­ern In­dia, the early Bud­dhist paint­ings within have guided gen­er­a­tions of wor­ship­pers, been erased, re­dis­cov­ered, re­drawn and rein­ter­preted for an en­tirely dif­fer­ent cul­ture.

Beard’s writ­ing here is in keep­ing with the pas­sion­ate and ver­nac­u­lar style, spliced with eru­di­tion, that char­ac­terises her TV per­sona. The es­says bear some traces of adap­ta­tion from spo­ken word to the page – ver­bal tics and rep­e­ti­tions – as well as a skim­ming qual­ity that’s con­sis­tent with TV doc­u­men­tary. And just like a doc­u­men­tary, the book re­lies on a fab­u­lous ar­ray of vi­su­als, so that we don’t have to take Beard’s word for it, but can see for our­selves.

David Olu­soga seems to have de­ter­mined that his es­says should stand in their own right. His book, though longer than Beard’s, is less pro­fusely il­lus­trated, less ob­vi­ously as seen on TV. Olu­soga, too, em­pha­sises the many and con­tested ways in which art has re­flected “civil­i­sa­tion”. His brief, though, is to examine the cul­tural losses and con­flu­ences wrought by con­quest, colo­nial­ism and trade.

His es­says are el­e­gant, com­pelling and thor­oughly en­gag­ing. “First Con­tact” fo­cuses on the Age of Dis­cov­ery and ex­plores how, hid­den within art seized, lost or cre­ated by cul­tural col­li­sion can be found hints of how civil­i­sa­tions saw and changed one another. In his sec­ond es­say, Olu­soga en­com­passes the En­light­en­ment, the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, and the Age of Em­pire, and con­sid­ers how art and artists were changed by “The Cult of Progress”. Like Beard, Olu­soga takes a global sweep, yet nei­ther of them touches Aus­tralia. Per­haps it was Schama’s ter­ri­tory?

In both books, women fea­ture promi­nently as mak­ers and view­ers of art, not just as ob­jects of the gaze, an in­clu­sive­ness high­lighted in op­po­si­tion to Clark’s “great men” ap­proach. Surely, in 2018, it ought to go with­out say­ing. On the sub­ject of great women, isn’t there some­thing glo­ri­ous in Beard’s writ­ing “How Do We Look” and in­sist­ing on the va­lid­ity of dif­fer­ent “ways of see­ing” given the sav­age trolling that has over the years tar­geted the way she looks as a TV per­son­al­ity?

Th­ese books are lovely to hold and look at and – es­pe­cially Olu­soga’s – to read. Pack­aged as a pair, though, and adrift from their orig­i­nal con­text, they can’t help but seem, them­selves, like frag­men­tary arte­facts of a lost Civil­i­sa­tions. FL

Pro­file, 240pp, 304pp, $34.99

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