Cover of book: Civilisations

Mary Beard and David Olusoga

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 flick-through, to be curiously episodic? Here’s why.

Historians Mary Beard and David Olusoga each contributed two episodes to BBC-TV’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 CivilisationsFL

Profile, 240pp, 304pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 12, 2018 as "Civilisations, Mary Beard and David Olusoga".

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