Kenneth Clark’s 1969 BBC series Civilisation (note the singular) is perhaps the most celebrated documentary series ever made, except that it was entirely of its time: patrician to the exclusion of women and western to the exclusion of all other cultures. Spring 2018 sees an ambitious BBC re-make, presented by Britain’s foremost historians, embracing global civilisations and exploring different themes in the universal histories of art and culture.
In Civilisations, Mary Beard investigates two aspects of what it means to be human. In Part I, How Do We Look, she focuses on some of the earliest human figures in art – from the Olmec heads of pre-historic Mexico to the first nudes of the ancient Greek world, asking what were these images for, how they were understood by people in the past and why were they sometimes so dangerous and unsettling. Why have cultures all over the world invested so heavily in images of the body?
In Part II, The Eye of Faith, Beard shows how for millennia art has inspired religion as much as religion has inspired art. Together, across different cultures, they have given us some of the most famous and breath-taking images ever made. Yet there are fundamental problems, which all religions share, in making God visible in the human world. Ranging from Angkor Wat to Ravenna, from idolatry to iconoclasm, Mary Beard explores the often problematic interface between art and religion.