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‘Civilizations’ is the most ambitious story about art ever told on television

Simon Schama, here in Petra, Jordan, is one of three British presenters who pop up on location around the world in “Civilizations,” which begins airing Tuesday on PBS. (Nutopia Ltd.)

When the BBC produced “Civilisation” in 1969, the 13-part examination of Western European culture set a benchmark for television treatments of history and culture, not only in the United Kingdom but around the world. The series, subtitled “A Personal View by Lord Clark,” was developed by David Attenborough and presented by Kenneth Clark, an art historian and museum director with a great synthesizing intelligence, excellent diction and bad teeth. Its impact was huge (it was rereleased in 2005).

Without its precedent, it’s almost impossible to imagine John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” (1972), Robert Hughes’s “The Shock of the New” (1980) or any number of similar television projects — including “Civilizations,” a nine-part history of world art that begins airing Tuesday on PBS.

“Civilizations,” like “Ways of Seeing,” is an attempt to update Clark’s series. But it’s also an unprecedented undertaking in the annals of television. Unlike “Civilisation,” which was focused on Western art from the so-called Dark Ages until the 20th century, the scope of “Civilizations” is global and reaches right back to cave painting.

If the expanded view makes the ensuing narrative necessarily amorphous, it’s also exciting, and compulsory viewing for a new generation of viewers who may not have seen the earlier productions.

A carved ivory, mask-shaped hip pendant is one of the works featured in the nine-part series. (Nutopia Ltd.)

The series’ bias is toward objects and how they were made rather than overarching ideas or colorful personalities. But there’s

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