(see comments - where the above is modified - I lowered this to four stars)
Let me say, first of all, that this book has not shown any of the traits that have (for good reason) scared off some readers of Clark - it is lucid to a fault.
Over the past few years, I have gotten interested in the modern world -- something I had not paid much attention to in quite a while. We are living through 'a moment', as the saying is…; history has come alive. And it is worthy of attention.
From a political point of view, the central problem of the 20th and, I believe, of the 21st cen., is fascism. The fear of communism will either be seen as a parenthesis, or will be resolved (as I believe) into a subset of fascism. If this sounds strange -- just think of Stalin's formulation of the USSR as "Socialism for one nation". National socialism. The metaphysics of Mao ('everything is a war between opposites') is identical to that of Mussolini.
In the cultural sphere, the issue is modernism -- and it is the roots of this that I barely understand and am trying to fathom -- though the two are closely linked, of course. (For this linkage of modernism with fascism, which many will find preposterous, see Modris Eksteins' The Rites of Spring; or Richard Wolin's The Seduction of Unreason. It is not preposterous at all, what I say -- though few will say it. There is much more to be said on this, of course -- but that can wait for another day.)
At any rate, Clark's book on The Painting of Modern Life is, indeed, a sustained meditation on the roots and meaning of modernism -- traced back to the Second Empire. It contains a close and very granular reading of the mentalité of the period, and proceeds by adducing and commenting on particular pictures and texts (quoted at length in translation and in the original) and many, many facts of material life -- and is absolutely captivating. In fact, it has a great deal in common with Braudel's books on Civilization and Capitalism -- though Clark's own writing is slightly more modernizing. He is a Marxist, but it is a Marxism of categories that appears, not of rhetoric. Conservatives will therefore have no difficulty with it, as they will use identical categories in their analysis - production, class, 'form'…. Indeed, what makes Marx and Freud the fundamental texts of the modern world is precisely that their opponents need to use their categories in their rejection. Something Heidegger cannot boast of.
The first chapter deals with urban planning in Paris, Haussmannization -- the origins of bourgeois leisure -- and (though Clark has not yet said this) kitsch. This picture of Degas (Au Café-Concert: La Chanson du Chien. 1875-77) says it all, in my opinion. In the pose of this woman's arms and hands, one can see (so to speak) modernity 'aborning….
Let me close with a quote from the Goncourt brothers (Mémoires 1:835), describing their views on Haussmann: "Notre Paris, le Paris où nous sommes nés, le Paris des moeurs de 1830 à 1848, s'en va ['it has gone':]. Et il ne s'en va pas par le materiel, il s'en va par le moral. La vie sociale y fait une grande évolution, qui commence. Je vois des femmes, des enfants, des ménages, des familles dans ce café. L'intérieur s'en va. La vie retourne à devenir publique…."
Life, 'moral', has turned inside out; what was once interior, is now 'publique'. Therein lies the problem of modern life…