Art Review Archives:
Anthony Blunt: His Lives
by Miranda Carter
590 pages; 37 black and white illustrations
Reading Anthony Blunt: His Lives, one cannot help but reflect that the great sorrow of Blunt's life is that his ten years of involvement with the Soviets, as talent spotter and then actual agent, almost wholly eclipsed thirty years of real and considerable talent in the art world. As testament to which aspect is a more popular (or simply more marketable) topic, most books on Blunt focus on the espionage -- some sensationally ("Spies, Lies, Buggery & Betrayal"!), some with greater restraint. This new work on Anthony Blunt adopts a more holistic approach to examining the deeds of his life. The appeal of Anthony Blunt: His Lives is that it seeks to be a true biography of this complex and enigmatic man.
In Anthony Blunt: His Lives, author Miranda Carter gives Blunt's art career equal billing with his espionage -- as it deserves, for his contributions to the art world within and beyond Great Britain's boundaries were significant, and still resonate with us today. Carter notes and discusses Blunt's art-history leanings, from his early critical writings to the shifting focus on various artists -- Poussin, Picasso, Borromini -- and how these foci reflected Blunt's inner landscape (a landscape he never succeeded in formally explaining, even when he tried). In the pinched postwar London of the 50s, and the burgeoning years of the 60s, Sir Anthony Blunt (a former 'Sir' at the end -- his knighthood of 1956 was rescinded in 1979 after his exposure) "became the most powerful and influential figure in British art history, a kind of cattle baron in its new and developing territories." As longtime Director of the Courtald Institute (part of the University of London) he was directly and indirectly responsible for the training of a generation of artists and art historians, many of who became notable names of their own (Anita Brookner, for example). When he began his career, there was no formal course of study for art history in Britain; Blunt was almost single-handedly responsible for "turning art history from a pastime for rich dilettantes to an academic discipline." The Courtald, as well, rode the coattails of his personal visibility and success, itself rising from relative obscurity to being a major locus for respected artistic study.
Blunt was, as well, more and more widely regarded as an expert in art history. He had nurtured a love for Poussin since childhood, and in 1960 organized the first exhibition of Poussin's work at the Louvre, which brought that artist to public attention, as well as "confirmed his [Blunt's] position as the world expert on Poussin." As if this were not enough, Blunt also made television appearances; published numerous books on art history, including his landmark volume Art and Architecture In France: 1500-1700; produced a comprehensive body of art reviews and critical writings; and held, as well, the position of Surveyor of the King's Pictures. He assumed the latter right after World War II: it involved organizing, caretaking, and exhibiting the art works of the Royal Family, duties which brought him into contact with, and the confidences of, the Royals on a regular basis.
Of these achievements, Carter notes,
Such would have been Blunt's rich legacy -- if he had not also been active in quite another area. In 1979, Anthony Blunt was publicly exposed as having been a Soviet agent during his wartime service with British Intelligence. This respected and powerful, public figure had been... a spy. And not just a spy -- a spy in the heart of MI5, as well as a spy with direct ties to the Palace.
One of the ways in which Anthony Blunt: His Lives differs significantly from other works on Blunt is in its examination of why Great Britain reacted as it did. In her narration of the events following Blunt's exposure, Carter brings to the fore a subtle awareness of the power of the media circus, of the political usefulness of this sensational bit of news. She notes, "After his exposure, Blunt became a kind of screen on which fiction and fantasy were projected." He became
Why? Carter notes that,
Granted that his spying had been a treacherous act; his treason had been significant. But Blunt's very success in the art world, as well as his longtime close contact with the Royal Family, made him choice bait for Parliament and the media. (Though Carter does not directly note this, espionage, as well, had long been a popular topic for novelists such as John LeCarre, Robert Ludlum, and Len Deighton. "A real-life John LeCarre thriller" comments one of the books about the 'Cambridge Five,' which includes Anthony Blunt.) His was a story made-to-order for the popular press; as well as giving Parliament an opportunity to draw attention away from more pernicious issues.
Handling the material chronologically, Carter, of course, presents the entirety of the foreshadowing of this revelation which burst so unpleasantly into the awareness of the British public in 1979. She provides facts and possible interpretations of the forces which led Blunt to embrace Marxism, to keep company with Communist elements at Cambridge, to become a talent-spotter and eventually, an actual agent passing classified material to the Soviets. In discussing Blunt's formative forces, Carter assists us in seeing the art historian in his role within history itself. The popular press of the 1980s was tailored to readers with thirty-five years of Cold War indoctrination. Blunt, however, was born in 1907, pre-Cold War, part of that generation which came of age in the Britain between the two World Wars. It was a time when the disillusionment of intellectuals and artists was high, when the British government seemed not to care for the problems of post-World War I unemployment, seemed to want to placate the rising Hitler, took a do-nothing attitude toward Franco's hostile Fascist takeover of Spain. Marxism was in the right place at the right time, offering social solutions which seemed they would work, seemed to be already working in Communist Russia (though that in itself was a managed image).
The Spanish Revolution especially was catalyst, to Blunt and his contemporaries: in her narrative, Carter notes writer and critic T.C. Worsley as saying,
Yet Britain's government seemed unconcerned as Franco claimed the reins of power in Spain; as Hitler began to claim, and get, territories beyond Germany's borders. Carter notes that Blunt himself later explained his rationale that,
Biography often reveals the gap between the subject's 'times' and our own, and Blunt's life (1907-1983) is a good candidate for such observation. It spanned the momentous 20th century, times of social and political change on a scale perhaps unimaginable to us today -- the rapid industralization of the German Empire, then smashed, not once but twice in subsequent World Wars; the loss of millions of the best and brightest in those wars; the rise of Communism and Fascism; the changing patterns of world power as European nations dwindled from first- to second-rate world powers and the US and USSR took the stage. These are not Blunt's story directly, but are certainly the backdrop against which he made his decisions in both art -- and espionage. As such, a historical timeline, in correlation with a chronological overview of Blunt's life, would have been a useful addition to Anthony Blunt: His Lives.
At nearly 600 pages, Anthony Blunt: His Lives is a substantial book. Carter's writing provides both facts, and illuminating assessments of Blunt and his influences, e.g.:
Her material, as well, is comprehensive. Readers will find ample material on Blunt's artistic views, his interests, his own particular nexus of art and ideology, and how it changed through the years: art & Fascism, art & Marxism, Blunt's reaction to the response of artists and intellectuals to the Spanish Civil War, his views on Picasso and Poussin, and the influences of his companions, including poets Louis MacNeice and W. H. Auden. And yes, there's plenty on the spying... as well as a thorough examination of Blunt's life as a homosexual, and the attitudes and activities of the homosexual lifestyle of the time.
The pleasure of Anthony Blunt: His Lives is the absence of that feeling, pervasive in many other books about Blunt, of an axe to grind. Carter's biography of Anthony Blunt invites a more balanced inspection of this talented man who followed several years of spying for the Soviet NKVD with a thirty-year career of artistic merit and success. Rather than the cartoon of a "treacherous Communist poof," "an arrogant evil poseur," Carter's work invites us to see Blunt as a human being, moved by forces which might move any one of us, and to try to understand the 'whys' behind such choices; as well, to see Blunt as a dedicated and successful administrator, educator, art historian and art expert; and describes not only his much-documented spying, but in detail, the development of the changing attitudes and interests he took toward art and artists, as well as the pervasiveness of his positive influence on the art world: his dedication, influence and expertise still affect us today. Time has brought the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the passing of the Cold War. Anthony Blunt's story as portrayed in Anthony Blunt: His Lives is all the more interesting for that, and certainly worthy of the more objective examination Carter brings to it.
--Katherine Rook Lieber
Editorial Note: All quotes, unless otherwise identified, are from the reviewed book itself. Noted art historian Anita Brookner was a student of Anthony Blunt's at the Courtald Institute. Her book Romanticism and Its Discontents (Farrar, Straus & Giroux:2001), a study of artists of the Romantic period, was reviewed in November 2001 by ArtScope.net (click here). "Spies, Lies, Buggery & Betrayal" is the subtitle of John Costello's Mask of Treachery (William Morrow:1988). "A real-life John LeCarre thriller" is from the jacket copy of My Five Cambridge Friends by former Soviet controller Yuri Modin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux:1994).
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