The Sculptor, the Spy and a Moment of Political Sincerity

The story of how the highly distinguished art historian and former Cambridge Apostle Anthony Blunt was unmasked in 1979 as having been a spy for Soviet Russia, has a peculiar appeal for my generation and roundabout. I imagine John le Carré, presiding genius of the espionage thriller,  might even have wished he’d invented it. David Hare, British theatre’s chronicler of good causes gone astray, could have dramatized it, had not rival playwright Alan Bennett got there first. It’s a tendency in our British lives where the left-right political right doesn’t seem to matter. We’re all of us transfixed by the imperial British institutions we were educated to love and trust, only to have watched them crumble in our lifetimes. Ours is the post-war generation taught to respect the establishment only to have experienced it, including very nearly the royal family itself, fall apart under democratic pressure. Blunt, gay and in the service of Communist Moscow, had royal connections by birth. In 1945,  he was named Surveyor of Pictures to King George VI, and continued in service to Queen Elizabeth II, as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, until 1972.  A chair at London University and Directorship of the Courtauld Institute of Art followed his royal appointment. My generation is disillusioned, and yet spellbound, because in our time we’ve learnt what was really going on inside Whitehall, and Downing Street, and British Intelligence, in the military, and at Oxbridge, and maybe even the great galleries, while we believed in a decent and honest ‘Establishment’.

Bennett reminded us how Alan Turing, hero of wartime decoding, was driven to suicide when his homosexuality led to his hounding by the authorities. Le Carré has filled our libraries and our tv screens full with double-crossings and betrayals among friends and colleagues, and their spouses, some highly educated, like his great protagonist George Smiley, and grand (like, one feels, Anne, Smiley’s errant wife), some not. The image of a nasty, ruthless, public school-educated underworld will now forever underlie our officially glorious picture of men and women who live and die in service to their country. Hare meanwhile has dissected the press, the church and parliament in turn. He’s less nostalgic, less affected by the mystique of patriotically justified secrecy. His disappointment is with the Left and, not least the parliamentary Left. Those of us more entranced by the culture that was once held out to us as a model have our trouble with the stiff upper lip. For it turns out that what old-fashioned Brits learnt in their preparatory schools — those expensive, smooth-mannered institutions that separated them aged eight from their mothers’ kindness, was the ability to dissemble and deceive and suppress their emotions in order to remain socially plausible at the highest level. The reward was, at university and ever after, to collect life’s Glittering Prizes (see Frederick Raphael’s huge literary success of 1976). But at what concealed price!

My dates and even my universities are right. But I didn’t go through this training. What was the reason? My social background wasn’t sufficiently exalted? I was a woman?  So, educated to love and respect my country, I sit and devour spy stories.

There’s a variant explanation I sometimes try out. Why I love my generation’s stories of betrayal in high places is that I too might also have dissembled, for love, or out of conviction, had I been given the chance. Am I saying I wanted the chance? Maybe. (I gave the heroine of my novel Anyone’s Game the chance to refuse.) On the other hand I just never felt part of the Establishment that would have issued the invitation. Not at Oxford and not after.  And somehow they knew that. Though then close friends received the call — one accepted, one didn’t — THEY didn’t get in touch with me.

I was visiting recently Tate Britain’s Winter 2017-18 exhibition Impressionists in London French Artists in Exile 1870-1904, which received some very qualified reviews. The main complaint was that the title of the show was already misleading. Was it a series of Impressionist paintings of London we were to expect, or was it the varied, not always top-class work of disparate political exiles, wrenched from their Paris habitat after the Commune of 1871 and bound to make a living with new work dreamed up in the British capital? I went prepared to enjoy the Monets and Pissarros of the penultimate room, and I wasn’t disappointed. The sheer gorgeousness of the Thames, rendered in a mass of choppy turquoise and white brushstrokes, and the neo-gothic turrets of the Houses of Parliament vanishing into the mist, and the majestic views either way from Waterloo Bridge, were a rich homage to London, rivals to Turner. Still I want to put on record my private dalliance in another room, which showed the work of the sculptor Aimé-Jules Dalou, because he was a favourite of Antony Blunt’s.

Dalou (1838-1902) was a convicted Communard under French law. He had to get out, for his part on the violent seizure of Paris by ‘the people’ in opposition to the conservative national government. During the Commune, Dalou, a respected practitioner, was a member of the Federation of Artists headed by Gustave Courbet, and had been appointed, on 16 May 1871, as one of the curators in charge of protecting objects at the Musée du Louvre. He only held the post for seven days. During the famous  Semaine sanglante (the Bloody Week, 22-28 May 1871), and with Paris burning, he fled with his wife to England.

Dalou was a socialist who evidently also did love the working class. (Those two sentiments haven’t always gone together.) He produced many works of baroque inspiration though it was his skills as a naturalist gave him an appreciative audience in his country of exile. His modelling technique made him the envy of British art schools, where he taught. They  transformed their teaching under the impact of Dalou’s  eight years away from Paris.

Like so many foreigners before and after him, Dalou had to balance his gratitude for England’s political tolerance and its policy of open doors with queasiness over resident artistic taste.  He needed to earn his living in London but found himself obliged to chose sentimental subjects to please his patrons. It offended the artist in him to have to produce so many sweet and innocent mothers and children. Perhaps he complained of that to his best friend, the painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema, another not quite English artist living in London with his family. Three generations later the art historian Nicholas Pevsner, in exile from Nazi Germany, would equally have to torture himself to accept saccharine and over-decorated English native taste. England is not an easy place in which to be a foreign artist. (I’ve written about Pevsner’s travails in my book A Shoe Story.)

How good was Dalou? The terracotta heads and figures on show at Tate Britain suggest an extraordinary capacity for realistic detail, ready movement and naturally graceful form. Auguste Rodin, a few years his junior, regarded him as a serious rival, and sculpted a bust of wiry shrewdness and intensity, presently on show at Tate. Dalou, who amassed public, aristocratic and royal commissions during his time as a London refugee, left a considerable reputation behind him when he returned to France.

Blunt therefore might have grown up with his name in the cultured air. His mother after all was a lifelong friend of May Teck, whose on marriage to King George V in waiting became the future Queen Mary. But it seems all the more likely that this privileged upper middle class boy encountered Dalou on his boyhood visits to the Louvre. His father Stanley was Anglican priest to the British Community in Paris from 1912-1921.  Though Anthony was sent home to be educated at Marlborough College (much detested) from 1918 and thence acquired a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, the habit of loving French art had been early implanted. Blunt began his career as an art historian as art critic to the Spectator in 1932, before starting out at London University as a lecturer the following year.  Yet – and this almost spoils my story — still no reference to Dalou.

In her prizewinning biography Anthony Blunt His Lives (2001) even Miranda Carter declined to pick up the Dalou thread. There’s a touching reference in Carter as to how the elderly Blunt, vilified and ostracized from polite society after his unmasking for espionage in 1979, dependent on the love and loyalty of a few friends, when he knew he was dying, bequeathed a cherished little head by Dalou to his friend since Cambridge Dennis Proctor. That was in 1983. Nothing more.

The only substantial reference to Dalou comes in Blunt’s 1937 essay ‘Art under Capitalism and Socialism’. (See Cecil Day Lewis, ed., The Mind in Chains (London, 1937), pp. 103-122.)  I came across it when I was researching art historical writing in the 1930s and how political events in the Soviet Union influenced views in the West. Carter treats that essay as an aberration: an extreme moment in which Blunt, for all the subtlety and coolness of his personal aesthetic judgement, submitted to Marxism. Thus he ‘repeated the orthodox line which equated artistic achievement with ideological purity. ‘ ‘His vision of art’s future under Communism was a combination of dogma, naivety, and woolliness.’ (Carter, p.202) In fact the great embarrassment of this time is that it compelled Blunt to attack Picasso as ‘the last refinement of a dead tradition…a lovely decay.’ (p.203)

It’s clear from the 1937 essay however how deep Blunt’s Communist sympathies ran. In passing Carter suggests two contributory factors that might have prepared him for such a doctrine. One was the austerity to which his mother was wedded by choice, and which Marlborough College perpetuated as a perverse punishment of the upper-class young, in the form of miserable food and freezing temperatures. Another was the respect for science in the 1920s, at a time when the Soviet experiment was also seen as scientific. But there was evidently something else, something to do with a directness of human sympathy, that possibly all his life this apparently cold and dessicated man, isolated also by his homsexuality, longed to feel.

Carter (p.268) sees Blunt in 1937 as a kind of talent-spotter for a future Soviet-style socialist utopia. By 1940 he was however acting as a Soviet agent, passing classified documents to Moscow. It was surely Hitler’s war that provided the final incentive, Stalin’s pact with Hitler notwithstanding. And yet all the time real conviction was there. It was I think not so much the chief message of the 1937 essay, highlighted by Carter, that given ‘the present state of capitalism… the position of the artist is hopeless.’ (The Mind in Chains, p.108) It was what followed from that for a man of Blunt’s already alienated psychology. ‘Now that the class struggle has grown more acute and has become the dominating factor in the world situation, any artist who cuts himself off from his class is automatically excluded from the possibility of taking part in the most important movement of his time and is therefore forced to take some sort of escape to find some consolation in his art for the reality with which he has lost touch in his life.’ One could be forgiven, for substituting the word ‘art critic’ for artist here and reading the sentence in a double sense, one indeed descriptive of the predicament of the socially minded artist, and the other autobiographical. Blunt realized he had taken refuge in art history, and in the context of his admired revolutionary politics didn’t like himself for hiding, and taking no social responsibility. ‘The most important movement of the time’ was evidently world communism, with, in Blunt’s common view, the founding Soviet leader Vladimir Iliych Lenin in the vanguard. (Stalin, whose vicious purges of inconvenient lives were in progress, and mounting in 1937, was not mentioned, because his crimes were not yet known in the West.)

Blunt was in the 1937 essay ordering his own artistic tastes to welcome a new world order organized in favour of, and led by the tastes and needs of, the proletariat. And he was prepared to embrace that order. He didn’t worry for his beloved Renaissance painters, for they had classical and museum status and the revolution was likely to leave them that way, albeit as potential relics. What mattered though was the art of the nineteenth century, French art mainly, in which Blunt discerned a distinct line to the present revolutionary day. He wrote, still mindful of that problem of the creative soul out of touch with social reality: ‘The only artists during the nineteenth century who did not feel this isolation were those few who sprang from the proletariat or the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie and kept their contact with it. In the early part of the century the most important of these was Daumier; later came Courbet, whose contact was less certain, van Gogh who lost grip when he came to Paris, and Meunier and Dalou who kept it all through their lives. All these men hated the society in which they lived, but they found support in the most revolutionary classes of the time and were therefore saved from the complete isolation which had overtaken the bourgeois artists of the period.’

Is this not in a cri de coeur from an aristocrat who feels – or longs to feel — sympathy for other human beings, and has found a creed that will bind him to the working class, through the example of artists he respects, like Dalou? It is also a passionate confession of loneliness, not least from a gay man whom the criminal law of the day forces to keep his loves secret.

But let’s stay with Dalou, of whom Blunt notes ‘had to do smart sculpture for the less respectable members of Second Empire Society in order to keep his family, which makes it all the more remarkable that he should have been able to preserve his honesty of outlook enough to produce the superb designs for his Workers’ Monument at the end of his life.’ (The Mind in Chains, p.112)

Dalou’s was a realism that, as the critic Herbert Read noted, commentators struggled to call modern because it didn’t make sufficient break with the art historical past. But for Blunt it was Dalou’s politics that were radical, which in turn gave a kind of guarantee to the quality of his art. Thus Dalou ‘was still capable of depicting serious subjects in a serious manner’ (p.113) when the art world around him had become decadent. The contrast  with his ‘New Realism’ was with artists like Picasso and Matisse, sucked into a market of colossal prices and at the command of middle-class taste; and with the surrealists, who were subversive, but to no useful political end. ‘The New Realism seems to be far less revolutionary at first sight, But at bottom it is something new and progressive…it derives from the only tradition of proletarian realism in the nineteenth century…it can be still of course be objected that this is not a culture sprung spontaneously from the proletariat, but one evolved partly by bourgeois intellectuals who feel themselves in sympathy with the progressive sections of the proletariat, But there is a difference between forcing the proletariat to accept what it does not like and offering it what it seems to want and what it takes to willingly. This is an example of the progressive members of the middle classes helping the proletariat to produce its own culture.’ (pp.117-118)

New Realism was a great proletarian art tradition founded in the work of Daumier and Courbet, the young van Gogh, and Dalou, that was the claim.

I doubt many art historians can even identify that tradition today, still less agree. (Again, I write about it A Shoe Story, in the context of the many manifestos offering new definitions for art in 1936-7, from Walter Benjamin to Heidegger to Trotsky).

But the proposition that Blunt made seems to me today at once extraordinarily truthful of his hopes for society in 1937 and directly revelatory of his own political and social passions. Moreover here was a British answer to the ‘socialist realism’ that was currently being enforced as ideological orthodoxy in the Soviet Union. Soviet socialist realism was not unrelated to the totalitarian art the Nazis in Germany were also encouraging. At the same time the Nazis –  that other obvious reason why Blunt fell in with the Soviet Communists, for the sake of the future of the West – were outlawing as degenerate all that was modern in art in the sense of experimental. That it was not only Blunt’s beloved world proletariat, but also German peasants, in the eyes of the National Socialist Party,  — were poised to reject the mixture of extreme psychology, surreal dream-consciousness and  abstraction that had become the domain of middle-class modern art, has to make us pause for thought. How was a refined art connoisseur with a social conscience to make his or her way through what was also a political minefield, in his desire to define the modern, and the future? Totalitarianism lay to left and right.

The little Dalou bust Blunt cherished might be seen as symbolic of all that he hoped for in his young days; all in a way that might have made him a happier man, more emotionally at ease with himself. At the end of his life, just a few days from his actual demise, and when he knew he was dying, he gave the work away to Dennis Proctor, that friend from university who never let him down, and who had gone on to become Chairman of the Tate Trustees. Anthony Blunt, otherwise in disgrace to the last, with that gesture took the secrets of a politically wounded heart with him to the grave.

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