Being blunt about Blunt.
The subject was the British art historian and Soviet spy Anthony Blunt (1907-1983), one of the infamous "Cambridge Five," the quintet of intellectual traitors responsible for numerous crimes in the interest of Communism. The text was taken from the last in a program of five lectures held at the Courtauld in February 2004, under the rubric "Being Blunt: Exploring Anthony Blunt's Legacy as a Scholar and Director of the Courtauld Institute."
So far, bad enough: one may easily anticipate a fresh appearance in British academic life of the apologetics for the Stalinist intellectuals and their wickedness that have become dominant on American campuses over the last quarter century. But Professor Green's commentary dealt with an especially provocative issue: "Blunts Picasso," meaning the art historian's Stalinist denunciation of a painter who himself became a prominent Communist, and even of Picasso's monumental Guernica, considered by leftists today an unchallengeable exemplar of art in the service of politics.
The worst was apparently saved for last in the Courtauld series commemorating its former director. The first two events dealt with Blunt's biography, and with memories of his "legacy as a teacher and director of the Courtauld." Meanwhile, an exhibition in the Courtauld's Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre displayed "a selection of works from Blunt's library" intended to "provide an opportunity to reflect upon Blunt's role as a courtier-scholar in his capacity as Surveyor of the Royal Collection." Presentations on Blunt as an architectural historian, and a general overview of his efforts as an art historian, preceded the Green disquisition on Picasso.
The deceits embodied in Green's article are multiple. It is taken for granted throughout that it is unnecessary to mention Blunts career as a spy or his eventual disgrace, including the annulment of his knighthood. That is perhaps excusable, in that these items would probably have been covered earlier in the series. The printed text of Green's presentation includes a photograph of Blunt, in 1979, reading his press statement admitting espionage. So it cannot be argued that the topic is completely avoided. But while he admits that Blunt's denunciations of surrealism and Picasso, mainly in The Spectator of London and the Communist-controlled British Left Review in 1937-1938, reflected the critic's involvement with the Muscovite left, Green offers an adulterated, even sympathetic, account of it.
According to The Sword and the Shield, the authoritative 1999 account by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, Anthony Blunt was recruited into the Soviet secret police, i.e., the dread KGB, in the early 1930s, as a consequence of the enlistment of Kim Philby, the most famous of the "Cambridge Five"--the remaining three were Guy Burgess, Donald Madean, and John Caimcross. Blunt and Burgess were members of the Cambridge "conversational club" known as The Apostles.
Green, in treating Blunts Communization, employs standard cliches about "the Britain of the depression" and "the disaster of the Spanish civil war," by which Blunt is said to have been "moved from an immediate emotional response of horror and outrage" to "the reassuring clarity of rational analysis. But reason, by then equipped with the readymade rigor of Marxist dialectics, allowed Blunt to make ... a decisive shift from individual experience to a collective vision of history."
Green's discourse is replete with stale sloganizing of this kind, revived after some sixty years of deserved oblivion. This invocation of "Marxist dialectics" is used to denote Stalinism and the rigid discipline of the Soviet apparatus, for such idiocies about literature and art as Blunt would embrace in his attacks on Picasso were absent from the original Marxian system, and even from Bolshevism in its first decade in power. The fact that other protesting and revolutionary intellectuals of the 1930s, from Herbert Read and George Orwell, to Meyer Schapiro and the Partisan Review group, were moved to less brutal forms of ideological affirmation, seems to have eluded Green's scrutiny. One did not then have to give up one's intellectual autonomy to remain a leftist, unless one wished to serve the Stalinist party.
But that is precisely the point. Green's lecture is intended to rehabilitate, not merely to describe, Blunts assaults on surrealism and Picasso. For were the surrealists and Picasso any less inspired by a "collective vision" than Blunt and the other partisans of Kremlin-dictated "realism"? Blunts stance was much more than an expression of the "aesthetic" Marxism today associated with intellectuals like Walter Benjamin. Rather, it was an embodiment of the imposition of totalitarian conformity throughout the global leftist movement of the late 1930s, driven by Stalin and his cohort.
During that period, the general alliance of radical modernism and Communism visible in the 1920s not only in Russia, as exemplified by Malevich's suprematism, Eisenstein's film technique, Osip Mandelshtam's poetics, and Boris Pilnyak's prose style, but also in the cultural milieux of both Western and Eastern Europe was liquidated physically on Soviet territory and intellectually in the West. Indeed, it is very difficult to believe that Blunts critique of Picasso and surrealism was not intended by him to demonstrate his full adherence to the "vision" of Stalinist annihilation of the independent radical intellect.
Green traces out, and, following the method of justification by spurious explication, supports Blunts arguments against Picasso. His article begins with the declaration, "Anthony Blunt never much liked surrealism." Having defined Blunts commitment to the KGB as an expression of rationality and clarity, he further assures his audience that "Marxism was for Blunt the reverse of evasion for it made him confront, for the first time, the problem of the relationship between art and society, thus ensuring that he would never forget that art was part of history as understood in the larger sense." Green's Blunt manages, through his involvement with Stalinist "philosophy," to accrue extra benefits: it also allowed him to suppress "emotional responses" to the "the morbid and the 'warmly erotic'" in Picasso's surrealist phase.
This is, as offered by Green, a mighty peculiar form of art criticism--one that denigrates the direct response to artistic creativity and exalts its repression. It is especially bizarre in the postmodernist age when academic art historians have held up erotic content as the ultimate standard in artistic creativity, and sexual motives, preferably homosexual, are ascribed to most unlikely examples. But in the postmodern canon, politics--or, better, political correctness, meaning Stalinist Marxism--trumps the homosexuality of Blunt no less than the "male chauvinist" heterosexuality of Picasso. The Spanish master has, of course, already come in for severe disparagement from feminist critics.
In Green's paraphrase, "Following Blunt's new Marxist logic, [Picasso's] trickery with form and so personal an 'emotionalism' could have no collective force, and thus could only exist on the margins of history." Put more directly, this argument simply echoes the Soviet demand that artists "in uniform" serve the immediate demands of the Russian state. Green continues by evoking Blunt's "discomfort--not simply the discomfort of a homosexual confronted by heterosexual erotica, but a more profound discomfort in the face of paintings so utterly devoted to Andre Breton's 'convulsive beauty.'" Green argues, with Blunt, that "Marxist logic" had
allowed him to marginalize this aspect of Picasso as capable of only reaching a class--his own, the bourgeoisie--that was doomed by history, and incapable of reaching the class of the future, the proletariat.... As an enthusiastic dialectician, Blunt needed to identify clear-cut polarities: rational against irrational, Cubism against Surrealism, private against public, the declining bourgeoisie against the rising proletariat.
Yet regardless of Blunt's strictures, Picasso and Breton were then situated somewhere otherwise than at the "margins of history." Blunt's dialectical enthusiasm was drawn from the simplistic and schematic textbooks of the Stalinist school--which Green approvingly, if perhaps unconsciously, echoes as if they were novel. Rather better than Blunt, Breton knew his dialectics, based on a serious reading of Hegel as well as of Marx's and Lenin's writings on and interlineations of the German philosopher, and he had attended the Hegel seminar conducted in Paris by Alexandre Kojeve (who also signed up with the Soviet clandestine services). At the time of Blunt's condemnation, Breton was no less associated with Communism, but in its Trotskyist form; alongside Picasso, Breton was an activist supporter of the leftist side in the Spanish civil war, then raging. Although professors like Green seek to excise it from the collective memory of contemporary intellectuals, a line of blood had already been drawn between the Stalinists and Trotskyists--in Paris, where Trotskyists were murdered in horrific ways by Blunt's KGB accomplices, as well as in Moscow.
Blunt's polemics against Picasso took a form whose logic can only be described as convulsive as well as untimely when he chose to denigrate the Spaniard's Guernica--doubtless the most successful political work of art of the twentieth century. Green regurgitates Blunt's indictment of Guernica as "a politically impotent 'private brainstorm,'" and "a mere nightmare picture and nothing else," which would appear to be one of the most outstandingly absurd miscalls in modern criticism.
Picasso's Guernica was, as is well known, intended to memorialize the bombing of the Basque regional capital of the same name by the rightist forces during the Spanish war; it was unveiled in the Spanish Republican pavilion at the 1937 Paris International Exposition. Whatever one's view of politicized art, Guernica is a key work of twentieth-century painting, and has survived as a symbol of Spanish culture, of the Basque ethnic cause, and of the Left. But Blunt was insistent, and went on to excoriate Picasso for another of his political works, the sequence of etchings titled Dream and Lie of Franco. In an almost unsurpassable flight of Stalinist arrogance, the cosseted art critic in London impugns Picasso, a native of Andalusia, Spain's poorest region, as incapable of comprehending "more than the mere horror of the civil war."
"Mere horror" is a revealing phrase, rather like Auden's infamous "necessary murder." According to Blunt, Picasso failed to see the atrocity of Guernica as "only a tragic part of a great forward movement." The phrase grates as if it were lifted directly from the Soviet press of the era, which incessantly repeated the idea that whole populations, no less than individuals, were raw material easily sacrificed, of no special consequence in building the "radiant future" promised by Stalin.
His logic becomes especially convoluted, along with Green's apologetics for it, when we find Blunt counterposing the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera to Picasso as an exemplar of revolutionary art. Rivera was, in those days, a dilettante Trotskyist, acting alongside Breton in opposing Moscow, but the Mexican's painterly idiom was much more palatable to the Soviet-leaning crowd than that of the surrealists. In this, Blunt was perhaps more perspicacious, for Rivera would soon abandon Trotsky and return to the Stalinist party, while Breton, for the rest of his life, remained essentially faithful to Trotsky's memory. Picasso, for his part, was most obvious in his personal opportunism, benefiting from the protection of German officers during the occupation of Paris in World War II and then joining the Communist party. Rivera's later images of Stalin, however, met with the approval of Moscow, while one produced by Picasso did not.
Even Green is compelled to admit that Blunt blundered badly in dealing with Picasso's Spanish war works, noting that "Guernica has functioned extraordinarily effectively as a propagandist painting." In the original controversy, Picasso was defended against Blunt by Herbert Read and the surrealist Roland Penrose. The latter wrote in a letter to The Spectator, "It can no more be possible to exclude 'private' experience and emotion from the arts than from love. In both cases it is the personal emotion which renders them universal." Green observes as if it were no more than a footnote, which indeed may be appropriate, that Blunt himself abandoned his criticism of Picasso and Guernica in a series of lectures delivered in Canada and published in book form as Picasso's 'Guernica,' by Oxford University Press in 1969.
In reading Green's article I was reminded of my own experience in 1992, visiting the "Art of the Dictators" exhibition, which had been presented in various iterations in Western cities. In Berlin, it was titled "Berlin-Moskau, 1900-1950," and featured German and Russian avant-garde art that survived the regimes of Hitler and Stalin. It was paralleled at the Hayward Gallery in London by an exhibition entitled "Art and Power," including official as well as unofficial art. In Barcelona, where I visited it, the show included a full restoration of the Spanish Republican pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exposition, where Guernica had first been seen in public. The Spanish Republican pavilion was so aggressively modernist in the art it presented, including works of Miro, Julio Gonzalez, Eduardo Chillida, and others (as well as of Picasso), that it appeared as a deliberate repudiation of the cultural norms present both in Moscow and in the Soviet pavilion at Paris. Even in propaganda posters aimed at the least-educated proletarians, the Spanish Left often favored a radical modernist style. For the first time, I realized how great a provocation the culture of the indigenous Spanish Left represented for the Kremlin, and the inevitable nature of the events that came to include the Russian secret police pursuit of George Orwell in wartime Barcelona.
There are, I believe, several lessons to be drawn both from Blunts campaign against surrealism and Picasso and Green's fawning reconstruction of it. First, I do not believe Blunt's articles originated exclusively in his own incorrect but earnest opinions. Rather, I would emphasize that, as a serving agent of the KGB, he responded to the same set of directives in culture and the arts that drove so many independent radical intellectuals away from Communism in the West, and resulted in so much suffering and death in the Soviet Union. Perhaps as a "bourgeois" art critic, in contrast with the war correspondent Philby and the "frontline" infiltrators of the British diplomatic and intelligence services--Burgess, Maclean, and Cairncross--he felt required to go beyond them in manifesting his Stalinism. (Philby and Burgess had even undertaken more dangerous assignments, posing as Nazi sympathizers.)
Further, the extremity of totalitarian ambitions among the pro-Soviet intellectuals of the late 1930s is little recognized today. No less than Nazi and fascist adherents, Soviet-lining writers and critics, as well as ordinary party officials and labor functionaries, saw themselves representing an irresistible "wave of the future." The arrival of "the new, Soviet man" as the dominant stratum of human society would not only permit the reorganization of culture and the arts along the ideological lines demanded by Moscow, but would also allow frustrated personalities of mediocre talent, exemplified by Blunt and the others in the Cambridge Five, to enact their revenge against the many individuals who appeared as obstacles to their ambition.
If Blunt had any capacity for insight into his own motives, he might have been discomforted less by the eroticism of the surrealists and Picasso than by his susceptibility to the commands of a murderous political order. But Blunt, according to Andrew and Mitrokhin, was incapable of such awareness, at least until he was told to move to Moscow by his KGB masters in 1951, following the exfiltration to Russia of Burgess and Maclean. With news of their defection, Blunt obeyed the KGB and searched Burgess's apartment for incriminating evidence, most of which he destroyed. But he would not give up the Courtauld for life under Stalin.
All five of the Cambridge group escaped the more severe penalties of British justice. Cairncross confessed his activities, and left Britain for employment with the United Nations in Rome, where he died in 1995. Philby escaped to Russia in 1963; like Burgess and Maclean he spent the rest of his life there.
At the conclusion of his arguably despicable article in The Burlington Magazine, Professor Christopher Green declares of Blunt's treasonous activities that "their eventual public consequences"--that is, his unmasking in 1979 after a career as Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, along with his work at Courtauld--"have been just as difficult for the scholarly community and beyond to confront as he himself found his most personal responses to Picasso." What nonsense: "the scholarly community and beyond" should have no trouble understanding the vanity and turpitude of Blunt and other Stalinist intellectuals. If they find this difficult, they only have apologists and obfuscators like Christopher Green and his colleagues at Courtauld, The Burlington Magazine, and other once-great institutions to blame, as the American academic plague, anti-anti-Communism, continues to diffuse throughout the West, where once the disease of original Stalinism similarly spread.
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|Title Annotation:||Anthony Blunt, British art historian, Soviet spy|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2005|
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