Anthony Blunt: Art, Espionage and Treason

The Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures and Soviet spy sought out kindred spirits among artists who, like him, had lived double lives

Art Features
Anthony Blunt: He identified with many of the artists he wrote about (credit: Express/Stringer)

In his major works of art history the enigmatic and elusive Anthony Blunt (1907-83) created a covert intellectual autobiography. His books on Nicolas Poussin, Francesco Borromini, William Blake and Pablo Picasso — the first three originally conceived as lectures, where his arguments seemed more persuasive than in print — reveal the connection between his high-minded scholarship and his subversive espionage. They show what George Steiner called “the coexistence within a single sensibility of utmost truth and falsehood”. Blunt led separate and contradictory lives as a then illegal homosexual and distinguished public figure, Communist and courtier, journalist and scholar, soldier and, beginning in 1934, Russian spy. One friend called him “the most compartmentalised man I ever met”. Though he was never able to resolve his personal conflicts, he lived vicariously by writing about kindred spirits in art.

A reviewer of his Art and Architecture in France (1953), noting Blunt’s close identification with his subjects, observed that “there was a kind of personal and emotional revelation in Blunt’s writing that manifested itself in his choice of artists and the intense personal engagement he seemed to have with them.” Focusing on French, Italian, English and Spanish artists from the 17th to the 20th century and trying to connect Poussin and Picasso, Blunt repeatedly exposed the opposition between the antithetical sides of his personality: stoical-hedonistic, harmonious-chaotic, withdrawn-committed, moderate-excessive, rational-passionate, serene-anguished, austere-sensuous, reticent-exuberant, tranquil-tumultuous.

Blunt established his formidable reputation by challenging traditional interpretations and by reviving the declining reputations of artists who were not generally admired at the time he wrote. John Ruskin, the greatest Victorian authority on art, had condemned Poussin (1594-1665) — who focused on biblical, mythological, classical and literary subjects — as an unemotional, chilly and forbidding artist. In Modern Painters he declared that Poussin’s “want of sensibility permits him to paint frightful subjects, without feeling of any true horror: his pictures of the Plague, the death of Polydectes [a mythological Greek ruler] &c., are thus ghastly in incident, sometimes disgusting, but never impressive”. Though Blunt ignored Ruskin’s harsh judgment, he quoted negative critics who called Poussin “a dry, pedantic artist . . . [who] relied too much on ancient art and [whose] figures looked like statues and not like human beings”.

Yet, like a gallant knight rescuing a maiden in distress, Blunt personally identified with his subject and exclaimed that “Poussin has always remained my first love.” Announcing his own intellectual standards of perfection, he stated that Poussin has now “come into his own. His classical ideals of reason, harmony, balance, economy, moderation, clarity and concentration have been once more seen as the source of one kind of great art.” Unlike Ruskin, Blunt admired Poussin’s ability to involve himself in frightful activity without feeling true horror, and Blunt imitated such dissociation in his own life. Running counter to prevailing opinion, he confidently declared, sometimes with more enthusiasm than discrimination, “I believe Poussin to be one of the supreme masters of formal design and, when he wishes, as exquisite a colourist as one could imagine.”

Influenced by the art-historical methods of the European-Jewish exiles — Walter Friedlaender, Rudolf Wittkower and Johannes Wilde — who in the 1930s had come to the Courtauld Institute where Blunt was a prominent lecturer, all his books emphasised the dominant ideas that had influenced the artists’ work: “In order to appreciate [Poussin] as an artist it is essential to understand the intellectual climate in which he worked and the ideas — religious, philosophical or aesthetic — in which he believed and which affected his method of work as well as his paintings.” Poussin’s emphasis on clarity, logic and order were similar to the philosophical method and ideas of his close French contemporary René Descartes (1596-1650), whom Blunt only briefly mentions.

Blunt devoted a whole chapter to Poussin’s Stoicism — his rationality, scepticism, repression of emotion and self-abnegation — which he himself admired, tried to emulate and desperately needed to sustain him after he was publicly exposed as a spy in 1979. Like Blunt, who had tried to escape from his treacherous past, Poussin told a friend, “my nature compels me to seek and love things which are well ordered, fleeing confusion, which is as contrary and inimical to me as is day to the deepest night.” When Poussin failed as a court painter (as Blunt finally failed as a spy) Blunt praised him for preferring “to live apart from the world of public affairs” and in his last years to “become even more completely detached from the world”. Blunt’s disappointing description of Poussin’s penetrating self-portrait (1650) missed a promising opportunity to analyse his complex character: “It is not a lovable face, and that hardness which appears in Poussin’s thought is to be seen in the frowning wrinkles of the brow. The mouth is set, and the eyes stare piercingly and almost threateningly at the spectator.”

When describing Poussin’s qualities as a painter Blunt conceded his weaknesses, but gave these traits a positive interpretation. He stated that Poussin’s compositions are simple and static, and have “no surprises, but lead the spectator . . . by a series of visible — one could almost say predictable — steps to a conclusion which seems inevitable from the beginning”. Ignoring Poussin’s froideur, detachment and lack of human drama, Blunt claimed that “he works out carefully planned, motionless compositions made up of rocklike figures who gaze into infinity, unaware of what is going on around them. His paintings . . . embody an absolute refusal to make any concession to the senses.”

Blunt wrote that the Massacre of the Innocents (late 1620s) — which he would later compare to Picasso’s Guernica — “shows the whole tragedy [in Matthew 2:16] concentrated in a single group of mother, child and soldier, an almost Racinian concentration”. But Walter Friedlaender, to whom Blunt paid tribute in his preface as the great pioneer “who laid the foundation of Poussin studies”, echoed Ruskin by stating that in this lifeless painting “the cruelty and terror are static . . . The face of the desperate mother is frozen in terror, like a theatrical mask.” In an unconvincing attempt to achieve a synthesis, Blunt endowed Poussin with diametrically opposed qualities, and claimed that he was both impersonal and emotional, rational and mystical. Another forced use of the qualifier “almost” (as in my three previous quotations) undermines the weak argument: Poussin “created paintings which, though impersonal, are also deeply emotional and, though rational in their principles, are almost mystical in the impression that they convey”. Despite Blunt’s crude distortions and special pleading, his views have prevailed in the modern era. As his former pupil Christopher Wright notes, “so much of the writing on Poussin consists of undeviating admiration.”

Blunt identified with the Italian architect Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) as he had with Poussin, who was five years older. Just as Poussin was his “first love,” so he confessed (in a doggy metaphor), “Once Borromini has bitten you he never lets go.” Just as the French painter had been criticised for excessive reliance on ancient art, so “Borromini was vilified as the great anarchist of architecture, the man who overthrew all the laws of the ancients and replaced them with disorder, and who corrupted the taste of many architects.” Blunt used similar methods to rescue both Poussin and Borromini. After discussing Borromini’s sources and theories, he gave “a clear account of the artist’s career, a convincing analysis of his style and an estimate of his achievement”. Blunt based his account of the architect’s style on the influence of the Ancients, Michelangelo and (rather vaguely) nature. He argued that the architect struggled “between imaginative energy and intellectual control”, and that his bizarre inventions — curvilinear, ornamental and fantastic — “were in fact variations based on an almost [his favourite adverb] ruthlessly logical method”.

Borromini was a hands-on stonemason and draughtsman as well as architect. A contemporary praised his diligence, expertise and mental power: “He guided the builder’s shovel, the plasterer’s darby [leveller], the carpenter’s saw, the stonemason’s chisel, the brick-layer’s trowel and the ironworker’s file, with the result that the quality of his work is high but not the cost, as his detractors claim, and all this springs from his intelligence and his industry.” But he had a bitter, jealous rivalry with the more charming and successful Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who won all the best commissions. Unable to finish many of his ambitious projects and give complete expression to his ideas, suffering from hypochondria and morbid introspection, Borromini finally became misanthropic, manic and frenzied.

Blunt (with yet another “almost”) observed that Borromini alienated his patrons: “Though physically of a fine presence, [he] lacked all the social graces. He was melancholy, nervous and uncompromising, and these qualities soon turned to a neurotic fear of all human contacts and a suspicion of people, which almost reached the stage of persecution mania.” Yet Borromini had two things in common with Blunt: his “devotion to art and unhappiness in his life”. When describing Borromini’s character and career Blunt seemed to be writing about himself. Like Blunt — who desperately tried to cover his tracks and avoid his inexorable fate, and was finally repudiated by former companions who did not want to be tarred by his treachery — Borromini “was a neurotic and unhappy man, constantly dogged by disaster, often largely of his own creating, quarreling even with his best patrons and closest friends”.

Borromini was the first major artist to kill himself. After his botched suicide attempt, and with amazing objectivity, he managed to dictate a morbid account of his experience before dying a few hours later. He seized a convenient weapon and followed the Roman tradition — described in Plutarch’s Life of Brutus — of falling on his sword: “In despair I took the sword and pulling it out of the scabbard leant the hilt on the bed and put the point to my side and then fell on it with such force that it ran into my body, from one side to the other, and in falling on the sword I fell on to the floor with the sword run through my body and because of my wound I began to scream . . . [Friends] pulled the sword out of my side and put me on my bed; and this is how I came to be wounded.”

Blunt, who himself had contemplated suicide after his humiliation and disgrace in 1979, was deeply impressed by Borromini’s morbid memoir and (rather illogically) connected the architect’s internal conflict to his artistic power: “To have been under a strain so violent that it drove him to this act of violence — if not of madness — and yet immediately afterwards to be able to dictate such a lucid account of the event, reveals a combination of intense emotional power and rational detachment which are among the qualities which go to make him such a great architect.”

Always consistent in his approach, Blunt used the same methods in his book on Blake as he had on Poussin and Borromini. He examined “the sources of his style, his relation to his contemporaries’ painting, his development as an artist”. In a rather strained effort, Blunt began and then immediately abandoned a false comparison of two wildly different painters: “One artist might at first sight seem to provide an analogy with Poussin . . . William Blake. With him it is certainly true that his philosophical and religious beliefs formed the starting point of his creation, but the analogy would not be fair.”

Blunt saw Blake, paradoxically, as both a traditionalist and a revolutionary: “He used the works of his contemporaries as freely as he did those of the dead — and in the same way, because what he took from them he made wholly his own . . . When he borrows a pose from some other artist, he so completely transforms the figure that it seems to be wholly Blakean.” Like all artists, Blake was certainly influenced by other painters. But since he recreated their work in his own extremely personal style, he did not follow tradition but broke it.

Blunt shared one significant characteristic with his subject. The ideas of the French Revolution had a similar impact on Blake as those of the Russian Revolution later had on Blunt, and both revolutions provoked their liberation from the old order. Blunt’s biographer Miranda Carter notes that he “made Blake’s tangle with revolutionary politics, and his subsequent retreat from them, the central drama of the poet’s life. What he most directly responded to in Blake was the natural opposition to authority.” Blunt also supported and then retreated from the Revolution. He first subverted the authority of the British government, then tried to break away from his Russian authority and was finally broken by British authority.

In his 1943 article “Blake’s Pictorial Imagination”, Blunt wrote that the ideas of the French Revolution “seemed intensely real and vitally important, and [Blake] expressed them in a series of revolutionary works, in the political as well as in the literary sense.” In a self-reflective passage, he concluded that Blake’s “interest in politics had always been more emotional than practical, and after the [reign of terror] of 1794 he withdrew entirely into the field of the intellect”. But there was also one important difference between author and subject. Blake was, according to his painter-friend Samuel Palmer, “one of the few to be met with in our passage through life who are not, in some way or other, ‘double minded’ and inconsistent with themselves”. By contrast, these contradictory qualities ruled Blunt’s double life.

Just as Poussin was Blunt’s favourite painter of the past, so Picasso was his favourite living painter. And just as Blunt had called Blake both a traditionalist and a revolutionary, so he also said that Picasso, a very different kind of artist, “in addition to being a great revolutionary, is also a great traditionalist”. Yet Blunt contradicted himself by stating that Picasso attempted “to create a new reality through the destruction of traditional forms”. Blunt also tried to complete the circle and connect his favorite subjects. Focusing on Picasso’s brief classical period in the early 1920s, Blunt made a daring leap from the 17th to the 20th century by claiming that Picasso was “essentially a calm, detached, intellectual artist, belonging to the tradition of Poussin, Ingres and Cézanne”. It is significant that Blunt did not mention Poussin’s most important follower, Jacques-Louis David. After trying to link Poussin and Picasso, Blunt called Guernica (1937) — whose central figures are a sacrificial horse and brutal bull — a modern Massacre of the Innocents: “Closer to Picasso in feeling, owing to its economy and concentration, is Poussin’s Massacre at Chantilly, a painting which Picasso must certainly have known when he planned Guernica.” In denying the evidence of the eye and arguing for the similarity of two disparate pictures, Blunt substituted bold assertion (“must certainly have known”) for solid fact.

Blunt was on even shakier ground when trying to connect Picasso’s Cubism of about 1910 to Poussin. In his book on Poussin and again without citing evidence Blunt claimed that Poussin (as if he were a late Turner) was a proto-abstract painter: “The early Cubists saw in him the near-abstract qualities which they themselves sought . . . The doctrines of the Cubists . . . are close to Poussin’s ideas on art, and some of them claim descent from him through Cézanne.” But John Richardson, the contemporary authority on Picasso, contradicts Blunt by stating, “Picasso has surprisingly little time for Cézanne’s theorising [and said] ‘I’m in complete disagreement with his idea about making over Poussin in accordance with nature.’ . . . He would not have wanted to lay himself open to a charge of Poussinism.”

Picasso forced Blunt to confront the crisis of contemporary politics. Guernica was created during the Spanish Civil War. After the Nazis bombed the spiritual home of the Basque people, a ghastly event that unleashed destructive power against helpless humanity, Picasso painted his political protest in a week of white-hot fury. Writing in the Spectator of August 6, 1937, Blunt completely missed the artistic and political point: “The painting is disillusioning. Fundamentally it is the same as Picasso’s bull-fight scenes. It is not an act of public mourning, but the expression of a private brain-storm which gives no evidence that Picasso has realised the political significance of Guernica.” Blunt published short books on Picasso’s sources in 1962 and on Guernica in 1969. In the second work, he was more interested in the sources and well-documented genesis of the painting than in the political meaning, and repeated his claim that “it would not be an exaggeration to describe Guernica as a Massacre of the Innocents”. But Picasso’s depiction of cruelty and horror were very similar to the engravings of Francisco Goya and of Poussin’s contemporary Jacques Callot (1592-1635), neither mentioned by Blunt, and quite different from the work of Poussin.

To fortify himself and heal the fissure in his own subversive character, Blunt — deceptive in life and art — distorted the facts and denied the evidence. He identified with his various alter-egos, and exalted the qualities he sometimes lacked and most admired: Poussin’s idealistic Stoicism and resignation in the face of adversity, Borromini’s ruthless logic and intellectual control, Blake’s defiance of authority and support of the Revolution, Picasso’s imaginative transformations and political commitment.