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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exposed the opposition between the antithetical sides of his personality: stoical-hedonistic, harmonious-chaotic, withdrawn-committed, moderate-excessive, rational-passionate, serene-anguished, austere-sensuous, reticent-exuberant, tranquil-tumultuous.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."

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